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

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


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

Link


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


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.


This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!


Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

Link


Monday 27 April, 2020

If you wanted evidence of the dramatic shift of power from governments to tech giants, then this is it

In my Observer column of 19 April I wrote about the decision of

the two huge tech companies that control mobile phone technology – Apple with its iOS operating system and Google with Android – to create application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable governments to build and deploy proximity-tracking apps on every smartphone in the world. This is remarkable in two ways. One, it involves cooperation between the two members of a global duopoly that would normally trigger antitrust suits – yet there hasn’t been even a whimper from competition authorities. And two, the companies insist that if governments do not comply with the conditions that they – Apple and Google – are laying down, then they will withdraw the APIs. The specific condition is that apps using the APIs are not mandatory for citizens. They have to be opt-in. So here we have two powerful global corporations laying down the law to territorial sovereigns. Unthinkable a month ago. But now…

After the Apple/Google announcement there was widespread speculation that European and other governments which were contemplating centralised proximity-sensing apps would be moving towards decentralised systems and pressuring the companies to back off their ‘opt-in’ stipulation.

And now?

Reuters is reporting that Germany, which until last Friday was backing a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones. But,

When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.

In their joint statement, Braun and Spahn said Germany would now adopt a “strongly decentralised” approach.

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” they said. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognise and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”

This is just the latest example of a major trend which has serious implications for democracy. It’s what Frank Pasquale identified long ago as the ceding of territorial sovereignty to functional sovereigns, i.e. tech giants.


Cummings and SAGE meetings

Further to my suspicions about the influence of Dominic Cummings following the revelations that he was attending meetings of the ‘independent’ SAGE scientific advisory group…

In the interesting interview that Professor Neil Ferguson (a member of SAGE) gave to Unherd he says that “Dominic Cummings observed, but did not get involved in decision-making at SAGE”. That doesn’t quite settle the matter. I don;t know what the dynamics of decision making are in No 10, but my understanding is that Cummings has ready access to Johnson and it’s conceivable that his summary of SAGE views might have made an impression on the Prime Minister; After all he’s made a good living all his life by telling stories that were simple, memorable and wrong. And Cummings likes vivid, dramatic propositions. Pukka scientists, on the other hand, tend to favour reservations, probabilities and doubt, none of which make for vivid stories.

It will be a long time before we learn what actually went on, but in the meantime Professor Chris Tyler of UCL, whose research area is how politicians use scientific advice has some interesting reflections on the current controversy about Cummings’s role in all this. “A key question for me”, he writes,

is what role Cummings was playing on SAGE. There is a potential spectrum of engagement with the group which at one end is perfectly acceptable and at the other is completely unacceptable.

It could well be that Cummings wanted to listen to SAGE discussions so that he could gain an understanding of how the debate within SAGE led to its summaries and recommendations. This to my mind would be fine. After all, in conditions of extreme uncertainty, like with COVID-19, the debate is at least as important as the conclusions of deliberation.

One might argue that his very presence could impede on the independence of the advice. But I would contend that the members of SAGE are all grown-ups and can act independently even when being observed.

But what if the Guardian report that “Downing Street advisers were not merely observing the advisory meetings, but actively participating in discussions about the formation of advice” is accurate?

Interestingly, the notion of SAGE being independent appears nowhere in its 64 pages of guidelines. Even though everyone “knows” that SAGE should be independent, the government’s official guidelines do not recognise this “fact”. As a first step, the 2012 SAGE guidelines should now be updated to outline the role of SAGE – which should include “independence” – and instructions as to when and if it is appropriate for political advisers to be present and, if so, what role they should play.

In order for us to ascertain the role played by Cummings or any other future political adviser, the minutes of SAGE meetings must be made public. The government clearly believes that the advice provided to it by SAGE should be private, but that runs counter to its own guidance on how science advisory committees should work, which calls for “openness and transparency”.

The problem with not being open and transparent is that it is impossible for parliament, the media and researchers to scrutinise what is going on. What is the advice the government is being given? Is government really following that advice? Who is giving it?

Which brings up back to Cummings. As Charles Arthur observed this morning,

When Cummings was ill with Covid-19, for about two weeks, the government’s response to the media had a much calmer tone. Now he’s back it’s angrier, more Trump-ish in its out-of-hand dismissals of well-sourced stories when then turn out to be correct, and important.


