Thursday 1 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There ain’t no Sanity Claus”.

  • Groucho Marx, in A Night at the Opera

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac: Second Hand News

Link


US mainstream media: still living in the past

Wonderful blast from Dave Pell in his daily newsletter:

One of things we learned last night is that the media still hasn’t adjusted to the Trump era. The immediate headlines continued a never-ending streak of false equivalence and both sides-ism. One guy lies constantly. One guy is a bully. One guy has dragged America’s reputation into a bottomless pit. One guy turned last night’s debate into a debacle. And yet, just after the conclusion of the broadcast, these were some of the headlines I screen captured, all of which give the impression that both participants were equally responsible for the disaster. NYT: Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate. WaPo: Personal Attacks, Sharp Exchanges Mark Turbulent First Debate. CNN: Pure Chaos at First Debate. AP: Debate Anger: Biden Tells Interrupting Trump, “Shut Up, Man.” Boston Globe: First Debate Between Trump, Biden Marked By Chaos, Rancor as Candidates Made it Personal. LA Times: Trump and Biden Trade Bitter Personal Attacks in First Debate. Bloomberg: Trump-Biden Debate Descends into Bickering and Chaos. Time: Shouting Over Each Other. Yeah, it was just a couple of guys who were both losing their cool, and there are some very fine debaters on both sides. Give me a break. The debate did not “descend” into bickering and chaos. It was dragged there by the same monster who has dragged America to this maddeningly dangerous precipice. By morning, many of these headlines had been updated to more accurately depict what we all saw and heard. But the knee-jerk response was towards the false equivalence that has propped up Trump for years.

Spot on. I’m continually amazed by the small-c conservatism of mainstream US journalism.

James Fallows published a fine essay on this that I blogged recently.


Larry Tribe on watching “a coup d’Etat in progress”

Laurence Tribe is Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard and one of the most eminent Constitutional scholars in the US. He’s also a member of the ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ that my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr has assembled. Yesterday that Board held its first public meeting. Here’s what Larry Tribe said in his opening statement:

Link


Understanding how Covid spreads: it’s about averages and bursts

Here’s the long read of the day — a terrific piece by Zeynep Tufecki in The Atlantic.

The gist of it:

I’ve heard many explanations for these widely differing trajectories over the past nine months—weather, elderly populations, vitamin D, prior immunity, herd immunity—but none of them explains the timing or the scale of these drastic variations. But there is a potential, overlooked way of understanding this pandemic that would help answer these questions, reshuffle many of the current heated arguments, and, crucially, help us get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

By now many people have heard about R0—the basic reproductive number of a pathogen, a measure of its contagiousness on average. But unless you’ve been reading scientific journals, you’re less likely to have encountered k, the measure of its dispersion. The definition of k is a mouthful, but it’s simply a way of asking whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once. After nine months of collecting epidemiological data, we know that this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters, but this knowledge has not yet fully entered our way of thinking about the pandemic—or our preventive practices.

The now-famed R0 (pronounced as “r-naught”) is an average measure of a pathogen’s contagiousness, or the mean number of susceptible people expected to become infected after being exposed to a person with the disease. If one ill person infects three others on average, the R0 is three. This parameter has been widely touted as a key factor in understanding how the pandemic operates. News media have produced multiple explainers and visualizations for it. Movies praised for their scientific accuracy on pandemics are lauded for having characters explain the “all-important” R0. Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. (If people are masking and isolating or immunity is rising, a disease can’t spread the same way anymore, hence the difference between R0 and R.)

Unfortunately, averages aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior. If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion. If I also walk into that bar, not much will change. Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. Sometimes, the mean is not the message. Meanwhile, if the bar has a person infected with COVID-19, and if it is also poorly ventilated and loud, causing people to speak loudly at close range, almost everyone in the room could potentially be infected—a pattern that’s been observed many times since the pandemic begin, and that is similarly not captured by R. That’s where the dispersion comes in.

There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.

This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries…

One of the implications of this is that we’re doing testing and tracing the wrong way round. Once we’ve found an infected individual, we should be looking backwards to find who infected them rather than focussing on whom they might have infected.

Like I say, a long read. But worth it.


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


Friday 18 September, 2020

State of the nation

Captures the mood nicely — of both the US and the UK.


Quote of the Day

“As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”.

  • George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones – Baby Please Don’t Go (Live At Checkerboard Lounge)

Link

Amazing recording. Includes Keith Richards multitasking with cigarette and guitar.


When I previously mentioned this wonderful campaign, I appended the wrong link for anyone wanting to donate.

Here’s the correct link.

Many thanks to readers who pointed out the error.


What Julian Assange has in common with mainstream American media

Interesting Columbia Journalism Review essay by Harry Stopes, who worked with the novelist Andrew O’Hagan on the abortive project to ghost-write Assange’s autobiography.

TL;DR version: Assange and the media both believe that information changes the world.

Longer version:

In attempting to battle Trump with “the Truth” the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change. This was most visible around the Mueller report and impeachment efforts but is mostly everywhere, all the time: the blind conviction that in the American public sphere there exists a common frame of reference against which the best ideas can be measured and will win out, if only all the right information is available. Trump’s tax returns and telephone transcripts, we hope, will finally bring him down.

The truth is vital, but it’s not reducible to a set of discrete facts, numbers, or documents. The rise of fact-checking features and Twitter accounts serves to highlight this, as journalists choose to focus only on those parts of political discourse that can be easily measured.

The facts themselves are not what is at issue. There is no shared basis upon which to identify them. What is really at issue are conflicts between political tribes, ideologies, and material interests. Many journalists know this, but on an institutional level some of their employers seem determined not to admit it.

