Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.


Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang

Link

When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.


The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.


Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.


There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.


Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”


Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Wednesday 21 October, 2020

The road in Winter

One of my favourite roads in Norfolk. When we get to it we know we’re nearly at the coast.


Quote of the Day

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most”

  • Abraham Lincoln

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Boccherini | Cello Sonata in A Major, G.4 | 2013 | Jonathan Roozeman

Link


Zoom is trying to turn itself into a platform

Sigh. It’s predictable. As video conferencing becomes a commodity, Zoom needs to find a way of not just being a video-conferencing app. So it’s signed up lots of ‘partners’, mostly the usual suspects (Slack, Trello, etc.) They all have cheery and (to my jaundiced eye) slightly depressing videos. For example:

Link

The aim is to build what corporate strategists call a ‘moat’ round Zoom to keep users inside the compound.


Call police for a woman who is changing clothes in an alley? A new program in Denver sends mental health professionals instead.

As austerity and the pandemic continues to destroy people’s lives, many police forces say that they are having to turn into part-time social workers. This heartwarming report in the Denver Post illustrates what an intelligent response to human distress would be like.

A concerned passerby dialed 911 to report a sobbing woman sitting alone on a curb in downtown Denver.

Instead of a police officer, dispatchers sent Carleigh Sailon, a seasoned mental health professional with a penchant for wearing Phish T-shirts, to see what was going on.

The woman, who was unhoused, was overwhelmed and scared. She’d ended up in an unfamiliar part of town. It was blazing hot and she didn’t know where to go. Sailon gave the woman a snack and some water and asked how she could help. Could she drive her somewhere? The woman was pleasantly surprised.

“She was like, ‘Who are you guys? And what is this?’” Sailon said, recounting the call.

This, Sailon explained, is Denver’s new Support Team Assistance Response program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic to some 911 calls instead of police.

Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs. The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls. The team, which is not armed, has not called police for backup, Sailon said.

“We’re really trying to create true alternatives to us using police and jails,” said Vinnie Cervantes with Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, one of the organizations that helped start the program.

Though it had been years in the making, the program launched just four days after protests erupted in Denver calling for transformational changes to policing in response to the death of George Floyd.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • The Nobel Prize Committee couldn’t reach Paul Milgrom to tell him that he won the Nobel Prize for Economics, so his neighbour (and fellow winner) Robert Wilson knocked on his door in the middle of the night. Here’s what Milgrom’s Ring doorbell recorded! Link

  • Q: Why has New Zealand rejected populist ideas other nations have embraced? Hint: The country doesn’t have any newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Link.

  • “Eight Persistent COVID-19 Myths and Why People Believe Them”. From Scientific American


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Tuesday 20 October, 2020

English pastoral

From our afternoon cycle ride today.


Quote of the day

”The making of a journalist: no ideas and the ability to express them.”

  • Karl Kraus

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Gillian Welch: Acony Bell

Link

New to me. Thanks to my friend Andrew Ingham (who plays in that splendid band, Acoustic Grandads, currently grappling with this streaming business) for the suggestion.


At last, Google gets taken to court by the US

Pardon me while I yawn. Suddenly the US Department of Justice (and the Attorneys-General of 11 states) have become shocked at what evil Google has been doing for decades in plain sight, while US regulators — under Obama as well as Trump — politely looked the other way. But now, all of a sudden, Attorney-General Barr has decided to strike.

Why?

Simple, there’s an election coming and Trump swore he would ‘do something’ about the tech companies who were suddenly annoying him rather than merely relaying and amplifying his propaganda. Barr is trying to show that he is delivering on the Boss’s threat.

And the rest of us are sitting around saying “What took you so long?”

What will be Google’s defence? Steve Lohr summarises it thus:

We’re not dominant and competition on the internet is just “one click away.”

That is the essence of recent testimony in Congress by Google executives. Google’s share of the search market in the United States is about 80 percent. But looking only at the market for “general” search, the company says, is myopic. Nearly half of online shopping searches, it notes, begin on Amazon.

Next, Google says the deals the Justice Department is citing are entirely legal. Such company-to-company deals violate antitrust law only if they can be shown to exclude competition. Users can freely switch to other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing or Yahoo Search, anytime they want, Google insists. Its search service, Google says, is the runaway market leader because people prefer it.

The first of these defences — the one about competition being just “one click away” brings back memories.

Just over eight years ago I played host at Cambridge for four days to Eric Schmidt, who at that time was the Executive Chairman of Google. He was that year’s Humanitas Professor of Media in Cambridge, an appointment that required him to give three lectures and participate in a public symposium. The presence of such a powerful figure in the tech world gave rise to much interest among students and staff. And it was fascinating for me — like getting an intravenous injection of a certain kind of ideology.

When Schmidt was among us, we did naturally raise the power of the big digital monopolies like the one he headed. He had a reassuring bedside manner on that topic. His spiel went like this: if Google had a monopoly of search, then that was because it was providing the kinds of search facilities that people valued. After all, the service was free, and other search engines were merely a click away.

But what keeps us [i.e. Google] honest, he went on, is the fact that we know that somewhere in a garage two kids are planning to do to us what Larry page and Sergei Brin did to Alta Vista — the best search engine prior to Google’s arrival in 1998. The implication was that the barriers to entry to the marketplace were so low that a couple of smart kids with a better idea could triumph.

What he omitted to mention of course is that while that might have been true in the late 1990s, by 2012 — in addition to the fabled garage — those kids would have needed a global network of giant server farms, together with exabytes of user data on which to train and refine their algorithms. The barrier to entry had become as high as Everest, and Google and the other winners who took all were secure.

And one of the many ironies of the pandemic is that they will emerge from it even more secure, with their grip on the world even more consolidated. During the pandemic the tech companies have been on a mergers-and-acquisition spree not seen in a decade.