YouGov: Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over

Hmmm… I wonder if this is the case. Or is it just fond hopes that will not survive the new reality?

According to this summary

  • People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.
  • More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.
  • >42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.
  • 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.
  • Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.

Quarantine diary — Day 37

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 25 April, 2020

Seen on our walk yesterday evening.


So the independent ‘scientific’ advice that the UK government is supposedly ‘following’ turns out not to be entirely independent

When on March 12 the government announced its fatuous ‘herd immunity’ strategy for dealing with Covid-19, some of us wondered what the eminent members of SAGE, its ‘independent’ body of scientific advisers, had been smoking. In the edition of this blog on March 13 I tried to do the maths:

Suddenly (yesterday) the UK government started to talk about “herd immunity” in relation to COVID-19. What it basically means is that if lots of people get the virus and survive it (which is likely for the majority of cases), then we will be in a better state to deal with it in future because those people will have immunity to it. Sounds reassuring, doesn’t it?

Er, perhaps not. Say 60% of the population gets it. That’s 40m infectees. With a 1% mortality rate, that’s 400,000 deaths. So we have to hope that the mortality rate will be a lot less than 1%. No matter how you look at it, this is deadly serious. Herd immunity doesn’t come cheap.

When I was composing that blog post the thought that was running through my mind was “this sounds to me like a classic Dominic Cummings stunt” but I dismissed it on the grounds that (a) the guy announcing it was an eminent (and I presumed independent) scientific knight, and (b) SAGE was entirely composed of folks like him who are not going to be pushed around by any swivel-eyed fanatic.

And now what do we find?

The Guardian today has a major scoop revealing that Cummings and one of his data-science buddies have been in SAGE meetings.

The prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and a data scientist he worked with on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit are on the secret scientific group advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic, according to a list leaked to the Guardian.

It reveals that both Cummings and Ben Warner were among 23 attendees present at a crucial convening of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 23 March, the day Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in a televised address.

Yeah, but what about all the meetings before the March 23rd one? Well,

Multiple attendees of Sage told the Guardian that both Cummings and Warner had been taking part in meetings of the group as far back as February. The inclusion of Downing Street advisers on Sage will raise questions about the independence of its scientific advice.

So now we have even stronger grounds for demanding that the membership of SAGE be publicly revealed.

En passant, I’m also wondering why none of these eminent scientific advisers didn’t walk out the moment Cummings appeared in the room. Their much-vaunted ‘independence’ has now been tainted. Their only consolation is that when the government tries to fit them up for the role of guilty men and women when the time comes to allocate responsibility for the catastrophic handling of the pandemic, they can always say “it was Cummings wot done it, guv”.

And as for “following the science” from now on read “following the politics”.


What the UK government knew — last year

From the leaked report for 2019. Yes, that’s 2019. And note particularly the last line.

So the next time you hear a government minister say that nobody saw this coming, just wave this at him/her.


Aw, isn’t that nice. I’m in the money at last.

From today’s inbox.

A blast from the past! Once upon a time this kind of crap was routine.


Can this be genuine?

From Dave Winer’s blog. If it is real, then it suggests that the NYT really needs to unlock itself from the “balance as bias” trap. When talking about this I still use Paul Krugman’s example in a talk he gave to Harvard students many moons ago.

“Dick Cheney [then the Vice President] says the earth is flat”.

“Here’s how the New York Times reports it. ‘Vice President says earth is flat; others disagree’.”


Autocrats are using the pandemic as cover for power-grabs

From this week’s Economist. Every problem is someone else’s opportunity.


Quarantine diary — Day 35

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.


If tech companies think they’re states, then they should accept the same responsibilities as states

It’s amazing to watch the deluded fantasies of tech bosses about their importance. In part, this is because their pretensions are taken seriously by political leaders who should know better. The daftest move thus far in this context was the Danish government’s decision in 2017 to appoint an ‘ambassador’ to the tech companies in Silicon Valley, but it’s clear that some other administrations share the same delusions.

Marietje Schaake, the former MEP who is now International policy director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, has noted this too.

Last month, Microsoft announced it would open a “representation to the UN”, while at the same time recruiting a diplomat to run its European public affairs office. Alibaba has proposed a cross-border, online free trade platform. When Facebook’s suggestion of a “supreme court” to revisit controversial content moderation decisions was criticised, it relabelled the initiative an “oversight board”. It seems tech executives are literally trying to take seats at the table that has thus far been shared by heads of state.

