Sunday 5 July, 2020


In the garden, this evening.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Quote of the Day

You may have lost interest in the pandemic. It has not lost interest in you.

  • The Economist

Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ is Roosevelt lite

This morning’s Observercolumn:

It’s back to the future time again. Boris Johnson is trying to wrap himself in the cape of Franklin Roosevelt and his famous New Deal, while his consigliere, Cummings, wants to go back to the 1950s and reboot Britain by building an imitation of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa – later Darpa, with the D standing for defence).

Both projects have touching aspects of romanticism, ignorance and absurdity. In relation to Johnson’s FDR tribute band, his proposed £5bn splash on infrastructure comes to about 0.2% of GDP, whereas Roosevelt’s New Deal was estimated to be worth 40% of US national income in 1929. Roosevelt built dams, housing, roads and bridges across America. He restored the banking system, set up the Securities and Exchange Commission, encouraged trade unions. From 1933, his public works administration built the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, the Grand Coulee Dam and completed the Hoover Dam. Roosevelt instituted a minimum wage and maximum hours in certain businesses and asserted the right of workers to organise. For his part, Johnson will be refurbishing schools and repairing bridges – both good in their way, but on a minuscule scale. And he doesn’t seem to have any plans for reining in the City or for encouraging workers’ rights. So his Roosevelt rhetoric is basically back-of-the-envelope hogwash.

What, then, of Cummings, back from his victory tour of the north-east?

Read on

Here’s a salutary suggestion

Watch Trump’s Inaugural Address with the benefit of hindsight. Sensitive souls may need to keep a sickbag handy. But in the light of what we now know, it’s a really instructive way of spending 16 minutes. Interestingly, the speech is well delivered; Trump’s speaking style has noticeably deteriorated since then, so the comparison is striking. My hunch is that the speech was written by Steve Bannon, who at that stage was playing the role for Trump that Dominic Cummings now plays for Boris Johnson.

A rare bird: a tech CEO with moral courage

Patrick Collison, the co-founder of the online-payments company Stripe, is one of the most interesting people in the tech world. Also, he appears to have a functioning conscience.

Covid simulations by Japanese supercomputer have bad news for open-plan offices

Simulation video available here.

The bottom line: plexiglass screens don’t guarantee your safety.

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Monday 29 June, 2020

The path not taken

From a walk yesterday.

Whenever I walk in a wood I find myself thinking of Robert Frost.

EasY does it: just don’t check the bank statements

I’ve always thought that the big consulting firms are basically frauds, but I thought they could probably do audits. Seems I was wrong.

According to the FT,

EY between 2016 and 2018 did not check directly with Singapore’s OCBC Bank to confirm that the lender held large amounts of cash on behalf of Wirecard. Instead, EY relied on documents and screenshots provided by a third-party trustee and Wirecard itself.

A senior auditor at another firm said that obtaining independent confirmation of bank balances was “equivalent to day-one training at audit school”.

Hopefully, investors in Wirecard will now sue EY into the ground.

Maybe I will be an auditor when I grow up, on the grounds that I could at least spot when 1.9 billion Euro was missing.

Legal vetting

The Harvard Gazette has an intriguing interview with the great constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe, who’s about to retire. He started as a mathematician (going to Harvard at the edge of 16) and then switched to Law. Like many young legal high-flyers, after graduation he clerked for a Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart. There’s an hilarious excerpt in the interview about this:

Q: Were you able to get to know any of the other justices besides Stewart?

A: Yes. I got to know Marshall quite well and [Earl] Warren less well. I remember a hilarious experience with [John Marshall] Harlan, in particular. In those days, the Supreme Court had its own theory that explicit sexual material could be banned if it was sufficiently hardcore, whatever that meant. Stewart famously said, ‘I can’t define hardcore pornography, but I know it when I see it.’ And I asked him once, “Have you ever seen it?” And he said, “Yes, just once, off the coast of Algiers.” (Laughs) I could never find out more than that.

We used to go to the basement of the court to watch porno flicks because the court was in a phase where it would just have to judge — thumbs up or thumbs down — either this is hardcore pornography and can be banned, or it’s not. They had no criteria. They just basically looked at the movies. Harlan was going blind, and so he had Thurgood Marshall narrate the films. “Oh, he’s doing that? You’ve got to be kidding!” That was the screening process.

Much more interesting than I expected. I can see why his students (including Barack Obama) loved him.

Quarantine diary — Day 100

Final episode!


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Sunday 28 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

In 1990, the top three carmakers in Detroit had a market capitalization of $36 billion and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the top three firms in Silicon Valley, with a market capitalization of over $1 trillion, had only 137,000 employees.