The DoJ case will drag on for quite a while, in the way that these things do. But the inquiry I’d like to see is into why the relevant Federal regulators did little or nothing about tech monopolists’ behaviour. That’s something that all the politicians on the House of Representatives investigation into monopoly power of the tech giants seemed to have agreed on.

As Shira Ovide says,

House members said that the F.T.C. and others too often left unchallenged Big Tech’s pattern of getting more powerful by acquiring competitors, and that the agencies did not crack down when these companies broke the law and their word. I couldn’t agree more.

For one small example, look at what happened in 2013. The F.T.C. said that it was getting harder for people to tell the difference between regular web search results and paid web links on Google’s search engine. This risked hurting both those trying to use the site, and companies that had no choice but to spend more money with Google to get noticed.

The F.T.C. urged Google and others to make it more clear when people were seeing web search results rather than paid links.

What happened since that warning in 2013? Not very much. If anything, it’s gotten even more difficult to tell Google’s ads from everything else.

Why US regulators were asleep at the wheel is a long story involving neoliberal ideology and judicial doctrine that saw nothing wrong with a monopoly so long as its services were ‘free’ (Google, Facebook) or undercutting competitors with higher operating costs, including paying taxes (Amazon). So for now let’s just sit back, secure in the knowledge that this anti-monopoly case will run and run.


Tips for journalists covering the US election

Here’s a summary of the advice from Media for Democracy:

1 Covering the Election Amid Attempts to Undermine It

  • Deny a platform to anyone making unfounded claims
  • Put voters and election administrators at the center of elections.
  • Strive for equity in news coverage.
  • Make quality coverage more widely accessible to expand publics for news.

2 What to do in the case of contested election results when the outcome is unclear or a candidate does not concede

  • Publicize your plans and do not make premature declarations.
  • Develop and use state- and local-level expertise to provide locally-relevant information.
  • Distinguish between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures.
  • In the event of a contested or unclear outcome, don’t use social media to fill gaps in institutionally credible and reliable election information.
  • Cover an uncertain or contested election through a “democracy-worthy” frame.
  • Recognize that technology platforms have an important role to play.
  • Embrace existing democratic institutions

3 How to prepare for the possibility of post-election civil unrest?

  • Help Americans understand the roots of unrest.
  • Uphold democratic norms.
  • Use clear definitions for actions and actors and provide coverage appropriate to those definitions.
  • Do not give a platform to individuals or groups who call for violence, spread disinformation, or foment racist ideas.

For more detail on each heading, check the link.

Reading through the document I don’t know whether to cheer or weep. Mostly the latter, because of its revelation that this is stuff that every journalist should know but apparently doesn’t. I’d have thought that almost everything in the above lists is taught in Journalism 101.


Other possibly interesting links

  • ClockmakingLink Yes, you read that correctly. Part of a series by one of the most interesting thinkers on the Web. He’s been building a clock.

  • Arnold Kling: Social media are really “gossip at scale”. Link

  • Explaining Brexit to Americans. Astute blog post by Alina Utrata, an American graduate student who had been studying in Belfast.


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Correction:

In yesterday’s edition I incorrectly attributed the mantra “pessimism of the Intellect, optimism of the Will” to Nietzsche. Many thanks to the readers who emailed to point out that Gramsci should have got the credit. Confirms my belief that Rule One for bloggers is: always assume that somewhere out there is someone who knows more than you. Never fails.


Tuesday 13 October, 2020


Quote of the Day

”One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”

  • Benjamin Jowett

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leo Kottke: Snorkel

Link


Boris Johnson’s latest Covid strategy: no hope and no end in sight

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s day in Parliament:

Johnson looked knackered before he even started. His complexion even more pallid than usual and his eyes mere pinpricks. For a moment it looked as if the narcissist had been confronted with his own sense of futility. A situation that he couldn’t bend to his will, no matter how delusional the thought process. He is cornered by hubris: a man hating every second of his life but condemned to experience its unforgiving horror. Not even the health secretary could be bothered to attend to watch this latest meltdown.

“We have taken a balanced approach,” Johnson began. As in he was too slow to react back in March with the result that the government has one of the world’s highest death tolls. As in he did next to nothing during the summer when we had a chance to prepare for autumn. As in he actively encouraged people to go back to work for weeks before switching to advise them against it. As in unlocking the north at the same time as the south, even though infection rates in the north remained higher. That kind of balanced.

What Boris had to offer now was a new three-tier approach. Bad, very bad and very, very bad. Bad would apply to most of the country and would involve people doing pretty much what they had been doing for the last couple of months. Rule of six and all that.

Very bad would mean that those areas that had already been under the more stringent lockdown restrictions would remain so, though if you wanted to meet a few friends outdoors in the garden for a beer to let each other know how depressed you were feeling you now could. And very, very bad meant that you could only see your mates if you happened to be in the pub at the same time and order five Cornish pasties to go with your bottle of scotch.


NYT ‘The Daily’ podcast’s view on the prospects for the vaccine

From the transcript of the Wednesday, October 7, edition.

Presenter: As update on the state of the coronavirus in the U.S. I check back in with Times science reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Donald, you recently sent me an email that pretty much stopped me in my tracks. Because in it, you said that you were optimistic about the course of the pandemic. And that is not a word that I associate with either you or the pandemic. And it immediately made me think that we needed to talk.

McNeil: I am short term, right now — fall and winter — pessimistic. I think things are going to get worse.

But since I’ve been saying since April or so that this epidemic is not going to be over by Easter, this epidemic is not going to be over by fall, and that, you know, the record for making the vaccine is four years, I now have new optimism about how fast I expect vaccines and other interventions to get here, and how quickly that will bring the pandemic to an end in the United States…

Interesting. McNeil is very well informed. And he was ahead of the curve in the early days. Basically, he thinks there may be workable vaccines (plural) by the Spring on 2021 — and that people will be willing to take them.

