Thursday 9 April, 2020

Pic of the Day

Madingley Hall, photographed recently.


Automated wisdom

A colleague received this automated response from a Brazilian academic he had emailed about edits to a journal article.

Let’s slow down and stay home. We cannot continue to live in the way we have been living. We have been working extra-hours and not doing the essential work. It’s time to say farewell to the productivist nightmare.

Amen.


E pluribus unum — the New York Phil’s tribute to healthcare workers

This time, it’s Ravel’s Bolero.

Link

This stuff is a wonderful by-product of the crisis. Also, a dazzling bit of video editing.

Thanks to Quentin for the link.


I’m not the only one doing a Quarantine Diary

But this one comes from a grimmer place.


The near-term future

A one-para summary from Tyler Cowen:

I don’t view “optimal length of shutdown” arguments compelling, rather it is about how much pain the political process can stand. I expect partial reopenings by mid-May, sometimes driven by governors in the healthier states, even if that is sub-optimal for the nation as a whole. Besides you can’t have all the banks insolvent because of missed mortgage payments. But R0 won’t stay below 1 for long, even if it gets there at all. We will then have to shut down again within two months, but will then reopen again a bit after that. At each step along the way, we will self-deceive rather than confront the level of pain involved with our choices. We may lose a coherent national policy on the shutdown issue altogether, not that we have one now. The pandemic yo-yo will hold. At some point antivirals or antibodies will kick in (read Scott Gottlieb), or here: “There are perhaps 4-6 drugs that could be available by Fall and have robust enough treatment effect to impact risk of another epidemic or large outbreaks after current wave passes. We should be placing policy bets on these likeliest opportunities.” We will then continue the rinse and repeat of the yo-yo, but with the new drugs and treatments on-line with a death rate at maybe half current levels and typical hospital stays at three days rather than ten. It will seem more manageable, but how eager will consumers be to resume their old habits? Eventually a vaccine will be found, but getting it to everyone will be slower than expected. The lingering uncertainty and “value of waiting,” due to the risk of second and third waves, will badly damage economies along the way.

Written with the US mainly in mind, but sounds relevant for the UK too.

Given that there’s no conclusive end in sight, the challenge will be how to live with the virus longer-term at lower intensities until a vaccine appears.


Shockwave: Adam Tooze on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy

Terrific analysis by a great contemporary historian of the impact of COVID-19. Long read, but well worth it. Not reassuring. Ends like this:

And once the crisis is over? What then? How do we imagine the restart? Before he was forced to retreat, Trump evoked the image of churches filling at Easter. Will the world economy rise from the dead? Are we going to rely once more on the genius of modern logistics and the techniques of dollar-finance to stitch the world economy back together again? It will be harder than before. Any fantasy of convergence that we might have entertained after the ‘fall of communism’ has surely by now been dispelled. We will somehow have to patch together China’s one-party authoritarianism, Europe’s national welfarism and whatever it is the United States will be in the wake of this disaster. But in any case, for those of us in Europe and America these questions are premature. The worst is just beginning.


Quarantine diary — Day 19

[coming soon]


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Friday 3 April, 2020

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London under lockdown

Piccadilly Circus, London, 5pm today


There’s no going back to ‘normal’

My day started by listening to the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast, which today consisted of an interview with Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading medical scientist who has been head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. Yes, that’s right: since 1984: that means he’s served under six presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and the current clown.

He also seems to be the only real grown-up in the White House as the Trump crowd try to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic. Fauci often stands behind Trump as he conducts his political rallies that are masquerading as press conferences. Once, when Trump said something unusually stupid, the doctor was seen to put his hand to his forehead. He may have been brushing away a fly or wiping a bead of perspiration, but the Fox News fanatics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt for their beloved leader, since when Fauci has been since subjected to such a torrent of online threats and abuse that the Secret Service has had to increase his security cover.

His conversation with the podcast host, Michael Barbarro, was fascinating from beginning to end, but one bit in particular stood out.

The point of this is that when the current crisis is over we’ll be returning to a changed world — not just because the virus will still be hanging around, but there there are others like it waiting in the wings.

This crisis, says the political philosopher John Gray in a in a New Statesman essay published this week, “is a turning point in history”. The era of peak globalisation is over, he continues.

