Monday 8 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

“I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”

  • US Attorney General William Barr in an interview on CNBC.

Well, well.


Policing reform can work in the US: Camden N.J is an encouraging case-study

From Alex Tabarrok:

One of the few bright spots over the past week was Camden, NJ where instead of beating protesters the police joined them. Protests in Camden were peaceful and orderly and there was little to no looting. As I wrote last year, Camden disbanded its police force in 2013, nullifying the old union contract, and rebuilt.

Canden was sometimes reckoned to be the third most dangerous city in the US. Ever since the reforms, all of its key law-enforcement metrics have improved. The key to it seems to be breaking the police union’s control over the municipality. Which is interesting. Often unions are key to protecting workers. But sometimes they become toxic — as anyone who (like me) who remembers the print unions in London’s Fleet Street can remember.


Facebook is an autocracy, so it has a natural affinity with autocrats

My Observer column yesterday made the point that Mark Zuckerberg holds the key to whether Trump gets re-elected or not and predicted that he won’t do anything to prevent re-election.

This conjecture seemed a bit extreme to some readers. But here is a very respectable columnist, Rana Foroohar, writing in today’s FT

That brings us to what Facebook’s stance is really about — power. Like most large, ubiquitous and systemically important companies that operate globally, Facebook aligns itself with the powers that be. If it wants to stay this big and unregulated, Facebook cannot afford to upset the rulers of countries where it operates, no matter how abhorrent their actions. We saw that in Myanmar, where military personnel used Facebook to help incite the Rohingya massacres. Now we see it in the US, where Facebook refuses to run afoul of a president who just called in troops to tear gas citizens.

It is a kind of oligarchic symbiosis that we haven’t really seen in the US since 1877. That was when then-president Rutherford B. Hayes, who had been helped into office by the railway barons, ordered 1,200 federal troops to Baltimore to put down what he called a labour “insurrection”. It was the first time that federal troops had been turned against American workers, and it transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Railway Strike of 1877.


And, for the avoidance of doubt, Zuckerberg is an authentic autocrat

Here’s the relevant section of the company’s SEC filing:

Our CEO has control over key decision making as a result of his control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock.

Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, Chairman, and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could delay, defer, or prevent a change of control, merger,consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets that our other stockholders support, or conversely this concentrated control could result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support. This concentrated control could also discourage a potential investor from acquiring our Class A common stock, which has limited voting power relative to the Class B common stock, and might harm the trading price of our Class A common stock.In addition, Mr. Zuckerberg has the ability to control the management and major strategic investments of our company as a result of his position as our CEO andhis ability to control the election or replacement of our directors. In the event of his death, the shares of our capital stock that Mr. Zuckerberg owns will be transferred to the persons or entities that he has designated. As a board member and officer, Mr. Zuckerberg owes a fiduciary duty to our stockholders and must actin good faith in a manner he reasonably believes to be in the best interests of our stockholders. As a stockholder, even a controlling stockholder, Mr. Zuckerberg isentitled to vote his shares, and shares over which he has voting control as governed by a voting agreement, in his own interests, which may not always be in the interests of our stockholders generally.

In other words, absolute control.


Solving online events

Very perceptive essay by Benedict Evans on why it’s so difficult to replace large face-to-face conferences with online events.

Online events remind me a lot of ecommerce in about 1996. The software is raw and rough around the edges, and often doesn’t work very well, though that can get fixed. But more importantly, no-one quite knows what they should be building.

A conference, or an ‘event’, is a bundle. There is content from a stage, with people talking or presenting or doing panels and maybe taking questions. Then, everyone talks to each other in the hallways and over coffee and lunch and drinks. Separately, there may be a trade fair of dozens or thousands of booths and stands, where you go to see all of the products in the industry at once, and talk to the engineers and salespeople. And then, there are all of the meetings that you schedule because everyone is there. At a really big ‘conference’ many people don’t even go to the actual event itself. At CES or MWC, a lot of the people who go never actually make it to the conference or the show floor – they spend their days in hotel suites in Las Vegas or Barcelona meeting clients and partners. Everyone goes because everyone goes.

The only part of that bundle that obviously works online today is the content. It’s really straightforward to turn a conference presentation or a panel into a video stream, but none of the rest is straightforward at all.

