Tuesday 7 April, 2020

Where those Florida beach celebrants went after partying

You know the story: lots and lots of people congregated on a beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Spring break weekend. A couple of geo-tracking companies, one of which was Tectonix (Slogan: “Reshape Your Data Experience) posted an fascinating video showing where those celebrants went afterwards.

Donie O’Sullivan of CNN has a good report on this. Apparently there are at least two companies — Tectonix and X-mode — doing this.

The map generated from X-Mode’s data by Tectonix, a data visualization firm, is indeed powerful and underlines why the US government might be considering using location data from Americans’ cell phones to try to track and possibly curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

It also may point to a potential sea change in how some in the tech industry talk about the data they possess. Silicon Valley has endured years of high-profile data privacy scandals. But now smaller companies like X-Mode, unheard of unknown by the majority of Americans, are publicly touting demonstrations of their technology — suggesting businesses like theirs see the potential of helping track the spread of the coronavirus as an opportunity to show how their often maligned data can be used for good. Cuebiq, another location tracking company, has been similarly public about its abilities.

For people who don’t understand the tracking capabilities of smartphones this will probably be startling info. For those who follow the industry it is, sadly, old hat.


IT support staff are critical workers too

One overlooked group of critical workers is the folks who are doing IT support to enable thousands and thousands of people who have never worked out of an office to do it at home. I see it in my college and in the wider university. But a colleague who works for a large corporation tells me that their IT staff are stretched to breaking point — having to prep 300-500 new laptops a day with the security and other specialised software needed for secure home working. IT Support is one of the most stressful occupations there are (partly because their clients are often angry and/or frustrated when they call them in). And getting beginners onto Zoom, Teams, VPNs etc. isn’t often easy.


How the telephone failed to make the Spanish flu bearable

This isn’t the first time technology was supposed to make isolation easier.

This is from the St Louis Post-Despatch of November 17, 1910, years before the Spanish flu outbreak. Harry McCracken, the Tech Editor of Fast Company, has a lovely of the role the Bell system played in that crisis.

Cities and entire states imposed emergency measures similar to those in place today, aiming to flatten the flu’s curve by keeping people apart from each other. Places of business, education, and worship were temporarily closed, and masks were required in some areas.

For a time, it looked like the telephone might help people carry on their lives with minimal disruption. In Holton, Kansas, the local Red Cross distributed placards that local merchants could place in their windows, encouraging customers—especially those who might be ill—to call rather than enter the premises. (Even before the epidemic, telephone ordering was becoming a popular form of commerce—grocery stores, for instance, offered Instacart-like delivery services.)

But then…

Guess what? There was a category of ‘critical’ workers that nobody had thought of. Switchboard operators. Overwhelmingly female. And they were as vulnerable to the flu as our critical workers. SO you can guess the rest of the story — encapsulated in these ads:

It’s a lovely essay — worth reading in full.


YouTube and 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories.

You may not have noticed but seriously crackpot conspiracy theories about 5G mobile telephony causing COVID-19 have been circulating on social media, including YouTube. And nutters have apparently been so moved by them that they ahve started to set fire to mobile phone masts. This has led to demands to YouTube to shape up and stop this nonsense circulating.

According to a Guardian report by Alex Hern, YouTube has

“reduced the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.”

This is standard-issue First Amendment cant. YouTube (like Facebook and Twitter) believes it has a responsibility to let nutters broadcast so long as they do not violate those sacred Terms and Conditions. But the First Amendment applies only to the government. YouTube is a private platform, owned and controlled by Google (well, Alphabet, Google’s parent company). It can do what it likes. It has no obligation to give a platform to anyone.

“There are lots of things wrong about 5G, says Cory Doctorow

But 5G doesn’t give you cancer. It won’t make you sick. And…god, I am getting stupider just thinking about typing this, coronavirus is not a false-flag op to disguise the illnesses that 5G is secretly creating.

The reason I have to mention that is that the conspiracyverse is full of that specific theory, and it’s inspiring people to COMMIT ARSON and torch 5G towers.

No, seriously.

