Thursday 23 July, 2020

Portrait of one of the latest arrivals in our garden. Shot — appropriately enough — using the ‘portrait’ setting on the iPhone 11, which kept telling me to “move further away”! As Umberto Eco wisely observed all those years ago, the Mac is a Catholic machine: only one true way to salvation.

Click on the image to see a larger version.


Quote of the Day

“I don’t want to be a hero. I want to teach.”

  • Claudia, a music teacher at a school in Massachusetts, who doesn’t want teachers to be put at risk then be lionized, as has been the case for healthcare workers.

Fawkes News: Image “Cloaking” for Personal Privacy

This is lovely. And it’s a student project too.

How do we protect ourselves against unauthorized third parties building facial recognition models to recognize us wherever we may go? Regulations can and will help restrict usage of machine learning by public companies, but will have negligible impact on private organizations, individuals, or even other nation states with similar goals.

The SAND Lab at University of Chicago has developed Fawkes1, an algorithm and software tool (running locally on your computer) that gives individuals the ability to limit how their own images can be used to track them. At a high level, Fawkes takes your personal images, and makes tiny, pixel-level changes to them that are invisible to the human eye, in a process we call image cloaking. You can then use these “cloaked” photos as you normally would, sharing them on social media, sending them to friends, printing them or displaying them on digital devices, the same way you would any other photo. The difference, however, is that if and when someone tries to use these photos to build a facial recognition model, “cloaked” images will teach the model an highly distorted version of what makes you look like you. The cloak effect is not easily detectable, and will not cause errors in model training. However, when someone tries to identify you using an unaltered image of you (e.g. a photo taken in public), and tries to identify you, they will fail.

Fawkes has been tested extensively and proven effective in a variety of environments, and shows 100% effectiveness against state of the art facial recognition models (Microsoft Azure Face API, Amazon Rekognition, and Face++).

They’ve put together a terrific 12-minute video which explains the system. Well worth watching.

Link

Given that facial-recognition is such a toxic technology, it’s great to see its weaknesses being turned against it.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow for alerting me to it.


Where will everyone go?

I hate to say this, but compared with the upcoming climate crisis, the Coronavirus disruption is small beer. Nearly a decade ago the UK Cabinet office did a simulation study to try and figure out the effects of climate change on migration. The results, from my hazy memory, ran something like this. The model divided the global population into three groups: those who live in regions that will be relatively unaffected; those who were too poor to move, no matter how hot or inhospitable their locations became; and those who are able to move when things start to become intolerable where they are. The thing that most struck me about the scenarios was that most migrants will head for cities; and most of their target destinations are coastal cities which are at risk from sea-level rise.

But that was a crude modelling exercise. Now ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, with support from the Pulitzer Center, have for the first time modeled how climate refugees might move across international borders. Today they publish their findings.

It’s a long, riveting and in some ways alarming read. And a story that’s beautifully told, making great use of the Web and photography as well as supercomputer modelling.

The modellers simulate five scenarios for climate-driven population movement in Southern and Central America.

1 An optimistic/reference scenario, in which climate impacts are rapidly reduced on a global scale and there is regional convergence toward higher levels of development across Central America and Mexico.

2 A pessimistic scenario, in which climate change impacts are on the high end of current plausible scenarios and significant challenges to socioeconomic development exist throughout the region, exacerbating the gap between Central America and the United States.

3 A more climate-friendly scenario, which pairs a less-extreme climate outcome with the same challenging socioeconomic future as the pessimistic scenario.

4 A more development-friendly scenario, which follows the pessimistic climate future but assumes a more inclusive development pathway in which regional economic growth occurs quickly.

5 A moderate scenario, in which socioeconomic development occurs rapidly throughout the region accompanied by a moderate level of climate change.

It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting and investigation. Read it if you can.


Escalation by Tweet

The department of War Studies at King’s College London has just produced an interesting report on the risks of conducting international diplomacy via Twitter, especially during crises.

The Executive Summary reads:

Social media has quickly become part of the geopolitical landscape, and international leaders and officials are increasingly taking to Twitter during crises. For US decision-makers, however, Twitter presents a bit of a paradox: on the one hand, tweets from government officials may help shape the American public narrative and provide greater insights into US decision-making to reduce misperception by foreign actors. On the other hand, tweets may increase misperception and sow confusion during crises, creating escalation incentives for an adversary.

To reconcile this paradox, we examine the useof Twitter by international leaders during crises in recent years, some of which involved nuclear-armed states. In so doing, we explore the changing nature of escalation, which now resembles a complex web more than a ladder, and examine specific escalation pathways involving social media.

Based on this analysis, we find that social media has the potential to be a disruptive technology and exacerbate tensions during crises. To reduce the risk of tweets contributing to escalation in a crisis, we recommend the US Department of Defense:

• lead an interagency effort to develop best practices on the use of social media during crises;

• encourage leaders and officials to refrain from tweeting during crises and instead rely on more traditional means of communication, such as press releases and official statements;

• explore how to build public resilience to disinformation campaigns and provocations via social media during crises, as the American public is asymmetrically vulnerable to these attacks; and

• improve understanding of how various international actors use social media.

Twitter, as a company, and alliances such as NATO, also have a role to play in limiting the negative impact of Twitter during crises. If these findings could be summarised in 280 characters or less, it would be: ‘To manage escalation during crises, stop tweeting.’

One of my favourite accounts on Twitter is @RealPressSecBot — a bot that takes every one of Trump’s tweets and immediately reformats them as an official White House press statement. Which, in effect, is what they are.


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Sunday 24 May, 2020

Get your t-shirt now!

From some genius on Twitter.


Quote of the Day

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

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

How the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory took hold

This morning’s Observer column:

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

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

Read on


A song for Dominic Cummings

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

Link


Dr Doom explains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Yep.


That Larry Summers interview

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

Some highlights

On US-China relations…

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

On globalisation…

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

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

On regulation…

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

On tax and taxation policy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quarantine diary — Day 64

Link

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


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Saturday 14 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Everything is relative; and only that is absolute”

  • Auguste Comte

The Trump presidency is over

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

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

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

Here’s hoping.


The remarkable Dr Fauci

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

“There is no precedent”, writes Fallows,

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

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

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

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


Thursday 12 March, 2020

Quote of the Day

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


Things companies might learn from this crisis

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

(Thoughts stimulated by an excellent Economist piece).


So the ‘administrative state’ has its uses after all

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

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

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

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

People have such short memories. Sigh.


No computer required

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


Quote of the Day

“Anything we say in advance of a pandemic happening is alarmist; anything we say afterwards is inadequate.”

  • US health secretary Michael Leavitt, speaking in 2006.

Quote of the Day

“There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen”.

  • V.I. Lenin

So how would you describe the current moment?

Quote of the Day

“For most of my adult life, “going viral” has been a good thing. Coronavirus has ruined the metaphor. It has reminded us that the world is not as controllable as it appeared.”

  • Henry Mance, Financial Times, 7/8 March, 2020.

Quote of the Day

Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happen to be a frog, but many of my best friends are birds. The main theme of my talk tonight is this. Mathematics needs both birds and frogs.

Quote of the Day

“COVID-19 is like a denial-of-service attack on health care infrastructure; the risk is in hospitals being overwhelmed with cases that, in a vacuum, could be overcome.”