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.


Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Sunday 19 January 2020

How to choose

I’m a subscriber to The Browser, a daily email reading list. It’s curated by Robert Cottrell, who reads about a thousand Web pages a day, from which he selects five things that he thinks are worth reading. He was asked on a podcast recently how he goes about this. Here’s his reply:

Orwell, Trump and the English language

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times columnist, describes himself as “an Orwell nut”. Like me, his favourite essay is “Politics and the English language”, one basic premise of which is that clear speech enables clear thinking and prevents lies. Trouble is, he says in this weekend’s edition of the FT, Trump and Dominic Cummings have proved Orwell wrong. Clear speech (“BUILD THE WALL”, “GET BREXIT DONE”) can enable lies. What Trump demonstrates, Kuper has concluded, is that “simple language can encourage simple thought”. Agreed, except that I’d have said ‘simplistic’.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising

This morning’s Observer column. Based on a sceptical reading of Andrew Bosworth’s faux-agonising internal memo about whether Facebook should modify its policies to stop politicians lying on the platform.

Why you can’t believe anything you read about the royal family in British tabloids

Good piece by Alan Rusbridger. There’s a reason why the royals are demonised, he says. But you won’t read all about it because they won’t admit why they’re hostile. Among other things, Harry is suing some of them. I hold no brief for the royals, but I can understand what Harry is doing in stepping back from his role: he doesn’t want the British tabloids to do to his wife what they did to his mother. And I don’t blame him.

Dave Winer’s sci-fi plot

An alien race from a faraway galaxy visits earth. We know they’re coming and where they’ll land. When they show up, they walk by the humans and greet the dogs. Turns out dogs are the master species of earth. And of course the aliens are canines as well.

Neat idea. Only one thing wrong with it. The story should be about cats, who have such supercilious bearings because — as P.G. Wodehouse revealed many years ago — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. If you doubt that, ask our cats. This one, for example.

Quote of the Day

” When Donald Trump was running for president, he told voters he would run the country like he ran his business. Two years later, it’s one of the few promises he’s actually kept.”

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

Boris Johnson, hedge-funds, conspiracy theories and Brexit

Last Saturday the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, claimed that Boris Johnson was pursuing the interests of financial backers who are set to gain from a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was only repeating a comment made by Rachel Johnson, the Prime Minister’s sister. Since some of Johnson’s financial backers run hedge-funds, this sounded like a good conspiracy theory. Indeed Robert Harris, the best-selling thriller writer, tweeted that the claim that Johnson wanted a hard Brexit so that his backers in the City wouldn’t lose billions alleged “corruption on a scale I wouldn’t dare put in fiction”.

Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes, isn’t impressed by this particular conspiracy theory. “To be sure”, she writes,

some hedge fund managers make no secret of their desire for no-deal Brexit. Crispin Odey, for example, not only backed Johnson for Prime Minister but – according to a recent Channel 4 documentary – also advised him to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to follow Odey’s advice ended ignominiously when the U.K.’s highest court ruled it unlawful.

Coppola’s point seems to be that most of the journalists covering this particular story doen’t seem to know much about how hedge-funds work. It is possible to profit from no-deal Brexit even if you don’t support it. “Shorting the pound”, she writes, “would be a no-brainer for anyone in the hedge fund fraternity, however pristine their Remain credentials.”

The conspiracy theory suggests that as October 31 approaches with no sign of a deal, hedge-funds might short the pound whether or not they backed Johnson’s campaign.

But that’s not what is being alleged by those who claim that speculators are placing billions of pounds of bets on no-deal Brexit. No, the focus is on equities. According to The Sunday Times, hedge funds like Odey are shorting British companies in expectation of a stock market crash if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal. Allegedly, Odey has placed £300m ($370m) of bets against a variety of U.K. companies.

Investigating the list of his 14 currently active shorts, Coppola thinks that they are standard hedge-fund operations — betting against companies that are in trouble for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brexit. “In short”, she concludes,

In short, despite his vocal support for no-deal Brexit, I don’t see any evidence that Odey’s funds are shorting U.K. companies in anticipation of no-deal Brexit. If I were to criticize Odey for anything, it would be for high fees and an uninspiring performance.

Nice piece of debunking. And of good journalism. And I wouldn’t put it past Robert to use the plot in one of his next books!

Sauce for the goose…

The staff (and proprietor) of the New York Times have their knickers in a twist because some right-wingers have been excavating embarrassing or foolish tweets that NYT journalists have emitted in the past. Jack Shafer is having none of it:

Deep scrutiny of the press—even when performed by bad faith actors like Arthur Schwartz and his ilk—is a boon, not a bane. The embarrassments unearthed by Schwartz and company will bruise the tender egos who run the Times, the Post and CNN. But in the long run, these minirevelations will help them maintain the professional standards they’re always crowing about. Instead of damning its critics for going through its staffs’ social media history with tweezers, the Times and A.G. Sulzberger should send them a thank you card.

Yep. American journalism can be very pompous at times.