That seems, to me, to be a response to an idea these institutions hold deep down: that politics and society cannot fundamentally change. If the structure of society is not up for debate, there is no place for structural critiques. All that matters is assembling chunks of information that might change the surface appearance, debunk a health plan here, reveal an air strike there. Far too little attention has been paid to what happens next when the discussion is done.


Looking back and looking forward

Long read of the day, especially if you work in a university.

Malcolm Gaskill took early retirement from his UEA Professorship before the pandemic struck. Now he’s written a lovely, reflective essay in the LRB on British academia and his experience of it.

Of course, none of us is lost in space, rounding the lip of a black hole. Higher education will always be worthwhile, if only because for students it provides three unique years removed from family, school and a career. In spite of uncertainty and austerity, versatile and resourceful young people will create their own networks and forums conducive to study and sociability. Academics will carry on doing research that informs their teaching. Learning for its own sake may suffer as courses are honed to a fine utilitarian edge and students evolve into accomplished grade accountants, expert in the work required for a 2.1 – playing the system they themselves finance. But degrees will retain value, and, for those who find graduate entry-level jobs, they will remain value for money. Above all, even allowing for a likely contraction of the HE sector, our universities will still promote social mobility, having already transformed the profile of the typical student, in terms of gender as well as class. There will be no return to sixty years ago when only 4 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education, most of them men. The change is permanent. I’m glad to have played my part in this revolution.

Perhaps this is why I feel uneasy, and why my future feels more suspenseful than exciting. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve strolled across a platonically perfect ivy-clad campus, been enthralled by a perfect seminar, and had engaging discussions with old colleagues, including my Cambridge supervisor and the people I knew when I was doing my PhD, back in the halcyon days when everything had a point and a purpose. There’s guilt there: a sense of loss, of potential squandered and maybe even betrayed. UEA has made me an emeritus professor, which is an honourable discharge and something to cling to, and my wife insists we can live on her salary. But I still can’t decide whether I’ve retired or just resigned, or am in fact redundant and unemployed. I’m undeniably jobless at 53, able-bodied (I hesitate to say ‘fit’), with a full head of hair and most of my teeth, and haunted by St Teresa of Avila’s dictum that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

I keep thinking about a short story we read at school, Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Lotus Eater’. It is the cautionary tale of a bank manager who drives off the toads of work, gives up his comfy pension and goes to live like a peasant on a paradisal Mediterranean island. Needless to say it doesn’t end well: his annuity expires, his mind atrophies, he botches suicide. He sees out his days in a state of bestial wretchedness, demoted in the great chain of being as a punishment for rebelling against nature. I don’t see the story as a prediction, and would always choose industry over idleness, but Maugham’s contempt for someone who dodges life’s challenges – the story satirised an effete acquaintance from Heidelberg – resonates. Still, I couldn’t go back. Goodbye to all that.


The US makes a fuss about TikTok, but what’s happening to the Uyghurs in China is genocide. Why don’t we call it that? And why isn’t it the top story about China?

Great piece in the National Review by Jimmy Quinn.

Chinese Communist Party officials say that the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority in the Xinjiang region, are the “happiest Muslims in the world.” The evidence trickling out of western China tells a different story. In July, U.S. customs officials intercepted a 13-ton shipment of beauty products made out of human hair from the region and a video of blindfolded prisoners being led onto train cars went viral. Over the past couple of years, some have compared the human tragedy unfolding there to North Korean totalitarianism and South African apartheid. More recent evidence has inspired comparisons to the Holocaust. “Genocide” is a word that packs a punch, spurring action by connecting “the solemn commitments of the past and a new atrocity unfolding before the world’s eyes,” as a report by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center put it last year. This word, sadly, is now an apt descriptor for the situation in Xinjiang.

Thanks to the fearless work of researchers, journalists, and victims, it’s now widely known that the CCP in 2017 stepped up its repression of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities by means of a mass-internment drive and a new, Orwellian surveillance state. When the Uyghurs “graduated” from these “reeducation” and “vocational training” facilities, to borrow the euphemistic terminology of CCP officials, many were forced into slave labor. All told, over a million Uyghurs and other members of Turkic minorities are estimated to have been detained, and a total of 3 million people to have been swept up in various reeducation efforts. Others were charged with bogus crimes and remain imprisoned. Beijing, citing a few terrorist incidents that took place in 2014, claims that it’s stamping out extremism, but its true aim is to solidify Han Chinese dominance over Xinjiang.

For years, experts and activists have called the situation a “cultural genocide.” That label carries a blistering significance and refers to the CCP’s attempts to wipe out Uyghur culture and traditions. The CCP has razed burial sites, closed mosques, and effectively criminalized most expressions of faith. Still, cultural genocide is not recognized as a crime under the U.N.’s 1948 convention on genocide. Invoking cultural genocide rather than simply genocide has been a cautious way to speak out about the situation in Xinjiang without discrediting one’s argument through exaggeration. In light of recent developments, that’s no longer required.

In late June, Adrian Zenz, the German anthropologist who has provided most of the groundbreaking revelations on the Xinjiang mass-detention drive, published a new report detailing a systematic forced-sterilization and birth-control program to lower Uyghur birth rates. Among his findings were that birth rates plummeted 84 percent from 2015 to 2018 in Xinjiang’s two major Uyghur prefectures; that a mass campaign to sterilize 14 to 34 percent of Uyghur women in rural parts of the region was underway; and that the CCP planned to sterilize or implant intrauterine contraceptive devices in 80 percent of childbearing-age women in Xinjiang’s rural southern areas. During the same period, Zenz noted, the state worked successfully to increase the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang. He likens these population-control techniques, which are based on ethnicity, to “opening or closing a faucet.” They are reminiscent of the CCP’s rule over Tibet, where Chen Quanguo, the party official who has presided over the Xinjiang genocide, gained a reputation for ruthless competence.