A family outing

A scene from our walk yesterday evening. Think of it as my homage to John Constable! The Canada geese goslings have grown at an extraordinary rate. And it was very considerate of them and their parents to swim in such a straight line.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money?

This morning’s Observer column:

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea…

Read on

Thinking of moving to the US? Listen to this first

Stunning The Daily podcast on what’s been going on in Texas.

Made me realise I didn’t know the half of it.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton interviewed by Der Spiegel

Link. Interesting throughout. For example:

DER SPIEGEL: What has caused this mass-despair in white, middle-class life?

Deaton: Look at the labor market, at wages. Life-time jobs and the meaning that comes from a life like that is very important. Roles for men and women are defined by it, as is their place in the community. It’s almost like Marx: Social conditions depend on the means of production. And these means of production are being brought down by globalization, by automation, by the incredible force of health care. And that’s destroying communities.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet where there are losers, there should be winners as well. Who is to blame for this development?

Deaton: Many people have said that there are two ways of getting rich: One way is by making things, and the other is by taking things. And one of the ways of taking things is to make the government give you special favors. Those special favors don’t create anything, but they can make you rich, at the expense of everybody else.

Case: For instance, the pharma companies get a law passed that Medicare has to pay for drugs at whatever price the pharma companies choose. Or the doctors’ lobby doesn’t allow as many people to go to medical school, which helps to keep doctors salaries up. That’s one of the reasons why doctors are the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you argue that those in the top 1 percent are peculiarly prone to rent seeking?

Deaton: No, but many people are in the 1 percent because of rent seeking. This mechanism is creating a lot of very wealthy people who would not be wealthy if the government hadn’t given them a license to rip off the rest. We’re not among the people who think of inequality as a causal force. It’s rent-seeking opportunities that create inequality.

DER SPIEGEL: How do the losers of this development react politically?

Deaton: Well, many of them like Donald Trump (laughs)!

I’ve just got their book.

If you thought that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was dead and buried (I did), then think again.

Astonishing — and depressing — NYT story.


Quarantine diary — Day 99


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Friday 12 June, 2020

Edward Hopper

Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning.

There’s a marvellous piece, “Edward Hopper and American Solitude”, by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker , based on an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s landscape painting currently on show in the Beyeler Foundation, Switzerland’s premier museum of modern art, outside Basel. “Though termed a realist”, Schjeldahl writes,

Hopper is more properly a Symbolist, investing objective appearance with clenched, melancholy subjectivity. He was an able draftsman and masterly as a painter of light and shadow, but he ruthlessly subordinated aesthetic pleasure to the compacted description—as dense as uranium—of things that answered to his feelings without exposing them. Nearly every house that he painted strikes me as a self-portrait, with brooding windows and almost never a visible or, should one be indicated, inviting door. If his pictures sometimes seem awkwardly forced, that’s not a flaw; it’s a guarantee that he has pushed the communicative capacities of painting to their limits, then a little bit beyond. He leaves us alone with our own solitude, taking our breath away and not giving it back. Regarding his human subjects as “lonely” evades their truth. We might freak out if we had to be those people, but—look!—they’re doing O.K., however grim their lot. Think of Samuel Beckett’s famous tag “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Now delete the first sentence. With Hopper, the going-on is not a choice.

Lovely. I wish I could see the exhibition. The Gallery website has a few of the pictures online

Imagine hearing this in your living room


Norah Jones has been giving concerts from her living room on YouTube. This is an excerpt from one of them. They’re absolutely entrancing, and I only learned about them by chance from a piece by Paul Elie in the New Yorker.

She has been writing new songs in response to the present. “My six-year-old has been waking up in the middle of the night for three months now, and I walk him back to his room and sit and wait for him to fall back asleep,” she told me. “I try not to look at my phone in the dead of night, but I was reading about all the things that are happening. A song will come to you, sometimes, and one came to me.” She played it right after the Ellington piece in last week’s show. It’s a cross between a street scene and a lullaby, focussed on the need to “love, listen, and learn.” Unidentified on YouTube, it sounded like a standard that Nina Simone might have sung — the sound of an artist trying to keep it together in a time of protest.

Unmissable. This is the kind of discovery that can makes one’s day.

Footnote for ageing hippies She is the daughter of Sue Jones and Ravi Shankar, who had a big influence on George Harrison and, through him, the other members of the Beatles.

