Monday 22 June, 2020

Coronavirus Management: EU vs. USA

Says it all, really.

Coleridge’s childhood home is for sale

Wow! What a glorious pile. 10-bedrooms, 11-bathrooms. The Coleridge family moved to Ottery St Mary in 1760, when John Coleridge became the headmaster of The Kings School. Samuel Taylor was John’s youngest son.

Just check out the library:

From Country Life

Steven Sinofsky on the historical background to wearing masks

Lovely Twitter thread by Steven Sinovsky, liasting cases from the past where there was fierce opposition to taking sensible precautions which eventually became common sense. Examples include:

  • childhood vaccination
  • Helmets for skateboarding
  • Cycle helmets
  • Condoms
  • Smoking in planes and public transport everywhere

One he missed out: seat-belts in cars.

This story is currently being re-enacted with people refusing to wear face-masks in public. There will come a time (hopefully in the not too distant future) when this will seem as absurd as refusal to wear a seat-belt.

Interestingly, my first father-in-law always refused to wear a seat belt. In order to avoid being stopped by the cops, he would drape it diagonally across his chest, but never anchored it.

The UK’s contact tracing app fiasco is a master class in mismanagement

Well, so says the headline on James Ball’s piece in MIT’s Tech Review. But actually the article is more nuanced than that. It also has a useful explanation of two key issues that lay at the root of the problems: Bluetooth power management in smartphones; and the trade-off between the need to preserve user privacy on the one hand and Public Health England’s (understandable) desire to detect outbreaks quickly. Johnson’s bluster about ‘world-beating’ didn’t help either. The eagerness of this Cabinet of half-assed Brexiteers to boast of British exceptionalism is pathetic.

James’s piece is worth reading in full, for those who are interested in these matters.

Quarantine diary — Day 93


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Wednesday 15 April, 2020

Using AI to find candidates for trying against COVID —

Er, for “AI” read machine learning. Usual mistake, but interesting nevertheless.

A team at BenevolentAI, a UK company that uses machine learning to aid drug discovery, had been searching through their database of all existing, approved drugs, searching for one that could be repurposed to treat the novel coronavirus. And according to this report they found one in just three days.

“Most drug companies had been looking at antiviral drugs, but we approached it from the other end and looked at what processes used by the virus could be disrupted,” said Peter Richardson, vice president of pharmacology at the company.

Protein kinases — enzymes that speed up chemical reactions in the body — seemed a promising area to look into. Some of these regulate the way substances can enter human cells — disrupt them, and the virus might be unable to get into the lung, heart and kidney cells it has been so prone to invading.

Baricitinib, a drug developed by Eli Lilley and approved in 2018, stood out because it not only inhibited kinases but also prevented the cytokine storms — the body’s own extreme autoimmune reactions that have led to so many fatalities with Covid-19. It was also likely to be compatible with other drugs being used to treat the disease, such as remdesivir. Richardson and a team of three part-time researchers identified an initial 370 kinase inhibitors, and then narrowed it down to six that looked most likely to work.

“It validated using AI for this kind of problem,” says Richardson. “It would have been impossible for the four of us to do it at that speed otherwise. If you took 250 people you still couldn’t do it at that pace because there would be too many competing ideas. You really can’t do it without an organised knowledge graph and the ability to query it.”

Interesting. I suppose they had to describe it as AI, given that the letters appear in the firm’s name. Benevolent Machine Learning doesn’t have the same ring to it.

How coronavirus almost brought down the global financial system

Another amazing long read from Adam Tooze, this time about how close the world came to a financial meltdown because of the Coronavirus. Most of it stuff I hadn’t known or understood. Tooze is a really phenomenal historian, with an astonishing grasp of how the finance industry works. * Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World*, his history of the 2008 banking crisis, is terrific. And now he seems to be really on top of the Coronavirus crisis. I’ve been thinking that what we’re facing at the moment is what the world would have been like if the Spanish flu and the Great Depression had come together.

