Monday 6 April, 2020

Is it any wonder that the UK currently has such a mediocre government?

After all, the main criterion for appointment to the Cabinet was to have been wrong about the most important question that faced the UK since 1946. As a result we have a squad of econd-raters.


How long can we continue to live like this?

Abhijit Banerjee (AB) and Esther Duflo (ED), a married couple, shared this year’s Nobel Prize for economics with Michael Kremer. Here’s part of a transcript of a conversation in which the couple discussed one of the issues — how long can we live like this?

AB: So, what do you propose to do about it?

ED: At this moment, we can listen to what the doctor says or try to make sense of what the doctor says. We know it is bad and we know we do not have a cure, and anybody who says he has a cure is lying. People are working for a cure but it will take time. All we can do is to isolate ourselves. Another thing we can do is to practice good hygiene in particular washing of hands. So if we get in contact with affected people we can prevent a transmission.

AB: It is extremely hard for people to practise such an unnatural lifestyle in the foreseeable future. For how long? People are not working, they are not earning, they are not going out, they are not meeting their loved ones. Is this a realistic enterprise for six months? Do you think that causes some challenges?

ED: It would be unsustainable for two weeks. Almost sure it would be unsustainable for six months. On the top of the uncertainties caused by the virus itself, there are uncertainties caused by the uncertainties. I am now turning the question to you. If you were in charge, of US to begin with, when would you have started this curfew and so many restrictions… you can do this, you cannot do this?

AB: It is a tough call. The model says five months and the model is based on the numbers which people plucked out from the air. Five months for full shutdown strategy. It is frightening to contemplate. A realistic (option) is to pick a shorter window and work around the peak and to make sure the peak is not as bad. Keeping the window significantly short and more focussed. I do not know which way I would have gone if I was in the hot seat because that involves making a choice that I will let some people die. More people will die in the scenario we shut it down later unless we believe that the whole thing is not sustainable. Then of course… That must be the case in many countries, because five months shutting down means people will stop believing there is a centre of policy. There is a trade-off between saving real lives and possibly at an enormous enforcement cost and enormous cost to the economy… Possibly it is easier to save the economy… I do not know.

He doesn’t know. Neither do we.


Bruce Schneier and Ben Evans on Zoom and its weaknesses/problems

Everybody’s piling in on Zoom. Bruce Schneier, one of my favourite security gurus, is particularly fierce. He sees three kinds of problems with the service: (1) bad privacy practices, (2) bad security practices, and (3) bad user configurations.

Privacy first: Zoom spies on its users for personal profit. It seems to have cleaned this up somewhat since everyone started paying attention, but it still does it.

The company collects a laundry list of data about you, including user name, physical address, email address, phone number, job information, Facebook profile information, computer or phone specs, IP address, and any other information you create or upload. And it uses all of this surveillance data for profit, against your interests.

On security, Schneier says that “Zoom’s security is at best sloppy, and malicious at worst”. And its encryption is “awful. First, the company claims that it offers end-to-end encryption, but it doesn’t. It only provides link encryption, which means everything is unencrypted on the company’s servers.” (I wrote about this in my Observer column yesterday.)

And then there’s Zoom’s “bad user configuration. Zoom has a lot of options. The defaults aren’t great, and if you don’t configure your meetings right you’re leaving yourself open to all sort of mischief.”

Even without screen sharing, people are logging in to random Zoom meetings and disrupting them. Turns out that Zoom didn’t make the meeting ID long enough to prevent someone from randomly trying them, looking for meetings. This isn’t new; Checkpoint Research reported this last summer. Instead of making the meeting IDs longer or more complicated — which it should have done — it enabled meeting passwords by default. Of course most of us don’t use passwords, and there are now automatic tools for finding Zoom meetings.

In short: Schneier really doesn’t like Zoom.

Benedict Evans has an interesting and more sympathetic take on it in his (invaluable) weekly newsletter.