In the wake of multiple attacks on 5G towers, Youtube has announced changes to its moderation guidelines. It will allow 5G conspiracy theories, just not ones that (oh god my fingers are seizing up from the stupid) link 5G with coronavirus.

Corona conspiracy theories are new, but conspiracy theories have have been around for ever. “Even a cursory perusal of the arguments for these conspiracies”, says Cory, ” reveals that they have not gotten better, even as they’ve gained traction”. If the same arguments are attracting more adherents, he argues, then one of two things is going on. Either: YouTube is a mind-control ray that can turn rational people into believers in absurd ideas; or the number of people to whom these ideas seem plausible has grown and/or Youtube has made it more efficient to reach those people.

Cory thinks it’s the latter, and I agree. YouTube is not a powerful hypnotising machine so much as a machine for finding people who are susceptible to nonsense.


Quarantine diary — Day 17

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Friday 3 April, 2020

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London under lockdown

Piccadilly Circus, London, 5pm today


There’s no going back to ‘normal’

My day started by listening to the New York Times’s ‘The Daily’ podcast, which today consisted of an interview with Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading medical scientist who has been head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. Yes, that’s right: since 1984: that means he’s served under six presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and the current clown.

He also seems to be the only real grown-up in the White House as the Trump crowd try to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic. Fauci often stands behind Trump as he conducts his political rallies that are masquerading as press conferences. Once, when Trump said something unusually stupid, the doctor was seen to put his hand to his forehead. He may have been brushing away a fly or wiping a bead of perspiration, but the Fox News fanatics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt for their beloved leader, since when Fauci has been since subjected to such a torrent of online threats and abuse that the Secret Service has had to increase his security cover.

His conversation with the podcast host, Michael Barbarro, was fascinating from beginning to end, but one bit in particular stood out.

The point of this is that when the current crisis is over we’ll be returning to a changed world — not just because the virus will still be hanging around, but there there are others like it waiting in the wings.

This crisis, says the political philosopher John Gray in a in a New Statesman essay published this week, “is a turning point in history”. The era of peak globalisation is over, he continues.

“An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. “

Human beings are a resilient species. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. But the post-war era has conditioned us to think that we know what normality should look like. It’s what Gray describes as “an embellished version of the recent past”. The problem with our recent past is that it was ecologically unsustainable, riven by inequality and dependent on complex systems of unbelievable fragility — as the Coronavirus has brutally revealed. And if we go back to that then we won’t deserve to survive.

A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated, says Gray.

Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape.

Next time we go to France, I was thinking as I read that, we may have to produce a certificate testifying either that we have acquired immunity to COVID-19 or have been vaccinated. In other words, it will be like what travelling with a dog used to be like — all that stuff about rabies and so on. And so on.

To a virus, the world may be borderless. But for humans borders will become even more formidable. Worst-case scenarios for the United States include individual states barring intra-state traffic. Likewise within the European Union’s Schengen area, where frontiers were once a thing of the past but could conceivably become a thing of the future.

In “The World after Coronavirus”, a long essay recently published in the Financial Times, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says that we now face two epochal choices: the first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. As far as the second of these is concerned, I think that the die is already cast. Globalisation as we have known it will go into reverse. The post-war international order created under American hegemony is coming apart. It was creaking at the seams anyway, but the election of Donald Trump really put the skids under it. Under the pressure of the virus, it’s not just America First. It’s also becoming Britain First, Italy First. France First. And of course Hungary First.

As for the first epochal choice that Harari thinks we face — between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, well we’re part-way down the first track already. Controlling the pandemic depends on identifying who has it, tracking their movements and contacts, and isolating or treating them — if need be forcibly. This is immensely labour-intensive. But digital technology and the smartphone has provided the perfect tool for the job, and the Oriental countries which have done best in controlling COVID-19 have made good use of it.

The lesson has not been lost on the West. And although the privacy and other risks implicit in the tech are terrifying, the pressure to deploy the tools may become irresistible. As Harari says, it is in the nature of emergencies that they “fast-forward historical processes.

“Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.”