First, we haven’t worked out good online tools for many of the reasons people go to these events…

Insightful essay, worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 79

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Sunday 7 June, 2020

One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

This morning’s Observer column:

…my mind goes back to this time in 2016, when similar sentiments were the conventional wisdom about the chances of Trump defeating Hillary Clinton. And one of the most agonising questions in the aftermath of that election was: how could Nate Silver and co have got it so wrong?

The answer is simple: nobody, including opinion pollsters, knew about the Trump campaign’s astonishing mastery of social media, especially Facebook. Trump may not have known much about that at the time – he really only understood Twitter – but Brad Parscale and his team sure knew how to make use of Facebook’s micro-targeting machine. And they did.

Spool forward to now. Trump knows that if things continue as they are – with no party conventions or mass rallies and if the election is held in November (a sizable “if” IMHO) – then Biden will win. The only thing that could change that is – you guessed it! – Facebook…

Read on


The Protests Remind Us Why Social Media Is Worth Fixing

Very thoughtful post by Will Oremus arguing that while Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok are distorting our view of a crisis, they’re also countering the distorted view we had before. And the trouble is, that’s correct. We have to abandon the notion of a world without social media (though not the idea that it could have better, less societally damaging, business models). That genie is long out of the bottle. So the question is: how can we improve the current situation so that we have a less polluted public sphere? As Oremus puts it:

It’s on Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok that shaky smartphone videos of police brutality are going viral, and once-radical demands such as defunding the police are picking up steam.

Without these platforms, we’d still be totally reliant on a press corps whose demographics and values skew white and upper-middle-class, and which for decades has helped to prop up — or at least failed to topple — a status quo of white supremacy. The problem with Zuckerberg’s framing of Facebook as a net positive, then, is not that it’s absurd, per se — although it is conveniently unfalsifiable, as the New York Times’ Kevin Roose points out. The problem is that, when deployed as a shield against criticism, it’s a red herring — a hand-waving thought experiment that’s irrelevant to the question of how Facebook should regulate its platform. What matters now is not judging whether social platforms are a force for good or ill, but figuring out what it would take to make them better.

In the essay (which is well worth reading in full), he points to a couple of significant ideas that Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, advanced in a remarkable public memo to employees following his decision to follow Twitter in taking a stand, saying it will no longer promote Trump’s snaps in its influential Discover tab. The relevant passage reads:

As for Snapchat, we simply cannot promote accounts in America that are linked to people who incite racial violence, whether they do so on or off our platform. Our Discover content platform is a curated platform, where we decide what we promote. We have spoken time and again about working hard to make a positive impact, and we will walk the talk with the content we promote on Snapchat. We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.

There are two significant ideas embedded here, says Oremus.

The first is that ‘free speech’ does not equal ‘free reach’. Much of the poisonous impact of social media lies not in the fact that people can post all kinds of obnoxious content online, but that the algorithms that are calibrated to maximise engage (and revenue) effectively amplify that content by giving it massive reach. The world is full of cretins, but if one states on the street or outside his house spouting hatred or nonsense then his reach is limited by physical proximity. Much the same is true for any individual post on any platform. It just resides in the infinitely ‘long tail’ of posts which are read or seen by tiny numbers of people. And if it stayed that way, then the world would be a safer and a better place. It’s Algorithmically giving violent or divisive content exaggerated reach that’s the problem.

The second implicit idea in Spiegel’s post discerned by Oremus is, I suppose, more difficult for social media to handle — namely that platforms can (and should?) decide whether some people are inadmissible simply because of their off-platform behaviour. This would have barred Trump, for example, from ever being on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube, if those platforms had the wit initially — and later the courage — to bar him.

Both essays — Oremus’s and Spiegel’s are worth reading in full. Spiegel’s is particularly wide-ranging and impressive. He sounds like an admirable young man.


Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man

If you haven’t ever seen this short film, then take ten minutes and draw up a chair. It’s beautifully crafted and shot, and it contains an important lesson about conspiracy theories that everyone should know.


Quarantine diary — Day 78

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Saturday 6 June, 2020

The Complex Debate Over Silicon Valley’s Embrace of Content Moderation

Interesting NYT piece by Nellie Bowles.

One of the few things that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on is that changes to Section 230 are on the table. Mr. Trump issued an executive order calling for changes to it after Twitter added labels to some of his tweets. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has also called for changes to Section 230.

“You repeal this and then we’re in a different world,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “Once you repeal Section 230, you’re now left with 51 imperfect solutions.”


Under pressure, UK government releases NHS COVID data deals with big tech

Hours before openDemocracy was due to sue, the government released massive data-sharing contracts with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Faculty and Palantir.