Zoom has gone from 10m to 200m daily users in the past few weeks (!), and that comes with pain. On one hand, since it was designed for the enterprise it wasn’t hardened against abuse, so ‘Zoom-bombing’ (eg crashing random open group calls and putting obscene things onto everyone’s screen) is now a thing. On the other hand, it’s now getting a lot more privacy and security scrutiny, and some… issues have come up. These are two sides of the same coin: you have to ask ‘what would malicious people do with our software?’ and the answer might be both human engineering and software engineering. A lot of the flaws people found look like simple product decisions to make installing and using easier – for example, it used the Facebook SDK so you could log-in with Facebook, but that sends some device data to Facebook. But it also claimed it was end-to-end encrypted and isn’t, and some of the traffic goes through Chinese servers, and so one has to assume that the Chinese state could listen in to anything if it wanted to. To its credit, Zoom has responded pretty well to most of these concerns, and some of this can be over-played (it seems pretty silly for a school system to ban it in case the Chinese intelligence agencies are listening to drama class), but I’m not sure the UK cabinet should carry on using this.

Agreed. But then Evans has this interesting thought.

Stepping back, it’s striking that Zoom has made such a big impact despite every tech giant having a big mature product in this space (or even several – how many of these apps does Google have? That would be a good interview question). It’s really not as hard to displace these companies as some would think, if you can find the right wedge. This also reminds me of the founding legend of Dropbox: everyone told Drew Houston ‘there are dozens of these’ and he said ‘yes, but do you use any of them?’ Links: Zoom goes to 200m users, Zoom response to issues


Superyachts: depreciating quarantine machines

This was the headline on a lovely FT piece about the problems of the mega rich in their floating gin-palaces.


Google searches for “I can’t smell” seem to be good predictors of where the virus is

As this pandemic rages, it becomes ever clearer that the UK government is flying blind. This is because we’re not testing enough people for the simple reason that we don’t have the capacity to do it. So we’re in a radically different position to Germany — another large country which seems to be doing much better. And because the UK started so late in the pandemic, it’s now run up against the global shortage of reagents which is reducing capacity to create huge numbers of test kits. Is there anything we could do at the moment to improve our knowledge of where the virus is striking hardest?

An intriguing OpEd in today’s New York Times suggests that there might be. The article is by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, who some years published an insightful book with the intriguing title Everybody Lies: what the Internet can tell us about who we really are. The point of the book is that people’s Google searches are amazingly revealing, because they will confide anxieties to Google they would not dare express to even their nearest and dearest.

In his NYT article, Seth suggests that analysis of the location of Internet users searching Google for “I can’t smell” could provide valuable information about outbreaks of COVID-19.

To see the potential information lying in plain sight in Google data, consider searches for “I can’t smell.” There is now strong evidence that anosmia, or loss of smell, is a symptom of Covid-19, with some estimates suggesting that 30-60 percent of people with the disease experience this symptom. In the United States, in the week ending this past Saturday, searches for “I can’t smell” were highest in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan — four of the states with the highest prevalence of Covid-19. In fact, searches related to loss of smell during this period almost perfectly matched state-level disease prevalence rates, as the accompanying chart shows.

Other researchers have found that a bevy of symptom-related searches — loss of smell as well as fever and shortness of breath — have tracked outbreaks around the world.

Because these searches correlate so strongly with disease prevalence rates in parts of the world with reasonably good testing, says Stephens-Davidowitz, we can use these searches to try to find places where many positive cases are likely to have been missed.

It’s possible that this correlation won’t be stable over a long time. (There was a surge of excitement a few years ago when it was discovered that Google searches provided earlier advance warning of ordinary flu outbreaks in the US than the CDC could produce; but that turned out to be a fluke.) This particular correlation, though, seems to hold across some parts of the world.

There is already some evidence that clues to this symptom were evident earlier in search data. Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, found that searches for “non sento odori” (“I can’t smell”) were elevated in Italy days before the symptom was reported in the news. Iran also saw an enormous rise in searches related to loss of smell weeks before media reports of the symptom became common.

Anyway, worth trying for the testing-challenged UK.


Quarantine diary — Day 16

Link


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


Saturday 4 April, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


One of the Zoom memes circulating on social media.


How is the Cloud standing up to the Coronavirus stress-test?

Reasonably well — at least according to this report. Headlines: Microsoft’s Azure has had some minor problems. On the assumption that no news is good news, Amazon’s AWS seems fine. Which is just as well, because an astonishing proportion of the services we are relying on now runs partly or exclusively on AWS. We tend to think of Amazon as a retail or e-commerce monopoly. But actually its cloud computing service is probably more important: it’s become critical infrastructure for the world. A point to be borne in mind when we eventually get round to thinking about regulation.


