Tuesday 26 May, 2020

The US has the President it deserves

From Dave Winer:

In The Atlantic Tom Nichols writes that Trump is not a manly president. I don’t particularly care for that approach, I think honor and modesty are traits that should apply regardless of gender. We have the president we deserve. We’re the country that went to war without a draft, whose citizens got tax cuts while at war, whose citizens expect more of that, to us it’s never enough. We expect to be able to inflict chaos around the world and somehow never to be touched by it ourselves. That’s why people are out partying with abandon this weekend. They can’t imagine they can pay a price. There’s a reason Vietnam is responding to the virus so incredibly well and we’re responding so poorly. They remember fighting for their independence. To us, independence is a birth right. A distant memory that’s become perverted. We have to fight for it again. The virus is giving us that chance. We can’t get out of the pandemic until we grow up as individuals and collectively. Trump is the right president for who we are. We won’t get a better one until we deserve a better one.

Amen.


What you need to know about Dominic Cummings

I’ve been reading Cummings’s blog since long before anyone had ever heard of him. Here’s what I’ve concluded from it…

  1. He’s a compulsive autodidact. Nothing wrong with that, but…

  2. He has sociopathic tendencies. (Some people who have worked with him might phrase it more strongly.)

  3. His great hero is Otto von Bismarck. Note that, and ponder.

  4. What turns him on are huge, bold projects carried out by people with vision, power, unlimited amounts of public money — and no political interference. Think Manhattan Project, Apollo Mission.

  5. So basically he’s a technocrat on steroids.

  6. He regards most professional politicians as imbeciles.

  7. Like many fanatics, he has a laser-like ability to clarify, and focus on, objectives.

  8. Johnson can’t get rid of him, because without Cummings he hasn’t a clue what to do. And that’s a big problem in the longer term because…

  9. Cummings knows how to campaign, and how to plan projects where there is hierarchy, authority and autocratic control but…

  10. He knows nothing about how to govern.

  11. And neither does Johnson

This will not end well.


Stuart Russell’s Turing Lecture

The Annual Turing Lecture was reconfigured to take account of Covid and so today was delivered remotely by Stuart Russell from California. The whole thing was recorded — link here. In essence it was a brief recap and extension of the arguments in his book  Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control.

Russell is a really major figure in the field of Artificial Intelligence (his and Peter’s Norvig’s  Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach is still the leading textbook), so the fact that he has become a vocal critic of the path the discipline is taking is significant.

Basically, he thinks that our current approach to the design of AI systems is misguided — and potentially catastrophic if in the end it does succeed in producing super intelligent machines. That’s because it’s based on a concept of intelligence that is flawed. It assumes that intelligence consists of the ability of a machine to achieve whatever objectives it’s been set by its designers. A superintelligent machine will achieve its objectives without any concern for the collateral damage that what might wreak. The elimination or sidelining of humanity might be one kind of collateral damage.

Russell uses a nice contemporary example to illustrate the point — the recommendation algorithm that YouTube uses to compile a list of videos you might be interested in seeing after you’ve finished the one you’re watching. The objective set by YouTube for the machine-learning algorithm is to maximise the time the user spends watching videos by finding ones similar to the current one. And it’s very good at doing that, which has some unanticipated consequences — including sometimes luring users down a wormhole of increasingly extreme content. The fact that YouTube has had this property was not the intention of Google — YouTube’s owner. It’s a consequence of the machine-learning algorithm’s success at achieving its objective.

The problem is, as Russell puts it, that humans are not great at specifying objectives wisely. It’s essentially the King Midas problem: he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. And his magical ‘machine’ achieved that objective. Which meant that in the end he starved to death. And the smarter the AI the worse the outcome will be if the objective it is set is wrong.

If AI is not to become an existential threat to humanity, Russell argues, then it has to take the form of machines which can cope with the fact that human purposes are often vague, contradictory and ill-thought-out, and so essentially what we need are machines that can infer human preferences from interaction and human behaviour.

It’s an intriguing, sweeping argument by a very thoughtful researcher. His book is great (I reviewed it a while back) and the lecture introduced it well and set it in a wider and comprehensible context.

It’s long — over an hour. But worth it.


Quarantine diary — Day 66

Link


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Monday 25 May, 2020

Fledging Day!

The Blue Tits in the nesting box outside the kitchen window fledged today.

Some of the kids were decidedly dubious about heading out into such a dangerous world, with paparazzi lurking everywhere. Quite right, too.

One was decidedly not amused to find me awaiting his maiden flight.


Pushing the Zoom envelope: the Amsterdam Cello Octet does it again

This is lovely — and inventive. Especially the way the home life of the musicians is subtly woven into the piece.

Link

Thanks to Gerard de Vries for spotting it.


Infuriated by the impunity with which Dominic Cummings was able to flout the lockdown rules?

If you are a UK voter and have a Tory MP, why not write to him or her letting know how you feel about Cummings’s impunity and Boris Johnson’s support for it?

It’s simple to do: just go to the MySociety Write to Them and the site will check your MP’s identity by your postcode and set up a form for composing and dispatching a suitable message to him or her.

I’ve just done it. It’s called giving feedback.


The benefits of taciturnity

Portrait of Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

Lovely LRB piece by Julian Barnes from 1987.

In Madrid the other week a literary journalist told me the following joke. A man goes into a pet shop and sees three parrots side by side, priced at $1000, $2000 and $3000. ‘Why does that parrot cost $1000?’ he asks the owner. ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in Spanish,’ comes the reply. ‘And why does that one cost $2000?’ ‘Because it can recite the whole of the Bible in English and in Spanish.’ ‘And the one that costs $3000, what does he recite?’ ‘Oh, he doesn’t say a word,’ explains the pet shop owner: ‘but the other two call him Maestro.’

This made me think, naturally enough, of E.M. Forster; and then of the fact that we were about to undergo the annual garrulity of the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Reminds me of that old adage of Abraham Lincoln’s: it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all room for doubt.

btw: When I was a student I went to E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party in King’s College, Cambridge in January 1969. When I tell people that, they check for the nearest exit, and when I tell them that the party was hosted by Francis Crick of DNA fame, they really run for cover. But it’s true: I was a member of the Cambridge Humanists and they held the party for him. Crick was at the time the Chairman of the Humanist society.

Remind me to tell you about the Boer War, sometime …


New life and an awareness of mortality

Kara Swisher has a baby daughter — at the age of 57. Don’t know how that happened, but she’s written about the differences it has made to her life under lockdown:

I am at the highest risk of our little quarantine group, as my 15-year-old has pointed out to me more than once. I assume it is his way of whistling past the grave in hopes that the grave does not whistle back.

But whistle it does, sometimes softly, like when I had a life-threatening stroke on a long-haul trip to China five years back, or more loudly, like when my father died unexpectedly more than 50 years ago from an aneurysm at 34 years old, at the start of what should have been a brilliant long life with his three children.