This essay, which is worth reading in full (requires a cup of coffee and some peace and quiet) is mainly about how the central bankers of the West succeeded — just — in avoiding a global meltdown. But it ain’t over yet. And most poor countries don’t have the resources — financial or professional — to deal with the virus.

Security for home workers

From Bruce Schneier’s blog.

When I think about how COVID-19’s security measures are affecting organizational networks, I see several interrelated problems:

One, employees are working from their home networks and sometimes from their home computers. These systems are more likely to be out of date, unpatched, and unprotected. They are more vulnerable to attack simply because they are less secure.

Two, sensitive organizational data will likely migrate outside of the network. Employees working from home are going to save data on their own computers, where they aren’t protected by the organization’s security systems. This makes the data more likely to be hacked and stolen.

Three, employees are more likely to access their organizational networks insecurely. If the organization is lucky, they will have already set up a VPN for remote access. If not, they’re either trying to get one quickly or not bothering at all. Handing people VPN software to install and use with zero training is a recipe for security mistakes, but not using a VPN is even worse.

Four, employees are being asked to use new and unfamiliar tools like Zoom to replace face-to-face meetings. Again, these hastily set-up systems are likely to be insecure.

Five, the general chaos of “doing things differently” is an opening for attack. Tricks like business email compromise, where an employee gets a fake email from a senior executive asking him to transfer money to some account, will be more successful when the employee can’t walk down the hall to confirm the email’s validity — and when everyone is distracted and so many other things are being done differently.

Worrying about network security seems almost quaint in the face of the massive health risks from COVID-19, but attacks on infrastructure can have effects far greater than the infrastructure itself.

After the analogue hammer, comes the data-driven dance.

From Sifted

“Coronavirus has reminded even the most conservative among us that there is a role for the state after all. No government can outsource their way through this test. Suddenly, the absence of data skills at the centre of government is a life and death issue. The hammer blows will decrease. As the dance begins, states must respond with agility, using public and private data. An era of central data units may emerge. Regulation for data registries and more powerful registrars seems certain as public trust in government data and a new locus for privacy and surveillance are all being tried and tested on a daily basis. This is one big A/B test for governments, whether democratic or autocratic. This may not be the internet founders’ much longed-for government 2.0 moment, but we are all in beta now.

The “hammer and the dance” metaphor is becoming a meme.

Why content moderators should be designated as key workers

Important paper from the Turing Institute arguing that, just now, the people who try to keep mis- and disinformation off social media should be regarded as part of the world’s critical infrastructure.

The current crisis surrounding COVID-19 has scaled up the challenge of content moderation, severely reducing supply and massively increasing demand. On the “supply side”, content moderators have, like other workers around the world, been told not to come into work. YouTube has already warned that, as a result, it will conduct fewer human reviews and openly admits it may make poor content takedown decisions.

On the “demand side”, the growth of the pandemic has seen an upsurge in the amount of time spent online. BT recently noted an increase in UK daytime traffic of 35-60%, and social networks report similar increases, particularly in their use for education, entertainment and even exercise. Sadly, harmful activity has increased too: Europol reports “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material” and the World Health Organisation has warned of an emerging “infodemic” of pernicious health-related disinformation. Recently, concerns have been raised that false claims are circulating online about the role of 5G.

At a time when social media is desperately needed for social interaction, a widening gap is emerging between how much content moderation we need and how much can be delivered. As a result, AI is being asked do tasks for which it is not ready, with profound consequences for the health of online spaces. How should platforms, governments, and civil society respond to this challenge? Following Rahm Emmanuel’s exhortation to “never let a crisis go to waste,” we argue that, now that the challenges in content moderation have been exposed by the pandemic, it is time for a reset.


Quarantine diary — Day 25


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Thursday 2 April, 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.

The end of Boris Johnson’s media honeymoon: today’s front pages

The ‘serious’ papers are bad enough (though whether the Telegraph deserves that description is questionable, given that it has hitherto just been a Johnson fanzine).

But just look at the tabloids.

Interesting ne c’est pas?