Boredom? Nah

For most people, the novelty of self-isolation has worn off, and many will doubtless be thinking about how long we — as people, and as a society — can sustain this. For some, isolation is really hard to bear, and there’s a real cost — in terms of loneliness, domestic violence, marital breakdown, depression. mental illness and boredom, to name just a few of the downsides — to be paid for this strategy to slow the spread of the virus. As far as the last of those downsides, however, some people (including me) are temperamentally lucky in that they’ve never been bored. My friend Quentin Stafford-Fraser is the same, and he has a lovely blog post today about “Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals”.


One day, the UK might have a proper Opposition party again. In which case it needs to start thinking about the future rather than the past

Keir Starmer QC has been elected Leader of the Labour party by a landslide. So maybe the country will eventually have an Opposition that’s functioning as an opposition should in this two-party system. It will also need to start thinking about life after Corona. And when it does it will have to do better than Dominic Cumming’s half-assed idea of rebooting Britain by having an ARPA 2.0 modelled on the famous Pentagon agency which funded the Internet and a host of other interesting stuff in the US. (ARPA is one of Cummings’s obsessions. Another one is the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb.)

Don’t get me wrong I’ve got nothing against ARPA. (In fact it figures significantly in my book on the origins of the Internet. And I was lucky enough to know Bob Taylor, the guy who funded the ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet we use today.) It’s an interesting idea to see if the post-Brexit UK could get a creative and technological boost from trying to replicate the idea here. (For an extended discussion of the idea, see this think-tank report). The problem is that even if it had the kinds of upsides that Cummings desires, it would do little to address the country’s most pressing need — which is, to use a Johnsonian phrase, “levelling up” — i.e. addressing the challenge of reinvigorating the vast swathes of the country which have been “left behind” by neoliberal economic policy, globalisation and economic change. The truth is that a successful ARPA 2.0 would merely create another mini-Silicon Valley in Britain (to complement the Cambridge cluster and the Shoreditch crowd). It might generate great wealth for small elites, but it would not provide much in the way of employment (except as low-skilled service workers) for those who have lost out over the last two decades. Just see how much of the fabulous wealth of Google et al has trickled down to the ordinary folks of San Jose, Mountain View, Cupertino or San Francisco.

So if this or the next UK government (which could conceivably be led by Starmer, if the Coronacrisis turns out to be catastrophic) is serious about levelling up, then what Britain needs is a concerted, government-led effort on the Manhattan project scale. This initiative, however, will not be about handing out welfare to distressed areas but about decarbonising the UK, and it will create work for an awful lot of people who don’t know anything about data analytics. It will involve retrofitting every house in the country to make it as energy-efficient as possible, replacing oil and gas boilers with air-and ground-source heating systems, fitting solar panels everywhere, reforming the construction industry so that every new building is energy-efficient, and a thousand other things — plus creating the education and training infrastructure to enable this to happen. It’s about rebooting the whole country, providing the self-esteem in depressed areas that comes from being able to earn a good living doing work that is patently useful, and acquiring relevant new skills and knowledge in the process. As Alan Kay used to say, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that doesn’t just apply to computers.


The Briefing Room

Terrific Radio 4 programme this morning on the Coronavirus.

It tackled three specific questions: 1. What testing does 2. The search for a vaccine 3. Whether any existing drug might be useful in suppressing COVID-19 and lightening the health service burden

No nonsense. Interviewed real experts. Was illuminating, interesting and very well-informed.

A model of what public service broadcasting is for.


Quarantine diary – Day 14

Link


Tuesday 31 March, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


The impending haircut crisis

Infographic: UK lockdown causes surge in DIY haircuts? | Statista

Source

Next step: corner the market in pudding basins.

The blogging renaissance

As I suspected, good things are stirring in the blogosphere as the world contemplates the unthinkable present. Two recent additions to my personal list. Om Malik is now a partner at a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital group. But before that he was the founder of Gigaom, an early technology blog. He’s now started a new curatorial blog, “Coronavirus Pandemic: Notable & Smart Reads”. And Cory Doctorow (whom God preserve), having left Boing Boing after 19 years has started *pluralistic, which is, among other things — including a newsletter and a more conventional tumblr blog— an imaginative and illuminating daily link-blog. Cory has never done anything in his life that hasn’t made me stop and think. And he’s still doing it — see this post in which he contrasts the simplicity of the form you have to fill in to get a $32B bailout for your duff airline with the complexity of the form you have to complete to get food stamps.


