Friday 17 July, 2020

Atul Gawande on managing Covid

He’s the best writer on medical issues I know. Last May he wrote a really useful essay in the New Yorker. I’ve just re-read it in the light of what’s happened since. It still stands out.

Two samples:

American hospitals have learned how to avoid becoming sites of spread. When the time is right to lighten up on the lockdown and bring people back to work, there are wider lessons to be learned from places that never locked down in the first place.

These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.

Start with hygiene. People have learned that cleaning your hands is essential to stopping the transfer of infectious droplets from surfaces to your nose, mouth, and eyes. But frequency makes a bigger difference than many realize…

and

A recent, extensive review of the research from an international consortium of scientists suggests that if at least sixty per cent of the population wore masks that were just sixty-per-cent effective in blocking viral transmission—which a well-fitting, two-layer cotton mask is—the epidemic could be stopped. The more effective the mask, the bigger the impact.


Coronavirus and the dim future of (many) American universities

Scott Galloway may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like the way he thinks — and, more importantly, the stark way in which he analyses things.

This week he’s been looking at this chart (from the Chronicle of Higher education) which summarises a survey of US colleges’ intentions for the next academic year.

The relevant statistic is the 56% which apparently plan to bring student back to campus in the Fall.

The graphic below neatly summarises what this means.

Think about this. Next month, as currently envisioned, 2,800+ cruise ships retrofitted with white boards and a younger cohort will set sail in the midst of a raging pandemic. The density and socialization on these cruise ships could render college towns across America the next virus hot spots.

So why are administrators putting the lives of faculty, staff, students, and our broader populace at risk?

The ugly truth is many college presidents believe they have no choice. College is an expensive operation with a relatively inflexible cost structure. Tenure and union contracts render the largest cost (faculty and administrator salaries) near immovable objects. The average salary of a professor with a PhD (before benefits and admin support costs) is $141,476, though some make much more, and roughly 50% of full-time faculty have tenure. While some universities enjoy revenue streams from technology transfer, hospitals, returns on multibillion dollar endowments, and public funding, the bulk of colleges have become tuition dependent. If students don’t return in the fall, many colleges will have to take drastic action that could have serious long-term impacts on their ability to fulfill their missions.

That gruesome calculus, Galloway says, has resulted in “a tsunami of denial”.

Universities owning up to the truth have one thing in common: they can afford to. Harvard, Yale, and the Cal State system have announced they will hold most or all classes online. The elite schools’ endowments and waiting lists make them largely bullet proof, and more resilient to economic shock than most countries — Harvard’s endowment is greater than the GDP of Latvia. At the other end of the prestige pole, Cal State’s reasonable $6,000 annual tuition and 85% off-campus population mean the value proposition, and underlying economic model, remain largely intact even if schooling moves online.

Galloway and his team have analysed the prospects of 436 universities and then plotted their prpspects on two axes:

Value: (Credential * Experience * Education) / Tuition. Vulnerability: (Endowment / Student and % International Students). Low endowment and dependence on full-tuition international students make a university vulnerable to Covid shock, as they may decide to sit this semester/year out.

Which produces this grid:

Now of course the US Higher Education system is very different from the UK’s. But it’d be interesting to see what an analogous analysis of UK universities would show.


EU court rejects data transfer tool in Max Schrems case

This is the big story of the week (at least in the bubbles I inhabit)…

From The Irish Times:

Europe’s top court has declared an arrangement under which companies transfer personal data from the European Union to the US invalid due to concerns about US surveillance powers.

The ruling in the long-running battle between Facebook, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner and the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems found that the so-called Privacy Shield agreement does not offer sufficient protection of EU citizens’ personal data.

“The limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities . . . are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law,” the court said in a statement.

The ruling is a blow to the thousands of companies, including Facebook that rely on the Privacy Shield to transfer data across the Atlantic, and to the European Commission, as it unpicks an arrangement it designed with US authorities to allow companies to comply with EU data protection law.

Great ruling. It’ll be fun seeing the companies trying to find a way round it.


More than just a Twitter hack

From Om Malik:

By now, we have all heard about the takeover of the celebrity accounts and those of companies such as Apple and Uber by scammers who wanted to trick people into sending them bitcoins. There are multiple threads to this theory — Vice says that it was it might be some kind of inside job. Twitter itself says that it was a victim of social engineering. FBI is also starting an investigation. However, it is clear; this hack isn’t a joke. It can have national and international implications, as Casey Newton points out in his article for The Verge. Twitter is a significant source of dissemination of information — from weather to earthquakes to forest fires — and any disruption can cost lives.

That is why Casey is right — and collectively, we need to think about this current episode much more deeply and deliberately. Big technology platforms are now singular points of failure as much as they are single points of protection against malicious intent.