Great journalism. Link

Reminds one that in addition to contact-tracing apps we also need contract-tracing ones.


The Story Behind Bill Barr’s Unmarked Federal Agents

Good piece of investigative and explanatory journalism by Politico. Turns out that the US Federal government has a largish hidden army of police-like officers and agents. Who knew?


History Will Judge the Complicit

Wonderful essay in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum on the phenomenon of collaboration and, in particular, why (and how) prominent Republicans have become collaborators of a president who stands for everything they supposedly abhor. One of her case studies is Senator Lindsay Graham, a former military patriot who has become one of Trump’s most nauseating legislative groupies. (Graham is a living proof that power is the greatest aphrodisiac.) Also explores the various self-deluding strategies that collaborators use to justify their surrender of agency. What’s especially lovely about the essay is the way it explores the nature of collaboration by going back in modern European history to the Soviet and Nazi eras. It’s a long read, but worth it.


Contact tracing isn’t rocket science. As a small Welsh local authority has shown

This is an extraordinary story.

As Wales takes the first steps out of lockdown and starts trying to find a way to live with Covid-19, people living in one part of the nation could be forgiven for thinking they have almost entirely escaped the disease which reached crisis points in other parts of Wales.

With just 42 confirmed cases to date, and seven deaths, it seems that in the coastal council area of Ceredigion the virus never really took hold.

The initial flurry of cases in this rural part of Wales was comparable to the starts of the outbreak in the local authorities of Wales that ended up being worst hit by the virus. Yet here it just sort of petered out.

I don’t think “petered out” is quite right. The control of the virus in this small rural district was due to:

  • Early, pre-emptive and decisive action. The local University was one of the first to close, so the student population in Aberystwyth was effectively evacuated ahead of time. And because the district is a popular tourist area, long before the national lockdown was announced, the council had instructed all holiday and caravan parks to close too.

  • Effective deployment of contact-tracing from Day One. A simple system has enabled them to carry out contact tracing on every confirmed case in the county. The Council picked up all positive cases did been contact tracing on them all. A couple of environmental health officers were assigned to pick up on positive tests. And precautions were extended to Council staff.

One inescapable lesson from this is that if Whitehall had delegated responsibility and resources for contact-tracing to local authorities from Day One, the UK wouldn’t have the current omnishambles of a ‘world beating’ contract-tracing system that might just be operation by September.

We always used to think that the most pathologically-centralised state in Europe is France. My hunch is that the UK was actually more dominated by London than France was by Paris.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for alerting me to this.

_____________________________________________________________________ 

Yale has made Frank Snowden’s celebrated course “Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600” freely available.

You can download the course materials from here. As far as I can see, you can only read the HTML version of the lectures. Audio and video require Flash, of which I don’t approve and don’t trust. But the text of the lectures was all I wanted. As you’d expect, the course also has an interesting Reading List.


Quarantine diary — Day 77

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Friday 5 June, 2020

Cory Booker’s speech to the US Senate

This is a truly extraordinary speech. I’ve never heard anything remotely like it from a politician. It’s long, but it’s well worth it. It captures, like nothing else I’ve heard, the experience of growing up black in America.

Senator Booker starts speaking just 35 seconds into the video.

Link

Many thanks to the kind reader who alerted me to it.


Thinking the unthinkable: will the US get to vote in November?

I thought I was the only one who worried about this. But now here’s Sue Halpern, writing in the New Yorker:

Monday night, as a group of white men wielding baseball bats marched down the streets of Philadelphia, apparently with the blessing of local police, I reread [Timothy] Snyder’s warning to be wary of paramilitaries. “It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state have access to violence,” he wrote. “For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics.” In a leaked recording obtained by the Intercept in April, Republican operatives can be heard hatching a plan to send retired Navy SEALs to keep watch on polling places, now that a ban on recruiting soldiers and law-enforcement personnel to oversee voting was lifted by a judge in 2018. (The ban was in response to earlier efforts by the Republican National Committee to send uniformed poll watchers to intimidate African-American voters.)

Trump and his allies know that their best chance of winning is to suppress turnout, especially among African-Americans.