How the pandemic will end

It looks as though the U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This long essay by Ed Yong in the Atlantic is one of the best pieces I’ve read so far.

With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.

Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle…

Ed also looks at one of things that everybody seems to placing bets on — the ‘immunity’ that people who have mild versions of the disease will have after they’ve recovered. But it may not be as simple as we (or, at any rate, I) had supposed.

When people are infected by the milder human coronaviruses that cause cold-like symptoms, they remain immune for less than a year. By contrast, the few who were infected by the original SARS virus, which was far more severe, stayed immune for much longer. Assuming that SARS-CoV-2 lies somewhere in the middle, people who recover from their encounters might be protected for a couple of years. To confirm that, scientists will need to develop accurate serological tests, which look for the antibodies that confer immunity. They’ll also need to confirm that such antibodies actually stop people from catching or spreading the virus. If so, immune citizens can return to work, care for the vulnerable, and anchor the economy during bouts of social distancing.

This piece tells a depressing, scary story. It seems inconceivable that such a powerful and rich country could fail to overcome this challenge. And there is one important thing that makes the US different from almost every other country in the world — the 270m guns held by its citizens. So if things really get bad and public order breaks down, then who knows…?


And this virus might be just the first in a longer line

Scientific American has a fascinating article on Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli, a distinguished researcher who has identified dozens of deadly SARS-like viruses in bat caves, and who warns there are more out there.


Quarantine diary — Day 10

Link


Sunday 29 March, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


England’s green and pleasant land

As seen on our permitted ‘exercise walk’ yesterday.


Who needs a government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running?

This morning’s Observer column:

This pandemic will radically transform the industrial and commercial landscape of western societies. Lots of companies – large and small – will go to the wall, no matter how fervent government promises of support are. But when the smoke clears and some kind of normality returns, a small number of corporations – ones that have played a central role in keeping things going – will emerge strengthened and more dominant. And chief among them will be Jeff Bezos’s everything store.

What we will then have to come to terms with is that Amazon is becoming part of the critical infrastructure of western states. So too perhaps are Google and Microsoft. (Apple is more like a luxury good – nice but not essential, and the only reason for keeping Facebook is WhatsApp.) In which case, one of the big questions to be answered as societies rebuild once the virus has finally been tamed will be a really difficult one: how should Amazon be regulated?


Why the US now has a health crisis, an economic crisis and a democratic crisis — simultaneously

From this weekend’s Financial Times.


How an actual virus should make one chary of celebrating ‘Going Viral’

Lovely essay by Lee Siegel on the irony that it seems only yesterday when “going viral” was a sign of contemporary online success.

Consider what is now surely the quaint abomination of going “viral.” It was never really clear what was so great about a viral phenomenon anyway, except for the uncertain benefits briefly bestowed on some of those who went viral. If you are swept along with a viral event, then you are robbed of your free will every bit as much as if you were sick.

But so smitten were we by the personal gratification and commercial rewards of going “viral” that we allowed the blithe use of the term to dull our alertness to its dire scientific origins, as well as to what turned out to be the political consequences.

For much of the populace, any proud possessor of viral status was king or queen for at least a day. The eerie images of the virus now stalking humanity, its spikes resembling a crown, are like a deliberate, malevolent mockery of our viral internet royalty.

Writing in “The Tipping Point,” published in 2000 and the bible of viral culture, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how what he calls “emotional contagion” can be a powerful tool for the world’s influencers. He then goes on to make an analogy between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 — a nightmare long unspeakable, suddenly oft-cited — and his concept of “stickiness,” a precious quality of persuasion that fastens people’s attention on whatever you are trying to sell.

And now? The only way of avoiding ‘going viral’ is to hide away and cut yourself off from society. Suddenly, Siegel writes, “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” has made “going viral” and “trending” sound like “telephone” and “typewriter.”

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 8

Link


Wednesday 25 March, 2020

This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


Why America is so bad at Covid-19.

It’s our attitude, there are never consequences for Americans. That’s for other people. We have wars and tax cuts at the same time. We don’t see the coffins of our returning dead. Nothing happens to us. We can’t imagine things not being normal. The generation that grew up during World War II, who experienced the Holocaust, the advent of nuclear weapons, that generation is gone now. Everyone alive today, not just boomers, have been spoiled. We’re all coming awake now from a life-long trance. For the first time in our lives, we have to deal with the mortality of our country. Don’t cry for America. It’s time to grow up, again. Couldn’t have a more perfect person as president. It’s easy to see he is our past. Now how do we move beyond that?