“An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. “

Human beings are a resilient species. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But the post-war era has conditioned us to think that we know what normality should look like. It’s what Gray describes as “an embellished version of the recent past”. The problem with our recent past is that it was ecologically unsustainable, riven by inequality and dependent on complex systems of unbelievable fragility — as the Coronavirus has brutally revealed. And if we go back to that then we won’t deserve to survive.

A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated, says Gray.

Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape.

Next time we go to France, I was thinking as I read that, we may have to produce a certificate testifying either that we have acquired immunity to COVID-19 or have been vaccinated. In other words, it will be like what travelling with a dog used to be like — all that stuff about rabies and so on. And so on.

To a virus, the world may be borderless. But for humans borders will become even more formidable. Worst-case scenarios for the United States include individual states barring intra-state traffic. Likewise within the European Union’s Schengen area, where frontiers were once a thing of the past but could conceivably become a thing of the future.

In “The World after Coronavirus”, a long essay recently published in the Financial Times, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says that we now face two epochal choices: the first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. As far as the second of these is concerned, I think that the die is already cast. Globalisation as we have known it will go into reverse. The post-war international order created under American hegemony is coming apart. It was creaking at the seams anyway, but the election of Donald Trump really put the skids under it. Under the pressure of the virus, it’s not just America First. It’s also becoming Britain First, Italy First. France First. And of course Hungary First.

As for the first epochal choice that Harari thinks we face — between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, well we’re part-way down the first track already. Controlling the pandemic depends on identifying who has it, tracking their movements and contacts, and isolating or treating them — if need be forcibly. This is immensely labour-intensive. But digital technology and the smartphone has provided the perfect tool for the job, and the Oriental countries which have done best in controlling COVID-19 have made good use of it.

The lesson has not been lost on the West. And although the privacy and other risks implicit in the tech are terrifying, the pressure to deploy the tools may become irresistible. As Harari says, it is in the nature of emergencies that they “fast-forward historical processes.

“Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.”

The risk and dangers of a massive increase in surveillance justified by this emergency are real. But many of them stem from the fact that, under current models, all of the hoovered data is held centrally. But it doesn’t have to be done that way.

There’s an interesting experiment called Private Kit: Safe Paths under way at MIT, for example. Participants install an app which enables them accurately to log their own location on their own phones. (So it never gets uploaded to the cloud). Those who have been diagnosed as infected can, if they wish, share an accurate location trail with health officials once they are diagnosed positive, replacing a process that has historically been conducted only through memory. The app uses proximity-detection technology to tell a phone’s owner whether they have crossed paths with a diagnosed carrier. The researchers describe it as “a free, open-source and privacy-first contact-tracing technology that provides individual users with information on their interaction with diagnosed COVID-19 carriers, while also empowering governments’ efforts to contain an epidemic outbreak”.

It could be an interesting way of avoiding the choice that Harari says we will have to make as a result of this crisis– balancing necessary surveillance with human empowerment — by having both. Stay tuned.


Jack Schofield RIP

Photo by Sarah Lee/ The Guardian

This really marks the end of an era. Jack Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon. He was the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years. He was 72 and had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum. It’s still online and if you go to it you will be transported back to a different world.

My abiding memories of him are of a warm, generous spirit with masses of common sense — a rare quality at the dawn of the personal computer age. And he never succumbed to the Silicon Valley Reality Distortion Field. May he rest in peace.


Quarantine diary – Day 13

Link


Saturday 22 March, 2020

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The American Cemetery, Madingley this morning. Click on the image for a larger size.


Solitude vs loneliness

As the world struggles to adjust to lockdown, quarantine and social-distancing there’s an interesting and timely book on the horizon. It’s A History of Solitude by my friend and colleague David Vincent, who is one of Britain’s most distinguished social historians. It comes out on April 24. The timing is fortuitous but accidental: David has been working on the book for several years, starting on it after he had finished his previous book, Privacy: A Short History. I haven’t seen it yet, but Terry Eagleton, the literary critic, has and he’s written an interesting review for the Guardian. Snippet:

Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Lonely people feel the need for company, while solitary types seek to escape it. The neatest definition of loneliness, David Vincent writes in his superb new study, is “failed solitude”. Another difference between the two groups is that hermits, anglers, Trappist monks and Romantic poets choose to be alone, whereas nobody chooses to feel abandoned and bereft. Calling yourself “self-partnering”, meaning that you sit in the cinema (should they be open) holding your own hand, may be either a genuine desire for solitude or a way of rationalising the stigma of isolation. The greatest difference of all, however, is that solitude has rarely killed anyone, whereas loneliness can drive you to the grave. As the coronavirus rampages, some of us might now face a choice between physical infection and mental breakdown…


Thank God for experts

Link


Producing vaccines under intense political pressure poses serious risks

How anti-vaxxers win — If any eventual vaccine harms even a tiny percentage of those who get it, “the anti-vaxxers can set back not only this vaccine but all vaccines,” said Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The anti-vaccine movement has been growing in the United States, and contributed to the country’s worst measles epidemic in 27 years in 2019. (From Politico’s nightly summary.)