And so it goes on…

This is much, much more important than Chinese tech or surveillance in China or the Belt & Road Initiative or all the other stuff that appears in Western media about China. And yet it’s always on the bottom of page 26, as it were.


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


Friday 11 September, 2020

Autumn’s on its way

Seen on my walk home this morning.


Quote of the Day

“The trouble with epistemologists is that they think they know something”.

  • Guy Haworth

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

My Back Pages (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton & George Harrison)

Link


How Police Are Using ‘Super Recognizers’ to Track Criminals

Interesting piece in Vice.

The term “super recognizer” first appeared in 2009 and describes people who can remember more than 80 percent of the faces of people they meet (the average is 20 percent). The neural-mechanism behind super recognition is still largely unknown, but the skill seems to be genetic and possessed by only about one percent of the population.

Today, police in many countries employ super recognizers (possibly including Hong Kong) but police in the United Kingdom have recruited more than most.

Kelly Hearsey is one such super recognizer…

Well, at least they’re not just using automated facial-recognition systems.

It’s amazing the abilities that some people have. Reminds me of the folks who can accurately multiply two 20-digit numbers in their heads.


Facebook doesn’t just mirror the world. It filters it for its own benefit.

Really good OpEd by Shira Ovide:

In an interview that aired on Tuesday, Zuckerberg was asked big and thorny questions about his company: Why are people sometimes cruel to one another on Facebook, and why do inflammatory, partisan posts get so much attention?

Zuckerberg told “Axios on HBO” that Americans are angry and divided right now, and that’s why they act that way on Facebook, too.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives consistently say that Facebook is a mirror on society. An online gathering that gives a personal printing press to billions of people will inevitably have all the good and the bad of those people. (My colleague Mike Isaac has talked about this view before.)

It’s true but also comically incomplete to say that Facebook reflects reality. Instead, Facebook presents reality filtered through its own prism, and this affects what people think and do. [Emphasis added]

That last sentence is the key to understanding the problem. The prism is driven by a particular business model. And it’s designed to achieve corporate objectives, not users’.


America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Long read of the day — Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic.

Here’s how it begins…

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways…

He goes on to list the nine big mistakes the US has made so far. The most horrifying one is #9: The Habituation of Horror:

The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.

Ed Yong is the best journalist writing about this stuff at the moment.


Of Course Trump Couldn’t Resist Bob Woodward

Timothy O’Brien once wrote a book about Donald Trump — Trumpnation: The Art of Being The Donald. Now he’s written an interesting Bloomberg column reflecting on Trump’s experience with Bob Woodward.

My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.

Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.

It seems that Trump regretted not cooperating with Woodward on his earlier book about him, and was convinced that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. So, says O’Brien,

he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game.

Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.


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


Thursday 10 September, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I. Never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain.”

  • Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Reagan 1984-9

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: Handel – Let The Bright Seraphim – Rowan Pierce and David Blackadder (5 minutes)

Link

Nobody sleeps at the back when this is on.


The power of a photograph to tell a story

Photograph by Fergus McGinn

Nice NYT article on the Coronavirus lockdown in Ireland.

A pint of Guinness. A half-eaten meal. And an alarm clock.

All are laid out on a table in front of an older man as he gazes out the window of a pub in Galway, Ireland, in a photo that has come to capture the nation’s coming to terms with coronavirus regulations.

The image has come to symbolize different things for different people: Some have used it to criticize the government’s restrictions on pubs, while others have applauded the man’s commitment to regulations on dining out.

Pubs that serve food have been allowed to open since the end of June. But new restrictions require that customers have a “substantial meal” costing at least 9 euros (about $10.60) if they also purchase alcohol. The rules also require patrons to leave within an hour and 45 minutes — hence the timer.

Like many countries across Europe, Ireland has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with daily cases moving from the single digits during a lull in new infections in June and July to 307 new cases announced on Tuesday.

The photograph was taken by Fergus McGinn, the owner of the pub. His intention, he said, was to show a man enjoying the simple pleasure of a meal and a drink but he also hopes the picture will make people aware of the role the local pub plays for isolated members of the community in Ireland.

“Taking that away from people, that social outlet for that generation, it could be detrimental and savage on their mental health,” Mr. McGinn said.

Particularly in Ireland’s rural communities, pubs serve as a central place to connect socially, even for those who aren’t big drinkers. Yet pubs that don’t serve food have been closed since the lockdown began in March, though this week the government agreed to reopen them on September 21st.

And the significance of the timer? The government rules also require pub customers to leave within an hour and 45 minutes.


Diana Rigg RIP

A wonderful actress has passed away. There’s a nice BBC obituary up today, but there will be lots more. As the BBC obit put it, “She excelled at playing sharp-witted female characters who carried steel fists in velvet gloves.” Spot on.

As a former TV critic, though, this book is what I will remember her for.

It’s a compendium of the most wicked things theatrical folk can say about one another. I found it an indispensable fountain of ideas when I was writing about a programme or a performer that I particularly disliked.

But the interesting thing is that Rigg also included in it some of the rude things critics said about her!

For example, she reprints John Simon’s crack in New York Magazine about her nude scene in Abelard and Heloise in May 1970: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.

“I remember”, Rigg wrote,

“making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I knew. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

btw: I think Simon needed to have an eye-test. Rigg was a truly beautiful woman. But she disliked doing nude scenes. “I come from Yorkshire”, she said once, “and no-one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off except on a Friday night”.

May she rest in peace.


What Bob Woodward knew (but didn’t tell — until now)

The veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward (he of Watergate fame) has made a small industry out of conducting long interviews of US presidents and their courts when he then turns into what are (IMHO) surprisingly dull books. He’s just published the latest tombstone in this series — on the first Trump presidency.

For a less jaundiced perspective, the Columbia Journalism Review has a more detached view of the volume by Pete Vernon.