Dave Winer


The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse

Branko Milanovic: “As the Global Economy Comes Apart, Societies May, Too”.

Sobering essay in Foreign Affairs. Sample:

The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency. That movement is not inevitable. If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization, even if some of the assumptions that undergirded it (for example, very taut production chains with just-in-time deliveries) might have to be revised.

But if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency. In this sense, economic interests and legitimate health worries could dovetail. Even a seemingly small requirement—for instance, that everyone who enters a country needs to present, in addition to a passport and a visa, a health certificate—would constitute an obstacle to the return to the old globalized way, given how many millions of people would normally travel.

If de-globalisation does indeed start to happen, then that will produce — in Arnold Kling’s terms — “losers and bigger losers (it won’t produce many winners)”. What matters in a de-globalised world is how self-sufficient you are. Kling cites Peter Zeihan’s view that the U.S. is one of the few countries that produces enough food and energy for itself. China, on the other hand, needs to import both. That would lead one to predict that China will be in the “bigger loser” category.

Hmmmm…


Quarantine FM

My son Pete is a talented podcast producer. He’s currently hunkered down on his narrow boat in London and had the idea of creating something that would provide pleasure to people stuck in the self-isolation zone. This is the first episode. Subscribe using whatever you use to catch podcasts.


The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could

Typically insightful essay by the incomparable Will Davies. He addresses a question that has always puzzled me, namely why the 2008 banking crisis didn’t provoke a radical rethink of how we run our societies. It did, of course, eventually produce a populist backlash against the ‘austerity’ imposed on ordinary citizens in order to ensure that banks would be rescued while no bankers went to gaol. But in most ways, the system continued as it had before, except with slightly better financed banks (outside of Italy, perhaps). So in that sense the 2008 cataclysm wasn’t a real crisis — i.e. an event that leads to structural and ideological change.

“The decade that shapes our contemporary imagination of crises”, he writes,

is the 1970s, which exemplified the way a historic rupture can set an economy and a society on a new path. This period marked the collapse of the postwar system of fixed exchange rates, capital controls and wage policies, which were perceived to have led to uncontrollable inflation. It also created the conditions in which the new right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could ride to the rescue, offering a novel medicine of tax cuts, interest rate hikes and attacks on organised labour.

Oddly, the 1970s inspired a vision of crisis as a wide-ranging shift in ideology, which has retained its hold over much of the left ever since.

For over 40 years after Thatcher first took office, many people on the left have waited impatiently for a successor to the 1970s, in the hope that a similar ideological transition might occur in reverse. But despite considerable upheaval and social pain, the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to provoke a fundamental shift in policy orthodoxy. In fact, after the initial burst of public spending that rescued the banks, the free-market Thatcherite worldview became even more dominant in Britain and the eurozone. The political upheavals of 2016 took aim at the status quo, but with little sense of a coherent alternative to it. But both these crises now appear as mere forerunners to the big one that emerged in Wuhan at the close of last year.

So the question now is whether COVID-19 is really a pivotal moment? Davies thinks that it might be.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Herd immunity redux

Remember the ‘herd immunity’ strategy for dealing with Coronavirus? That’s the strategy that was kyboshed by the Imperial College model. Well now a modelling team at Oxford is suggesting that the virus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to a report in yesterday’s Financial Times.

If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

The research, observes the FT,

presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.

(Experts in the conventions of academic warfare will be able to decode that genteel observation.)

But Prof Gupta was reluctant to criticise the government for shutting down the country to suppress viral spread, because the accuracy of the Oxford model has not yet been confirmed and, even if it is correct, social distancing will still reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill and relieve severe pressure on the NHS during the peak of the epidemic.

Let the war of the models begin. We will only know the truth when the UK has a large-scale programme for testing in the population at large. At the moment we’re still flying blind.


Quarantine diary — Day 4

Link

Wednesday 18 March, 2020

If you might find it more useful to get this blog as a daily email, why not subscribe here? (It’s free, and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe). One email, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.


What we’re dealing with

It’s as if we had the Spanish flu and the Great Depression simultaneously. There’s no good outcome from this.


Why aren’t share buybacks outlawed?