That is why I am thinking more often of math. Each of us has an exact number — whether it is of years, days, minutes or seconds. We don’t know our number, but it helps to keep in mind that this number exists.

I’m now more aware that our time here is finite. So I take an extra minute I might not have before watching my sons play with their new sister at the dinner table. It is a love that I did not expect to jell so quickly and so perfectly. My sons, with their phones down, are clapping their hands, making faces and doing anything they can to delight my daughter into yet another magnificent smile. Luckily for us, she is an endless font of those.


Covid is messing with machine-learning systems

You know those ‘recommender’ systems that tell you what you might be interested in based on your browsing or purchase history? Well, it turns out that the poor dears are mightily confused by our ‘weird’ behaviour during the pandemic. For example, once upon a time the top 100 searches on Amazon, say, would be mostly for gadgets — iPhone cases, battery packs, SSDs, etc. etc. And machine-learning systems trained on these searches have traditionally been good at extracting the trends from those patterns.

And then all of a sudden everybody is interested in quite different things. “In the week of April 12-18”, says an interesting Tech Review article by Will Douglas Heaven,

the top 10 search terms on Amazon.com were: toilet paper, face mask, hand sanitizer, paper towels, Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, mask, Lysol, masks for germ protection, and N95 mask. People weren’t just searching, they were buying too—and in bulk. The majority of people looking for masks ended up buying the new Amazon #1 Best Seller, “Face Mask, Pack of 50”.

What’s happening is that machine-learning systems trained on normal (i.e.pre-pandemic) human behavior are now finding that ‘normal’ has changed, and some are no longer working as they should.

But machine-learning isn’t just used for recommendations. Mr Heaven found a company in London, Phrasee ( Motto: “Empower your Brand with AI-Powered Copywriting”), which uses natural-language processing and machine learning to generate email marketing copy or Facebook ads on behalf of its clients.

Making sure that it gets the tone right is part of its job. Its AI works by generating lots of possible phrases and then running them through a neural network that picks the best ones. But because natural-language generation can go very wrong, Phrasee always has humans check what goes into and comes out of its AI.

When covid-19 hit, Phrasee realized that more sensitivity than usual might be required and started filtering out additional language. The company has banned specific phrases, such as “going viral,” and doesn’t allow language that refers to discouraged activities, such as “party wear.” It has even culled emojis that may be read as too happy or too alarming. And it has also dropped terms that may stoke anxiety, such as “OMG,” “be prepared,” “stock up,” and “brace yourself.” “People don’t want marketing to make them feel anxious and fearful—you know, like, this deal is about to run out, pressure pressure pressure,” says Parry Malm, the firm’s CEO.

If, like me, you are sceptical about the claims made for machine-learning technology, this kind of thing will be music to your ears. Though I doubt if the Spotify system that thinks it knows my musical tastes has made the necessary adjustment yet.


Quarantine diary — Day 65

Link


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Sunday 24 May, 2020

Get your t-shirt now!

From some genius on Twitter.


Quote of the Day

Social media has given new meaning to “the last post”. Many victims of Covid-19 live on through their final public words, the the Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, who died 11 days after recording a Facebook video scolding a woman for coughing on his bus without covering her mouth.”

  • Simon Kuper, Financial Times, May 23/24, 2020.

How the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory took hold

This morning’s Observer column:

To have one viral sensation, Oscar Wilde might have said, is unfortunate. But to have two smacks of carelessness. And that’s what we have. The first is Covid-19, about which much printer’s ink has already been spilled. The second is Plandemic, a 26-minute “documentary” video featuring Dr Judy Mikovits, a former research scientist and inveterate conspiracy theorist who blames the coronavirus outbreak on big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization. She also claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci) buried her research showing vaccines weaken people’s immune systems and made them more vulnerable to Covid-19. Just to round off the accusations, Mikovits claims that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus”. And, if proof were needed that the pharma-Gates-scientific-elite cabal were out to get her, the leading journal Science in 2011 retracted a paper by her on a supposed link between a retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome that it had accepted in 2009.

The video went online on 4 May when its maker, Mikki Willis, a hitherto little-known film producer, posted it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and a separate website set up to share the video…

Read on


A song for Dominic Cummings

This is so clever and witty. As accomplished in its way as anything Noel Coward ever wrote.

Link


Dr Doom explains

Nouriel Roubini is not everybody’s cup of tea, but he saw the 2008 banking crisis coming and he doesn’t see many good outcomes for the aftermath of Covid-19.

New York magazine has an interesting interview with him. Here’s the bit that really interested me:

Q: Some Trumpian nationalists and labor-aligned progressives might see an upside in your prediction that America is going to bring manufacturing back “onshore.” But you insist that ordinary Americans will suffer from the downsides of reshoring (higher consumer prices) without enjoying the ostensible benefits (more job opportunities and higher wages). In your telling, onshoring won’t actually bring back jobs, only accelerate automation. And then, again with automation, you insist that Americans will suffer from the downside (unemployment, lower wages from competition with robots) but enjoy none of the upside from the productivity gains that robotization will ostensibly produce. So, what do you say to someone who looks at your forecast and decides that you are indeed “Dr. Doom” — not a realist, as you claim to be, but a pessimist, who ignores the bright side of every subject?

Roubini: When you reshore, you are moving production from regions of the world like China, and other parts of Asia, that have low labor costs, to parts of the world like the U.S. and Europe that have higher labor costs. That is a fact. How is the corporate sector going respond to that? It’s going to respond by replacing labor with robots, automation, and AI.

I was recently in South Korea. I met the head of Hyundai, the third-largest automaker in the world. He told me that tomorrow, they could convert their factories to run with all robots and no workers. Why don’t they do it? Because they have unions that are powerful. In Korea, you cannot fire these workers, they have lifetime employment.

But suppose you take production from a labor-intensive factory in China — in any industry — and move it into a brand-new factory in the United States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are going to design that factory to use as few workers as you can. Any new factory in the U.S. is going to be capital-intensive and labor-saving. It’s been happening for the last ten years and it’s going to happen more when we reshore. So reshoring means increasing production in the United States but not increasing employment. Yes, there will be productivity increases. And the profits of those firms that relocate production may be slightly higher than they were in China (though that isn’t certain since automation requires a lot of expensive capital investment).

But you’re not going to get many jobs. The factory of the future is going to be one person manning 1,000 robots and a second person cleaning the floor. And eventually the guy cleaning the floor is going to be replaced by a Roomba because a Roomba doesn’t ask for benefits or bathroom breaks or get sick and can work 24-7.