Presenter: In our conversations with colleagues like Jan Hoffman, we have established that there is a considerable amount of skepticism around vaccines in general — and especially this coming set of vaccines — because of how much politics has surrounded them.

McNeil: Yeah. And I agree with that skepticism. I mean, if a vaccine is approved before Election Day, and it is approved by only one man — I’m Donald J. Trump and I approve this vaccine — then I’m a skeptic and I’m not going to take it. But when I see vaccines that are okayed by Tony Fauci and Paul Offit and Francis Collins and Peter Hotez and all the vaccine experts that you often see quoted on television, then I’m going to be one of the first in line to get it.

And what will probably happen, I think, is that a lot of people will be skeptical. And then they’ll look around at their friends and neighbors who take the vaccine. And assuming nothing goes wrong, and that’s an assumption, but assuming nothing goes wrong, they’ll go, huh. I can avoid this vaccine for me and my kids that I’m somewhat afraid of. And that means I have to homeschool my kids forever. Never go to a movie. Never get on an airplane. Never eat in a restaurant again. Or I can accept a vaccine. I think I’ll take the vaccine.

He’s probably right.


My new keyboard

I have arthritis in my hands, which is not good news for someone whose job involves writing. What it mostly means, though, is that I’m very sensitive to keyboards. A few weeks ago I decided that I’d had enough of Apple’s latest ‘Magic’ keyboard, and so looked for an alternative. Someone suggested I look at the Logitech MX Keys wireless keyboard, so I bought one. And it’s just terrific. More bulky and clunkier than its Apple predecessor, of course, but quite a joy to use. Highly recommended for writers with delicate fingers.


Facebook to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust

From a Guardian report:

Facebook says it is updating its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.

The decision comes two years after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said in an interview with the tech website Recode said that while he found Holocaust denial deeply offensive, he did not believe Facebook should delete such content.

“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimising or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” said Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, in a Facebook post on Monday.

My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in antisemitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech,” he said.

The social media company said that, starting later this year, it would also direct people searching for terms associated with the Holocaust or its denial to credible information away from the platform.

Nice to know that his ‘thinking’ has “evolved”. I often wonder what exactly is wrong with this guy.


Is science being set up to take the blame?

Ross Anderson, whom God preserve, was puzzled by the failure to protect residents in care homes, and so decided to read the minutes of the SAGE committee whose advice the Prime Minister was supposedly following.

Here’s an excerpt from his terrific blog post reporting what he found.

The big question, though, is why nobody thought of protecting people in care homes. The answer seems to be that SAGE dismissed the problem early on as “too hard” or “not our problem”. On March 5th they note that social distancing for over-65s could save a lot of lives and would be most effective for those living independently: but it would be “a challenge to implement this measure in communal settings such as care homes”. They appear more concerned that “Many of the proposed measures will be easier to implement for those on higher incomes” and the focus is on getting PHE to draft guidance. (This is the meeting at which Dominic Cummings makes his first appearance, so he cannot dump all the blame on the scientists.)

On March 10th, they decide to cocoon the over-70s and medically vulnerable, and advise 7/14 days isolation for people with symptoms / their families. They advise that “special policy consideration be given to care homes and various types of retirement communities” – but note the passive voice, and this doesn’t appear on the list of actions and trigger points on the following page. It’s still somebody else’s problem.

By March 13th, some care homes had already banned visitors without waiting for government advice to do so, and on the same day SAGE decided that the goal was to enable the NHS to meet demand. Two days later, the NHS started clearing 30,000 beds, sending hundreds of infected patients into care homes and causing thousands of deaths.

The next month is consumed with panic about whether the NHS will be swamped by the peak, and it’s only when this subsides that we read on April 14 that more and more cases are acquired in hospital, which have been masking the decline in the community, with a note “Care homes remain a concern. There are less data available from these” – but only as item 10 on the situation update. At last there’s a relevant action: to widen viral sampling in hospitals and care homes. However the committee’s effort is now tied up with the controversy about whether to advise public mask wearing. (It still resists expert advice on this as it doesn’t want to admit that its initial position was wrong.) The meetings on April 16 and 21 are also consumed by the mask debate (on which the early members of the committee, who blocked mask wearing to protect PPE supplies to the NHS, prevailed over the newer members, leaving the UK an outlier).

And Ross’s conclusion?

My experience of university committees makes this all just too painfully familiar. What’s failed here is not the science, but the process of government. The committee started out full of NHS medics and bureaucrats, and lots of theoreticians – modelers aplenty – but there’s still nobody from the care sector. The members focus on the NHS they know and stay in their comfort zone. And now, we might ask, is there anybody with operational experience relevant to running a large testing and tracing programme? Or would it be a waste of time to try to create such a competence in the SAGE environment?

Terrific post.


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Thursday 8 October, 2020

Closed!

And this was in the good ol’ (pre-pandemic) days!


Quote of the Day

”No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Covita (the Covid adaption of Evita)

Link

I know it’s political. But it is at least musical! It’s a creation of the Lincoln Project


Everything you needed to know about aerosol transmission of the virus but were too busy to ask

“FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission”

Prepared by a group of real experts. You can find it here. Great resource.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.


The Five Cs of Subwoofer Setup

I was idly thinking about how nice it would be to have a subwoofer as part of the audio system in our study. Having read this helpful guide I’ve decided that life’s too short, especially if it involves me having crawl around listening at the same level as the cats.


Trump’s antibody treatment was tested using cells originally derived from an abortion

The Trump administration has been trying to curtail research with foetal cells. But when it was life or death for the president, no one objected. Including, it seems, all those anti-abortion campaigners who support him.

This from Tech Review

This week, President Donald Trump extolled the cutting-edge coronavirus treatments he received as “miracles coming down from God.” If that’s true, then God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue.

The emergency antibody that Trump received last week was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from abortion tissue, according to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the experimental drug.