Allowing companies to buy their own shares is one of the most outrageous abuses of corporate power. Yesterday, Tim Wu revealed the extent to which American Airlines had abused the loophole as it minted money over recent years. It wasn’t just American, though. Other airlines were doing it too: according to Bloomberg they spent 96% of free cash flow on it. Buybacks were illegal throughout most of the 20th century because they were considered a form of stock market manipulation. But in 1982, the Securities and Exchange Commission passed rule 10b-18, which created a legal process for buybacks and opened the floodgates for companies to start repurchasing their stock en masse.

And guess who was president at the time? Why, Ronald Reagan — the “sunshine in America guy”. The guy who led the bonfire of the regulations.


The scientist who saw COVID-19 coming

Interesting profile of Dennis Carroll.

For decades, Carroll has been a leading voice about the threat of zoonotic spillover, the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. Scientists are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats. In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.

Federal funding for his PREDICT project was withdrawn in 2019. Guess who was president then?

There’s an emerging theme here…


Why liberals shouldn’t count their chickens

“The initial mishandling of the coronavirus by the government doesn’t mean voters will penalize Trump in November,” said Michael Ceraso, who worked for Sanders in 2016 and was Pete Buttigieg’s New Hampshire director before leaving his campaign last year. “We know we have two candidates who can pivot this generation’s largest health crisis to their policy strengths. But history tells us that an incumbent who steers us through a challenging time, a la Bush and 9/11 and Obama and the Great Recession, are rewarded with a second term.”

(from Politico’s nightly newsletter)


What professional journalists should be doing in this crisis

Terrific piece by Jeff Jarvis from NYU. The main takeaway IMHO is: if you’re not adding value to the viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s understanding then what the hell are you doing?

Some snippets:

we should, for starters, get rid of the meaningless TV location shot. I saw a poor sod standing in Times Square for 11 hours yesterday, reporting for MSNBC, telling us that, well, there were still people there, just not as many as usual. Why? How did that improve my chances of surviving the pandemic? What information did that add to my decision-making? What did the reporter gather that a static webcam could not have? Nothing. And how much did it endanger him and his crew? We can’t know.

Yep. If I see another BBC reporter standing in front of 10 Downing Street I will scream.

I see print reporters going out to ask people how they feel standing in line for toilet paper. And photographers are sent out to get pictures that tell us there are lines of people waiting for that toilet paper. Same question: Why? What does that tell me that affects my decisions? So stop. The world is not a stage and journalists are not set designers. Stop treating the public as a background. Do only those things that inform. (And if you want those images to tell me what I already know about toilet paper being gone, you can ask nicely of many people on Instagram and use their pictures, perhaps paying them.)

And

Many years ago, my children, I helped pioneer cable news use of the remote webcam when a blizzard prevented me from making it into MSNBC’s studios for a blog report. I set up a cam at home. The video was jumpy, but then-network-head Rick Kaplan thought it looked edgy and so webcams were all the vogue for a few months, until they weren’t. Such is TV.

Well, technology has advanced much since then. Skype is good. There are countless experts who can be brought on the air from their homes and offices anywhere in the world to expand the perspectives offered to the public without endangering them. That should be the standard — not the exception. It will substantively improve TV. There is no reason for radio and print reporters to have to be face-to-face with every source to get useful information. For that, we always had the phone. Now we have the net.

It’s great stuff. Well reading in full.


Saturday 14 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Everything is relative; and only that is absolute”

  • Auguste Comte

The Trump presidency is over

Really? The pessimist in me (plus the ghost of HL Mencken sitting on my shoulder) says that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But maybe this time is different. At any rate, that’s what one Republican — Peter Wehner — says in a blast in The Atlantic. Here’s how it ends:

The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.

It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.

Here’s hoping.


The remarkable Dr Fauci

Jame Fallows has a fascinating piece about Dr Anthony Fauci, who has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at the National Institutes of Health, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1984. Although nothing in his look or bearing would suggest it, Fauci is older than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. He recently turned 79. And what’s really interesting about him is that he has been the only official to contradict Trump in public and keep his job. (Remember Jim Mattis, for example?).

“There is no precedent”, writes Fallows,

from Mattis or anyone else, for what we have seen these past few weeks from Fauci at the podium. Is the coronavirus problem just going to go away (as Trump had claimed)? No, from Fauci. It is serious, and it is going to get worse. Is the testing system “perfect” (as Trump had claimed)? No, it is not working as it should. Is the U.S. once again the greatest of all nations in its response to the threat? No, it is behind in crucial aspects, and has much to learn from others.