The worst worst case

As some countries are beginning to ‘re-open’ their economies because they seem to have the pandemic under some kind of control, I can understand the ubiquitous longing to get back to normal. Sadly, I don’t think that’s realistic for the time being. In fact it may be that we are only the beginning of the crisis. That’s because we’re in a cascade of inter-related crises: one is a health, which is what has been grabbing most of the attention up to now; then there’s a looming economic crisis; and thirdly there’s political upheaval and culture warfare sparked by the murder of George Floyd. And, of course, for the UK there’s the added crisis attendant upon crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Now the economic impact of the pandemic is beginning to surface.

This is a picture of a particular economy falling off a cliff.

But actually, there’s a worse global scenario — that the banking system implodes again. This is the scenario outlined by Frank Portnoy from UC Berkeley in a long essay in The Atlantic. At the root of it is the addiction of the banks to a new kind of pernicious derivative product — collateralised loan obligations (CLOs).

“The financial crisis of 2008 was about home mortgages”, he writes.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to home buyers were repackaged into securities called collateralized debt obligations, known as CDOs. In theory, CDOs were intended to shift risk away from banks, which lend money to home buyers. In practice, the same banks that issued home loans also bet heavily on CDOs, often using complex techniques hidden from investors and regulators. When the housing market took a hit, these banks were doubly affected. In late 2007, banks began disclosing tens of billions of dollars of subprime-CDO losses. The next year, Lehman Brothers went under, taking the economy with it.

The post-2008 reforms were well intentioned, says Portnoy, but…

They haven’t kept the banks from falling back into old, bad habits. After the housing crisis, subprime CDOs naturally fell out of favor. Demand shifted to a similar—and similarly risky—instrument, one that even has a similar name: the CLO, or collateralized loan obligation. A CLO walks and talks like a CDO, but in place of loans made to home buyers are loans made to businesses—specifically, troubled businesses. CLOs bundle together so-called leveraged loans, the subprime mortgages of the corporate world. These are loans made to companies that have maxed out their borrowing and can no longer sell bonds directly to investors or qualify for a traditional bank loan. There are more than $1 trillion worth of leveraged loans currently outstanding. The majority are held in CLOs.

It’s a long story, but the analogy with CDOs ie helpful. At the bottom of every CDO were sub-prime mortgages which had a high probability of default. At the bottom of every CLO are loans to companies which are in dire straits — and which were always in danger of failing even before Covid struck. But now many of them are terminally affected by the lockdown and are unlikely to return. So the CLOs for which they represented a manageable risk might suddenly start to look dodgy. And you can guess what would happen then.

The difference from 2008 is that national economies and central banks will not have the financial muscle to do another bailout.

Not a cheery read, but I think it’s important to get a perspective on the crisis we’re in.

US ‘policing’ is indeed disgraceful, but the UK has its problems too

Remember the Stephen Lawrence case — the inquiry into which confirmed that there was systemic institutional racism in the Metropolitan police.

People in glasshouses…

Europe resurfaces to find an odd mix of the familiar and the alien

This is wonderful. The New York Times sent a writer (Patrick Kingsley) and a photographer (Laetitia Vancon) to drive through Europe recording what they found. The result is an unmissable photo-essay, a reminder of the heyday of Life and the other mid-century news-magazines.

It also reminds me of the trip that Walker Evans and James Agee made in 1936 to report on the lives of poor sharecroppers in the Deep South which resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.


The peer-reviewing crisis widens and deepens

Long and thoughtful essay by Milton Packer on the looming crisis in scientific publication processes.

Packer has been vocal for a long time on the deficiencies of peer-review. Long before the pandemic he has been criticising its capriciousness (as Rodney Brooks did in his essay that I blogged about yesterday), its biases towards supporting accepted dogma, the lack of consistent quality in the review process, and perverse incentives in editorial decision making.

He thinks — rightly IMHO — that these weaknesses of the peer-review process have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. To put it crudely, here’s been a kind of academic feeding frenzy. But Packer sees the recent scandal of the retraction of two papers published in leading journals as

a real opportunity for us to reinvent peer review. We needed to do so before the pandemic; we desperately need to do so now. We must implement changes that will provide confidence in the validity of published work, and we need to revamp and strengthen the peer-review and editorial decision-making processes. The FDA imposes severe penalties on site investigators who submit fabricated data; many journal editors follow a similar policy. Fear of a potentially career-ending ban on publications in leading journals will certainly motivate most corresponding authors to perform the exceptionally high level of due diligence that is needed to restore the trust that the review process desperately depends on.

If academic medicine does not make these changes, then we only have ourselves to blame when the credibility of medical research in the public’s view crumbles.


Quarantine diary Day 83


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Thursday 11 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

If blogging didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. “People writing what they know, fluidly, publicly, with an archive for the future.” That’s it.