The Trump administration has taken an increasingly firm line against medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. For example, when it moved in 2019 to curtail the ability of the National Institutes of Health to fund such research, supporters hailed a “major pro-life victory” and thanked Trump personally for taking decisive action against what they called the “outrageous and disgusting” practice of “experimentation using baby body parts.”


Four Myths about Tech

Interesting paper from the Data & Society research institute.

The tech companies that design and build so many of the devices, platforms, and software we use for hours each day have embraced myths that push a flawed under- standing of digital well-being. While we are encouraged that these companies are dedicating greater attention to social media’s effect on the mental and physical health of users, their current approaches to improving user well-being fundamentally misunderstand how people engage with technology. At its worst, this approach funnels time and resources to making technology more “enriching” for middle-class white users, while failing to address the systemic harms that minoritized communities face.

The authors see four particular kinds of myths:

  1. Social media is addictive, and we are powerless to resist it.
  2. Technology companies can fix the problems they create with better technology.
  3. Growth and engagement metrics are the best drivers of decision-making at tech companies.
  4. Our health and well-being depend on spending less time with screens and social media platforms.

These may sound counter-intuitive, so it’s worth reading the (short) paper to see their reasoning.

Basically, though, it’s really only relevant to the surveillance capitalism operators.

Recommended, nevertheless.


“Modelling anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen”

This is the title of a really interesting paper which was published last May in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences. It’s by two Stanford researchers, Rohan Mehta and Noah Rosenberg, who wanted to understand the dynamic interactions between a pandemic and human behaviours related to the disease. So they defined anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for example, or aversion to wearing a mask, as cultural pathogens which, when they spread through a population, can promote the spread of diseases. The question is: how do these interactions play out? What are their dynamics?

There’s a useful summary of the research published by Stanford University. Here’s a clip:

To couple the transmission of disease with the transmission of a sentiment, the researchers used what’s called an S-I-R model, which divides populations into groups, or “compartments” – namely those who are susceptible, infected and recovered. “The S-I-R model with one dimension for behavior and one dimension for disease is among the simplest ways to understand how the behavioral dynamics affect the disease dynamics,” said Rosenberg.

In the case of modeling anti-vaccination sentiment as a transmissible preference, this would mean susceptible individuals are undecided about vaccines; infected individuals are those who have the anti-vaccination sentiment; and recovered individuals are pro-vaccine and not susceptible to anti-vaccination sentiment.

There could realistically be a broad spectrum of feelings associated with any particular sentiment, but simplifying the model provides a clearer connection to disease dynamics. For example, individuals who are pro-vaccine could change their minds in the real world, but the model assumes they cannot (as if they have already been vaccinated as a result of their sentiments and cannot undo the action).

“We want these kinds of models to have some realism, but the more complicated we make them, the harder it is to fully understand all the potential behaviors that could emerge,” said Rosenberg. “The goal is to understand how phenomena affect each other, rather than to make projections. We see clearly in the model how anti-vaccination sentiment can promote spread of the disease for which the vaccine is being applied.”

The point of a study like this is that it tries to take a holistic or system-wide view of a problem. At the moment, we tend mostly to build models of how an epidemic spreads so that we can predict likely outbreak scenarios. But which scenario turns out to be accurate depends not just on the characteristics of the pathogen, but also on how the human population responds to these strange circumstances. This is why governments across Europe and elsewhere have been taken aback by the new surges in infections. The problem will get worse when credible vaccines for Covid-19 start to appear, because what happens from then on depends on how people respond to the possibility of vaccination. The disease modelled in the research reported in the journal article was measles, but of course the scenario that everyone would like to study relates to Covid. It seems that Stanford has given them more resources to work on that.

The Abstract for the paper reads:

Culturally transmitted traits that have deleterious effects on health-related traits can be regarded as cultural pathogens. A cultural pathogen can produce coupled dynamics with its associated health-related traits, so that understanding the dynamics of a health-related trait benefits from consideration of the dynamics of the associated cultural pathogen. Here, we treat anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen, modelling its ‘infection’ dynamics with the infection dynamics of the associated vaccine-preventable disease. In a coupled susceptible–infected–resistant (SIR) model, consisting of an SIR model for the anti-vaccine sentiment and an interacting SIR model for the infectious disease, we explore the effect of anti-vaccine sentiment on disease dynamics. We find that disease endemism is contingent on the presence of the sentiment, and that presence of sentiment can enable diseases to become endemic when they would otherwise have disappeared. Furthermore, the sentiment dynamics can create situations in which the disease suddenly returns after a long period of dormancy. We study the effect of assortative sentiment-based interactions on the dynamics of sentiment and disease, identifying a tradeoff whereby assortative meeting aids the spread of a disease but hinders the spread of sentiment. Our results can contribute to finding strategies that reduce the impact of a cultural pathogen on disease, illuminating the value of cultural evolutionary modelling in the analysis of disease dynamics.


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__________________________ 

Wednesday 7 October, 2020

Locked!

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.”

  • G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (Live In London)

Link


Many Top AI Researchers Get Financial Backing From Big Tech

Surprise, surprise. Interesting story in Wired.

Mohamed and Moustafa Abdalla, two brothers who are graduate students at the university of Toronto, embarked on an interesting mini-project. They looked at how many AI researchers at Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have received funding from Big Tech over their careers. They examined the CVs of 135 computer science faculty who work on AI at the four schools, looking for indications that the researcher had received funding from one or more tech companies.

For 52 of those, they couldn’t make a determination. Of the remaining 83 faculty, they found that 48, or 58 percent, had received funding such as a grant or a fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, or OpenAI. Among a smaller group of faculty that works on AI ethics, they also found that 58 percent of those had been funded by Big Tech. When any source of funding was included, including dual appointments, internships, and sabbaticals, 32 out of 33, or 97 percent, had financial ties to tech companies. “There are very few people that don’t have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla says.