Images from Peter Foster – @pmdfoster

Roots of the UK’s Covid-19 fiasco

I’ve been reading the most recent (2017) edition of the UK’s National Risk Register to try and understand why we’ve wound up as possibly the worst-prepared major country (outside of the US) for the calamity that is upon us.

The first thing to note is that the government classified this kind of pandemic as the most serious potential risk to the country. It was designated a Level 5 risk in the “Hazards,diseases, accidents and societal risks” category. Just for comparison, on the “Malicious attacks” register, terrorist attacks were only ranked as Level 3. Here’s the relevant chart from the document:

And here’s the summary of “What’s being done about the risk?”

Note the text in the paragraphs on Planning, Coordination, International Collaboration, Detection and Personal Protective Equipment and ask yourself if you know of any evidence that anyone in government had read any of them in the three years since this document was last updated.

Having done so, can I suggest that you then turn to “Why Weren’t We Ready?” a splendid piece of reporting by Harry Lambert in the current issue of the New Statesman? Here’s a relevant excerpt:

That it is a novel virus and the government’s plans were for influenza is “immaterial”, says David Alexander, professor of disaster risk reduction at University College London. The coronavirus closely resembles the threat anticipated in government planning documents, of a highly infectious respiratory disease that critically hospitalises between one and four per cent of those it infects. And yet the government appears to have been unprepared. The UK lacks ventilators, personal protective equipment and testing kits, while emergency procedures for manufacturers and hospitals are being improvised on the fly.

But the government’s planning documents – which date from 2005 to 2018 but are mainly based on the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” – suggest that Britain may in fact have been prepared, just for the wrong outcome. The UK’s plans appear to have rested on a false assumption: if a pandemic such as Covid-19 struck, the UK intended only to mitigate rather than suppress the impact.

Mitigation accepts that the virus will spread. Suppression does not. Boris Johnson did not come up with the concept of taking the virus “on the chin”, as he put in an interview on 5 March. Nor did Dominic Cummings, his most senior adviser, who is reported to have at first welcomed the idea. The strategy predates them both.

In that context, the 2011 “Influenza Preparedness Strategy” makes interesting reading.

“The combination of particularly high attack rates and a severe disease”, it says,

“is also relatively (but unquantifiably) improbable. Taking account of this, and the practicality of different levels of response, when planning for excess deaths, local planners should prepare to extend capacity on a precautionary but reasonably practicable basis, and aim to cope with a population mortality rate of up to 210,000 – 315,000 additional deaths, possibly over as little as a 15 week period and perhaps half of these over three weeks at the height of the outbreak.”

It’s clear that, in the early phases of the government response, Johnson and his advisers were basically reading from this 2011 playbook. For example:

So they had a plan. It was just a plan for a different kind of virus.

Earlier in the document, it says:

In the early stages of the influenza pandemic, it is unlikely to be possible to assess with any accuracy the severity and impact of the illness caused by the virus. There will be some information available from other countries but the uncertainty about the quality of information that is available and its applicability to the UK will mean that the initial response will need to reflect the levels of risk based on this limited evidence. Good quality data from early cases arising in the UK is essential in further informing and tailoring the response.

As far as I can see, none of this actually applied to the Coronavirus. There was plenty of good-quality evidence coming from China relatively early in the outbreak. The virus was sequenced early and the data made widely available worldwide. The UK government’s advisers must have known from the Chinese experience that this was a really big deal. In which case those early blustery assurances from Johnson, Hancock & Co (“taking it on the chin” and so on) now, in hindsight, take on a grimly ironic tone. They sound like a pack of amateurs auditioning for the school play. But some of their advisers don’t come out of it too well either. Here, for example, is David Halpern, a psychologist who heads the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, raving on BBC News:

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity’s been achieved in the rest of the population.”

None of this is any consolation at the moment. But it at least helps to explain why the government’s response to the crisis has been such a shambles. Johnson always wanted to be Churchill. Well, now he’s got his Dunkirk moment.

Some good news

A new rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19, developed by a University of Cambridge spinout company and capable of diagnosing the infection in under 90 minutes, is being deployed at Cambridge hospitals, ahead of being launched in hospitals nationwide.