Walker Evans’s M2

(Apologies in advance to non-photographers)

Now there’s a properly used Leica. It belonged to the renowned American photographer Walker Evans, who bought it in 1962 and used it for as long as he used the 35mm format, i.e. until 1973 (when he began to use a Polaroid SX-70 almost exclusively). He gave the M2 as a gift to a personal and professional assistant, who has now put it up for auction. Starting bid €20,000. Auctioneer’s estimate: €40k-€50k.

Crazy prices, really. Wonder if it’ll make anywhere near that.

On the other hand, there are a lot of photographs made with that camera in museums and galleries worldwide — though they’re not from the period when Walker worked for the Farm Security Administration. For those assignments he used a range of bigger cameras including a heavy large-format 10×8 camera. Later on I think he used Rolleiflexes.

This is probably his most famous photograph, a portrait of the 27-year-old Allie Mae Burroughs, taken in 1936, when he was reporting for Fortune magazine on sharecroppers in the Deep South alongside the writer James Agee. This work was published in 1941 as the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The photograph is in the public domain. I think the original print is in the Library of Congress.

On the face of it, it’s such a simple picture. But you can see the stress of Depression-era farm life etched on this young woman’s face. So it speaks volumes.

I don’t think Evans ever saw himself as an artist. In his view he just pointed his camera and recorded things, as this video records:


My first Leica was also an M2 (chrome, not black) which I bought in the year that Evans stopped using his; I bought it from an antiquarian bookseller and financed it partly by selling a couple of rare books that I had picked up in a house clearance.

More on ‘Sabbath mode’…

Yesterday’s post about the challenges posed by the Coronavirus for elevator manufacturers mentioned the idea of ‘Sabbath mode’, where the elevator stops at every floor automatically.

This sparked a lovely email from Dave Hill, an esteemed former colleague of mine, who pointed me to a post by a commenter on Richard Dawkin’s blog.

I just bought my second refrigerator. The first one lasted 28 years. I think they forgot the redundancy. The new one has something called Sabbath Mode. Someone on the internet suggested that means it plays Black Sabbath when you open the doors. Alas no. It means special settings to accommodate Orthodox Jewish superstitions about not being able to turn electricity off and on during the Sabbath.

Some immediate questions spring to mind: Will my refrigerator keep bacon OK ? Can it be opened by a menstruating women or will it just go into auto clean mode ? Is there a Pope setting so that it won’t keep treats during Lent ? Is there an Islamic fridge that doesn’t cool beer ?

More serious questions. Am I right to be vaguely annoyed by this ? It’s clearly not the most pressing issue in the world. But like finding I’m in a building with no 13th floor it irritates me.

Maybe I should just chill.

My recommendation: chill.

Rodney Brooks on peer-review

As someone who believes that peer-review is useful but over-rated and often wrongly fetishised by both the academy and journalism, I was much cheered by this wonderful essay by Rodney Books, the great MIT roboticist. His three most influential academic papers, he recalls, were all rejected by reviewers and remained unpublished until journal editors eventually saw the light.

The piece has a lovely reproduction of the handwritten excoriation of his “However, I was worried at a deeper intellectual level, and so almost simultaneously started writing about the philosophical underpinnings of research in AI, and how my approach differed. There the reviews were more brutal.

This was a a review of lab memo AIM-899, Achieving Artificial Intelligence through Building Robots”.

And just in case readers find it difficult to decipher, he provides a print version:

This paper is an extended, wandering complaint that the world does not view the author’s work as the salvation of mankind.

There is no scientific content here; little in the way of reasoned argument, as opposed to petulant assertions and non-sequiturs; and ample evidence of ignorance of the literature on these questions. The only philosopher cited is Dreyfus–but many of the issues raised have been treated more intelligibly by others (the chair definition problem etc. by Wittgenstein and many successors; the interpreted toy proscription by Searle; the modularity question by Fodor; the multiple behaviors ideas by Tinbergen; and the constructivist approach by Glymour (who calls it computational positivism). The argument about evolution leaks all over, and the discussion on abstraction indicates the author has little understand of analytic thought and scientific investigation.

Ages afterwards the paper was published unchanged but with a new title, “Intelligence without representation” in Artificial Intelligence Journal [vol 47, 1991, pp. 139–159], the mainstream journal of the field, and it now has 6,900 citations.

Brooks’s response to those initial reverses were typical: he pasted copies of the negative reviews to his office door in MIT!

As well as his experiences of peer-review as an author, he also reflects on his experience as an editor of a scholarly journal. In 1987 he co-founded the International Journal of Computer Vision, which is now in its 128th volume, and has had many hundreds of issues. The journal has a very strong reputation and consistently ranks in the top handful of places to publish in computer vision. Brooks co-edited the first seven volumes — a total of twenty eight issues.