Adballa says industry funding is not necessarily compromising, but he worries that it might have some influence, perhaps discouraging researchers from pursuing certain projects or prompting them to agree with solutions proposed by tech companies. Provocatively, the Abdallas’ paper draws parallels between Big Tech funding for AI research and the way tobacco companies paid for research into the health effects of smoking in the 1950s.

Their paper, “The Grey Hoodie Project: Big Tobacco, Big Tech, and the threat on academic integrity” is on arXiv.

The Abstract reads:

As governmental bodies rely on academics’ expert advice to shape policy regarding Artificial Intelligence, it is important that these academics not have conflicts of interests that may cloud or bias their judgement. Our work explores how Big Tech is actively distorting the academic landscape to suit its needs. By comparing the well-studied actions of another industry, that of Big Tobacco, to the current actions of Big Tech we see similar strategies employed by both industries to sway and influence academic and public discourse. We examine the funding of academic research as a tool used by Big Tech to put forward a socially responsible public image, influence events hosted by and decisions made by funded universities, influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists, and discover receptive academics who can be leveraged. We demonstrate, in a rigorous manner, how Big Tech can affect academia from the institutional level down to individual researchers. Thus, we believe that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place.

When one raises the question of relationships with big tech companies with some academics the general response is that there’s nothing to see here. Prominent medical researchers who have links to Big Pharma give the same responses. Nothing to see here, move along. Until, of course, there is something to see.


Face masks: what the data say

One of the strangest (and annoying) aspects of the pandemic as it evolved was the reluctance of the government’s scientific advisers to recommend the wearing of non-N95 face masks. People who decided to make their own and wear them were regarded in many places as cranks. And now masks are mandatory in shops and other buildings. So somewhere along the line crankiness became Holy Writ. And of course in the US, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, refusing to wear a mask became a test of masculinity or patriotism, or both. (Or a litmus test for idiocy.)

I always thought that the issue was a bit like Pascal’s Wager: it was unlikely to do one harm, and might do some good, so why not wear one?

Now I find a paper in Nature, no less, saying “The science supports that face coverings are saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the debate trundles on. How much evidence is enough?”


Security flaw left ‘smart’ chastity sex toy users at risk of permanent lock-in

There’s a long list of things I don’t understand about this, but here goes:

Security researchers have discovered that a major security flaw in one popular sex toy could have been catastrophic for tens of thousands of users.

U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners said the flaw in the Qiui Cellmate internet-connected chastity lock, billed as the “world’s first app controlled chastity device,” could have allowed anyone to remotely and permanently lock in the user’s penis.

The Cellmate chastity lock works by allowing a trusted partner to remotely lock and unlock the chamber over Bluetooth using a mobile app. That app communicates with the lock using an API. But that API was left open and without a password, allowing anyone to take complete control of any user’s device.

Because the chamber was designed to lock with a metal ring underneath the user’s penis, the researchers said it may require the intervention of a heavy-duty bolt cutter or an angle grinder to free the user.

At first I assumed it was a spoof — “Middle Ages meets smartphone era”. But apparently not.

And this thing is, apparently, a toy.


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Tuesday 6 October, 2020

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

“There’s so much denial going on about how aerosols are the principal cause of spread. It’s quite weird. Think of coronavirus as infectious smoke, with some heavy smokers and lots of very light smokers, and you’re there. The problem: you can’t tell who the heavy smokers are.”


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – J.S. Bach, Variazioni Goldberg – 1981

Link


Excel spreadsheet error blamed for UK’s 16,000 missing coronavirus cases

There’s been a huge hooh-hah (understandably) about the error that left large number of virus cases unreported. But, as this account by The Verge may suggest, many users of the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet may have the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I) feeling. We’ve all screwed up on Excel at one time or another.

The 15,841 “missing” cases made public today were originally recorded between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive for COVID-19 were notified by the UK’s health authorities, but the failure to upload these cases to the national database meant anyone who came into contact with these individuals was not informed. It’s an error that may have helped spread the virus further through the country as individuals exposed to the virus continued to act as normal.

According to reports from The Guardian and Sky News, the mistake was caused when PHE tried to collate data from multiple sources in the form of CSV files by loading them into Excel. This popular spreadsheet software has limits in how many rows it can load — 65,536 rows in older versions and 1,048,576 rows in more recent versions. Based on these reports, it’s not clear which version of Excel PHE is using, but the row-limit was reached regardless. As PHE workers tried to load more cases into the national database, they were rejected.

The solution, at least, is as simple as the error, and the overly large files have reportedly now been split into smaller batches. PHE didn’t confirm this but says the problem is now resolved, and that it passed the details of the backlog of confirmed cases onto the UK’s contact tracers as of 1PM local time on Saturday.

It reminds of an adage that I used to cite in the early days in defining ‘Big Data’ — which was the amount of data that wouldn’t fit on an Excel sheet.

HT to Ian Clark.


More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma is Jeff Orlowski’s much-discussed film about the toxic impact of social media on society, and particularly on young people. I wrote about it in my Observer column a few weeks ago.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task. Orlowski adopts a two-track approach. In the first, he assembles a squad of engineers and executives – people who built the addiction-machines of social media but have now repented – to talk openly about their feelings of guilt about the harms they inadvertently inflicted on society, and explain some of the details of their algorithmic perversions.

They are, as you might expect, almost all males of a certain age and type. The writer Maria Farrell, in a memorable essay, describes them as examples of the prodigal techbro – tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening and “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found.”

Biblical scholars will recognise the reference from Luke 15. The prodigal son returns having “devoured his living with harlots” and is welcomed with open arms by his old dad, much to the dismay of his more dutiful brother. Farrell is not so welcoming. “These ‘I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my Ted Talk’ accounts,” she writes, “typically miss most of the actual journey, yet claim the moral authority of one who’s ‘been there’ but came back. It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics.”