In books about presidents from Nixon to Obama, Woodward has employed a similar approach, conducting exhaustive interviews on background and using the information he gathers to write from an omniscient perspective. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, his colleague at The Washington Post, used the most famous anonymous source in American history—FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. “Deep Throat”—to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency. This week, Woodward told Michael Schmidt of The New York Times that “you won’t get the straight story from someone if you do it on the record. You will get a press release version of events.” But as Axios’s Jonathan Swan, one of the current masters of Washington intrigue, noted, sources “also lie on background. A lot.”

And no group of officials in recent memory has proved as willing to bend the truth as those in the Trump administration. The recent controversy over Steve Bannon’s invitation (later rescinded) to appear at The New Yorker Festival led The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan to declare, “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say.” When Kellyanne Conway appears on CNN, critics question why the network gives a platform to the official who coined “alternative facts.” Yet for Woodward, reliance on the same sources is received differently: If it’s not OK for David Remnick to talk to Bannon in front of an audience, why is it OK for Woodward to use him, quite obviously, as a key source in the book?

Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has. Every administration is filled with people who have an agenda, who want to spin events in their favor, but the lines of credibility have shifted. In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources….

Already, there are lots of controversies blowing up from specific parts of Woodward’s account. But one in particular has caught my eye. Here’s how Politico puts it:

President Donald Trump acknowledged the “deadly” nature of the coronavirus earlier this year in a series of recorded interviews with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, even as Trump publicly sought to dismiss the disease’s threat to Americans.

Recounting a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump told Woodward on Feb. 7 that the coronavirus is “more deadly than your, you know, your — even your strenuous flus.”

“This is more deadly,” he said. “This is five per — you know, this is 5 percent versus 1 percent and less than 1 percent, you know. So, this is deadly stuff.”

A few days later Trump was out in public basically claiming that this ‘Chinese flu’ was not such a big deal and he had it under control, or words to that effect.

There has been a huge hoo-hah about this, particularly the fact that Woodward knew that Trump had been lying through his teeth about the virus, but had decided not to tell anyone, let along the American people. Here’s a sample of the resulting indignation — Bess Levin in Vanity Fair:

When news broke on Wednesday that venerated reporter Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book had Donald Trump on record saying that he purposely downplayed the threat of COVID-19, despite knowing that it was “deadly stuff,” the outrage was deafening. The fury and disgust initially centered around the president’s decision to lie to the public about the fatal virus, proclaiming that it was nothing to worry about while knowing full well that it was. Later the conversation turned to Woodward’s decision to withhold crucial information, with some arguing that it was a dereliction of his duty as a journalist not to come forward and tell people, in real time, that the president was lying to their faces, as he instead saved it for his book. “There is no ethical or moral defense of Woodward’s decision to not publish these tapes as soon as they were made,” former BuzzFeed News Washington bureau chief John Stanton tweeted. “If there was any chance it could save a single life, he was obligated to do so. Bob Woodward put making money over his moral and professional duty.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I was struck by Woodward’s reported response to this charge:

Speaking to the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Woodward said he waited it out because (1) Trump is a habitual liar, and he hadn’t yet done the reporting necessary to know if the president was actually telling the truth in this instance, and (2) He wanted to put the statements into context and publish them closer to the election so that people didn’t forget about them on their way to the polls:

Who knows? That might have been a shrewd judgement.


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


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?


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


Friday 26 June, 2020

Fuchsia

In our garden, this morning. One of my favourite plants, which has really thrived this year, for reasons unknown. Trouble is, it makes me nostalgic for County Kerry, which has more fuchsia hedges than anywhere else in the known world (IMHO).


Grandparents are critical workers too

Interesting long read (estimated reading time 15 minutes) in De Correspondent, a journalistic outfit to which I subscribe.

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

I know it sounds like special pleading (I’m a grandfather) but I’ve been struck time and again — and not just in the pandemic — about this. I come from a rural culture where (just like parts of Italy, say) there’s always been extensive extended-family groups living in close proximity. But when socially-mobile or ambitious children leave that kind of environment — to live and work, say, in large urban conurbations far away — and then themselves start to have children, suddenly the conflicts between the demands of work and those of childcare become acute. My wife and I both brought up broods without any help whatsoever from our parents, and it made life much more demanding in all kinds of ways. State childcare provision in the UK is abysmal and inadequate by Continental European standards, and so families with young children have much less flexibility when both parents need to be out of the house. Way back in the Ireland I grew up in, that problem didn’t exist. The kids would simply wander round to Granny and Grandad’s place.

The figure of £7B is just an estimate of what parents in the Uk would have to fork out for childcare if their parents weren’t helping. I suspect it’s a huge under-estimate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t downsides to extended families living close together. Apart from the privacy aspects, there’s also the fact that initial impact of the Coronavirus seemed higher in cultures where multiple generations live together.


How to report the spread of a pandemic

The New York Times has produced a terrific animated-graphic-plus-succinct-narrative account. It’s a very good example of how to use digital tools to visualise and communicate a dynamic process.

Well worth a visit. Give it time.


The history of the humble (and not so humble) door handle

A doorknob is a key part of the user-interface of a building. Yet until Covid-19 I’d never given much thought to it — except sometimes in exasperation when realising that a handle is better than a knob for many people and many purposes. And it never occurred to me that it might have an interesting history. Which, of course it has. And it’s had some famous designers in its time. For example:

Arguably the most influential, although not necessarily familiar, door handle was designed not by an architect but by a philosopher – albeit one with an engineering degree. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s handle for the house he designed for his sister in Vienna in 1928 is a simple bent metal bar with one of the pair kinked to accommodate a portion of frame for the French doors it was designed for. It apparently took him a year to design (he spent two years on the radiators), but that simple bent bar morphed into the bent tube which is perhaps the most ubiquitous and generic of all modern designs.