Here’s what he learned:

1 Purely theoretical papers with lots of equations and no experiments involving processing an image were much more likely to get accepted than a paper which did have experimental results. “I attributed this”, says Brooks, “to people being unduly impressed by mathematics (I had a degree in pure mathematics and was not as easily impressed by equations and complex notation). I suspected that many times the reviewers did not fully read and understand the mathematics as many of them had very few comments about the contents of such papers”.

2 “One particular reviewer would always read the mathematics in detail, and would always find things to critique about the more mathematical papers. This seemed good. Real peer review. But soon I realized that he would always recommend rejection. No paper was ever up to his standard”.

3 Certain reviewers would always say accept. So, “it was just a matter of me picking the right three referees for almost any paper and I could know whether the majority of reviewers would recommend acceptance or rejection before I had even sent the paper off to be reviewed”.

4 “I came to realize”,he writes, “that the editor’s job was real, and it required me to deeply understand the topic of the paper, and the biases of the reviewers, and not to treat the referees as having the right to determine the fate of the paper themselves. As an editor I had to add judgement to the process at many steps along the way, and to strive for the process to improve the papers, but also to let in ideas that were new”.

I wish more journalists reading (or mis-reading) Covid-19 papers understood this. And that they they realised that science is, at its best, organised scepticism. Which of course is why it’s so infuriating for politicians who want to claim that they are “following” it.

Brooks’s essay is terrific from beginning to end. Well worth a read.

Quarantine diary — Day 82


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Wednesday 10 June, 2020

Bedtime by the lake

This evening, 21:00 hrs.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

What a real mudslide looks like

This you’ve just got to see.

The elevator problem

(Actually, we would call it the lift problem, but still…)

From The Elevator Arises As The Latest Logjam In Getting Back To Work:

Once the epitome of efficiency for moving masses of people quickly to where they needed to go, the elevator is the antithesis of social distancing and a risk-multiplying bottleneck. As America begins to open up, the newest conundrum for employers in cities is how to safely transport people in elevators and manage the crowd of people waiting for them.

If office tower workers want to stay safe, elevator experts think they have advice, some practical, some not: Stay in your corner, face the walls and carry toothpicks (for pushing the buttons). Not only have those experts gone back to studying mathematical models for moving people, but they are also creating technology like ultraviolet-light disinfection tools and voice-activated panels.

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t thought of this problem. Maybe because, in the pre-pandemic era, I work(ed) in low-rise buildings.

Other product offerings in the works include calling the elevator via cellphone, antiviral stickers for elevator buttons, lobby concierge-run elevators, express service for each elevator ride, ultraviolet-light HVAC purification systems and even elevator buttons that riders can activate with their feet, their voice or hand gestures.

To reduce the need to touch buttons, Otis’ Smith said, elevators could be placed into “Sabbath service” mode, where they automatically go to each and every floor — a service offered for decades for those whose religion dictates they not operate electrical devices on certain days.

Don’t you just love the idea of “Sabbath mode”?

What happened at Lafayette Square to clear the ground for Trump’s bible stunt.

Amazing reconstruction by the Washington Post. Great journalism.

12 minutes long. Worth it.

The diffference between Nixon and Trump

Longish, thoughtful post by Larry Lessig. This bit really struck me:

Here’s the picture of a democracy coming to understand a fundamental truth — that Nixon was a crook, and had to go. The relevant dynamic in this picture is the correlation in the change in attitudes between Republicans and Democrats: Both lost confidence at the same time.

And here’s the equivalent chart for now.

This is what polarisation looks like.

Quarantine diary — Day 81


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Tuesday 9 June, 2020

The bee-loud glade

In our garden, this afternoon.

The inside story of the Dyson electric car that wasn’t

This detailed account in Autocar of James Dyson’s project (eventually abandoned) to design and build an electric car is riveting. He allegedly blew £2.5B of his own money on it. The project was abandoned when he concluded it would be impossible to make money, even on a car costing £150,000. But it had a 600-mile range, which meant that for their £150k owners wouldn’t be much bothered by battery range. And it was clearly aimed at the top end of the Chinese market. Lots of fascinating detail in the piece if — like me — you are interested in design, including the case for very large-diameter wheels. But the bit I like best comes at the end:

When a billionaire builds a car that carries his own name, one question rises above all others: what cars do you already own? It turns out that, following “a Ferrari period which I greatly enjoyed” and aside from “a small collection of Land Rovers”, Sir James Dyson’s favourite car is his 1970s Citroën SM – which, interestingly, is a long car with long-wheelbase, interconnected suspension that rides on big wheels, rather like his Hullavington creations.