This is yet one more reason why Trump is a menace. He keeps talking nonsense and stoking unrealistic expectations. This makes him the second biggest public health risk to the American public. And while we’re on that topic, here’s Larry Lessig:

If in January, Trump had “declared war” on this virus with the resolve of FDR, or Churchill, or even President Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day), he would have united the world against this common foe, and for once, the world could wage a war as one, without hesitation, and without regret.

Yet so tiny is the mind of our Idiot King that he could not even glimpse this extraordinary gift. His single focus was on the single indicator that seemed to say that he was, indeed, a genius — the stock market. And so he dissembled and obstructed to the end of faking the market out. Who knows if the man is really stupid enough to have believed that a virus that had brought China to its knees, once discovered to have infected 15 Americans, would “within a couple days go down to close to zero.” It doesn’t matter. The political system had taught Trump that he had the power to distort reality. The economic system has now taught Trump that he can’t distort economic reality. America’s economy — and the worlds’ economy— will now collapse. The election in November will be in midst of a great recession, compounded by unimaginable loss of human life. No President gets re-elected in times like that. Not the good ones. Not even the buffoons.


Remote conferencing with Zoom

Some of my research colleagues and I had a key meeting scheduled for this week and planned some weeks ago. As the University (Cambridge) went into lockdown we obviously couldn’t meet fate-to-face but were reluctant to cancel the discussion. Previously, we would have used conventional phone-conferencing, but I have become so pissed-off with the inadequacies of that medium that I suggested we used Zoom instead.

It was MUCH better. Two things in particular made all the difference: firstly one could see all the participants (as live images in small frames at the top of the screen); and secondly, whenever anyone started to speak, the software foregrounded them. This latter feature wasn’t perfect, but it was generally very effective. And the audio quality was sometimes a bit harsh, but still perfectly comprehensible.

My conclusion: the tech isn’t perfect, but I never want to go back to phone conferences again.


Why modelling is the rational way to make policy in a complex system

The Economist has an excellent explanation of the Imperial College epidemiological model That persuaded the UK government to change tack (though not quickly enough). The modellers

assigned covid-19 a “basic reproduction number” of 2.4. This means that in a population not taking any precautions, and where no one is immune, each case leads, on average, to 2.4 secondary cases.

Under those conditions the model showed the disease infecting 80% of the British population in three to four months. If 4.4% of the people infected became ill enough to be hospitalised and 30% of those deteriorated to the point of needing intensive care, then by mid-April demand for beds in intensive-care units (icus) would outstrip the health service’s “surge” capacity. In May the number of critical patients would be more than 30 times the number of icu beds available. Estimates of the fatality rate in China range from 0.5% to 1.5% of infections. Using a conservative 0.9% for Britain, the model put the death toll by the end of the summer at over half a million.


The Italian tragedy

One of the tragedies of this pandemic is the way it shows how social structures that we generally think of as embodying sociality and stability — extended families with several generations living closely together, for example — can be especially vulnerable. It turns out that Italy has a higher percentage of elderly people than most European countries, and about two-thirds of adults aged 18-35 live with their parents, with many houses containing three generations — which meant they were sitting ducks for Covid-19.


Tuesday 11 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants”

  • Anton Chekhov

Another reason why people buy SUVs

Apropos my post the other day about why people buy SUVs, I received this interesting email from a reader:

The other reason people buy SUVs is because they have been involved in an accident.

My wife was hit by a pick up truck head on doing 55 mph in a 25 mph zone, which totaled the car, shattered her wrist, but thankfully didn’t damage the 8-week-old in the back. She’s been nervous in cars ever since now.

So it’s not that she doesn’t trust her driving skills, it’s that she doesn’t trust the other drivers on the road (which in DC is probably a fair assessment. The driving test is a joke, you can pass it easily, and that’s assuming the person who hits you has a license. In the 8 times we’ve been hit, 3 times the driver swapped seats with the passenger, and the other one was uninsured).