And, needless to say, that reminds me Of an old schoolboy joke: “Was Handel a crank?”


Zoom Hell

Lovely New Yorker cartoon.


Is Digital Contact Tracing Over Before It Began?

Sobering post by Jonathan Zittrain. The momentum towards contact-tracing seems to be on the wane, he thinks.

The work on planning and standing up contact tracing is being overtaken by a public sensibility that the disease has been sufficiently managed for things to more or less return to normal. Where before, the question of voluntary participation in a tracing and isolation scheme was seen as how to get from, say, 50% participation up to 70% or more by the general public, the question now is whether nearly anyone would bother to install or use contact tracing tools at all — or, apps aside, change their behavior should they receive a call indicating that they’ve been exposed by someone who has tested positive. In New York, contract tracers are having a hard time completing interviews. And in Massachusetts, a mixed bag: on the one hand, so many contact tracers were admirably stood up so quickly that there isn’t enough work to go around. On the other hand, most of the cases being diagnosed haven’t been identified beforehand through contact tracing — which means that transmission chains can’t be pruned.

Contact-tracing requires testing. And testing capacity in parts of the US is currently being overwhelmed. On the tech front, Zittrain sees “a plateau in visible activity on the tech side of the ledger since the May 20, 2020, launch of the Apple/Google exposure notification framework”. And it doesn’t seem that any state has yet approved or launched an exposure notification app based upon the framework.

Efforts outside of the United States have made a little more progress. Switzerland has led the charge, piloting an app that implements the Apple/Google framework within hospitals, government agencies, and the military. Other nations — many of them among the 22 granted access to the Apple/Google framework in May — are developing and deploying apps of their own. We’ve also seen the emergence of a number of apps not based on the Apple-Google framework, including in Singapore and Australia.

So it’s all incredibly patchy. So much for tech ‘solutionism’ in this crisis.

So what now? Zittrain sets out two possibilities: the Swedish model and what he calls the ‘Company Town’ model.

The Swedish model is basically to

re-open all but the most high-spreading services and events; ask people to exercise social distancing where they can; have people wear cloth masks to minimize the spread of the moisture in their breath to others; and try to make available testing so that people who wish to know if they’re infected can find out and then self-isolate if they test positive or show worrisome symptoms.

The other option is interestingly different:

It’s one in which some big companies and institutions decide to implement their own test/trace/isolate regimes as employees return to workplaces. A company whose employees don’t physically interact much with the public during the day — an insurance company, or a tech firm like Facebook or Google — might require its employees to undergo regular testing, and then cease coming to work if they test positive. Such a company could stand up its own tracing program, and use data from company-issued devices, with notice to employees and no permitted opt-out, to assist in that tracing. Those who are deemed to have been exposed can also be required not to come to work. Universities might choose to require much the same for their faculty, staff, and students.

The overall regime may thus remain nominally a voluntary one, with respect to government coercion, but participation in private regimes like this will be by choice only in the sense that employees can quit their jobs, or students can choose to drop out of school, if they don’t want to participate in their institutions’ programs. And it of course leaves most people behind: if you don’t work for an institution that can pull off its own internal testing and tracing, you won’t directly benefit from such a program.

It looks as though this latter option is what Cambridge University will adopt — to name just one non-corporate example — because it now has the capacity to do all of that stuff.

But when you look at the bigger picture, this ‘company town’ approach would be a disaster for inequality, and maybe even for democracy. A bit like neoliberalism, in fact.

There’s no substitute for state capacity here, rigorously, competently and fairly administered. And the big questions for us is: can the UK actually do it?


Quarantine diary — Day 97

Link


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


Saturday 25 April, 2020

Seen on our walk yesterday evening.


So the independent ‘scientific’ advice that the UK government is supposedly ‘following’ turns out not to be entirely independent

When on March 12 the government announced its fatuous ‘herd immunity’ strategy for dealing with Covid-19, some of us wondered what the eminent members of SAGE, its ‘independent’ body of scientific advisers, had been smoking. In the edition of this blog on March 13 I tried to do the maths:

Suddenly (yesterday) the UK government started to talk about “herd immunity” in relation to COVID-19. What it basically means is that if lots of people get the virus and survive it (which is likely for the majority of cases), then we will be in a better state to deal with it in future because those people will have immunity to it. Sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?

Er, perhaps not. Say 60% of the population gets it. That’s 40m infectees. With a 1% mortality rate, that’s 400,000 deaths. So we have to hope that the mortality rate will be a lot less than 1%. No matter how you look at it, this is deadly serious. Herd immunity doesn’t come cheap.

When I was composing that blog post the thought that was running through my mind was “this sounds to me like a classic Dominic Cummings stunt” but I dismissed it on the grounds that (a) the guy announcing it was an eminent (and I presumed independent) scientific knight, and (b) SAGE was entirely composed of folks like him who are not going to be pushed around by any swivel-eyed fanatic.

And now what do we find?

The Guardian today has a major scoop revealing that Cummings and one of his data-science buddies have been in SAGE meetings.

The prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and a data scientist he worked with on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit are on the secret scientific group advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic, according to a list leaked to the Guardian.

It reveals that both Cummings and Ben Warner were among 23 attendees present at a crucial convening of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 23 March, the day Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in a televised address.

Yeah, but what about all the meetings before the March 23rd one? Well,

Multiple attendees of Sage told the Guardian that both Cummings and Warner had been taking part in meetings of the group as far back as February. The inclusion of Downing Street advisers on Sage will raise questions about the independence of its scientific advice.

So now we have even stronger grounds for demanding that the membership of SAGE be publicly revealed.