At the annual security conference in Munich, presidents, prime ministers and politicians usually share the sought-after stage to engage in conversations about conflict in the Middle East, the future of the EU, or transatlantic relations. This year, executives of Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft were added to the speakers list.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg went on from Munich to Brussels to meet with EU commissioners about a package of regulatory initiatives on artificial intelligence, data and digital services. Commissioner Thierry Breton provided the apt reminder that companies must follow EU regulations — not the other way around.

In a brisk OpEd piece in yesterday’s Financial Times, Schaake reminds tech bosses that if they really want change, there is no need to wait for government regulation to guide them in the right direction. (Which is their current mantra.) They own and totally control their own platforms. They can start in their own “republics” today. Nothing stops them proactively aligning their terms of use with human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. When they deploy authoritarian models of governing, they should be called out. “Instead of playing government”, she writes,

they should take responsibility for their own territories. This means anchoring terms of use and standards in the rule of law and democratic principles and allowing independent scrutiny from researchers, regulators and democratic representatives alike. Credible accountability is always independent. It is time to ensure such oversight is proportionate to the power of tech giants.

Companies seeking to democratise would also have to give their employees and customers more of a say, as prime “constituents”. If leaders are serious about their state-like powers, they must walk the walk and treat consumers as citizens. Until then, calls for regulations will be seen as opportunistic, and corporations unfit to lead.

Bravo! Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Sunday 2 February, 2020

The iPad: ten years on and still a work in progress

This morning’s Observer column

while the iPad I use today is significantly better and more functional than its 2010 predecessor, it’s still not a replacement for a laptop. Anything that involves multitasking – combining content from a variety of applications, for example – is clumsy and nonintuitive on the iPad, whereas it’s a breeze on a Mac. Given that user-interface design has traditionally been one of Apple’s great strengths, this clumsiness is strange and disappointing. Somewhere along the line, as veteran Apple-watcher John Gruber puts it, the designers made “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined”. Steve Jobs’s tablet may have come a long way, but it’s still a work in progress.

Do read the entire piece


A Republic if they could keep it. Looks like they couldn’t

As the farcical Senate Impeachment ‘trial’ just concluded what kept running through my mind was the story of what Benjamin Franklin said as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the final day of deliberation. A woman asked him “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

By acquitting Trump, the Senate seems to have confirmed the failure of that attempt. Trump is now effectively a monarch, floating above the law. So, one wonders, what happens next? As a habitual offender, he will undoubtedly commit more crimes. As a sitting President, it seems that he cannot be indicted by the normal processes of law enforcement. For him, Congress is the only constitutional authority that can punish him. But this Congress spectacularly refused to do so. So unless the Republicans lose control of the Senate in November, Trump will be entirely free of legal restraints. And supposing he loses (unlikely prospect at present), would he actually stand down? And in that eventuality, who would physically remove him from the White House?

_________________________ 

Presidential power and the Net

Further to the above thoughts about the untrammelled misuse of Presidential power, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is an FCC Commissioner, gave a sobering keynote address to the FCC’s ‘State of the Net’ conference in Washington on January 28.

She began by describing what’s currently going on in Kashmir, where the Indian government has cut off Internet connection for the 7 million people who live in that disputed territory. In one vivid passage, she described how Kashmiris are coping with this blackout:

Every morning like clockwork hundreds of passengers cram into a train out of the valley for a 70-mile journey to the nearest town with a connection. They are packed so tightly that they can barely move. If all goes well, they will be back before nightfall. Kashmiris have dubbed the train the “Internet Express.” It carries people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admission forms, check e-mail, and register for school exams. This is how they keep up with modern life, thanks to the shutdown.

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

Now if you are thinking this does not concern you because all of this is happening a world away, I understand. After all, the shutdown in the Kashmir Valley followed from the state invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that dates to the British colonial era. Moreover, a few weeks ago Indian courts ruled that an indefinite internet shutdown is an abuse of power—although that decision alone does not restore all service. So you might think this is at some distance from what could happen in the United States. But you might want to think again.

Specifically, they might need to take a look at Section 706 of the Communications Act. The Section allows the President to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” if he proclaims “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.” With respect to wireless communications, suspending service is permitted not only in a “war or threat of war” but merely if there is a presidential proclamation of a “state of public peril” or simply a “disaster or other national emergency.” There is no requirement in the law for the President to provide any advance notice to Congress.