The fundamental problem today is that people think there is a correlation between what’s good for Wall Street and what’s good for Main Street. That wasn’t even true during the global financial crisis when we were saying, “We’ve got to bail out Wall Street because if we don’t, Main Street is going to collapse.” How did Wall Street react to the crisis? They fired workers. And when they rehired them, they were all gig workers, contractors, freelancers, and so on. That’s what happened last time. This time is going to be more of the same. Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.

There’s a conflict between workers and capital. For a decade, workers have been screwed. Now, they’re going to be screwed more. There’s a conflict between small business and large business.


And I thought I was enraged by the current UK government…

Well, AL Kennedy is even more infuriated — see her piece in today’s Observer For example:

For a few weeks I had red eyes, a strangled cough, an invisible shovel repeatedly hitting my head and something I visualised as a tiny rabbit kicking about in my chest. But I’m not dead, thanks to austerity and all those thought experiments, that’s now a wonderful luxury, an unlooked-for plus in British life. I locked myself away, just to be sure I didn’t share the plague (sorry, Dom) and I’m OK now. I function. Or maybe I was never ill, because any prolonged reflection upon our national circumstances produces identical symptoms. I suffer from fury. I beg your pardon, The Fury. Or, indeed, THE FURY.

I mean, it’s not just anger any more, is it? It’s not any kind of emotion on a familiar human scale, not after all this. Not after the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Not after the nurses, teachers, doctors, bus drivers, carers, checkout staff, warehouse staff – the whole army of the useful now declared expendable. Not after people who know their jobs may kill them, may send them home infected, but they go to work anyway to keep everything running, to save us, and still they don’t get adequate pay, or equipment, or even respect. Not after our leaders always have time for racism and PR, but never for even the level of planning you’d put into a sandwich. Not after millions of us have lain awake, just hoping the people we love won’t die. Not after the drowning on dry land alone, after the mourning. Not after the Brexit cult’s insistence that no-deal Brexit must still be imposed, so hop into the wood-chipper, everyone still standing. Not after Stay Alert.

We’re quiet now – we’re trying to save each other, staying home, not forming crowds, thinking, planning. But un-isolated life will eventually recommence. We’ll remember our wounds. We’ll remember who helped and who harmed. And, pardon my language, but our government is fucking terrified of what happens then.

Yep.


That Larry Summers interview

Terrific interview with the former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard President. Long read, but mostly worth it.

Some highlights

On US-China relations…

we need to craft a relationship with China from the principles of mutual respect and strategic reassurance, with rather less of the feigned affection that there has been in the past. We are not partners. We are not really friends. We are entities that find ourselves on the same small lifeboat in turbulent waters a long way from shore. We need to be pulling in unison if things are to work for either of us. If we can respect each other’s roles, respect our very substantial differences, confine our spheres of negotiation to those areas that are most important for cooperation, and represent the most fundamental interests of our societies, we can have a more successful co-evolution that we have had in recent years.

On globalisation…

We have done too much management of globalization for the benefit of those in Davos, and too little for the benefit of those in Detroit or Dusseldorf. Over the last two decades, better intellectual property protection for Mickey Mouse and Hollywood movies has been an A level economic issue. Better global tax cooperation, so that tech companies’ profits do not locate themselves in cyberspace and entirely escape taxation, has been a B-level issue. Achieving better market access for derivatives dealers has been an A-level global economic issue, while assuring that bank secrecy does not permit large-scale money laundering has been a B-level economic cooperation issue. The protection of foreign investors’ property rights has been an A-level issue, and the maintenance of worker standards, or the avoidance of unfair competition through exchange rate depreciation, has been a B-level issue. And ultimately, that has all estranged the elite from those they aspire to lead.

Someone put it to me this way: First, we said that you are going to lose your job, but it was okay because when you got your new one, you were going to have higher wages thanks to lower prices because of international trade. Then we said that your company was going to move your job overseas, but it was really necessary because if we didn’t do that, then your company was going to be less competitive. Now we’re saying that we have to cut the taxes on those companies and cut the calculus class from your kid’s high school, because otherwise we won’t be able to attract companies to the United States, and you have to pay higher taxes and live with fewer services. At a certain point, people say, “This whole global thing doesn’t work for me,” and they have a point.

On regulation…

So the case for regulation is not to be anti-business. Regulation needs to be supported because it enables the vast majority of businesses who want to do right by society to do so and still be able to compete. That’s how the case for regulation needs to be framed. We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society.We should not be waging jihad against business. We should be waging jihad against those who put profit ahead of every other value in the society. And that’s where in the emphasis on profit, we have gone a bit awry.

On tax and taxation policy…

The single easiest answer is that we could raise well over a trillion dollars over the next decade by simply enforcing the tax law that we have against people with high incomes. Natasha Sarin and I made this case and generated a revenue estimate some time ago. If we just restored the IRS to its previous size, judged relatively to the economy; if we moved past the massive injustice represented by the fact that you’re more likely to get audited if you receive the earned income tax credit (EITC) than if you earn $300,000 a year or more; if we made plausible use of information technology and the IRS got to where the credit card companies were 20 years ago, in terms of information technology-matching; and if we required of those who make shelter investments the kind of regular reporting that we require of cleaning women, we would raise, by my estimate, over a trillion dollars. Former IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, who knows more about it than I do, thinks the figure is closer to $2 trillion. That’s where we should start.

Over time I think we are going to need a larger public sector in the United States to deal with the challenges of a more complex world: an aging society, more inequality that requires mitigation, and a huge change in the relative price of the things the public sector buys, like healthcare and education. We’re going to need more revenue, beyond the unsustainable borrowing that we’re engaged in now. But the first way to get it is enforcing the law we have, which will raise substantial revenue progressively and in ways that will actually promote economic efficiency.

On raising the minimum wage and Universal Basic Income (UBI)…

I do support raising the minimum wage. It’s a matter of balance. I don’t think the minimum wage was doing any significant damage in terms of causing unemployment when Ronald Reagan was president, and the federal minimum wage is now substantially lower, after adjusting for inflation, than it was at that time. I believe raising the minimum wage would help a lot of people who are in substantial need.

I’m not enthusiastic about a universal basic income because the fact that it is so poorly targeted, precisely because of its universality, mean that it will either be prohibitively expensively or will not provide adequate benefits to the poor. Imagine a universal basic income could pay $10,000 per person—that would require nearly a doubling in the federal budget, or more than a doubling in federal tax collection, in order to finance it. That doesn’t seem to me to be remotely tenable. If you make it inexpensive, then you’re not going to be doing very much to help poor people.

On where he disagrees with Keynes’s 1930 essay on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”…

There’s a lot of empirical evidence since Keynes wrote, and for every non-employed middle-aged man who’s learning to play the harp or to appreciate the Impressionists, there are a hundred who are drinking beer, playing video games, and watching 10 hours of TV a day.

Great stuff. The only thing the US now needs is a President who isn’t a toddler.