Being together alone

This is just wonderful IMHO

Musicians: Cello Octet Amsterdam featuring Maki Namekawa Music: Part III from the Hours Suite by Philip Glass Arranged by Michael Riesman


Thanks to GDV for the link

Quarantine diary — Day 12


How to blow $6.2bn

Verily, you could not make this up. A headline saying that Microsoft had made its first-ever loss caught my eye. I assumed it must be a mistake: Microsoft doesn’t make losses for the simple reason that it has a licence to print money. It’s called Windows+Office. But then it turns out that Microsoft blew $6.2bn a while back on an advertising company which has now turned out to be worthless. What always amuses me about tech company valuations is how solemn are the assurances from men in suits that the valuation they have arrived at by consulting the entrails of a goat is in fact a perfectly rational assessment of the asset’s value. I am sure that that $6.2bn valuation was likewise quality-assured by the same clowns.

Microsoft has written down the value of an online advertising firm it bought five years ago by $6.2bn (£4bn).

Microsoft bought Aquantive for $6.3bn in cash in an attempt to catch rival Google in the race to increase revenues from search-related advertising.

The writedown effectively wipes out the acquisition’s value, although there was little impact on Microsoft’s shares in after-hours trading on Monday.

The purchase of Aquantive in 2007 was then Microsoft’s biggest acquisition.

It has since been eclipsed by the company’s $8.5bn purchase of internet phone service Skype last year.

Microsoft said in a statement on Monday that “the acquisition did not accelerate growth to the degree anticipated, contributing to the writedown”.

Mighty Meg and HP

This morning’s Observer column.

‘Hewlett-Packard to lay off 27,000 employees,” said the headline, prompting a grimace from this columnist. For while it’s great fun to observe a smart-ass startup such as Facebook screw up (as it appears it did with its IPO), it’s quite another to see one of the world’s great technology companies apparently entering a death spiral. What you need to understand is that for geeks of my generation, HP was a synonym for engineering excellence in the same way that Rolls-Royce is for aero-engine designers. And what makes it worse is that most of HP’s wounds were self-inflicted.

So it was with a sinking heart that I dug out the transcript of the internal video that HP’s newish CEO, Meg Whitman, sent to her 350,000 staff, announcing the job cuts and other measures she is taking. Having read it, I came away thinking that not only does Meg get it, but that she might even turn this supertanker round…

Taming the email monster

This morning’s Observer column.

Email has become the central communications channel of all modern organisations, to the point where none of them could now function without it. But there’s increasing evidence – both anecdotal and empirical – that it has become dysfunctional. It eats into people’s working and thinking time, for example, distracts them from doing “real” work and generates guilt feelings that ratchet up stress levels to unsustainable levels.

In the old world of desktop PCs, you could at least leave it behind when you left the office. But the advent of the smartphone changed all that. Email has now infiltrated leisure time, family time – even sleep time. It’s become a monster that’s destroying our lives.

Deep down, most of us know this. But we daren’t talk about it out loud, for fear of seeming inadequate…

The tyranny of hindsight

This morning’s Observer column about Kodak’s demise.

A good way of inoculating yourself from the wisdom of hindsight is to read Clayton Christensen’s seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is the best explanation we have of why and how successful firms can be undermined by disruptive innovations – even when they appear to be doing everything right: listening to their customers, watching the marketplace, and investing in research and development.The really sobering thought to emerge from Christensen’s book is that good decisions by great managers can still lead to corporate disaster. The reason is that while big companies are often good at fostering “sustaining” innovations – ones that enhance their positions in established markets – they are generally hopeless at dealing with innovations that completely disrupt those markets.So the question that Kodak’s demise raises in my mind is this: would any of us have done any better in 1976 after our R&D guys had come up with an idea that would cannibalise our core business and reduce our margins to near zero?

Notes from an MBA reunion

Lovely piece by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic about the 10-year reunion of her University of Chicago MBA class.