The risk and dangers of a massive increase in surveillance justified by this emergency are real. But many of them stem from the fact that, under current models, all of the hoovered data is held centrally. But it doesn’t have to be done that way.

There’s an interesting experiment called Private Kit: Safe Paths under way at MIT, for example. Participants install an app which enables them accurately to log their own location on their own phones. (So it never gets uploaded to the cloud). Those who have been diagnosed as infected can, if they wish, share an accurate location trail with health officials once they are diagnosed positive, replacing a process that has historically been conducted only through memory. The app uses proximity-detection technology to tell a phone’s owner whether they have crossed paths with a diagnosed carrier. The researchers describe it as “a free, open-source and privacy-first contact-tracing technology that provides individual users with information on their interaction with diagnosed COVID-19 carriers, while also empowering governments’ efforts to contain an epidemic outbreak”.

It could be an interesting way of avoiding the choice that Harari says we will have to make as a result of this crisis– balancing necessary surveillance with human empowerment — by having both. Stay tuned.


Jack Schofield RIP

Photo by Sarah Lee/ The Guardian

This really marks the end of an era. Jack Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon. He was the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years. He was 72 and had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum. It’s still online and if you go to it you will be transported back to a different world.

My abiding memories of him are of a warm, generous spirit with masses of common sense — a rare quality at the dawn of the personal computer age. And he never succumbed to the Silicon Valley Reality Distortion Field. May he rest in peace.


Quarantine diary – Day 13

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Thursday 26 March, 2020

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Quote of the Day

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”

  • Benjamin Franklin

Should we cross the privacy Rubicon? Will we?

Maciej Ceglowski, a great privacy campaigner and one of the best online essayists around, (and also proprietor of Pinboard.in the best bookmarking site on the Internet) uses the Franklin quote above in a sobering reflection on the Coronavirus pandemic. His essay is prompted by the ongoing (and intensifying) debate about whether the current ‘lockdown+isolation’ strategy for ‘flattening the curve’ of infections) is economically, psychologically and politically sustainable.

Everybody knows that even when we’re through the initial crisis the disease will not have been eliminated. It’ll be back in waves, hopefully of lesser intensity and reach, and each wave may necessitate a briefer return to another lockdown regime. So the economic and other consequences could continue, perhaps for 18 months or more.

What should we do, therefore, after the initial outbreak is contained — or at least rendered manageable in terms of health-service capacity? Ideally, we should have a managed return to work with people who have had the virus and recovered from it (and thereby acquired immunity) able to work normally. But we can’t do that safely unless we have a vaccine (months away at best, a year at worst) or a way of identifying who is infectious and capable of infecting others.

There’s already a strategy for doing the latter task: test extensively and track contacts of those who are infections. That’s what South Korea, Taiwan and China seem to have been able to do. But in the UK we’re still ages away from being able to roll out a large-scale testing programme. (Getting testing up and running at scale is pretty challenging.) We will get there eventually, though, and when we do the next task will be to track the contacts of every infected person.

Trouble is: that kind of tracking is incredibly labour-intensive. But, says Ceglowski,

we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system.

Every one of us now carries a mobile tracking device that leaves a permanent trail of location data. This data is individually identifiable, precise to within a few meters, and is harvested by a remarkable variety of devices and corporations, including the large tech companies, internet service providers, handset manufacturers, mobile companies, retail stores.

Anyone who has this data can retroactively reconstruct the movements of a person of interest, and track who they have been in proximity to over the past several days. Such a data set, combined with aggressive testing, offers the potential to trace entire chains of transmission in real time, and give early warning to those at highest risk.

So it’s possible to do it. Doing so will probably enable a return to some kind of economic normality. But if we use the technology for this purpose we will have crossed the Rubicon into nightmare territory. And if we do cross, there’s unlikely to be a way back — because once states have acquired access to this technology, they rarely give it up. So will we do it?

Ceglowski thinks that we should. After all, he says,

This proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn’t already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

The most troubling change this project entails is giving access to sensitive location data across the entire population to a government agency. Of course that is scary, especially given the track record of the Trump administration. The data collection would also need to be coercive (that is, no one should be able to opt out of it, short of refusing to carry a cell phone). As with any government surveillance program, there would be the danger of a ratchet effect, where what is intended as an emergency measure becomes the permanent state of affairs, like happened in the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I am a privacy activist”, Ceglowski writes, “typing this through gritted teeth”.