Quarantine diary — Day 64

Link

Errata The author of Universal Man: the seven lives of John Maynard Keynes mentioned in yesterday’s Diary is Richard (not Rupert) Davenport-Hines. Many thanks to Gordon Johnson for alerting me to the error.


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Saturday 23 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“In establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest.”


The Immoral Equivalent of War

Bracing essay by Deirdre McCloskey. It’s a long read, so make some coffee, mute your phone and tell everybody that you will Zoom them later.

Sample:

And so, if the government has failed to do the epidemiologically and economically rational coercion early in a plague with a high R-naught—which is to jump on it early, as Korea and Singapore and even Hong Kong and Iceland and Vietnam did, and to test, test, test, and trace, trace, trace—then all that can be done even approximately rationally is mass quarantine. It’s the medieval technique. It works, with the horrible result of further impoverishing the poor. For it to work, if you are in the Middle Ages or if the testing has been mismanaged for two months running as it was under Skeptical Trump and his incompetent Centers for Disease Control, quarantine has to be imposed on everyone. In the absence of quick and cheap testing (let us again pray), everyone is suspect. The reasoning implies that the belated state apply the coercion as quickly as it can muster the political will, a reasoning which in April 2020 escaped the governors “opening the economies” of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina (South Carolina “too small to be a nation, too large to be an insane asylum”). Even rationalist France was not quick enough.

It’s like a goalie handling a tough shot. The coaching advice is, “Cut off the angle. Don’t let the attacker play you.” That is, step towards the attacker, to limit him to a narrower angle for the shot. Don’t hang back on your line. The US and France hung back. Some fellow democracies such as South Korea did not, and therefore have not had to adopt the medieval coercion of mass quarantine. Tyrannies like China and the Russian Federation tried early on to get away with suppressing the truth, as is their nature, and so did their friend Trump. (Vietnam, also a tyranny, did not.)

It would be like the goalie claiming that the ball never came close to him. Hey, as Trump said, I don’t take any responsibility. Or that the shot is fake news, or a conspiracy by CNN or other enemies of the people. In 1954 on returning from the Soviet Union Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Liberty of criticism in the USSR is total.” Ha, ha. Eventually China, as will Russia next month, reverted to comprehensive coercion, as tyrannies do, forever. But now even reasonably liberal democracies like the US and France have to coerce, “for the time being,” they say.

I was particularly struck by this sentence later in the essay:

“The war criminal, Nobel peace laureate, and wit Henry Kissinger used to say that France was ‘the only successful communist country.'”

And was then reminded of Tom Lehrer saying that “Satire died the day that Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize” after bombing the shit out of Cambodia.

The essay is forthcoming (I think) in Le Grand Continent.


A no-deal Brexit amid the pandemic would be a disaster

I regularly talk to middle-rank to senior civil servants and therefore have known for three years that the government has effectively been drained of cognitive and policy bandwidth by the fumbling of negotiations and preparations for Brexit by the May and later the Johnson cabinets . There were times when it seemed that the entire Whitehall system was occupied by the complications surrounding departure from the EU. When one asked civil servants about, say, regulation of Internet companies, the most one got was a regretful shrug.

But if the Administration had little capacity for thinking about anything other than Brexit before Covid struck, imagine what it’s like now. It seems absolutely clear that they are not going to be capable of negotiating a sensible exit before the effective deadline — which is around July. The implication is that the UK will leave the EU without any kind of deal.

“This would seem inconceivable”, writes Martin Wolf in the Financial Times “if the government were not led by Boris Johnson. The idea seems to be that, in the midst of the pandemic, nobody would notice the additional disruption imposed by an overnight break in economic relations with the country’s most important partners and eternal neighbours”.

Wolf then sets out seven reasons why this is disgraceful.

In summary, they are:

  1. It’s not what the Leave campaign actually promised. The country was repeatedly told it would be easy to secure an excellent free trade agreement, because it held “all the cards”.
  2. The notion of some economists that Brexit would lead to unilateral free trade has also proved a fantasy. The UK has published a tariff schedule that is far from free trade.
  3. The UK is breaking its word. In order to reach his exit deal last October, Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs area and single market. But standard customs and regulatory checks must be imposed in the Irish Sea if the EU’s customs area and single market is not to be vulnerable to transshipment via the UK. Either Johnson does not understand this, which would be stupid, or he does, which means he has wittingly lied.
  4. The political declaration accompanying October’s exit agreement accepted the EU’s condition that the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition  — including appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement — on regulatory and trading standards.
  5. The globalising world economy assumed by Leave in the referendum campaign no longer exists.
  6. We are in the grip of a pandemic-induced depression of vast magnitude and unknown duration. It is a good bet that, at the end of 2020, the UK economy will still be very depressed, with damaged businesses and frighteningly high unemployment. That would hardly be a good time to add to the shocks already crippling the economy.
  7. The longer-run outcomes of the pandemic will probably include permanently lower output, as happened after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Over and above that will now come a huge trade shock from an ultra-hard Brexit.

If we want evidence that Johnson really has grown up, then seeking an extension of the negotiations would be the proof of it. But I’m not holding my breath. We are governed by a combination of fanatics, amateurs and the odd imbecile.


Clapping for the NHS is fine but…

I’ve been uneasy from the outset about the ‘clapping for the NHS’ ritual. Although many people who participated were undoubtedly sincere — it looked suspiciously like virtue-signalling or gesture politics — the moral equivalent of ‘liking’ a moving Facebook post on human rights abuses without being willing to take some personal action to help contest the abuse.

The questions I want to ask people clapping are, for example, whether they will stop purchasing the Daily Mail, the Express, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph — newspapers which for generations have pumped out unfounded, opportunistic and mischievous stories designed to undermine the NHS while still pretending to admire it as ‘a great national treasure. Or whether they will stop voting for right-wing Tory MPs whose dearest wish is to privatise the NHS under cover of ‘modernising’ it. Or will they now support higher taxes to ensure that lowly NHS staff who are as important to making the service work (junior doctors, nurses, lab technicians, porters) as well-remunerated consultants (many with extensive private practices) get paid properly.

And the same goes for all those other ‘critical’ workers we have recently discovered — many of whom live one pay check away from financial crisis.

What NHS staff and all those other critical workers deserve is less sentiment and more political action.

See also “Let’s stop clapping for the NHS, says woman who started the ritual”.


Do you know enough to get a job as a contact tracer?

After all, it’s not rocket science. And it’s got nothing to do with apps, really.

ProPublica has an online quiz to see how well you know the fundamentals of contact tracing.

My answer: Not very well :-(

But then I’m under lockdown, so I couldn’t offer my services, anyway!


Quarantine diary — Day 63

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Friday 22 May, 2020

So what day is it, actually?

Seen in a tech company office the other day.


Nearly half of Twitter accounts tweeting about Coronavirus are probably bots

Interesting report from NPR.

Nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages on the social media platform about the coronavirus pandemic are likely bots, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday.

Researchers culled through more than 200 million tweets discussing the virus since January and found that about 45% were sent by accounts that behave more like computerized robots than humans.

It is too early to say conclusively which individuals or groups are behind the bot accounts, but researchers said the tweets appeared aimed at sowing division in America.

This vividly reinforces the message in Phil Howard’s new bookLie machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations and Political Operatives, (Yale, 2020) — which I’m currently reading.

Also it hardly needs saying (does it?) but nobody should think that what happens on Twitter provides a guide to what is actually going on in the real world. It’d be good if more journalists realised that.


Main Street in America: 62 Photos That Show How COVID-19 Changed the Look of Everyday Life

Lovely set of pics from an Esquire magazine project. Still photography reaches parts of the psyche that video can’t touch.

Lots of interesting photographs. Worth a look. But give it time.


Everybody knows…

A reader (to whom much thanks) was struck by my (corrected) reference to Joni Mitchell the other day and sent me a clip from Leonard Cohen’s song, Everybody Knows. This bit in particular strikes home:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died


We need power-steering for the mind, not autonomous vehicles

Following on from yesterday’s discussion of humans being treated as ‘moral crumple zones’ for the errors of so-called autonomous systems, there’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times on Ben Schneiderman, a great computer scientist (and an expert on human-computer interaction), who has been campaigning for years to get the more fanatical wing of the AI industry to recognise that what humanity needs is not so much fully-autonomous systems as ones that augment human capabilities.

This is a a debate that goes back at least to the 1960s when the pioneers of networked computing like JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart argued that the purpose of computers is to augment human capabilities (provide “power-steering for the mind” is how someone once put it) rather than taking humans out of the loop. What else, for example, is Google search than a memory prosthesis for humanity? In other words an augmentation.

This clash of worldviews comes to a head in many fields now — employment, for example. There’s not much argument, I guess, about building machines to do work that is really dangerous or psychologically damaging. Think of bomb disposal, on the one hand, or mindlessly repetitive tasks that in the end sap the humanity out of workers and are very badly paid. These are areas where, if possible, humans should be taken out of the loop.

But autonomous vehicles — aka self-driving cars — represent a moment where the two mindsets really collide. Lots of corporations (Uber, for instance) can’t wait for the moment when they can dispense with those tiresome human drivers. At the moment, they are frustrated by two categories of obstacle.

  1. The first is a lack (still) of technological competence: the kit still isn’t up to the job of managing the complexity of edge cases — where is where the usefulness of humans as crumple zones comes in, because they act as ‘responsibility sponges’ for corporations.

  2. The second is the colossal infrastructural changes that society would have to make if autonomous vehicles were to become a reality. AI evangelists will say that these changes are orders of magnitude less than the changes that were made in order to accommodate the traditional automobile. But nobody has yet made an estimate of the costs to society of changing the infrastructure of cities to accommodate the technology. And of course these costs will be borne more by taxpayers rather than the corporations who profit from the cost-reductions implicit in not employing drivers. It’ll be the usual scenario: the privatisation of profits, and the socialisation of costs.

Into this debate steps Ben Schneiderman., a University of Maryland computer scientist who has for decades warned against blindly automating tasks with computers. He thinks that the tech industry’s vision of fully-automated cars is misguided and dangerous. Robots should collaborate with humans, he believes, rather than replace them.

Late last year, Dr. Shneiderman embarked on a crusade to convince the artificial intelligence world that it is heading in the wrong direction. In February, he confronted organizers of an industry conference on “Assured Autonomy” in Phoenix, telling them that even the title of their conference was wrong. Instead of trying to create autonomous robots, he said, designers should focus on a new mantra, designing computerized machines that are “reliable, safe and trustworthy.”

There should be the equivalent of a flight data recorder for every robot, Dr. Shneiderman argued.

I can see why the tech industry would like to get rid of human drivers. On balance, roads would be a lot safer. But there is an intermediate stage that is achievable and would greatly improve safety without imposing a lot of the social costs of accommodating fully autonomous vehicles. It’s an evolutionary path involving the steady accumulation of the driver-assist technologies that already exist.

I happen to like driving — at least some kinds of driving, anyway. I’ve been driving since 1971 and have — mercifully — never had a serious accident. But on the other hand, I’ve had a few near-misses where lack of attention on my part, or on the part of another driver, could have had serious consequences.

So what I’d like is far more technology-driven assistance. I’ve found cruise-control very helpful — especially for ensuring that I obey speed-limits. And sensors that ensure that when parking I don’t back into other vehicles. But I’d also like forward-facing radar that, in slow-moving traffic, would detect when I’m too close to a car in front and apply the brakes if necessary — and spot a fox running across the road on a dark rainy night. I’d like lane-assist tech that would spot when I’m wandering on a motorway, and all-round video cameras that would overcome the blind-spots in mirrors and a self-parking system. And so on. All of this kit already exists, and if widely deployed would make driving much safer and more enjoyable. None of it requires the massive breakthroughs that current autonomous systems require. No rocket science required. Just common sense.

The important thing to remember is that this isn’t just about cars, but about AI-powered automation generally. As the NYT piece points out, the choice between elimination or augmentation is going to become even more important when the world’s economies eventually emerge from the devastation of the pandemic and millions who have lost their jobs try to return to work. A growing number of them will find they are competing with or working side by side with machines. And under the combination of neoliberal obsessions about eliminating as much labour as possible, and punch-drunk acceptance of tech visionary narratives, the danger is that societies will plump for elimination, with all the dangers for democracy that that could imply.


A note from your University about its plans for the next semester

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff —

After careful deliberation, we are pleased to report we can finally announce that we plan to re-open campus this fall. But with limitations. Unless we do not. Depending on guidance, which we have not yet received.

Please know that we eventually will all come together as a school community again. Possibly virtually. Probably on land. Maybe some students will be here? Perhaps the RAs can be let in to feed the lab rats?

We plan to follow the strictest recommended guidance from public health officials, except in any case where it might possibly limit our major athletic programs, which will proceed as usual…

From McSweeney’s


Quarantine diary — Day 62

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Wednesday 20 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

So, the way we’re dealing with the new coronavirus is the way computer newbies deal with computer viruses. I know because I have supported a virus neophyte, my mom. The current US govt is behaving pretty much the way she would. She didn’t want to learn the rules, and she wanted to pretend it was okay, get back to business as usual (checking her email, writing a blog post). All the while she’s got something watching and recording her every move and looking for a chance to infect some other computer.


