Thursday 30 April, 2020

Lilac blossom

In our garden, this evening.

So even the omnipotent French state lacks capacity

All my life I’ve assumed that there was one state in Europe with consummate capacity. As a student visiting Paris in the Autumn of 1968 in the aftermath of les eventments, for example, I was struck by the grip that the police and the military had reimposed on the city. This was in the aftermath of an episode of demonstrations and disruption that had, temporarily, even caused President de Gaulle to contemplate fleeing. But in the end, authority was restored — with a vengeance. This was a state, I concluded, with formidable capacity even in peacetime.

But the Coronavirus may have exposed that as a bit of a myth. At any rate there’s an interesting piece in today’s New York Times suggesting that that fabled state capacity may not be what it was.

While France’s vaunted health care system has staved off disaster, France has suffered the world’s fourth-biggest death toll — now at 23,660 official deaths, behind the United States, Italy and Spain — a consequence, critics say, of the central government’s failure to anticipate the onslaught of the contagion.

That failure and a critical shortage of masks and testing kits — also resulting from gaps in state policies — led to the virus’s rapid early spread, prompting France to impose one of the word’s strictest nationwide lockdowns, now in its seventh week.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a tentative plan on Monday to gradually reopen the country starting on May 11. Schools and businesses would start reopening, though not restaurants or cafes. He urged companies to keep their employees working at home. And he promised that masks and testing would be made sufficiently available. But it was not clear that those steps would halt what polls show is declining confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Sacre Bleu!

The existential sadness of virtual tours of deserted museums

Earlier this month the New Yorker carried a touching and thoughtful piece by the magazine’s Art Critic, Peter Schjeldahl. Once we are again free to wander museums, he argues, the objects won’t have altered, but we will have, and the casualties of the coronavirus will accompany us spectrally.

We will have so much to say to one another when the coronavirus crisis is over: distillations from solitude, in cases like mine. At seventy-eight, with bad lungs, I’m holed up with my wife at our country place until a vaccine is developed and becomes available. It’s boring. (Remember when we lamented the distracting speed of contemporary life?) On the scale of current human ordeals, as the pandemic destroys lives and livelihoods, mere isolation hardly ranks as a woe. It’s an ambivalent condition that, among other things, affords time to think long thoughts. One of mine turns to the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online “virtual tours” add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted. Purely by existing, they stir associations and precipitate meanings that may resonate in this plague time.

The gap between the painters we call “the old masters” and our recent selves is that they lived in the shadow of mortality, or at least a sense of the proximity of death in a world without medicine and prone to pestilence and war. For a long time, though, modernity and science excavated a moat between their sensibility and ours. “But right now”, he writes, “we have all convened under a viral thundercloud, and everything seems different.”

At the heart of the essay is an extended meditation on Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), which, says Schjeldahl, “is the best painting by the best of all painters”. Last December he had gone to Madrid (where the painting in in the Prada), believing that he would never see it again. (He has cancer, but has been granted an extension by immunotherapy.)

It’s a lovely, moving piece, worth reading in full. _____________________________________________________________________________ 

Another by-product of the Coronavirus crisis

There’s nothing that this blasted virus doesn’t touch.


Evgeny Morozov’s The Syllabus

Evgeny Morozov (whom God preserve) has launched a characteristically ambitious project: The Syllabus. Think of it as intelligent curation on steroids. It hoovers up the torrents of stuff published online and intelligently distils from it stuff that is worth noticing, reading, listening or viewing. The weekly output consists of curated syllabi featuring pieces that cut across text, video and audio. Curation runs either along thematic lines – e.g. technology, political economy, arts & culture – or by media type such as Best of Academic Papers, Podcasts, Videos. Subscribers can also build their own personalised syllabus centered around your interests.

The approach uses a mix of algorithmic and human curation: each week, algorithms detect tens of thousands of potential candidates – and not just in English. And then a team of human editors, led by Morozov, select a few hundred worthy items.

Maurits Martijn has written an illuminating account of how the project came to be.

Clay Shirky famously said decades ago that “there is no such thing as information overload; there is only filter failure”. Which is why one of the most valuable services people can provide on the open web (outside of the walled gardens of social media) is intelligent curation. That’s why services like, The Browser, Charles Arthur’s The Overspill and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery are so useful. But all of these are curated by people who cannot read everything. Morozov’s idea is to use technology to survey an unimaginably wider range of stuff that might conceivably be worth our attention, and then filter that using human judgement.

What I love about this project is its sheer ambitiousness. I’ve been a subscriber from its early days.

Why Trump’s press conferences should continue to be broadcast live

Interesting take from Olivia Nuzzi in NYmag:

What a lot of Trump critics miss is that the biggest threat to his presidency isn’t the pandemic and the collapse of the global economy. It’s Trump. The more we see him — rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight — the clearer that becomes. But that’s not the media’s problem, and taking the spotlight off of him as he displays the full extent of his inadequacies would only serve to help him and to make the public less informed about what the federal government is doing — or not doing.

Watching Trump dangerously improvise is, in itself, information. It’s pure access to his thoughts and ideas and emotional state, presented to the world in real time. Trump’s presence at the briefings is not valuable if what we hope to get from them is factual information about the pandemic. But if we want to learn more about what the government is doing, and why it’s doing what it’s doing, what could be better than this? We should think of the briefings as opportunities to observe the president and gauge his level of understanding of, and interest in, the crisis each day — to watch the reality show of his relationships with the members of his task force play out before our eyes, rather than reported on later through palace-intrigue stories informed by anonymous sources who half the country doesn’t believe exist.