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

is undeniably broad. The power it describes is virtually unchecked. So maybe some context will help. The changes to this section of the law about wire communications were made within a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was passed at a time when Congress was laser focused on developing new ways to protect our safety and security.

Now of course Section 706 has not (yet) been applied to the Internet, and when the Act was amended after Pearl Harbor “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams. But remember the bulk of US communications law dates back to 1934 and remains the framework for US communications infrastructure. And she points out that, in a 2010 report, the Senate concluded that Section 706 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.”

So it remains true that if a sitting President wants to shut down the internet or selectively cut off a service, all it takes is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.

That’s alarming. Because if you believe there are unspoken norms that would prevent us from using Section 706 this way, let me submit to you that past practice may no longer be the best guide for future behavior. Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.

Which rather puts the Impeachment case in a different light. Shutting down the US Internet would be unthinkable, wouldn’t it? Before nodding your head in vigorous agreement, ask yourself how many ‘unthinkable’ things have happened since Trump took office?


Sunday 19 January 2020

How to choose

I’m a subscriber to The Browser, a daily email reading list. It’s curated by Robert Cottrell, who reads about a thousand Web pages a day, from which he selects five things that he thinks are worth reading. He was asked on a podcast recently how he goes about this. Here’s his reply:

Orwell, Trump and the English language

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times columnist, describes himself as “an Orwell nut”. Like me, his favourite essay is “Politics and the English language”, one basic premise of which is that clear speech enables clear thinking and prevents lies. Trouble is, he says in this weekend’s edition of the FT, Trump and Dominic Cummings have proved Orwell wrong. Clear speech (“BUILD THE WALL”, “GET BREXIT DONE”) can enable lies. What Trump demonstrates, Kuper has concluded, is that “simple language can encourage simple thought”. Agreed, except that I’d have said ‘simplistic’.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising

This morning’s Observer column. Based on a sceptical reading of Andrew Bosworth’s faux-agonising internal memo about whether Facebook should modify its policies to stop politicians lying on the platform.

Why you can’t believe anything you read about the royal family in British tabloids

Good piece by Alan Rusbridger. There’s a reason why the royals are demonised, he says. But you won’t read all about it because they won’t admit why they’re hostile. Among other things, Harry is suing some of them. I hold no brief for the royals, but I can understand what Harry is doing in stepping back from his role: he doesn’t want the British tabloids to do to his wife what they did to his mother. And I don’t blame him.

Dave Winer’s sci-fi plot

An alien race from a faraway galaxy visits earth. We know they’re coming and where they’ll land. When they show up, they walk by the humans and greet the dogs. Turns out dogs are the master species of earth. And of course the aliens are canines as well.

Neat idea. Only one thing wrong with it. The story should be about cats, who have such supercilious bearings because — as P.G. Wodehouse revealed many years ago — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. If you doubt that, ask our cats. This one, for example.

Quote of the Day

” When Donald Trump was running for president, he told voters he would run the country like he ran his business. Two years later, it’s one of the few promises he’s actually kept.”

Cummings: long on ideas, short on strategy

My Observer OpEd piece about the world’s most senior technocrat:

When Dominic Cummings arrived in Downing Street, some of his new colleagues were puzzled by one of his mantras: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. Now, perhaps, they have some idea of what that meant. On 2 January, Cummings published on his blog the wackiest job proposals to emerge from a government since the emperor Caligula made his horse a consul. Dominic Cummings warned over civil service shake-up plan Read more

The ad took the form of a long post under the heading “We’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, included a reading list of arcane academic papers that applicants were expected to read and digest and declared that applications from “super-talented weirdos” would be especially welcome. They should assemble a one-page letter, attach a CV and send it to ideasfornumber10@gmail.com. (Yes, that’s @gmail.com.)

It was clear that nobody from HR was involved in composing this call for clever young things. Alerting applicants to the riskiness of employment by him, Cummings writes: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now.”

The ad provoked predictable outrage and even the odd parody. The most interesting thing about it, though, is its revelations of what moves the man who is now the world’s most senior technocrat. The “Arpa” in his mantra, for example, is classic Cummings, because the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (now Darpa) is one of his inspirational models…

Read on