“It was designed in the late 1960s,” Dyson says, “and what with the wonderful shape, the suspension and the swivelling headlights, it was incredibly futuristic. We have sleeping policemen to slow the traffic on several of our roads at Hullavington but you can take them at 50mph in the Citroën and hardly feel a thing. Mind you, there are some things about it that are very old-fashioned indeed. One is that its V6 engine produces a really wonderful throaty roar. Another is that it hardly ever starts first time…”

Full disclosure: I was a petrolhead once. And I thought the Citroen DS19 (an earlier model than the SM) was one of the most beautiful cars ever made.

Contact-tracing apps: the current list

Useful list and summary by Techcrunch.

Intellectual sectarianism within epidemiology

In his discussion of the science of COVID-19, the philosopher of medicine Jonathan Fuller recently wrote of two sects within epidemiology: public health epidemiologists who use diverse sources of data, and more skeptical clinical epidemiologists who privilege “gold standard” evidence. If we are to be successful in treating COVID-19, Fuller argued, then we need to blend the insights of each camp.

But for leading epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, this “bothsidesism” misdiagnoses the debate, which is more about the philosophy of action than the philosophy of evidence. The field is at its best when it synthesizes diverse methods, approaches, and forms of evidence from many branches of science—not when it believes that no evidence is not quite good enough. “Of course more data the better,” he writes. But the coronavirus pandemic requires urgent decisions “that must be made with the evidence we’ve got.”

I particularly like this passage in Lipsitch’s essay:

Fuller sees in the contrast two “competing philosophies” of scientific practice. One, he says, is characteristic of public health epidemiologists like me, who are “methodologically liberal and pragmatic” and use models and diverse sources of data. The other, he explains, is characteristic of clinical epidemiologists like Stanford’s John Ioannidis, who draw on a tradition of skepticism about medical interventions in the literature of what has been known since the 1980s as “evidence-based medicine,” privilege “gold standard” evidence from randomized controlled trials (as opposed to mere “data”), and counsel inaction until a certain ideal form of evidence—Evidence with a capital E—justifies intervening.

I keep coming back to the BS about the inefficacy of face masks allegedly justified by the absence of ‘gold-standard’ evidence with which we were routinely regaled to in the early months of the Covid outbreak in the UK.

Quarantine diary — Day 80


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Tuesday 2 June, 2020

Guinea rose

In the garden, this afternoon. Click on the image to see a larger one.

Lunch with Rutger Bregman — outspoken historian and scourge of Davos

Fascinating conversation (which I’m hoping is not behind the paywall) with the ever-interesting Simon Kuper. If you haven’t read Bergman, this this is the time to start. His Utopia for Realists is terrific. I’ve just ordered his Humankind: A Hopeful History.

Bregman at Davos


This is the YouTube recording that went viral (excuse the pun) a while back.

The enduring romance of the night train

Truly lovely New Yorker essay by Anthony Lane.

The departure of a night train—by definition, a humdrum event for the station staff—exudes, for all but the most jaded travellers, the thrill of an unfamiliar ritual. By day, if late, you run for a train; if early, you tut and sigh at having to tarry so long. At night, on the other hand, you saunter, and deliberately show up in good time. Why? Not because of security, passport control, or the other chores that affront the airline passenger, shortening tempers and sapping every soul, but because you want to settle in and enjoy the show. Patiently, the train awaits you, with a theatrical air of suspense, and the moment of its leaving is akin to the curtain’s rise. T. S. Eliot, for one, knew the moment well:

There’s a whisper down the line at 11:39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart

If, like me, you’re dreaming about being able to travel again, one day, then this is for you.

Tech nations

A perceptive project by Tortoise, an interesting new slow-journalism outfit. Funded by a membership scheme. Their idea: to look at the tech giants as if they were nation-states. First study was of Apple. Second-up The United States of Amazon.

Keep your distance: 2m is much better than 1m; and face masks are also useful

Keeping people 2m apart from each other is far more effective than just one at reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus, according to a new review in The Lancet. The risk of infection when people stand one metre away is 3%, compared with 13% if standing within a metre. The risk of transmission halves for every extra metre of distancing up to three metres, the modelling suggested. The researchers also found that both face coverings and eye protection significantly reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Well, we kind-of guessed that already (especially about face-masks) but it’s nice to have empirical confirmation.

This is online learning’s moment. For universities, it’s a total mess

The next year is going to be a torrid year for universities everywhere. This Wired story spells it out in gory detail.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, virtual classes are here to stay. They solve the problem of packed lecture halls and hallways that aren’t designed for social distancing – and are also far cheaper to run. But not many people want to pay almost £10,000 a year for the privilege of attending Zoom calls. Many UK universities are bracing for a gaping hole in their budgets as they expect fewer students to turn up in the autumn. A survey found that one in five people were willing to delay their undergraduate degrees if universities were not operating as normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. With 120,000 fewer students starting in September, UK universities could face a £760 million loss of income in tuition fees.