How Trump plays the US media

Jack Shafer sees through it:

While the admission makes Trump look as scientifically minded as an unsegmented worm—hydroxychloroquine has not been shown to be safe or effective in the treatment or prevention of Covid-19—the attention generated was worth it, like swapping a pawn for a bishop. The hydroxychloroquine confession didn’t displace the IG story from the news, but it wasn’t expected to. Both the New York Times and Washington Post made Trump’s dreams come true by putting the story on Page One of their Tuesday editions (Times: “President Says He Takes Drug Deemed a Risk”; Post: “Trump Says He’s Taking Unproven Medication”) and after being featured on Monday cable news the talking heads were still gabbing about it on Tuesday afternoon as he hyped the drug anew during a press spray. Monday evening, the White House added some frosting to the hydroxychloroquine cake by releasing a note from the president’s physician that went on and on about the drug but didn’t actually claim that he had prescribed it to Trump or that Trump was even taking it. There would be fewer questions about Trump and hydroxychloroquine if the White House had released no note at all.

Trump’s disclosure on Monday about taking hydroxychloroquine was a decoy move, designed to deflect public—and press—attention from his firing of the State Department inspector general, which broke over the weekend. And it worked.

In manipulating US media, Trump is a genius — an evil one, sure, but very good at what he does.


Botch on the Rhine

Wonderful NYRB review by Max Hastings of Anthony Beevor’s history of the Arnhem fiasco in 1944. Some parts of Beevor’s account bring Colonel Johnson (Lt Brigade, rtd.) to mind.

The operation to capture the Rhine bridge was a fiasco. So, asks Hastings, how did it come about?

It was chiefly a consequence of hubris—a belief that, after the Allies’ dramatic August breakout from Normandy, Hitler’s armies were on the ropes. Britain’s commander-in-chief, the newly promoted field marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, stood by a dusty French roadside urging an armored column roaring past: “On to the kill!” This was not merely theater for the benefit of such listening war correspondents as my father: Monty really believed it. Thus he made one of the most grievous strategic errors of the northwest Europe campaign, declining to hasten troops to clear the approaches to the Scheldt River, without which the newly captured port of Antwerp was useless, as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay warned him. Instead, he launched the most reckless thrust of his career, seeking to seize the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem.

The principal objective of that thrust, known as Operation Market Garden, was to force the hand not of Hitler, but of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. If the British secured a corridor beyond the Rhine, Ike would be obliged to support a drive from the north led by Montgomery into Germany: the cocky little bishop’s son saw before him the prospect of passing into history as the composer and conductor of Western Allied victory.

Outside the paywall and worth a read. And Anthony Beevor is clearly a great historian.


The Trouble with comparisons

Fabulous essay by Samuel Moyn on the way historical analogies and comparisons may blind us to actuality. Case study: our analyses of Trump.

For those doubtful about the fascism analogy for Trumpism—and I count myself as one of them—the point is to appreciate both continuity and novelty better than the comparison allows. Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of “normalcy” but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him. Comparison to Nazism and fascism imminently threatening to topple democracy distracts us from how we made Trump over decades, and implies that the coexistence of our democracy with long histories of killing, subjugation, and terror—including its most recent, if somewhat sanitized, forms of mass incarceration and rising inequality at home, and its tenuous empire and regular war-making abroad—was somehow less worth the alarm and opprobrium. Selective outrage after 2016 says more about the outraged than the outrageous.

It is no contradiction to add to this qualm that comparing our current situation in America to fascism also spares ourselves the trouble of analyzing what is really new about it. For all its other virtues, comparison in general does not do well with the novelty that Trump certainly represents, for all of his preconditions and sources. It is true that in the face of novelty, analogy with possible historical avatars is indispensable, to abate confusion and to seek orientation. But there is no doubt that it often compounds the confusion as the ghosts of the past are allowed to walk again in a landscape that has changed profoundly. Comparison is always a risky tool; it leads to blindness, not just insight.

Terrific essay.


The Coronavirus diaries of Samuel Pepys

Nice spoof, if the few fragmentary entries are anything to go by. Here’s the entry for March 9th:

Up betimes and by tube to Westminster, and there busy with several business all morning, for our firm intends a splendid show at the conference in the middle of this month. Then comes the intern to my office like a doting fool, and proves himself an ass talking excitedly of this plague come late out of China, which, he says, is now in Italy. Of which, my wife and I having had no Wi-Fi this last month, I know nothing, only to see how vexed this blockhead intern was did almost make me fearful myself. Yet I remembered talking with my Lord and Lady touching this matter, and him very skeptical, and my lady said to me, ‘What, Mr Pepys – shall’t die of a hiccough at the last?’ And at this jest we were all very merry. Thence home to sing with my wife in the garden, but with much trouble, for it was bitterly cold. And so to bed, our iPhones left downstairs as is now our custom.


Scientists (epidemiologists) and spooks are not all that different: they all just want to know everything

Interesting post from 2006 by the sociologist Kieran Healey, which sheds light on the current debates about contact-tracing apps, health data and privacy.

Scientists and spies are not so different. The intelligence community’s drive to find the truth, to uncover the real structure of things, is similar to what motivates natural or social scientists. For that reason, I can easily understand why the people at the NSA would have been drawn to build a database like the one they have assembled. The little megalomaniac that lives inside any data-collecting scientist (“More detail! More variables! More coverage!”) thrills at the thought of what you could do with a database like that. Think of the possibilities! What’s frightening is that the NSA is much less constrained than the rest of us by money, or resources, or—it seems—the law. To them, Borges’ map must seem less like a daydream and more like a design challenge. In Kossinets and Watts’ study, the population of just one university generated more than 14 million emails. That gives you a sense of how enormous the NSA’s database of call records must be. In the social sciences, Institutional Review Boards set rules about what you can do to people when you’re researching them. Social scientists often grumble about IRBs and their stupid regulations, but they exist for a good reason. To be blunt, scientists are happy to do just about anything in the pursuit of better knowledge, unless there are rules that say otherwise. The same is true of the government, and the people it employs to spy on our behalf. They only want to find things out, too. But just as in science, that’s not the only value that matters.


Quarantine diary — Day 60

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ERRATA Thanks to the many readers who wrote tactfully to point out that my attribution of the lyrics “Don’t it always seem to go and you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” to Kate Bush was wrong. The credit should go to Joni MItchell.

The one thing that always amazes me is the depth of my ignorance. Which is why I love the response Dr Johnson made to the lady who asked him to explain how he had come wrongly to define “pastern” as “the knee of a horse” in his Dictionary. “Ignorance, Madam”, he replied. “Pure ignorance”.


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Saturday 16 May, 2020

The Brexit app

Why should proximity-sensing apps be restricted to detecting people who might be infected with a mere virus? Robert Shrimsley of the FT thinks we should also have an app “tailored to your political persuasion so that you never have to meet anyone with the opposite view on leaving the EU. This way you can create the perfect real world filter bubble. If you are a Remainer, the effect will be rather like living in Richmond.”