En passant, I’m also wondering why none of these eminent scientific advisers didn’t walk out the moment Cummings appeared in the room. Their much-vaunted ‘independence’ has now been tainted. Their only consolation is that when the government tries to fit them up for the role of guilty men and women when the time comes to allocate responsibility for the catastrophic handling of the pandemic, they can always say “it was Cummings wot done it, guv”.

And as for “following the science” from now on read “following the politics”.


What the UK government knew — last year

From the leaked report for 2019. Yes, that’s 2019. And note particularly the last line.

So the next time you hear a government minister say that nobody saw this coming, just wave this at him/her.


Aw, isn’t that nice. I’m in the money at last.

From today’s inbox.

A blast from the past! Once upon a time this kind of crap was routine.


Can this be genuine?

From Dave Winer’s blog. If it is real, then it suggests that the NYT really needs to unlock itself from the “balance as bias” trap. When talking about this I still use Paul Krugman’s example in a talk he gave to Harvard students many moons ago.

“Dick Cheney [then the Vice President] says the earth is flat”.

“Here’s how the New York Times reports it. ‘Vice President says earth is flat; others disagree’.”


Autocrats are using the pandemic as cover for power-grabs

From this week’s Economist. Every problem is someone else’s opportunity.


Quarantine diary — Day 35

Link

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


Saturday 11 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There can be no return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.”

Graffito in Hong Kong


This is the most incompetent British government in living memory, and yet British journalism seems utterly incapable of holding it to account

I’m not the only one who is pissed off at the government’s Daily ‘Briefings’, in which Ministers provide little information of real value, and the journalists present seem unable to ask the important, hard questions or to follow up on unsatisfactory or evasive answers. There’s a strange kind of atmosphere at the events; it’s almost as though the hacks feel that this bunch of amateurs are doing their best, God bless them, and we shouldn’t crucify them. This journalistic failure is exasperating because it must be clear by now that the UK has a spectacularly incompetent government. This is not entirely surprising because — as I’ve said before — the prime criterion for membership of the Cabinet was to have been wrong on the single most important issue to have faced Britain since 1946. But still…

It turns out that Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor, has also been watching these info-charades with exasperation. Eventually one of the hacks who is in daily attendance asked him what questions he thinks they should be asking.

Here’s Campbell’s list:

  1. “Do you still think it was a good idea to have allowed 250,000 people to amass at the Cheltenham Festival after the WHO had officially declared coronavirus a pandemic?” Follow-up: “How many people have now been infected and/or died as a result?”

  2. “There were three million people daily on the London Underground at the time other countries were in lockdown. Does that partly explain why London has been so badly hit?”

  3. “Everyone will be pleased the Prime Minister is out of intensive care, and wish him well in his recovery. But was he wise to boast about shaking hands with coronavirus patients? Or be so lax at social distancing, not least at these briefings? And was this not all part of a pattern — he and you did not take this virus as seriously as you should have done, which is one of the reasons why more than seven thousand people have died?”

  4. “Would you accept that he did not follow his own government’s advice at all times? And the signals that sent may have led to the loss of life?”

  5. “Can you provide the current figures on all aspects of testing please?” Follow up: (if there is no answer) “You have consistently said this is a top priority. Priority means more important than other things. If it is so important, why can you not give us the figures?” Follow-up: (if there is an answer) “How does that fit with the plan to get to 100,000 tests per day?”

  6. “New Zealand has a population one thirteenth of the UK, yet has carried out a quarter of the number of tests we have, and been in lockdown longer than we have. Do you think these might be factors in their managing to keep the death toll to one? Not one thousand, Mr Raab. But one.”

  7. “Can you tell us how many NHS and social care workers have now died as a result of Covid-19? And what investigations have been carried out into how many of them had adequate PPE?”

  8. “Yesterday three nurses who were recently photographed wearing bin liners as protection were diagnosed as having coronavirus. Do you think there might be a link? Would you apologise to them for being sent to the frontline without proper protection?”

  9. “On March 15, almost a full month ago, the Prime Minister told the Commons that all social care workers would have proper protective equipment “by the end of the week”. Which week did he mean? And by what date will that promise be met?”

  10. “Mr Raab, almost one thousand British people died yesterday. So in one day, around a quarter of the total number of people killed in the entirety of the Troubles in Northern Ireland over thirty years. Do you really believe you are on top of this in the way you should be?”

  11. “Are the figures you give us the real death toll? Do they include all deaths in people’s homes, and those in care homes, where the virus may have been an issue? If so, is there not a danger we are already ahead of Italy?”

  12. “You keep saying you follow the science. Would you please publish the scientific advice on which you are relying?”

  13. “You keep saying you follow the scientific advice. But can you confirm that on all issues such as whether to impose or lift lockdown, how much testing to do, how many ventilators and PPE sets to procure, these are decisions finally taken by ministers?”

  14. “Successive Prime Ministers have written personal letters to the families of military personnel who lose their lives on the frontline. Will you be doing this for public servants who have lost their lives in the fight against the virus?”

  15. “A number of bus drivers have lost their lives. Will there be a proper investigation into whether any or all of these deaths were linked to the lack of protective equipment?”

  16. “We understand why the public transport system has kept running. But, especially in the early days of lockdown, it is clear many non-essential workers continued to use buses. Will you accept some responsibility for the deaths of public transport workers, as a result of the lack of clarity of advice?”

  17. “You have been very critical of Premier League footballers. They have now set out how they intend to make a major contribution to those dealing with the crisis. Will you now call on bankers to donate part of their bonuses, hedge funds to donate some of the massive profits they are making even now, with the Prime Minister’s friend and backer Crispin Odey reportedly making £115 million in the period of the crisis, and indeed those members of the Cabinet who have considerable personal wealth? Or is it one law for working class young men, and another for rich, privileged, middle aged multi-millionaires?”