But I am also a human being like you, watching a global calamity unfold around us. What is the point of building this surveillance architecture if we can’t use it to save lives in a scary emergency like this one?

Great essay. Worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 5

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Tuesday 24 March, 2020

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Update: the link to yesterday’s Quarantine Diary was duff. It should have been https://memex.naughtons.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Day-2-edited.mp3 Humble apologies to anyone who tried to follow it.


What tech companies are doing to tackle CV mis/disinformation

From a newsletter I get from article19.org

The gist: AI is doing some good, but making lots of errors too.

Last week, Twitter announced that it will temporarily start relying more on technology and that its automated systems will start removing some content without human review. However, it would not be permanently suspending accounts based solely on the automated enforcement systems. They would also be broadening their definition of ‘harm to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information”.

YouTube has said that it will increase its use of automated content takedowns as there will be less staff available to review content, and that this may lead to “increased video removals, including some videos that may not violate policies”. While the company says that users can appeal content takedowns, it admits that “workforce precautions will also result in delayed appeal reviews”.

Facebook has said that with “a reduced and remote workforce, we will now rely more on our automated systems to detect and remove violating content and disable accounts”. Last Tuesday, Facebook incorrectly removed a large number of posts, many of which were reported to have been about the coronavirus. Guy Rosen, Vice President of Integrity, later tweeted: “We’ve restored all the posts that were incorrectly removed, which included posts on all topics – not just those related to coronavirus. This was an issue with an automated system that removes links to abusive websites, but incorrectly removed a lot of other posts too.”


How to correctly use a computer

Lovely spoof from Apple.

Link

I notice, though, that the new keyboard for the iPad Pro isn’t going to be available until May. That might turn out to be an ambitious forecast.


Taiwan’s new ‘electronic fence’ for quarantines

Graphic Reuters report illustrating the quandary we’re in. Smartphones can provide useful tools for managing the CV crisis. But using them for this purpose creates a surveillance and privacy nightmare further down the line. Taiwan is deploying the technology to enforce quarantines that require people who have been exposed to the virus.

The system monitors phone signals to alert police and local officials if those in home quarantine move away from their address or turn off their phones. Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert within 15 minutes. Officials also call twice a day to ensure people don’t avoid tracking by leaving their phones at home.

The technology is being deployed all over the place. In Hong Kong, location-tracking wristbands are given to those put under quarantine. In Singapore, the government uses text messages to contact people, who must click on a link to prove they are at home. Thailand has rolled out a mobile app that anyone arriving at an airport must download to help monitor where they have been in the event that they test positive for the virus. Other countries, including South Korea and Israel, are using satellite-based phone tracking for so-called contact tracing to see where infected individuals might have passed SARS-CoV-2 to others.to stay in their homes. And so on.

“In emergencies”, wrote John Thornhill in yesterday’s Financial Times,

it is always tempting for security officials to argue that the ends justify the means, but such logic is often self-defeating. As the writer Aldous Huxley once said: “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.”

Yep. Besides, history tells us that states which have acquired such surveillance powers are often reluctant to let them lapse, even when the crisis which originally justified them has passed. That is one of the lessons of 9/11 — as Edward Snowden eventually revealed.


Awkward questions that are impolitic to ask just now

Like: how are states going to pay for the colossal support they are promising to companies and workers?

According to Politico.eu, there is one European politician who is willing to go where none of his peers will yet venture.

“It is French President Emmanuel Macron who has most starkly expressed the challenges of balancing measures like self-isolation and social distancing against the imperative to keep the economy running.

“It is impossible to live — even in self-isolation — and to cure people, if we do not continue the economic activity that, quite simply, permits us to live in this country,” he said while chairing an “economy task force” dealing with the outbreak.

Macron is also the most prominent voice to warn people that a vaccine is not imminent, and probably won’t arrive until the end of 2021. The message is clear: It won’t be possible for people to stay at home until then.”