It is, but Orlowski welcomes these techbros with open arms because they suit his purpose – which is to explain to viewers the terrible things that the surveillance capitalist companies such as Facebook and Google do to their users. And the problem with that is that when he gets to the point where we need ideas about how to undo that damage, the boys turn out to be a bit – how shall I put it – incoherent.

Now comes a really insightful commentary by Niall Docherty from the Social Media Collective, a network of social science and humanistic researchers who work in the Microsoft Research labs in New England and New York.

“While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions,” he writes,

“its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.”

He takes issue with the core argument of the film, namely that social media are designed to manipulate their users for corporate gain. But, says Docherty,

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting actually take place. So responsibility for the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind,

we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will.

This is an interesting approach to the problem which addresses the thorny question of why — if social media is so bad for people — do they continue to use it. It will annoy some people, I guess, because they will see it as letting the tech companies off the hook. But it also forces one to re-evaluate one’s own preconceptions. Which of course is also what Bruno Latour does for a living!


GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Exemption From a Pandemic

Twitter user Kate Bennett tweeted an extraordinary film clip of the White House Rose Garden party to celebrate Trump’s nomination of a reliable right-wing lawyer to the Supreme Court.

The video clip in the link is worth watching in the context of this piece in NYMag:

It is too early to know with certainty that the Barrett nomination party was a superspreader event. But we do know that at least eight of the event’s attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19. And we also know that the White House might as well have hired the novel coronavirus as its party planner, the proceedings were so well-tailored to the bug’s spread (a throng of people speaking indoors, in close proximity, without masks, for an extended period of time). So it seems safe to assume that the event played some role in the cluster of infection that has put Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the hospital, much of Mitch McConnell’s caucus in quarantine, and the broader population of Washington, D.C., at an increased risk of serious illness.

The White House told The Wall Street Journal Sunday that its officials and guests do not generally wear masks or practice social distancing “because they are tested daily.” This appears to confirm that all those serial huggers in the Rose Garden on September 26 did indeed believe their privileged access to rapid tests would exempt them from the hard facts of pandemic life.

All of which invites the question: Why didn’t they know better?

The answer, of course, is that — like elites everywhere — they think they can buy exemption from the virus. Mercifully, the virus knows better.


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Wednesday 30 September, 2020

New England in the Fall

Jason Kottke, the Über Blogger lives in Vermont. He posted this astonishing image on his blog the other day. It makes one realise that the English Autumn, though beautiful in its way, is pretty muted by comparison.


Quote of the Day

“It seems to people who are on lockdown that it’s going on interminably, but for scientists it’s just the beginning. We are still just scratching the surface of this.”

  • Dr. Martha Nelson, a scientist at the US National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, quoted in today’s New York Times piece marking the sombre milestone of a million Covid deaths worldwide.

Yep: we’re in a marathon, not a sprint.


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Schubert – Impromptu #3: Vladimir Horowitz, live performance in Vienna, in 1987 (I think)

Link

Audio quality is not great, but it’s a lovely performance. Amazing to see the way he seems almost to caress the keyboard with those long fingers of his.


How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

Long read of the day

Tim O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I know. And this essay is worth your time IMHO:

The 20th century didn’t really begin in the year 1900, it began in 1914, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand triggered long-simmering international tensions and the world slid, seemingly inexorably, into a great world war, followed by a roaring return to seeming normality and then a crash into a decade-long worldwide depression and another catastrophic war. Empires were dissolved, an entire way of life swept away. A new, more prosperous world emerged only through the process of rebuilding a society that had been torn down to its foundations.

So too, when we look back, we will understand that the 21st century truly began this year, when the COVID19 pandemic took hold. We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up.

Even when we develop a successful COVID19 vaccine or treatment, or when we achieve herd immunity, this will not be the last pandemic. Other long-predicted but “unexpected” crises lurk in the wings: flooding, drought, mass migrations, food shortages, and wars as a result of climate change; widespread antibiotic resistance due to overuse on factory farms; political instability driven by an unsustainable level of economic inequality; crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in bettering the lives of ordinary citizens at the expense of a feverish Ponzi economy focused on growing asset values for the wealthy.

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

[…]

Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now…

Thoughtful, far-reaching and not necessarily reassuring.


Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”

Well, well. For a long time I’ve been likening the surveillance capitalist companies to tobacco and oil companies. But I never thought I’d hear a former Facebook employee state that he once saw the analogy as a guide to policy. Yet here is Tim Kendall, who served as director of monetization for Facebook from 2006 through 2010, speaking to Congress on September 24 as part of a House Commerce subcommittee hearing examining how social media platforms contribute to the mainstreaming of extremist and radicalizing content.

He told legislators that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset” and arguing that his former employer has been hugely detrimental to society.

“The social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity,” Kendall said in his opening testimony. “At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding—at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.”

“We sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible… We took a page form Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.”

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco’s bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn’t enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more.

“We initially used engagement as sort of a proxy for user benefit. But we also started to realize that engagement could also mean [users] were sufficiently sucked in that they couldn’t work in their own best long-term interest to get off the platform… We started to see real-life consequences, but they weren’t given much weight. Engagement always won, it always trumped.”

“There’s no incentive to stop [toxic content] and there’s incredible incentive to keep going and get better. I just don’t believe that’s going to change unless there are financial, civil, or criminal penalties associated with the harm that they create. Without enforcement, they’re just going to continue to be embarrassed by the mistakes, and they’ll talk about empty platitudes… but I don’t believe anything systemic will change… the incentives to keep the status quo are just too lucrative at the moment.”

Wow!


Florida Police Just Released Video of Brad Parscale Getting Tackled by Cops

Well, well. How are the mighty fallen.