Hmmm… I’m not convinced. This particular hack was just an ingenious variation on an old scam: someone posting a link to a Bitcoin wallet with an invitation to send it some Bitcoin and receive double the amount immediately in return. You’d have to have your head examined to fall for it. The variant this time is that the scammer got into some Twitter employee’s account and used those privileges to send out the scamming tweets as if they were coming from prominent people. The big question is whether the hacker collected the DMs (Direct Messages) that those account-holders had sent to other users. If he did, then there’s big trouble ahead — and not just for the account-holders, but also for Twitter. People have been arguing for years that the private DM channel should be end-to-end encrypted, but as far as I know it isn’t.


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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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How is Twitter disrupting academia?

Tyler Cowen has ten conjectures. I particularly like these:

  • Hypotheses blaming people or institutions for failures and misdeeds will be more popular on Twitter than in academia, but over time they are spreading in academia too, in part because of their popularity on Twitter. Blame makes for a more popular tweet.

  • Often the number of Twitter followers resembles a Power law, and thus Twitter raises the influence of very well known contributors. Twitter also raises the influence of the relatively busy, compared to say the 2009 world where blogs held more of that influence. Writing blog posts required more time than does issuing tweets.

  • I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women. For one thing, women can coordinate with each other on Twitter more easily than they can in academic life across different universities.

  • Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.
    not even in their areas of specialization.

  • Academic fields related to current events will rise in status and attention, and those topics will garner the Power law retweets. Right now that means political science most of all but of course this will vary over time.

  • Twitter lowers the power of institutions more broadly, as institutions typically are bad at Twitter.

Twitter slowly gets smarter

From the New York Times

WASHINGTON — Twitter on Tuesday suspended the account of the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a week after he tweeted a link to a video calling for supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against media and others, in a violation of the company’s rules against inciting violence.

The social media company followed up on Wednesday by also suspending the account for Infowars, the media website founded by Mr. Jones, for posting the same video.

The twin actions effectively prevent Mr. Jones and Infowars from tweeting or retweeting from their Twitter accounts for seven days, though they will be able to browse the service.

Charles Arthur has an astute assessment of this strategy:

Clever move by Twitter. In effect, it was waiting for Jones to make the slightest wrong move, and he fell straight into the trap. The week’s suspension isn’t quite congruent for the Jones account and the Infowars account (by a few hours, the latter is in jail longer). It’s going to be harder and harder for him not to all into Twitter jail repeatedly, and eventually get banned. And so Twitter wins, without having to go to war.

Yep.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting that Twitter’s boss, Jack Dorsey, has embarked on a major re-think.

Jack Dorsey said he is rethinking core parts of the social media platform so it doesn’t enable the spread of hate speech, harassment and false news, including conspiracy theories shared by prominent users like Alex Jones and Infowars.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Dorsey said he was experimenting with features that would promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce “echo chambers.” He also expressed openness to labeling bots — automated accounts that sometimes pose as human users — and redesigning key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays users’ follower counts.

Good luck with that. Twitter is now oscillating between being a vast network of cesspools and an equally vast universe of echo-chambers. And it’s also the tool that has been captured by Trump.

How to stay sane on Twitter: ignore retweets

This morning’s Observer column:

When Twitter first broke cover in July 2006, the initial reaction in the non-geek community was derisive incredulity. First of all, there was the ludicrous idea of a “tweet” – not to mention the metaphor of “twittering”, which, after all, is what small birds do. Besides, what could one usefully say in 140 characters? To the average retired colonel (AKA Daily Telegraph reader), Twitter summed up the bird-brained frivolity of the internet era, providing further evidence that the world was going to the dogs.

And now? It turns out that the aforementioned colonel might have been right. For one of the things you can do with a tweet is declare nuclear war. Another thing you can do with Twitter is to bypass the mainstream media, ignore the opinion polls, spread lies and fake news without let or hindrance and get yourself elected president of the United States.

How did it come to this?

Read on

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

So what is Twitter really for?

This morning’s Observer column:

In a way, it’s no surprise that Trump should have taken to Twitter because it has the right bandwidth for his thought processes. Technically, bandwidth is the range of frequencies that a particular communications channel can transmit. The wider the bandwidth, the more information the channel can handle, which is why analog phone lines were OK for voice communication but hopeless for relaying music. Smoke signals are one of the oldest communication channels devised by humans and they were very good for communicating danger or summoning people to gatherings. But as the cultural critic Neil Postman once observed, they were lousy for philosophical discussions. The bandwidth is too low.

Same goes for Twitter. It’s great for transmitting news tersely, which is why an increasing amount of breaking news comes via it (and not just warnings from Trump about supposedly imminent nuclear exchanges, either)…

Read on