What’s likely to happen,I suspect, is that the epidemic will continue in waves after the first big attempt at supression (via the major lockdown we have at the moment). In each wave, some elements of ‘normal’ economic life will be resumed once the load on intensive care units (ICU) becomes manageable; and when the caseload starts to rise again, lockdown will be resumed. This, at any rate, is my reading of the critical diagram in the Imperial College study which changed the government’s mind.

This represents a way of trying to balance some restoration of economic life with keeping the ICU load within manageable limits.


Quarantine Diary – Day 3

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Sunday 22 March, 2020

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Smartphones could help us track the coronavirus – but at what cost?

This morning’s Observer column

A key principle of control engineering is that you have to be able to measure the variable you’re trying to control. In the case of Covid-19, we currently have no way of accurately measuring how we’re doing, because we’re not able to do enough testing of the population. Dammit, we’re still not even testing frontline medical staff.

I know, I know: this is hard; this thing came out of the blue; we can’t just magic up the resources needed to do extensive public testing out of thin air; etc. But at the same time, every sentient being in the government must know by now that we must find some way of measuring the thing we’re trying to control. How else will we know – other than by counting the number of desperate cases who show up needing intensive care – whether that curve is being flattened or not?

We need a magic bullet. And, miraculously, we seem to have one. It’s called a smartphone…

Yeah, but there’s a downside that we might be living with for the rest of our lives…

Read on

Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari had an interesting essay on the same lines — “The world after coronavirus” — in the weekend edition of the Financial Times. “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life”, he writes.

That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiment. But these aren’t normal times.

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

Yep.


What the Coronavirus crisis is revealing

Extraordinary essay in the New York Times by Mark O’Connell.

In the original Greek, the word apocalypse means simply a revelation, an uncovering. And so there is one sense in which these days are truly, literally, apocalyptic. The world itself is being revealed with a startling and surreal clarity. Much of what is being revealed is ugly: the rot of inequality in the bones of our societies, the lethal inefficiency of free-market capitalism, the bewildering cruelty and stupidity of many of the people in positions of apparent leadership. But there are beautiful things, too, being revealed with great clarity and force. Of these, the one that gives me the most hope in this sad and frightening time is that despite the damage done by the presiding ideology of individualism, there remains a determination to act out of a sense of shared purpose.

On checking, this is probably drawn from his forthcoming book – Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back.


Quarantine Diary

Given that those of us confined to barracks should have more time on our hands, I’ve decided to keep an audio diary of thoughts and reflections on what we are about to go through. It starts today.


Sunday 15 March 2020

Online memes are viruses too

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the things that makes this epidemic different from predecessors is the dominance of social media in today’s world. One of the most perceptive analyses of what’s going on has come from Kate Starbird of Washington State University, who’s a leading expert on “crisis informatics” – the study of how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media. Crises always generate levels of high uncertainty, she argues, which in turn breeds anxiety. This leads people to seek ways of resolving uncertainty and reducing anxiety by seeking information about the threat. They’re doing what humans always do – trying to make sense of a confusing situation.

In the pre-internet era, information was curated by editorial gatekeepers and official government sources. But now anything goes, and sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be. There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain (need a few face-masks, guv?) or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at the site. And even innocently conceived jokes (a photograph of empty shelves in a local supermarket, for example) can trigger panic-buying…

Read on


Profiting from the crisis

The other day, partly out of curiosity — having noticed that our local Aldi store had apparently been cleaned out of hand-sanitisers, I went on to Amazon.co.uk to see what was happening there. Lots of sanitizers on offer, though only a small percentage seemed to have the 60%+ alcohol content needed to see off the Coronavirus. So I chose one — priced at £6.99 (which seemed steep for a tiny bottle) but it advertised free delivery so I pushed it into the basket and continued. Turned out that the free delivery means delivery between March 30 and April 7. But if I wanted it sooner than that I could have it by paying for delivery. How much? £48. Having thus confirmed my low opinion of human nature, I deleted the item and logged off. (I have plenty of soap and have never hitherto used a hand-sanitiser.)