That is what the Attorney General, William Barr, believes based on his gross exaggeration of the risk of voter fraud. So, too, many Republican governors and state legislators who are making it increasingly difficult for Americans to vote. And—let’s not forget—Trump himself. In the 2016 election, one arm of the Trump campaign was dedicated to convincing people—black folks and young people particularly—not to bother voting. This was in tandem with the efforts of Republican secretaries of state and other elected officials to enact draconian voter-registration requirements and redraw electoral maps, making it more difficult for people to vote. Or, if they did manage to cast ballots, to insure that their voices would be drowned out. These efforts persist, and, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they have escalated, as the Attorney General floats a phony argument that foreign governments might manipulate mailed ballots, and the Republican National Committee, following the lead of the President, is working to limit voting by mail because it believes mail ballots would extend the franchise to the “wrong” people. Add to this Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, which recently saw the installation of one of his ideologues as its head; as the President knows, a working postal service is necessary to facilitate mailed ballots.

I hope this doesn’t work. I fear that it might.


Britain’s amateur government

From Politico analysis.

A time of crisis, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown once said, is “no time for a novice.” If that’s the case, then coronavirus came at a bad moment for Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.

Despite the Conservative Party having been in power for 10 years, the average member of the ministerial team leading the U.K. through its worst public health crisis in a century has just 19 months of Cabinet-level experience. Fourteen out of the 22 have been in Cabinet less than a year, and only one — the influential Whitehall fixer Michael Gove — is a veteran of David Cameron’s first Cabinet a decade ago.

Such inexperience is unusual in a government led by the same party for so long. One of the main causes? Brexit. The Tory Party’s civil war over EU membership and the Brexit deal ended or derailed the political careers of a string of senior politicians who in less fractious times would — in all likelihood — still be in top jobs.

What do you expect from a Cabinet where the entry criterion was being wrong on the most important issue since the end of the war?


Just what you’ve always needed — a rotary-dial mobile phone

Earlier this year, Justine Haupt revealed a custom cellphone she built that eschewed unwanted battery-killing distractions like a touchscreen. In its place was an old-school rotary dial for placing calls, and while it looked antiquated, there were apparently enough people as fed up with the state of modern smartphones that Haupt has created a new version that she will actually build and sell.

Haupt is currently developing a “mark 2″ version of the design that will be available as a ready-built device for those who don’t know the first thing about soldering. In addition to an upgrade from 3G to 4G which ensures the right networks will be active for at least another 10 years, the new version will include a larger electronic paper display, newly manufactured rotary dial parts instead of old salvaged hardware, and an SD card slot allowing a contact list to be added by just uploading a text file full of names and numbers.

Sweet. Once upon a time, children, all phones were like this. And they were tethered to the wall — like goats.

Source


Revolutionary microscopy technique sees individual atoms for first time

Wow!

From Nature.

A game-changing technique for imaging molecules known as cryo-electron microscopy has produced its sharpest pictures yet — and, for the first time, discerned individual atoms in a protein.

By achieving atomic resolution using cryogenic-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), researchers will be able to understand, in unprecedented detail, the workings of proteins that cannot easily be examined by other imaging techniques, such as X-ray crystallography.

The breakthrough, reported by two laboratories late last month, cements cryo-EM’s position as the dominant tool for mapping the 3D shapes of proteins, say scientists. Ultimately, these structures will help researchers to understand how proteins work in health and disease, and lead to better drugs with fewer side effects.

“It’s really a milestone, that’s for sure. There’s really nothing to break anymore. This was the last resolution barrier,” says Holger Stark, a biochemist and electron microscopist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, who led one of the studies

Cryo-EM won Robert Richard Henderson of the Molecular Biology Lab in Cambridge a share in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2017.

Correction: Thanks to Jon Barnard for spotting that I got Richard Henderson’s first name wrong.


Make sure your Twitter avatar is recognisable

Fascinating story from Quentin’s blog:

Yesterday, while on a video call, I fired up Twitter to check something, and amongst the stream of inconsequentialities, something jumped out at me: a tweet, just half an hour before, from my friend Lucy Jones saying that her father had died that morning, and how devastated she was.

I was shocked, not least because Lucy was actually on the call with me at that moment. I gasped, and was about to express my deepest sympathy and apologise that we were bothering her with trivia (while secretly wondering, a bit, why she still looked her normal cheery self in the little video window?)

And then I realised that there was something a bit strange about the tweet, and as I peered more closely at the avatar/icon, I realised it didn’t look at all like Lucy!

Well, it turned out that it was actually a retweet, by a friend of mine, of a post by a different Lucy Jones. He only knew one Lucy Jones, I only knew one, but it turned out we knew different ones, and Twitter had injected his Lucy’s news into my news stream. All of which would have been terribly confusing if it hadn’t been for the photos the Lucies had uploaded to their repective Twitter accounts.