John Gray’s version of the future is the most realistic one

Yesterday I mentioned John Gray’s insight that the best guide to a post-Covid future is not provided by past pandemics but by 9/11. Our world was dramatically changed by that terrorist attack and the subsequent reactions of Western societies to the danger of Islamic terrorism. What made it especially difficult was, as one very senior British government official once put it to me, “there’s nobody one can negotiate with; and nothing one can negotiate about”. (This was in 2007; he was talking about the difference between Islamic terrorism and the IRA.) 9/11 added new layers of friction and difficulty to our lives. We felt it most directly in relation to air travel, but it manifested itself in countless other areas too — for example in onerous checks on any large bank transfer, records of travel to certain parts of the world, YouTube videos that were risky to watch, and so on. But we got used to it and put up with it, patiently putting our liquids into transparent plastic bags, taking off belts and shoes, leaving pen-knives at home whenever we went through an airport, etc.

Covid-19 will have similar long-term effects, introducing another layer of friction into our lives. Social distancing will be a norm for a long time — maybe 4 years until a reliable vaccine arrives and is distributed effectively. Everyone being expected to wear a mask in public. Travellers to other countries will have to produce a certificate of immunity, like the Rabies certificates currently required when transporting dogs. Many of the most basic acts of human solidarity — hugging or kissing someone, even shaking hands will continue to be verboten. And every stranger is potentially a risk.

We’ll adapt to this. Humans always do. But our lives will be marginally or even greatly impoverished for a long time to come. That’s why this pandemic is a crisis: crises really change things.

There is, however, one difference from 9/11’s impact: whereas Islamic terrorists wanted to destroy Western ‘infidel’ society, the virus has no interest in doing anything other than surviving and reproducing. There’s no ‘enemy’ to fear or hate or negotiate with. (Which of course is the aspect of the virus that so discombobulates Trump, and why he’s trying to pin it on China.)


The Richest Neighborhoods Emptied Out Most as Coronavirus Hit New York City

Headline on an interesting New York Times story. Data from a variety of sources suggest that the affluent areas of the city emptied out quickly and most comprehensively. In his Journal of a Plague Year Daniel Defoe described the same phenomenon in London in 1655.

Plus ca change.

It’s never the case that “we’re all in it together”.


Why those who can ‘work from home’ remain paid and valued — even if they’re doing very little — while others simply have to go out to work if they want to be valued

Lovely essay by Will Davies on the liberal and neoliberal concepts of people as economic agents. In the (classic) liberal view, workers are essentially ‘hired hands’, and the neoliberal idea that people are ‘social capital’

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks … but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

Davies thinks that this explains how the politics of the Coronavirus is now playing out.

If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

Great stuff from one of the sharpest minds around.


Quarantine diary — Day 56

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Friday 15 May, 2020

Food deliveries continue during the pandemic

From our kitchen window, this morning.


Contrary to what you might think from watching Fox News, most Americans are sane

Link

HT to Ed Murphy for the link.


A foreign perspective on the UK’s handling of the pandemic

Sometimes, when one is caught up in everyday events, it’s useful to find out how the UK looks to interested outsiders.

The New York Times‘s The Daily podcast had a really useful episode on this the other day. I liked it, of course, because it analysed Boris Johnson’s behaviour in the same way that I have, but still…

I’m still amazed (and infuriated) by the cunning he displayed having escaped with his life — to wrap himself in the NHS flag.

The podcast is really worth listening to.


And why is nobody talking about the European country — Greece — that has handled this crisis best?


Books really do furnish a Zoom

My riff in Quarantine Diary on Tuesday’s blog was partly inspired by an interesting new Twitter account which specialises in the semiotics of people’s bookcases in the background of their Zoom appearances. Its motto is “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”

Here’s an example of one of the tweets — in this case featuring John Sweeney, the celebrated roughhousing investigative journalist.

Lovely idea: smart and witty. And perceptive, sometimes.


John Gray and the resumption of history

John Gray has a knack of making one see current events from novel perspectives. He’s been writing consistently interesting stuff about the significance and likely impact of the Coronovirus, and this new essay in Unherd is no exception. He doesn’t think much of the prevailing idea that life after the virus will be much as before, only a bit worse. “When you read diaries of people who lived through the revolution in Russia”, he writes,

you find them looking on in disbelief as the vast, centuries-old empire of the Romanovs melted into nothing in a matter of months. Few then accepted that the world they knew had gone forever. Even so, they were haunted by the suspicion that it would not return. Many had a similar experience in continental Europe when the Great War destroyed what Stefan Zweig, in his elegiac memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), called “the world of security”.

As for now,

Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable. Probably a vaccine will be developed along with treatments that reduce the virus’ lethality. But this will likely take years, and in the meantime our lives will have altered beyond recognition. Even when it arrives, a deus ex machina will not dispel popular dread of another wave of infections or a new virus. More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways.

The relevant comparison, he thinks, is not with previous pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, but instead the more recent impact of terrorism.

The numbers killed in terrorist incidents may be small. But the threat is endemic, and the texture of everyday life has altered profoundly. Video cameras and security procedures in public places have become part of the way we live.

Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The old life of carefree human intermingling will fast slip from memory.

That echoes what I used to think every time I flew after 9/11 — standing in long queues at airports, having to take out laptops and remove jackets, shoes and belts, put liquids into transparent plastic bags — the whole paraphenalia of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theatre’. And all because a smallish group of fanatics hijacked four planes and changed the world.

This time the relevant agent, though, is a spherical virus less than a micron in diameter.

Great essay; worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 55

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Wednesday 13 May, 2020

Quarantine cat #1

So… are you gonna feed me or not?


Summary of Boris Johnson’s Guidance to the British public

That’s about it.


Ian Berry’s Leica M3

A real workhorse, used by a great Magnum photographer. Illustrates why people buy Leica gear. My M4 is still going strong. But then it hasn’t had that kind of battering.

From Douglas So’s collection of vintage Leicas.

(Apologies to non-photographers: this post should be categorised as ‘camera porn’. As Miss Jean Brodie used to say of chemistry: “For those who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like”. In 2014 I wrote a long essay about my lifelong — and expensive — relationship with Leica cameras.)


How Covid-19 spreads

Erin Bromage is a Comparative Immunologist and Professor of Biology (specializing in Immunology) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who balances Teaching, Research and Public Service (that is, when she and her colleagues are allowed in their labs). “This past semester”, she writes, “I taught a class on Ecology of Infectious Disease to undergraduate students. I always like to have a current disease example as a common thread throughout the course. So in January, when I was putting the syllabus for my course together, I saw a pathogen emerging in China and decided to incorporate it. Since early January my students and I have been developing and updating a huge notice board of information outside my laboratory on the new research findings to track the pathogen’s progression.”