I have a theory about what happened to us, and our nation: when too much money is piled together in one place, it starts to decay, and as it does, it emits some sort of unidentified chemical that short-circuits the parts of your brain controlling common sense. When my class matriculated in 1999, ads for a firm called Discover Brokerage featured a tow-truck driver whose passenger notices in the cab a picture of the home—an island—that the driver has purchased with his fabulous online-trading profits. The passenger looks taken aback while the driver muses, “Technically, it’s a country.”

What’s even more amazing than the fact that this ad was ever made is that this sort of triple-distilled balderdash could intoxicate a large group of very smart people at one of the nation’s top finance schools.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: none of us was simpleminded enough to take those ads literally. Oh, ho-ho, no, not us! No, we made only the most erudite and sophisticated sorts of mistakes, like gang-rushing banking internships, and telling ourselves we were “consumption smoothing” as we used student loans to finance vacations. Believe it or not, many of us talked frequently about the echoes of 1929—but we still didn’t necessarily act on that insight, as the markets cratered in the early 2000s.

For my summer 2000 internship at Merrill Lynch, I chose the technology-banking group despite having watched the March 2000 NASDAQ crash from the lobby of Merrill’s auditorium, where we were supposed to be undergoing orientation. Ignoring the helpless, angry flapping of the HR staff, a bunch of us spent the afternoon telling nervous jokes and watching the eerie flicker that billions of dollars give off when they evaporate on live TV.

Predictably, the technology-banking group had almost no work. Also, I was not a good fit with Merrill’s very conservative, very competitive culture. I felt as if I’d decided to intern with a mathematically gifted baboon tribe, and I’m sure they were just as puzzled by me. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get a full-time offer. Having learned my lesson, I very sensibly turned around and took a full-time job upon graduation at … a technology-strategy consultancy. I got laid off even before the bankers.

I love that metaphor of Merrill Lynch staff as “a mathematically gifted baboon tribe”. But I’ve been reading Michael Lewis’s wonderful book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and as a result I would delete the “gifted” part and just stick with the baboons. Except that that’s a bit hard on baboons. And they live in troops, not tribes.

The SOPA opera

Last Sunday’s Observer column.

The key to survival – in business as in the jungle – is to be able to learn from your mistakes. The strange thing is that some industries haven’t yet figured that out. Chief among them are the so-called “content” industries – the ones represented by huge multimedia corporations which own movie studios, record labels and publishing houses.

Every 20 years or so, technology throws up a challenge to these industries. When audio cassettes arrived, for example, the music industry fought tooth and nail to have the technology outlawed or crippled. Why? Because it would encourage “piracy”. What happened? The record labels wound up making lots of money from cassettes as well as records.

Then along came the video recorder, and the movie industry fought it tooth and nail because it was the handmaiden of the devil – on account of facilitating “piracy”. What happened? Same story: it turned out that the studios were able to make tons of money from videocassettes, because films continued to sell long after they had disappeared from cinemas.

Since then the story has been repeated at least twice more – with DVDs and portable MP3 players. So you’d think that the penny would have dropped in what might loosely be called the minds of those who run the content industries. The lesson is that new technologies that look like threats can become glorious opportunities. But there’s still no evidence that media moguls have grasped that simple idea.

Rage against the machine

Good editorial in this week’s Economist. Excerpt:

To the man-in-the-street, all this smacks of a system that has failed. Neither of the main Western models has much political credit at the moment. European social democracy promised voters benefits that societies can no longer afford. The Anglo-Saxon model claimed that free markets would create prosperity; many voters feel instead that they got a series of debt-fuelled asset bubbles and an economy that was rigged in favour of a financial elite, who took all the proceeds in the good times and then left everybody else with no alternative other than to bail them out. To use one of the protesters’ better slogans, the 1% have gained at the expense of the 99%.

If the grievances are more legitimate and broader than previous rages against the machine, then the dangers are also greater. Populist anger, especially if it has no coherent agenda, can go anywhere in times of want. The 1930s provided the most terrifying example. A more recent (and less frightening) case study is the tea party. The justified fury of America’s striving middle classes against a cumbersome state has in practice translated into a form of obstructive nihilism: nothing to do with taxes can get through Washington, including tax reform.