So please, people, unless you are blessed with a particularly unusual name, do make sure your online accounts have a useful avatar associated with them. And no, a picture of you as a lovely bouncing baby doesn’t count: it’ll only be recognised by your parents and they’ll probably know whether or not it’s you. Especially if you’re announcing their sudden demise.


Quarantine diary — Day 76

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Tuesday 2 June, 2020

Guinea rose

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


Lunch with Rutger Bregman — outspoken historian and scourge of Davos

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


Bregman at Davos

Link

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


The enduring romance of the night train

Truly lovely New Yorker essay by Anthony Lane.

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

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

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


Tech nations

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 73

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Saturday 30 May, 2020

Family life

Seen on a walk the other evening. Click on the image for a bigger version. And note how the Dad is standing on one leg.


Why Cory Doctorow isn’t writing about Trump and Twitter and Section 230

Basically, because life is too short.

People have asked me why I haven’t written about Trump’s executive order on social media and CDA 230. Here’s why.

As everyone who understands the law knows, this will not survive contact with the judiciary. It’s unconstitutional and incoherent and just stupid.

It’s as if Trump declared up to be down, and then threatened FAA sanctions against anyone caught standing on the ground. This will doubtless inflict pain and chaos, but the first judge that hears the case will tell him to knock it off and stop being an idiot.

The real purpose – tissue thin, totally obvious – is to get us to stop paying attention to white nationalism, pandemic genocide, 101,000 dead, and corruption and start talking about whether up is down.

And life is short.

I agree.

But in case you need the chapter and verse, the EFF has a good explainer


So is the central office and the daily commute really a thing of the past?

There’s a lot of confident clap-trap being talked at the moment about “the death of the office” and how the future is remote working from home. It’s the inevitable outbreak of first-order thinking. I’m sore some things will change, but the idea that a system that’s been entrenched for a century is going to change overnight is unrealistic.

The New Yorker has just published the most thoughtful piece on this that I’ve read to date. It’s by Cal Newport, a computer scientist.

At some point, the pandemic and its aftershocks will fade. It will once again be safe to ride commuter trains to office buildings. What then? Many companies seem amenable to the idea of lasting changes. In April, a survey of chief financial officers conducted by the research firm Gartner found that three-quarters planned to increase the number of employees working remotely on a permanent basis. From an economic perspective, companies have a lot to gain from remote work: office space is expensive, and talent is likely to be cheaper outside of the biggest cities. Many workers will welcome these changes: in a recent Gallup poll, nearly sixty per cent of respondents said that they would like to keep working remotely after restrictions on businesses and schools have been lifted. For them, the long-promised benefits of work-from-home—a flexible, commute-free life, with more family and leisure time—have finally arrived.

There are also social reasons to cheer a more remote future. It might help reverse the geographic stratification of American life. Workers, and their spending, could break out of the unaffordable metropolises and spark mini-revitalizations off the beaten path, from Bozeman to Santa Fe. Remote work could be good for the environment, since less commuting means fewer emissions. (Although the recent movement of Americans out of sprawling suburbs and back into dense cities was, in itself, an environmental good.)

And yet…

remote work is complex, and is no cure-all. Some of the issues that have plagued it for decades are unlikely to be resolved, no matter how many innovations we introduce: there’s probably no way for workplaces to Zoom themselves to the same levels of closeness and cohesion generated in a shared office; mentorship, decision-making, and leadership may simply be harder from a distance. There is also something dystopian about a future in which white-collar workers luxuriate in isolation while everyone else commutes to the crowded places. For others, meanwhile, isolation is the opposite of luxury. There may be many people who will always prefer to work from work.

Long read, but well worth it.


Dominic Cummings: the farce continues

Very nicely skewered by Henry Mance in the weekend edition of the FT entitled “The Nostradamus of North London has Done It Again”. Sample:

The most amazing part of the Cummings saga is not his attempt to bankrupt opticians and car insurers with a new system of on-road eye tests. No, it is his attempt to mislead us all about his handling of coronavirus.

At Monday’s press conference, Mr Cummings played the Nostradamus of north London: “Only last year I wrote explicitly about the danger of coronaviruses.” Turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. Instead, last month, on Mr Cummings’ first day back at work after his Durham trip, one of his blogs from March 2019 was edited to add an express reference to coronavirus. History will be kind to Mr Cummings, for he intends to rewrite it.