Her blog has expanded greatly both in content and readership since she started it. I was particularly struck by a set of case studies she includes about how the pathogen spreads in different settings. Here’s the ‘Restaurant’ one:

Restaurants: Some really great shoe-leather epidemiology demonstrated clearly the effect of a single asymptomatic carrier in a restaurant environment (see below). The infected person (A1) sat at a table and had dinner with 9 friends. Dinner took about 1 to 1.5 hours. During this meal, the asymptomatic carrier released low-levels of virus into the air from their breathing. Airflow (from the restaurant’s various airflow vents) was from right to left. Approximately 50% of the people at the infected person’s table became sick over the next 7 days. 75% of the people on the adjacent downwind table became infected. And even 2 of the 7 people on the upwind table were infected (believed to happen by turbulent airflow). No one at tables E or F became infected, they were out of the main airflow from the air conditioner on the right to the exhaust fan on the left of the room.

Click on the image to see a bigger version.

Not good news for restaurant owners, I’m afraid, as we emerge from lockdown.


Facebook will pay $52 million in settlement with moderators who developed PTSD on the job

From the Verge:

In a landmark acknowledgment of the toll that content moderation takes on its workforce, Facebook has agreed to pay $52 million to current and former moderators to compensate them for mental health issues developed on the job. In a preliminary settlement filed on Friday in San Mateo Superior Court, the social network agreed to pay damages to American moderators and provide more counseling to them while they work.

Each moderator will receive a minimum of $1,000 and will be eligible for additional compensation if they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or related conditions. The settlement covers 11,250 moderators, and lawyers in the case believe that as many as half of them may be eligible for extra pay related to mental health issues associated with their time working for Facebook, including depression and addiction.

This is long over due. Content ‘moderation’ is horrible and disturbing work. But all of the workers receiving compensation on this settlement are based in the US. There are many thousands elsewhere in the Philippines and other places — as viewers of The Cleaners will know. Will Facebook now compensate them? I’m not holding my breath.


Quarantine diary — Day 53

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Tuesday 28 April, 2020

Lunchtime in Wuhan

In the cafeteria of the factory that makes Lenovo products — including those lovely Thinkpad laptops.

Source: a post on Reddit


Why we need a new “Office for Black Swans”

Very thoughtful blog post by Steve Unger, who used to be a senior official at OFCOM and is now an associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. The first part of the post is about how Britain’s Internet infrastructure has stood up to the strain of lockdown-generated traffic increases. But then he turns to the bigger question: why are democracies so bad at planning for remote but potentially disastrous contingencies? The UK government is providing us with a sobering case-study of this tendency.

There is a more fundamental question beyond communications about how we set priorities for policy in the absence of a crisis. In good times there is a tendency to focus on positive initiatives that will result in positive news stories. This is not meant as a criticism; indeed, the tendency to take an optimistic view of the future is generally a good thing.

But it does create a risk that work to prepare for bad times is crowded out. This capability does exist within government, but it does not always receive the visibility it merits, or the senior sponsorship necessary to drive sustained action across different parts of the public and private sectors. My own experience is that it is prioritised in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but that other priorities emerge as memories fade.

Of course, a key characteristic of ‘black swan’ events such as the current crisis is that they tend to be obvious – with hindsight. However, that does not mean it is impossible to make any preparation for them: COVID-19 is novel, but infectious diseases are not.

I remember a government minister commenting, after several years of serious floods, that although any specific flood might be a once in a lifetime event, somewhere in the country will be flooded every year. That new-found appreciation of the nature of statistics led to greater priority being given to flood preparations. We should apply that same principle more generally.

There is a strong case for creating a new public body to give these issues the sustained attention they require. Its task would be to assess the risk associated with different categories of those low-likelihood high-impact events which may not be addressed by conventional business continuity plans. It would publish recommendations as to an appropriate response. The recommendation may be to do nothing, on the basis that advance preparation is either impractical or too costly – which would at least be the result of a conscious decision. Where some form of action is agreed, it would track delivery.

Another quango? Yes, that is exactly what the response to this crisis should include.

Yep. But how do we ensure that future governments pay attention to what this body warns us about? After all, it’s abundantly clear that the present government had a graphic warning about pandemic risk last year — and did nothing — probably because at the time it was obsessed with Brexit.


David Runciman on Hobbes and power

David Runciman has embarked on a series of podcasted talks on the history of ideas. The first talk, on Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, is a masterly, contextual introduction to the man and his book. I wish I’d heard it before, many years ago, I first embarked on Leviathan, which I found pretty hard going on the first pass. Listening to the talk brought home to me the perennial relevance of Hobbes’s thinking.

This continuing relevance is a theme that David flagged last month in an essay he wrote for the Guardian about the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists.

But now they are not so theoretical. As the current crisis shows, the primary fact that underpins political existence is that some people get to tell others what to do. At the heart of all modern politics is a trade-off between personal liberty and collective choice. This is the Faustian bargain identified by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the country was being torn apart by a real civil war.

As Hobbes knew, to exercise political rule is to have the power of life and death over citizens. The only reason we would possibly give anyone that power is because we believe it is the price we pay for our collective safety. But it also means that we are entrusting life-and-death decisions to people we cannot ultimately control.

The primary risk is that those on the receiving end refuse to do what they are told. At that point, there are only two choices. Either people are forced to obey, using the coercive powers the state has at its disposal. Or politics breaks down altogether, which Hobbes argued was the outcome we should fear most of all.

It’s this last risk that keeps coming to mind when thinking about worst-scenarios if the virus overwhelms the ability of US authorities to manage it. Just think of how many unlicensed guns there are in that benighted country :-(


Terrific interview with Bill Gates on the Coronavirus crisis

Ezra Klein has interviewed Gates before, but this new interview is just great. It’s an hour long, But it’s accompanied by a transcript if you want to speed through it. Unmissable IMHO,


Van Gogh in 4K

Here’s something for a lockdown afternoon — a 4K video tour of the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It’s a vivid reminder of what a wonderful artist he was. When I lived in Holland it was my second-favourite museum (first was the nearby Stedelijk — which is now doing live online tours). But this set of videos brings back wistful memories of the Van Gogh museum — coupled with a resolution to go there in person whenever it becomes possible again.


The UK gets ready to launch its contact-tracing app

BBC report here. But the app uses a centralised database — which means that the matching process that works out which phones to send alerts to — happens on an NHS-controlled server. There’s also a claim is that the app doesn’t have the deleterious impact on iPhone battery life that comes from having Bluetooth running constantly (compared with Apple-API-compatible apps, which doesn’t require that). It’s not clear how the NHSx designers are confident about this.

But the most important thing is the NHSx app’s reliance on a centralised server, which has security and surveillance risks. What it means, really, is that the UK is taking the route explicitly rejected by the German authorities yesterday.

The BBC report has a good illustration of the difference between the two approaches.


Quarantine diary — Day 38

Link


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