Touché.


Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives

Lovely essay by Jenny Judge on how, for most people, the deficiencies of their analogue photographs inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, whereas modern digital cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for.

But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.

Perceptive stuff. Worth reading in full.


Wednesday 22 January, 2020

What happens after the Senate acquits Trump?

I’ve just been listening to The Daily podcast about the Impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Am struck by the fact that there are a few similarities, but also some radical differences. The biggest differences are that (a) in the Clinton case there was cross-party consensus to avoid the hysterically partisan circus that had been staged in the House when drawing up the charges; and (b) that the two party leaders in the Senate worked together to get the job done. Clinton was acquitted because on neither count was there any prospect of a two-thirds majority. Then everything went back to normal: Clinton served to the end of his term, even though he was clearly guilty of perjury, but otherwise was regarded as a functional president.

With the Trump trial, there is zero consensus in the Senate, and the leader of the Republican majority seems to be liaising with the defendant on how the trial should be conducted. There is zero chance of conviction. And while Clinton was clearly a scumbag in certain respects, the crimes and misdemeanours of which he was accused did not involve conspiring with agents of a foreign country to act in his domestic political interests. He just couldn’t keep his trousers on.

So when Trump walks free from this charade, what next? The whole thing has been a blatant demonstration that the Constitution doesn’t protect the republic from a president who seeks to use the power of the office entirely for his own benefit. It will show that he can behave with Complete impunity. Maybe he could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still escape justice (as he once said). So what’s the difference now between the USA and a monarchy?


As Capability Brown Envisaged it

He designed this landscape.


The new MacBook Pro: thicker, heavier, better — and pricier

Starts at £2399 and goes to £5769 fully loaded. Useful review here. Can’t see any reason for upgrading from my trusty MacBook Pro.


Monday 20 January, 2020

Dennis Hopper was a great photographer. Who knew?

Not me, anyway. But last month Mark Rozzo had a fabulous piece in the New Yorker about a new collection of Hopper’s photographs edited by the photographer Michael Schmelling, to whom Marin Hopper (Dennis’s daughter) granted unlimited access to the archive. Hopper received a Nikon F as a gift on his twenty-fifth birthday, in May, 1961, from the actress Brooke Hayward, who would become his first wife. Her father, the agent and producer Leland Hayward, was “a camera nut”, and Brooke paid $351 for it. (Don’t you just love the fact-checked precision of the New Yorker — right down to that last buck!) “Dennis had the greatest eye of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hayward told Rozzo for a story he wrote last year about her marriage to Hopper. “He wore the camera around his neck all day long.” Some of the shots that illustrate the piece are really terrific. Result: one book sold to this blogger. It also reminded me that I have a Nikon F2 that badly needs servicing. Now where did I put it…?

Joe Biden really doesn’t like Silicon Valley

I’m beginning to warm to him. The NYT team did a really extensive on-the-record interview with him (transcript here). Here’s an excerpt from a passage where he’s been asked about his experience of dealing with Facebook about some stuff published on the platform containing false claims that he had blackmailed Ukrainian officials not to investigate his son.

Biden: I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem. I think ——

Charlie Warzel (NYT guy): Can you elaborate?

JB:I can. He knows better. And you know, from my perspective, I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. [The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.

CW: That’s a pretty foundational law of the modern internet.

JB: That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

JB: He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. They’re no longer being run.

That’s interesting. Revoking Section 230 is the nuclear option in terms of regulation. It would reduce Facebook & Co to gibbering shadows of their former selves. And of course provoke hysteria about the First Amendment, even though Facebook has nothing to do with the Amendment, which is about government — not corporate — regulation of speech.

The EU is considering banning use of facial recognition technology in public spaces

According to Reuters, a White Paper by the European Commission says that new tough rules may have to be introduced to bolster existing regulations protecting Europeans’ privacy and data rights. During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.” Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development.

Why are Apple & Google wanting you to use your phone less?

Nir Eyal (the guy who wrote the book on how to create addictive apps and subsequently seems to have had an attack of developer’s remorse) argues that it’s because they are trying to get ahead of users’ concern about addiction. He sees it as analogous to what happened with seat belts in cars.

In 1968, the Federal Government mandated that seat belts come equipped in all cars. However, nineteen years before any such regulation, American car makers started offering seat belts as a feature. The laws came well after car makers started offering seat belts because that’s what consumers wanted. Car makers who sold safer cars sold more.