  18. “Where is Priti Patel?” [The Home Secretary, i.e. Minister of the Interior] And, as a follow up, “Mr Raab, do you accept many of the people you thanked and praised as key workers yesterday — carers, cleaners, porters, supermarket staff and so on — are considered by your immigration plans to be unskilled, non-essential workers? In light of your new-found admiration for them, will Ms Patel, when she is found, be revising the policy?”

  19. “If Parliament could meet weekly in 1940, as a world war was raging, why not now? Why is our democracy reduced to the lowest level of public accountability in modern history?”

  20. “Mr Raab, as these briefings are pretty useless — partly your fault, partly ours — do you not think Parliament should return as a matter of urgency so that you can be properly questioned and held to account?”

Campbell’s main beef “is the tendency to let go of questions which are not properly answered, not simply within briefings, but from one briefing to the next. Testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment — these remain huge issues, but the journalists’ attention span is poor. They have utterly failed to hold the government’s feet to the fire on any of them. Promises come and go, and are not met, yet the media caravan moves to the next promise, leaving behind the failure to deliver on the last one.

“I said days ago”, he continues, that

the media should have created the pressure to provide data on tests, ventilators and PPE each day, along with cases, deaths, and public transport use. There is a reason why the government does not volunteer the information as readily as it does stats for the roads and the trains — because it is not good. Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised we would get to 100,000 tests per day, and no minister should be able to get past a microphone without being probed on where they are with that. It is a total failure of journalism that this is not happening.

All spot-on, IMHO


Zoomed out: two rules for staying sane with online meetings.

As last week for the first ‘real’ week of working at home for many people, I’m beginning to hear that many of them are finding online conferencing very tiring. And I can understand that. The most annoying thing is that many organisations which are dysfunctionally addicted to meetings think that they can do the same now that they have figured out to use Zoom of WebEx. They’re a bit like middle-aged men who’ve just bought their first motorbike. The current obsession with video-conferencing needs to be pared down. So here are two rules.

  1. Cut down on meetings — break the dysfunctional cycle. And only use online for meetings that are really essential.

  2. For most purposes, video is actually not essential: may be worth doing right at the beginning just to give everyone a picture of who’s at the meeting. But then switch off the camera. Zoom has a helpful feature when used in audio-only mode, in that the name of the current speaker is displayed when they are foregrounded.

Follow these rules, or wind up like a zombie at the end of the week.

Following on the item yesterday on what TLS writers and critics were reading during lockdown, A reader wrote to point out something that one of them — Muriel Zagha — wrote:

“Communicating on screens is like receiving news of astronauts in orbit. Atomized, we wave at each other. We have no idea how long the flight will take.”

Think of that every time you wave at a colleague encased in a postage-stamp-sized frame at the top of your screen!


“We have the power to destroy ourselves without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t” A talk by Toby Ord

A sobering talk by the author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Takes an hour, but worth it.


Quarantine Diary — day 21

Link


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


Saturday 28 March, 2020

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


Quote of the day

Facts are stubborn things. Statistics are pliable.

  • Mark Twain

Spring in a time of contagion

In our garden this afternoon.


What our contagion fables are really about

Like me, the historian Jill Lepore has also been reading the literature of pandemics. Unlike me, she is genuinely erudite. “The literature of contagion is vile”, she writes in the New Yorker.

A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.

Lepore is one of those annoying academics who seems to have read everything. The list of plague-centred works she surveys is striking (and most of it was new to me). It includes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death (1842); Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912); Albert Camus’s the Plague (1947); José Saramago’s Blindness (1995); and Stephen King’s Stand (2011).

But the big thing I learned is that Mary Shelley wrote an astonishingly prescient novel, The Last Man which was published in 1826 (not 1862, as I originally wrote). The story is set in the twenty-first century, and

is the first major novel to imagine the extinction of the human race by way of a global pandemic. Shelley published it at the age of twenty-nine, after nearly everyone she loved had died, leaving her, as she put it, “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me.” The book’s narrator begins as a poor and uneducated English shepherd: primitive man, violent and lawless, even monstrous. Cultivated by a nobleman and awakened to learning—“An earnest love of knowledge . . . caused me to pass days and nights in reading and study”—he is elevated by the Enlightenment and becomes a scholar, a defender of liberty, a republican, and a citizen of the world.

Then, in the year 2092, the plague arrives, ravaging first Constantinople. Year after year, the pestilence dies away every winter (“a general and never-failing physician”), and returns every spring, more virulent, more widespread. It reaches across mountains, it spreads over oceans. The sun rises, black: a sign of doom. “Through Asia, from the banks of the Nile to the shores of the Caspian, from the Hellespont even to the sea of Oman, a sudden panic was driven,” Shelley wrote. “The men filled the mosques; the women, veiled, hastened to the tombs, and carried offerings to the dead, thus to preserve the living.” The nature of the pestilence remains mysterious. “It was called an epidemic. But the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased.” Not understanding its operation and full of false confidence, legislators hesitate to act. “England was still secure. France, Germany, Italy and Spain, were interposed, walls yet without a breach, between us and the plague.” Then come reports of entire nations, destroyed and depopulated. “The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin.” The fearful turn to history too late, and find in its pages, even in the pages of the Decameron, the wrong lesson: “We called to mind the plague of 1348, when it was calculated that a third of mankind had been destroyed. As yet western Europe was uninfected; would it always be so?” It would not always be so. Inevitably, the plague comes, at last, to England, but by then the healthy have nowhere left to go, because, in the final terror of pandemic, there is “no refuge on earth”: “All the world has the plague!”

Just like Coronavirus, in a way. The great thing about being an historian is that you know that there’s nothing new under the sun.