The University of Manchester, which has announced plans to keep lectures online-only in the autumn term, is already preparing for the worst. On April 23, vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell told staff that redundancies and pay cuts may be necessary if 80 per cent of students from outside the EU and 20 per cent of UK and EU students decided to stay defer or drop out. In the worst-case scenario, the university could lose up to £270m in a single year – a 15 to 25 per cent deficit.

The University of Cambridge (where I work) has decided that the 2020-21 academic year will be entirely online. It’s hard to say how this will work out, but it could be a shrewd decision because it offers an opportunity for teaching staff to really prepare for an online year — rather than having frantically to cobble something together, as they have been doing this year.

For undergraduate teaching in some subjects, Cambridge (and Oxford) may be in a good position to make this work. This is partly because lectures are only one of the teaching media offered in those two universities. Undergraduates also get tutored in small-group teaching organised by their colleges. I’m pretty sure that some humanities students in the past have obtained good degrees without ever attending a university lecture in Cambridge. (Stephen Fry may be one of them, if I’ve read his memoir correctly.) So Cambridge can have online lectures that are better designed than being just re-purposed face-to-face ones; and the college tutorial system can work online, because, for example, Zoom is pretty good for small-group seminar-type teaching which can mimic the current system.

But that only applies to the Humanities and Social Sciences. For engineering, materials science, chemistry, biology and similar disciplines laboratory experience is pretty crucial. Maybe that can be reorganised with social distancing. But it’ll be harder to do.

And of course, looming over this, is the question of whether students will be willing to incur substantial debt accruing from £10,000 fees for a purely online experience? Maybe they will for some universities, because of the value of the “positional goods” provided by elite institutions. But for other, perfectly respectable but non-elite schools…? I wonder.

But while we’re on the subject of universities in peril…

The University of Texas at Arlington has a free edX course for teachers who need to switch to teaching online. It “explores research-informed, effective practices for online teaching and learning, providing guidance on how to pivot existing courses online while enhancing student success and engagement”. I know the research of some of the people involved and think it might be worth considering… And while target audience is obviously people working in post-secondary institutions, the course could conceivably be of use to anyone moving into online teaching and learning.

Quarantine diary — Day 73


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Monday 1 June, 2020

Lighting-up time

Click on the image for a larger version.

Let’s get rid of peer-review

Radical proposal  by Alex Danco.

Several months ago I wrote a post called Can Twitter save science? which tackled what I see is the heart of the problem: the interconnected relationship between scientific publishing and academic career advancement. If you never read that post, read it first – it’s important context for how I feel about this issue generally, and what I see are the big issues we need to fix.

Since then, something really big happened! Covid happened. And it matters to this issue for two reasons. First, universities everywhere are going to face an enormous budget crunch, all at the same time, and that could provide the coordinated crisis that prompts university libraries to all capitulate on paying expensive journal subscription fees that they can no longer afford. Capitulation like this works best when everyone stops paying all at once, but prior to Covid, it was hard to imagine what single event could possibly coordinate everyone together like this. Well, we found one.

This is a long piece about a complex topic, but it’s important. The academic journal publishing racket is just that — a racket. And peer-reviewing, is an overly-worshipped quality-control mechanism. The extraordinary torrent of Coronavirus-related research now being published and pre-published has overwhelmed the system. Maybe this crisis will lead to structural change.

The Coronavirus War Economy Will Change the World

Nick Mulder’s Foreign Policy article.

When societies shift their economies to a war footing, it doesn’t just help them survive a crisis—it alters them forever.

The resourcefulness of wartime economies offers a useful template for thinking about the broader context of the coronavirus crisis. Mounting a serious campaign to mitigate climate change demands a response so large that many of the virus response measures are just a start. Despite calls for a return to normality, it is difficult to imagine the post-pandemic world economy, whatever it looks like, as a restoration of any sort. Even if the virus subsides in several months or years from now, the larger state of exception in policymaking and collective action to which it already belongs is unlikely to end.

Twentieth-century war economies played an important role in allowing the peacetime economies that followed them to flourish. The key now will be to draw on their lessons of solidarity and inventiveness as the coronavirus confronts the 21st-century world economy with a new kind of warlike hazard.

Maureen Dowd: Think Outside the Box, Jack

Advice to the Twitter boss: throw Ttump off the platform.