Fauci is saying all these things politely and respectfully. As an experienced Washington operator he knows that there is no reason to begin an answer with, “The president is wrong.” You just skip to the next sentence, “The reality is…” But his meaning—“the president is wrong”—is unmistakable.

Anthony Fauci has earned the presumption-of-credibility for his comments. Donald Trump has earned the presumption that he is lying or confused. A year ago that standoff—the realities, versus Trump-world obeisance—worked out against James Mattis. Will the balance of forces be different for Fauci? As of this writing, no one can know.

Fascinating: someone whom Trump can’t sack because he needs Fauci now more than Fauci needs him. And if he did sack him, imagine what would happen to the markets.


Thursday 12 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

“The cliche about Trump’s presidency is that it is malevolence tempered by incompetence. His haplessness would undermine his corruption and authoritarianism. But now, finally, the country faces a crisis in which Trump’s incompetence will not save us from him. His wholesale unfitness was on bright display from the Oval Office. It may be the most unsettling moment yet of this bleak era.”


Things companies might learn from this crisis

  1. They will need to figure out how to reconfigure their operations so more employees can work productively at a distance. In other words, how to rethink the office. It’s been a mystery to me for years why so many organisations use such primitive telephone-conferencing kit, for example. So it’s no wonder that shares in Zoom) went up 24% in the first day that the immensity of the crisis began to dawn on people.
  2. Surely the penny about the fragility of complex supply-chains will now drop. Surely?

(Thoughts stimulated by an excellent Economist piece).


So the ‘administrative state’ has its uses after all

One of the most pernicious delusions fostered by the rise of tech within a neoliberal mindset was its contempt for the state. This predated the rise of Silicon Valley, of course — remember Ronald Reagan’s tropes about how the state was always the problem, not the solution? But it really took off once the Web 2.0 boom started.

Well, one of the most interesting aspects of our current predicament is the discovery that we really need the state after all. It’s the only thing that stands between us and a biological Armageddon, it seems. Looks like the hapless citizens of the US are about to discover this, given that they have a president who has for three years been trying to dismantle the administrative state or sell it off to his cronies.

Actually, the state has been essential in lots of fairly-recent crises too. It was that self-same administrative state that provided the heroic first-responders in 9/11, for example; the same state that organised TARP and the recapitalisation of banks in 2008; and the state that is now busily trying to protect populations from the havoc that COVID-19 will wreak.

And of course, most of the fortunes made in Silicon Valley are built on the Internet — an infrastructure that was paid for by US taxpayers.

People have such short memories. Sigh.


No computer required

Spotted in the ‘i’ newspaper. Don’t you just love the “No computer required” advice. And the price — £199.


Wednesday 11 March, 2020

Wash your hands.

Rupert Beale, who works at the Francis Crick Institute, has a really good blog post about COVID-19 on the London Review of Books site. Towards the end, he reports a message he received from a colleague about the epidemic. It made three points.

  1. This is NOT business as usual. This will be different from what anyone living has ever experienced. The closest comparator is 1918 influenza.

  2. EARLY social distancing is the best weapon we have to combat Covid-19.

  3. Humanity will get through this fine, but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society until either we’re through the pandemic or we have mass immunisation available.


Lunch with Freeman Dyson

A New York Times piece by Siobhan Roberts to celebrate the late Freeman Dyson. It’s a lovely piece, which captures something of the man himself. For example:

Lunch with Dr. Dyson was never short of fascinating, fun or lengthy. He was a slow eater, and he did nearly all the talking. Listening, while trying to capture the last few peas of my salad, I’d realize that my lunch mate had made little progress with his meal; it was work, cutting and chewing the meat.

I’d try to fill airtime — and trigger his silent but shoulder-bobbing laugh — with trivial bits, like recounting a tale relayed by his son, George Dyson, an author and historian of technology, regarding an email the elder Dyson once received from a woman with a cleaning business. Subject line: “vacuum — unsatisfied.” Cindy had spent $500 on the DC14 model and had come to hate it with a passion, she explained in great detail. The suction on the rug was so strong that it threw “my shoulder out (NO LIE) having to push so hard.” She signed off, defeated: “I know that I will not hear from Dyson.”