Some background:

You may remember that Brad Parscale was the supposed genius behind the 2016 Trump campaign’s weaponisation of Facebook. This made him a kind of global political celebrity — worth even a big profile in the New Yorker, no less as “The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut”. Come 2020 and Parscale was now the Director of the Trump campaign and an even more swaggering giant. He was the driving spirit behind the ludicrous Tulsa rally — the one that supposedly had 800,000 pre-registrations. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The Trump operation had been cleverly hijacked by kids on TikTok who made fake pre-bookings. So the rally was a fiasco, at which point I predicted that Parscale’s days as Director were numbered. It was an accurate prediction — he was replaced in July by Bill Stepien.

Now spool forward to the present. Here’s a report by Vice News from Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where Parscale reportedly owns three houses:

Police in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, just released a video of President Trump’s former campaign manager getting tackled by cops.

The body camera footage shows a police officer hurling Parscale to the ground during an incident at his home, shortly after they responded to a call for help from Parscale’s wife. She told police that Parscale had threatened to kill himself and had racked the slide of a handgun in front of her face, “putting her in fear for her safety,” according to a police report.

The video shows Parscale, wearing white shorts and no shirt, speaking with a police officer, and then another officer rapidly approaches Parscale from his right side, telling him, “Get on the ground, man.”

Parscale doesn’t visibly react to that command at first. The police officer then hurls him to the ground, while Parscale objects, saying “I didn’t do anything.”

One doesn’t want to intrude on private grief, but it looks as though Parscale has had some kind of breakdown. CBS reports that he “was taken to a mental health facility in Florida on Sunday night after barricading himself in his home with weapons and threatening to harm himself, police said. Parscale was detained without injury and transported to a local hospital.”

Nobody works for Trump without in the end being damaged by the experience.


How Much Has Inequality Cost Workers?

From a sobering piece in the Journal of Democracy, especially for those who are nostalgic for a return to our current version of capitalism-friendly democracy.

Even if Donald Trump loses the election, the conditions that made his authoritarian regime possible won’t disappear with him. If we are to heal our country and ensure against a repeat of the past four years, we need to boldly and aggressively scale our solutions to the size of the problem. And when it comes to our crisis of rising income inequality, the problem is huge.

How big is it? A staggering $50 trillion.

That’s how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, from 1947 through 1974, real incomes grew at close to the rate of per capita economic growth across all income levels. That means that for three decades, those at the bottom and middle of the distribution saw their incomes grow at about the same rate as those at the top. Had these more equitable income distributions merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income, and enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every worker. Every month. Every. Single. Year.

But the ‘normal’ that our governments wish us to return to is not the normality of 1947-1974, but the post 1974 one.

The RAND paper is here. The Abstract reads:

The three decades following the Second World War saw a period of economic growth that was shared across the income distribution, but inequality in taxable income has increased substantially over the last four decades. This work seeks to quantify the scale of income gap created by rising inequality compared to a counterfactual in which growth was shared more broadly. We introduce a time-period agnostic and income-level agnostic measure of inequality that relates income growth to economic growth. This new metric can be applied over long stretches of time, applied to subgroups of interest, and easily calculated. We document the cumulative effect of four decades of income growth below the growth of per capita gross national income and estimate that aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile over this time period would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion. We further explore trends in inequality by applying this metric within and across business cycles from 1975 to 2018 and also by demographic group.


The extent of my ignorance

One of the first rules of blogging is always to assume that out there are people who know far more than you do. I’ve adhered to this since Day One (in the mid-1990s) and have never been disappointed. So when the other day I confessed that I hadn’t known that Trump owned a golf-course in Ireland, in no time at all readers wrote in suggesting gently that I really ought to know better. For example, Charles Foster wrote:

You didn’t know that Trump had a golf course in Ireland? Good Lord! It’s at Doonbeg, and has been owned by him for about six years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_International_Golf_Links_and_Hotel_Ireland

The Irish government laid down a red carpet for him when he came to visit in 2015 just after buying it. He’s been here a couple of times (I think) since becoming President, the last time in 2019 when he used it as an overnight stop when he was in France commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landings — this was the time when he didn’t go to the US war cemetery near Paris to pay his respects because it was raining.

To which I can only protest that I did know about Doonbeg, partly because a friend of mine who is a terrific golfer is a member there. But I had no idea that it was owned by Trump and is now — of course — badged under his accursed name!


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Saturday 26 September, 2020

A message from the cloud appreciation society

From our coastal walk on Thursday.


Quote of the Day

”An expert is someone who knows the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”

  • Werner Heisenberg

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mark Knopfler & Chet Atkins playing I’ll see you in my dreams and Imagine live at the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987.

Link


Thinking about Lincoln

I’ve been thinking about Abraham Lincoln a good deal ever since I listened to David Runciman’s unmissable podcasted talk about Max Weber’s famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered to students in Munich in 1919. Towards the end of his talk, David identifies Lincoln as the politician who comes closest to meeting Weber’s stringent requirements for a democratic leader, and so I’ve been driven to digging out Gore Vidal’s famous historical novel about him and other stuff.

Today, I came on Adam Gopnik’s roundup essay in the New Yorker on a raft of contemporary biographies of Lincoln, which of course I dived into and found myself transfixed by this wonderful photograph of him which I’d never seen before. It’s such a revealing portrait of its subject.

Lincoln was famously ungainly and physically awkward. Gopnik retells the story of when he was President and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, compared him to a baboon. Asked how he could endure such an insult, Lincoln replied: “That is no insult; it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it, and Stanton is usually right.”

Gopnik’s argument is that historians’ visions of Lincoln have been shaped by their own political landscapes and cultural contexts. Which neatly explains why he has been much on our minds at the moment. And isn’t it weird — looking at the current GOP — that he was a Republican!


Ireland might yet be forced to accept that €13 billion in back tax from Apple

This is straight out of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

Way back in 2016 the European Commission issued a ruling that Ireland had given Apple a “sweetheart deal” that let the company pay significantly lower taxes than other businesses. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” the EU’s antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2016.