Parliamentary sovereignty = parliamentary dictatorship

The LRB has a thoughtful review by Neal Ascherson of Richard Norton-Taylor’s The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, which opens with a succinct summary of the UK’s ramshackle ‘constitution’:

The structure of the ‘British’ state is still essentially monarchical. Constitutionally, the rest of the democratic world has moved on, adopting variants of the Enlightenment notion of popular sovereignty. Power resides in theory with the people, whose communities lease upwards only those functions they cannot exercise themselves. But in Britain, its archaisms only lightly reformed, power still flows downwards. The absurd doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – that weird English scrap of parchment – in effect means parliamentary absolutism, a hasty 1689 transfer from the divine right of kings. We don’t have ‘inalienable rights’, but are allowed to vote and speak freely only because the government, through Parliament, generously lends some of its power to its subjects.

Richard Norton-Taylor has spent a lifetime (much of it as the Guardian‘s National-Security editor) poking holes in the obsessive secrecy that characterizes the British state, and Ascherson does a good job of surveying the battles of the mid-20th century and the early 21st. The story, he says,

is all part of a momentous contest over constitutional liberty, a battle only now reaching full intensity. It’s a generation since judicial review began to pierce moth holes in government decisions. But the worn tweed blanket of parliamentary sovereignty – better described as Cabinet absolutism – developed a large rent last year when the Supreme Court struck down Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament. Panic broke out on the authoritarian right. The law had forgotten its place, they cried, and was advancing uninvited into politics. It must at all costs be pushed back. Suella Braverman, the new Brexiteer attorney general previously known for her hatred of the Human Rights Act, now proclaims that ‘we must take back control not only from the EU but from the judiciary … the political has been captured by the legal.’

This is the language of a pre-Enlightenment government intolerant of opposition, refusing to acknowledge that power can reside and be legitimate outside the executive. It is, in short, monarchy-speak. And as the war begins between divine-right concepts of authority and the notion – now increasingly implied by English jurists – of the supremacy of the law to which prime ministers and parliaments must answer, the control of information will become a decisive battlefield. As Norton-Taylor warns, this government will fight hard to protect the secrecy of its members, spy agencies and special forces, and it will fight dirty.

Yep. And a Johnson government will have few scruples about cracking down as a newly-‘liberated’ UK goes broke.


Quarantine Diary — Day 7

Link


Wednesday 18 March, 2020

If you might find it more useful to get this blog as a daily email, why not subscribe here? (It’s free, and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe). One email, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


What we’re dealing with

It’s as if we had the Spanish flu and the Great Depression simultaneously. There’s no good outcome from this.


Why aren’t share buybacks outlawed?

Allowing companies to buy their own shares is one of the most outrageous abuses of corporate power. Yesterday, Tim Wu revealed the extent to which American Airlines had abused the loophole as it minted money over recent years. It wasn’t just American, though. Other airlines were doing it too: according to Bloomberg they spent 96% of free cash flow on it. Buybacks were illegal throughout most of the 20th century because they were considered a form of stock market manipulation. But in 1982, the Securities and Exchange Commission passed rule 10b-18, which created a legal process for buybacks and opened the floodgates for companies to start repurchasing their stock en masse.

And guess who was president at the time? Why, Ronald Reagan — the “sunshine in America guy”. The guy who led the bonfire of the regulations.


The scientist who saw COVID-19 coming

Interesting profile of Dennis Carroll.

For decades, Carroll has been a leading voice about the threat of zoonotic spillover, the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. Scientists are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats. In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.

Federal funding for his PREDICT project was withdrawn in 2019. Guess who was president then?

There’s an emerging theme here…


Why liberals shouldn’t count their chickens

“The initial mishandling of the coronavirus by the government doesn’t mean voters will penalize Trump in November,” said Michael Ceraso, who worked for Sanders in 2016 and was Pete Buttigieg’s New Hampshire director before leaving his campaign last year. “We know we have two candidates who can pivot this generation’s largest health crisis to their policy strengths. But history tells us that an incumbent who steers us through a challenging time, a la Bush and 9/11 and Obama and the Great Recession, are rewarded with a second term.”

(from Politico’s nightly newsletter)


What professional journalists should be doing in this crisis

Terrific piece by Jeff Jarvis from NYU. The main takeaway IMHO is: if you’re not adding value to the viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s understanding then what the hell are you doing?

Some snippets:

we should, for starters, get rid of the meaningless TV location shot. I saw a poor sod standing in Times Square for 11 hours yesterday, reporting for MSNBC, telling us that, well, there were still people there, just not as many as usual. Why? How did that improve my chances of surviving the pandemic? What information did that add to my decision-making? What did the reporter gather that a static webcam could not have? Nothing. And how much did it endanger him and his crew? We can’t know.

Yep. If I see another BBC reporter standing in front of 10 Downing Street I will scream.

I see print reporters going out to ask people how they feel standing in line for toilet paper. And photographers are sent out to get pictures that tell us there are lines of people waiting for that toilet paper. Same question: Why? What does that tell me that affects my decisions? So stop. The world is not a stage and journalists are not set designers. Stop treating the public as a background. Do only those things that inform. (And if you want those images to tell me what I already know about toilet paper being gone, you can ask nicely of many people on Instagram and use their pictures, perhaps paying them.)

And

Many years ago, my children, I helped pioneer cable news use of the remote webcam when a blizzard prevented me from making it into MSNBC’s studios for a blog report. I set up a cam at home. The video was jumpy, but then-network-head Rick Kaplan thought it looked edgy and so webcams were all the vogue for a few months, until they weren’t. Such is TV.

Well, technology has advanced much since then. Skype is good. There are countless experts who can be brought on the air from their homes and offices anywhere in the world to expand the perspectives offered to the public without endangering them. That should be the standard — not the exception. It will substantively improve TV. There is no reason for radio and print reporters to have to be face-to-face with every source to get useful information. For that, we always had the phone. Now we have the net.

It’s great stuff. Well reading in full.