I don’t like calling politicians liars, because it’s hard to know what’s going on inside their heads. You’re only lying if you say something you know to be untrue. Yet Mr Cummings has a track record in calculated misleading statements, such as, “We send the EU £350m a week” and, “Turkey (population 76m) Is Joining the EU”. I don’t want to call him a liar. But I also can’t say that he isn’t a liar. Because then I would be a liar.

I suppose Mr Cummings sees the truth as a civilian casualty in his offensive against the establishment. A non-exhaustive list of his targets includes: teaching unions, the civil service, anti-Brexit MPs, pro-Brexit MPs, the UK Statistics Authority, the CBI, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, a number of print publications, except the one his wife works for. Perhaps everybody else in Britain has to change so that Mr Cummings can stay the same, but it does seem like changing a lightbulb by screwing the whole world. There may be an easier solution.

Lovely. There’s a lot of mileage still in the Cummings story, before it reaches its foregone conclusion.


Quarantine Diary — Day 70

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Thursday 28 May, 2020

Deconstructing Cummings’s Downing Street statement

Wonderful analysis of the Cummings document by the FT’s David Allen Green. Takes the form of a 25-minute video going through the document line by line, but there’s also a transcript if you’re in a hurry. It’s a fascinating piece of work. Allen thinks that the entire document was drawn up by a (no doubt expensive) lawyer because it reads like a witness statement as used in trials. (But there’s no signature at the bottom attesting that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!).

The only thing he misses is the fact (mentioned in the Wired report discussed on this blog yesterday) that Cummings retrospectively added to his blog post of March 4, 2019 to make it look as thought he was exceedingly prescient about this kind of pandemic.

______________________________________________________ 

Charlie Warzel on de-platforming Trump

Useful piece by Charlie sparked by the thought that Twitter might ban Trump.

“The strategy of power now is not to dominate the whole narrative,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” told me recently. “It’s to polarize citizens and construct a very potent worldview and to alienate them from the truth. When journalists speak truth to power they’re by nature giving the powerful the opposition they want.”

Naturally, media outlets and reporters, not wanting to be bullied or discredited, adopt an adversarial approach. This leads to some great, important journalism but also a fair amount of grandstanding, which then become ammunition for the president and his supporters.

This situation is hard for journalists to get their heads around, Mr. Pomerantsev says. “We’re trained to stand up to the powerful,” he Pomerantsev said. “But now the powerful are comfortable with us doing the punching — just look at how they’re attacking.”

It’s basically a cycle that requires participation from all parties: the president (who initiates it), Twitter (which tolerates it) and the media (which amplifies, frequently to the president’s advantage). Removing one participant gums up the cycle, but does not stop it outright.


How Trump proposes to go after Twitter for labelling his tweets

He’s gone for the ‘nuclear strike’ — to try to modify Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, (which is Title V of the sprawling 1996 Telecommunications Act). The Section is the one that exempts platform providers from legal liability for stuff that users post on their platforms. It’s essentially the bedrock of their impunity.

The key part of the Section reads as follows:

(c) Protection for “Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) Civil liability No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

This is what Trump’s draft Executive Order targets.

The thrust of the Order is that Twitter’s labelling of Trump’s tweets as inaccurate is not protected under Subparagraph C(2).

“The provision does not extend to deceptive or pretextual actions restricting online content or actions inconsistent with an online platform’s terms of service. When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the requirements of Subparagraph C (2) (A), it is engaged in editorial conduct.”

So the Order directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct an inquiry to “clarify”

This is going to be interesting. If nothing else, it guarantees that all the tech companies will be pouring money into Joe Biden’s campaign, because Section 230 has always been their get-out-of-gaol card. Indeed, for social-media companies it’s what underpins their business model.

And… Right on cue, up pops Mark Zuckerberg (who has had a couple of dinners recently with Trump, I believe) on Fox News yesterday criticising Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s tweets, saying private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Zuckerberg is keeping his political options open. Creep.


Every stock is a vaccine stock

What’s the value of a Covid vaccine — and to whom? General Electric stock was rocketing up on Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. What’s going on is that any positive news about a Covid vaccine Recent Covid-19 vaccine serves as a catalyst, making every stock feel like a vaccine stock.

Fascinating post by Tyler Cowen:

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

The disconnect between stock markets and the real world is truly mysterious.


Quarantine diary — Day 68

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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

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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

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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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