Dr. Dyson, ever the reliable correspondent, hit Reply: “Thank you for the hate mail which I enjoy reading. I get quite a lot of it because my name is Dyson. But I am sorry to tell you that I am the wrong Dyson. My name is Freeman and not James. I suggest that you take the trouble to find James’s address and send the message to him. I wish you good luck and good health.”

Worth reading in full.


Paul Krugman on Thomas Piketty’s vast new book

Readable review of *Capital and Ideology — friendly by not uncritical. I’m an admirer of Piketty and got a lot from his earlier Capital in the 21st Century. But this 1000-page doorstop will have to stay on the nice-but-not-for-now list. So Krugman’s review is helpful.

Krugman starts by referring to that earlier tome. For the book-buying public, he observes, its big revelation was simply the fact of soaring inequality.

This perceived revelation made it a book that people who wanted to be well informed felt they had to have.

To have, but maybe not to read. Like Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” seems to have been an “event” book that many buyers didn’t stick with; an analysis of Kindle highlights suggested that the typical reader got through only around 26 of its 700 pages. Still, Piketty was undaunted.

His new book, “Capital and Ideology,” weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with writing a large book to propound important ideas: Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was a pretty big book too (although only half as long as Piketty’s latest). The problem is that the length of “Capital and Ideology” seems, at least to me, to reflect in part a lack of focus.

To be fair, the book does advance at least the outline of a grand theory of inequality, which might be described as Marx on his head. In Marxian dogma, a society’s class structure is determined by underlying, impersonal forces, technology and the modes of production that technology dictates. Piketty, however, sees inequality as a social phenomenon, driven by human institutions. Institutional change, in turn, reflects the ideology that dominates society: “Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”

But where does ideology come from? At any given moment a society’s ideology may seem immutable, but Piketty argues that history is full of “ruptures” that create “switch points,” when the actions of a few people can cause a lasting change in a society’s trajectory.

Krugman admires Piketty’s intellectual ambitions in trying to tell such a vast story, but he also implies that sometimes Piketty’s reach exceeds his grasp. For example:

For me, at least, the vast amount of ground it covers raises a couple of awkward questions.

The first is whether Piketty is a reliable guide to such a large territory. His book combines history, sociology, political analysis and economic data for dozens of societies. Is he really enough of a polymath to pull that off?

I was struck, for example, by his extensive discussion of the evolution of slavery and serfdom, which made no mention of the classic work of Evsey Domar of M.I.T., who argued that the more or less simultaneous rise of serfdom in Russia and slavery in the New World were driven by the opening of new land, which made labor scarce and would have led to rising wages in the absence of coercion. This happens to be a topic about which I thought I knew something; how many other topics are missing crucial pieces of the literature?

The second question is whether the accumulation of cases actually strengthens Piketty’s core analysis. It wasn’t clear to me that it does. To be honest, at a certain point I felt a sense of dread each time another society entered the picture; the proliferation of stories began to seem like an endless series of digressions rather than the cumulative construction of an argument.

Piketty sees rising inequality as being at root a political phenomenon. The social-democratic framework that made Western societies relatively equal for a couple of generations after World War II, he argues, was dismantled, not out of necessity, but because of the rise of a “neo-proprietarian” ideology. But, asked Krugman,

why did policy take a hard-right turn? Piketty places much of the blame on center-left parties, which, as he notes, increasingly represent highly educated voters. These more and more elitist parties, he argues, lost interest in policies that helped the disadvantaged, and hence forfeited their support. And his clear implication is that social democracy can be revived by refocusing on populist economic policies, and winning back the working class.

And his summing up?

The bottom line: I really wanted to like “Capital and Ideology,” but have to acknowledge that it’s something of a letdown. There are interesting ideas and analyses scattered through the book, but they get lost in the sheer volume of dubiously related material. In the end, I’m not even sure what the book’s message is. That can’t be a good thing.

Phew! I don’t think I have to read it.

Why the US is screwed

A new Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday finds that Democrats and Republicans have polarized views on both the danger the coronavirus poses and how the Trump administration is handling the outbreak.

By the numbers: The poll finds that 43% of respondents overall approve of President Trump’s response to the coronavirus, while 49% disapprove.

That divide falls largely along party lines. 83% of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s response, while 87% of Republicans approve. 68% of Democrats said that they are “very or somewhat concerned” about the virus, compared to just 35% of Republicans.

How will these views change when people start to die in significant numbers from the virus? Will they change? The funny thing about viruses is that they don’t distinguish between political parties.