I guess this always happens when there’s a panic and people over-react. And of course there are smart people who know how to exploit that. The NYT has an interesting story today about two brothers who set about buying every hand-sanitizer and wipe they could find — in the process clearing the shelves of every story they visited on March 1 with the intention of selling them at a heavy markup on Amazon. Initially, it went swimmingly — until Amazon decided to take action against merchants the company judged to be engaged in price-gouging. Now, as the headline puts it over a photograph of one of the brothers in his lock-up garage, “He has 17,700 bottles of Hand Sanizer and Nowhere to Sell Them”.

Cue violins.


Andrew Sullivan on the Plague

“Reality Arrives to the Trump Era”. Spot on, as usual.


Dressing for the age of Surveillance

“If the government were to demand pictures of citizens in a variety of poses, against different backdrops, indoors and outdoors, how many Americans would readily comply? But we are already building databases of ourselves, one selfie at a time. Online images of us, our children, and our friends, often helpfully labelled with first names, which we’ve posted to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, have ended up in data sets used to train face-recognition systems.”

Yeah, but if you’re an AI geek, you can make a T-shirt with a pattern that renders you invisible to facial-recognition systems. This from a fascinating New Yorker essay by John Seabrook.


The economic impact of the pandemic (and related thoughts)

Greg Mankiw is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard. People keep ringing him up asking for his views on the impact of the virus. Here’s his blogged reply:

  • A recession is likely and perhaps optimal (not in the sense of desirable but in the sense of the best we can do under the circumstances).

  • Mitigating the health crisis is the first priority. Give Dr. Fauci anything he asks for.

  • Fiscal policymakers should focus not on aggregate demand but on social insurance. Financial planners tell people to have six months of living expenses in an emergency fund. Sadly, many people do not.

  • Considering the difficulty of identifying the truly needy and the problems inherent in trying to do so, sending every American a $1000 check asap would be a good start. A payroll tax cut makes little sense in this circumstance, because it does nothing for those who can’t work.

  • There are times to worry about the growing government debt. This is not one of them.

  • Externalities abound. Helping people over their current economic difficulties may keep more people at home, reducing the spread of the virus. In other words, there are efficiency as well as equity arguments for social insurance.

  • Monetary policy should focus on maintaining liquidity. The Fed’s role in setting interest rates is less important than its role as the lender of last resort. If the Fed thinks that its hands are excessively tied in this regard by Dodd-Frank rules, Congress should untie them quickly.

  • President Trump should shut-the-hell-up. He should defer to those who know what they are talking about. Sadly, this is unlikely to occur.


Ian Donald’s tweetstream about UK government policy on COVID-19

Wonderfully succinct and helpful. Link


How a global health crisis turns into a state-run surveillance opportunity

This morning’s Observer column:

When Barack Obama was US president, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had a useful motto: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The Chinese authorities have clearly taken this to heart – as evidenced by the unprecedented scale of their geographical lockdowns and quarantining, restrictions on movement, industrial slowdowns and heightened surveillance.

At this distance, it’s impossible to judge how effective these measures really are. But all the experienced China-watchers of my acquaintance tell me that one should never underestimate the gap between realities on the ground and the story as told from Beijing…

Read on

Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Tuesday January 21, 2020

Mark Knopfler musing about guitars

This is one of my favourite YouTube videos. Shows you what real mastery is like. Unshowy but unforgettable.


Clearview: the astonishing (but predictable) story

The New York Times had a great story the other day about a tiny firm called Clearview AI which had crafted a program to scrape images of people’s faces from across the Web — employment sites, news sites, educational sites, and social networks including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, etc. — and built a facial recognition algorithm that derived from academic papers. When a user uploads a photo of a face into Clearview’s system, it converts the face into a vector and then shows all the scraped photos stored in that vector’s neighborhood — along with the links to the sites from which those images came. Basically, you upload a photo and in many cases you get a name — often from a social-media posting.