The commission ordered Apple to pay €13 billion ($14.9 billion) in back taxes to the Irish government. Needless to say, Apple disputed the decision, with CEO Tim Cook calling the judgment “total political crap.” But — here’s the startling bit — the Irish government also appealed the decision! This must be the first recorded case of a cash-strapped government facing Brexit campaigning not to receive enough dosh to run the country’s health service for a year or two.

In July this year In July, the General Court of the EU annulled the 2016 ruling on the grounds that that the commission had failed to make its case. “The commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage” for Apple, they declared, and “the commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities.”

On Friday the Commission announced that it will appeal the court’s July ruling, with Vestager saying in a statement that the court “has made a number of errors of law.”

“The General Court has repeatedly confirmed the principle that, while Member States have competence in determining their taxation laws taxation, they must do so in respect of EU law, including State aid rules,” Vestager said. “If Member States give certain multinational companies tax advantages not available to their rivals, this harms fair competition in the European Union in breach of State aid rules.”

Quite so.

A detached observer might ask why the Irish government took the line it did in this case. The short answer is that since 1958 the prime strategy of the Irish state has to carve out an economic future for a small island by being nice to giant foreign companies (especially US ones). So if it were obliged to take a more hands-off stance to these giants — even as some of them, especially Facebook and Google (both with their European HQs in Dublin) are turning toxic — then it would be changing the habits of several political lifetimes.

This one will run for a while yet.


Why we need satire

From the (consistently funny) current issue of Private Eye — sometimes the only publication that keeps UK residents sane and the moment.


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Friday 25 September, 2020

Mellow fruitfulness

Rose-hips and blackberries. Seen on our coastal walk yesterday.


Quote of the Day

”The best number for a dinner party is two — myself and a damn good head waiter.”

  • Nubar Gulbenkian

I have a good friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house always took place between himself and the TV set.


Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Für Elise: Lang Lang

Link


A year is such a long time in Brexit politics

Private Eye, 25 September, 2020


Tracking historical changes in trustworthiness using machine learning analyses of facial cues in paintings

It’s amazing what people do research on. This paper published in Nature Communications describes an interesting use of machine-learning technology to analyse portraits over the ages. The researchers built an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Their results show that “trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe.

Portraits are particularly promising to document and quantify the level of trust over time. Experimental work have revealed that specific facial features, such as a smiling mouth or wider eyes, are consistently recognized as cues of trustworthiness across individuals and cultures. In this paper, we capitalize on this large empirical literature to build an algorithm that estimates trustworthiness based on a pre-identified set of facial characteristics. More precisely, we apply recent machine-learning methods to extract quantitative information about the evolution of social cues contained in portraits. The algorithm generates automatic human-like trustworthiness ratings on portraits based on the muscle contractions (facial action units) detected in facial displays using the open software OpenFace. This algorithm was trained on avatars controlled for trustworthiness and optimized using a random forest procedure (see Supplementary Methods for more details). To assess the generalizability of our model, we then tested its validity on four databases of natural faces rated by real participants. We first demonstrated that the algorithm produced trustworthiness ratings that were aligned with those produced by human participants in all four controlled databases.

Interestingly, the only painting illustrated in the paper — a portrait of Thomas Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Mary I. He helped build the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which was one of the causes of the separation of the English Church from union with the Holy See. Along with Thomas Cromwell, he supported the principle of royal supremacy. So he was the polar opposite of a “troublesome priest”. Interestingly, the algorithm examined Gerlach Flicke’s famous portrait of Cranmer and pronounced him untrustworthy. Which I’d say was a pretty shrewd assessment.


Jonathan Dancy’s British Academy memoir of Derek Parfit.

Whenever a Fellow of the British Academy dies, the Academy commissions another Fellow to write an extended memoir of him. (The Royal Society has a similar tradition.) Jonathan Dancy’s memoir of the Oxford Philosopher Derek Parfit is a gem. (And quite a long read.)

Parfit was a genius, but by the metric-driven standards of contemporary academia he would have had difficulty holding onto an academic post. I never knew him personally, but his wife, Janet Radcliffe Richards, was at one time a valued colleague of mine, and it was from her that I learned that in addition to being a distinguished philosopher he was also an interesting and fastidious photographer. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fabulous New Yorker profile of him in 2011. Here she is on his photographic habit:

Sometime after he gave up the idea of being a poet, Parfit developed a new aesthetic obsession: photography. He drifted into it—a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera—but later it occurred to him that his interest in committing to paper images of things he had seen might stem from his inability to hold those images in his mind. He also believed that most of the world looked better in reproduction than it did in life. There were only about ten things in the world he wanted to photograph, however, and they were all buildings: the best buildings in Venice—Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal—and the best buildings in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building.

His photographs are enigmatic and fascinating. Bryan Appleyard (himself a photographer) has a lovely New Statesman piece about an exhibition of them held in 2018.

His perfectionism in photography was as fierce as in his philosophy. Over about 25 years he shot thousands of rolls of film but he only believed he had made “about 120 good photographs”. There was method in this, an adaptation of his own sense of a shortcoming. “What he said about the whole project,” says Richards, “was that he wasn’t an artist but he was a good critic, so he took thousands and thousands of photographs and just selected the ones he thought were best.”

Sometimes his processing went wrong. Richards tells me that one St Petersburg picture was not displayed by the gallery because it was just too processed – “too CGI, too postcard”. And his favoured cities did not always co-operate. He eventually stopped going to St Petersburg because he said the snow had become the wrong colour and he abandoned photography altogether when he decided weather in general had changed.

From a distance Parfit struck me as an astonishing combination of formidable intellect and a kind of childlike innocence; and also as a thoroughly good person. Dancy’s memoir and MacFarquahar’s profile reinforce that impression.


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