You could answer the existential question of whether @realDonaldTrump even exists if he doesn’t exist on Twitter. I tweet, therefore I am. Dorsey meets Descartes.

All it would take is one sweet click to force the greatest troll in the history of the internet to meet his maker. Maybe he just disappears in an orange cloud of smoke, screaming, “I’m melllllllting.”

Do Trump — and the world — a favor and send him back into the void whence he came. And then go have some fun: Meditate and fast for days on end!

But first hire some ex-Navy Seals. And buy a bullet-proof limo. There are a lot of armed Trump-supporting nutters out there.

Sars, Ebola and Mers were near misses that led us to believe Covid-19 would pass us by too

Terrific New Statesman piece by Ian Leslie. Points out the difference between industries like airlines and nuclear power that have to take near-misses seriously.

In industries that have to be vigilant for risks of disaster, such as aviation or nuclear energy, “near misses” are treated as flashing red lights. When a plane almost misses its landing or a factory explosion is narrowly averted, investigations are made, processes revised: just because the disaster did not occur it does not mean it won’t next time.

But near misses can also breed complacency.

To learn from a near miss, Leslie says, you first have to recognise it as one. In the past 20 years,

there have been a series of viral outbreaks: Sars in 2002-03, H5N1 (bird flu) in 2006, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009, Ebola in 2013, Mers in 2015. Each briefly threatened to become a pandemic, before subsiding. Western governments took this to mean that Covid-19 would go the same way. If Singapore, China and Taiwan were better prepared for this virus than the UK, it’s because officials there knew, in their bones, that those outbreaks might have wreaked far greater damage.

The mistake was that Western governments thought that these near-misses were because the epidemics died out. They didn’t: they were stopped by rapid and effective action.

Reading his piece, I fell to wondering if the early ‘herd immunity’ fantasies of Whitehall were based on this radical misunderstanding of these near-misses in the Far East.

Quarantine diary — Day 72


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Sunday 31 May, 2020


In the garden this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

A delight for crossword fiends and conspiracy theorists on subliminal messaging: “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives” is an anagram of “Easily survives travel north to castle”.

  • John Deval

Thoughts of the thoughtless

Eliot Weinberger’s list of the slogans on the protestors wanting end to the lockdown:

Signs at the many protests at state capitols against the lockdown, where crowds wave Confederate and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags and (legally) carry assault rifles:


In the ten days after the Republican governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, reopens gyms, spas, hair salons, tattoo parlours and other essential services, confirmed coronavirus cases in the state rise by 42 per cent.

Twitter taking on Trump’s lies? About time too

My Observer column, out today:

In addition to washing your hands while singing the first two verses of The Internationale, it might be a good time also to clean out your Twitter feed. According to a recent report of a research study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems, about 45% of the false narratives about Covid-19 on Twitter are sent by bots.

The study examined more than 100 false Covid narratives (including the 5G conspiracy theories) pushed in over 200m tweets since January. If you’re a reader of this newspaper, the likelihood is that you never saw any of these. But that’s because you are – like me – cheerfully encased in your own filter bubble. I write with feeling on this matter, because on the morning after the Brexit referendum I went through the list of about 800 people whom I follow on Twitter, and I could not locate a single one who seemed to have been in favour of Brexit in the run-up to the vote. The shock felt by them after the vote was palpable. But it was also a salutary reminder that anyone who uses social media lives in a digital echo chamber. … But bots are not the only problem facing Twitter…

Read on

War Economics and the Crisis: a Conversation between Adam Tooze and Nicholas Mulder.


It’s long (80 minutes) but worth it if you want to get an historically-informed helicopter-view of what’s going on.

A report from inside the track-and-trace fiasco

Wonderful piece in the Observer by a member of Johnson’s “world-beating” track-and-trace team. Here’s a sample:

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The next morning I was worried, and feeling very unprepared. I felt the job was an important thing to do. But it was essential to get this right, and I didn’t really understand the role and how to use the systems. I logged in and saw a message saying I would be invited to a chatroom and to please wait.

I waited seven and a half hours (my entire shift). I called the HR helpline after about one hour and was told to relax – everyone is waiting.

The next day I was scheduled to work again. This time, I was invited to a chatroom. I recognised many of the names in the group from my training, so knew the other people were also new. Many people were writing, “Did anyone do anything yesterday?” “Do we just wait?” “What are we waiting for?”

The questions quickly turned to complaint, and we were left unsupervised for hours. A message then appeared asking us to complete our online training – which was met with a chorus of “I did the training”. The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response. You get the drift. Don’t fret. This operations will be running like clockwork by Christmas. If there is a Christmas, that is.


Quarantine diary — Day 72


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