Not surprisingly, police forces seem to like Clearview. One possible reason for that is that its service seems to be unique. Would-be imitators May have been deterred by the fact that the main social-media sites prohibit image-scraping, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Clearview. Either that or they had a lawyer who knew about the LinkedIn case in which LinkedIn tried and failed to block and sue scrapers. The company lost the case and the judge said that not only could they not sue, but also that they’re not even allowed to try to block scraping by any technical means. As Ben Evans, observed, “Some people celebrated this as a triumph for free competition and the open web – welcome to the unintended consequences”. This case also confirms that facial-recognition technology is becoming a commodity.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel is an investor in, and a board member of, Clearview.


There’s a subreddit Reading Group for Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1920 edition)

Marks the centenary of the edition. Find the Reading Grouo here


UK government policy on electric vehicles is based on magical thinking

Take, for example, the UK pledge to move entirely to electric vehicles by 2050. I’ve been puzzled for a while about the electricity-generation capacity that would be needed to charge all those vehicles. And then I stumbled on a remarkable letter from a group of relevant scientific experts about the resource implications of such a commitment which was sent to the IPCC in June last year. And I realised that generation is only a smallish part of the story.

It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some of the highlights. To meet UK electric car targets for 2050 the UK would need to produce or acquire just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production. Oh – and 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Like I said, magical thinking. Wishing doesn’t make something happen.


Could Mike Bloomberg beat Donald Trump?

Maybe. At least he’s rich enough. But be careful what you wish for. As Jack Shafer neatly points out, Bloomberg is a surveillance addict. A guy who amassed a $54 billion fortune by collecting petabyte upon petabyte of sortable data, would be very keen on enhancing a high-tech surveillance state that would collect personal data as aggressively and as expansively as he and his company do financial data.


Linkblog

Democratic oversight?

Here’s my summary of what we learned from Ed Snowden’s revelations in 2013 and the official responses to them in Western democracies:

  1. There was astonishingly intensive and comprehensive state surveillance under inadequate democratic oversight in these democracies.
  2. There then followed various official and semi-official inquiries in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
  3. In some cases, these inquiries led to limited reforms. The US Oversight system remained broadly untouched. The UK had three separate inquiries, followed by a new Investigatory Powers Act, which enhanced some kinds of Judicial oversight, but also added new powers for the security services (e.g. ‘equipment interference’ and warrantless clickstream logging).
  4. The result: comprehensive state surveillance continues, under slightly less inadequate democratic oversight.

Now comes yesterday’s US Inspector General’s report into the FBI’s Russia investigation. It provides a peek under the hood of how the secret FISA Court process works, post-Snowden. “ At more than 400 pages”, says the New York Times, “the study amounted to the most searching look ever at the government’s secretive system for carrying out national-security surveillance on American soil. And what the report showed was not pretty”…

That’s putting it mildly. The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, and his team uncovered a staggeringly dysfunctional and error-ridden process in how the F.B.I. went about obtaining and renewing court permission under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

“The litany of problems with the Carter Page surveillance applications demonstrates how the secrecy shrouding the government’s one-sided FISA approval process breeds abuse,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The concerns the inspector general identifies apply to intrusive investigations of others, including especially Muslims, and far better safeguards against abuse are necessary.”

Congress enacted FISA in 1978 to regulate domestic surveillance for national-security investigations — monitoring suspected spies and terrorists, as opposed to ordinary criminals. Investigators must persuade a judge on a special court that a target is probably an agent of a foreign power. In 2018, there were 1,833 targets of such orders, including 232 Americans.

Most of those targets never learn that their privacy has been invaded, but some are sent to prison on the basis of evidence derived from the surveillance. And unlike in ordinary criminal wiretap cases, defendants are not permitted to see what investigators told the court about them to obtain permission to eavesdrop on their calls and emails.

According to the Times’s account, the inspector general found major errors, material omissions and unsupported statements about Mr. Page [the target of the surveillance] in the materials that went to the court. F.B.I. agents cherry-picked the evidence, telling the Justice Department information that made Mr. Page look suspicious and omitting material that cut the other way, and the department passed that misleading portrait onto the court.

Lots more in that vein. The surprising thing is that anybody should be surprised. That’s not to say that Carter was not a legitimate target for surveillance, by the way. But democracy dies in darkness.