Spot on. The point is that these performances provide a compelling insight into what might loosely be called Trump’s mind. They reveal how stupid and unhinged he is. (He always reminds me of the saloon-bar drunks I used to observe as a student.) As the Guardian‘s Australia Editor observed

When Trump’s words are processed through the media, the effect is that Trump sounds more coherent than he is. “I realized how much of the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect.” Taylor said she was left wondering “whether the editing does our readers a disservice.”

Quarantine diary — Day 40


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Wednesday 29 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

”The best test of a person’s intelligence is their capacity for making a summary”

  • Lytton Strachey

Understanding the virus

It’s a very complicated and (still) poorly-understood organism. The Atlantic has published this really helpful explainer. Sample:

Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19. But despite this deluge, “we haven’t seen a lot of huge plot twists,” says Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington. The most important, he says, was the realization that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms. But even that insight was slow to dawn. A flawed German study hinted at it in early February, but scientific opinion shifted only after many lines of evidence emerged, including case reports, models showing that most infections are undocumented, and studies indicating that viral levels peak as symptoms appear.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

For example, Stanford University researchers recently made headlines after testing 3,330 volunteers from Santa Clara County for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The team concluded that 2.5 to 4.2 percent of people have already been infected—a proportion much higher than the official count suggests. This, the authors claimed, means that the virus is less deadly than suspected, and that severe lockdowns may be overreactions—views they had previously espoused in opinion pieces. But other scientists, including statisticians, virologists, and disease ecologists, have criticized the study’s methods and the team’s conclusions.

One could write a long piece assessing the Santa Clara study alone, but that would defeat the point: that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19. About 30 similar “serosurveys” have now been released. These and others to come could collectively reveal how many Americans have been infected. Even then, they would have to be weighed against other evidence, including accounts from doctors and nurses in New York or Lombardy, Italy, which clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 can crush health-care systems. The precise magnitude of the virus’s fatality rate is a matter of academic debate. The reality of what it can do to hospitals is not.

It’s a long read, but worth it.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.

En passant. There’s been a torrent of research papers on the virus since the crisis broke. Some of this is making it way through the peer-review vetting process of traditional scientific journals. But an awful lot of it is winding up on so-called ‘preprint’ servers, where (more or less) anyone can publish anything that bears a superficial resemblance to ‘scientific’ or scholarly work. These preprint archives have their uses, and peer-reviewing isn’t perfect. But when mainstream media sees an unreviewed preprint and then draws sensational conclusions from it, then that only makes things worse.

Julie Pfeiffer of UT Southwestern, who is an editor at the Journal of Virology, says that she and her colleagues have been flooded with submitted papers, most of which are so obviously poor that they haven’t even been sent out for review. “They shouldn’t be published anywhere,” she says, “and then they end up [on a preprint site].” Some come from nonscientists who have cobbled together a poor mathematical model; others come from actual virologists who have suddenly pivoted to studying coronaviruses and “are submitting work they never normally would in a rush to be first,” Pfeiffer says. “Some people are genuinely trying to help, but there’s also a huge amount of opportunism.”

From Private Lives to Public Memory

Absorbing conversation on Lapham’s Quarterly about the 1918 flu pandemic with the historian Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds Of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

It’s fascinating for all kinds of reasons, of which the first is that 1918 was the last time that the US and Europe went through something akin to our current crisis. Lots of differences, of course, but also similarities. For example:

In general, the common pattern was a lot of community commitment, and folks nationwide stepped up to do the right thing. You hear stories of schoolteachers whose school districts were closed down and were asked to serve as volunteer nurses instead. In an email from a colleague this week, I learned the story of schoolteacher who spent the pandemic holding the hands of the dying in an emergency ward. And that kind of story is not unusual. People formed soup kitchens, they helped in the emergency hospitals, they delivered food, they ran temporary orphanages to take care of children whose parents were ill. So again and again you see people doing really heroic things to help one another. And this is an era in which, because they can’t identify the virus, and they don’t really have the same kind of understanding of personal protective equipment we do now, those who offered that kind of help were often putting their own lives at risk. Across the country you see examples of communities really stepping up and of individuals stepping up to be their best selves, of being what Rebecca Solnit describes as part of “a paradise built in hell”: this idea that we can be our best selves in the midst of a catastrophe and that that’s actually a common reaction for human beings. You see that a great deal in 1918.

The private and public lives of Albert Einstein

Lovely review article in the TLS by P.D. Smith of five books about Einstein’s life, relationships and experiences. Includes lots I hadn’t known. Including this:

On September 9, 1933, something spooked Einstein, who was by then living in exile in Belgium. Apparently fearing for his life, he travelled alone to England at short notice. Einstein turned to Oliver Locker-Lampson, whom he had met on an earlier visit, for protection. A Conservative Member of Parliament and decorated former soldier, Locker-Lampson was “an impulsive romantic” and, according to Robinson, Einstein clearly liked the “commander’s can-do, gung-ho personality”.

Locker-Lampson took Einstein to his thatched holiday hut in Norfolk. In what sounds like an episode of Dad’s Army, he armed locals with shotguns to protect Einstein from Nazi assassins. Einstein used the “admirable solitude” of the countryside to continue working on his unified field theory, a project which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The sculptor Jacob Epstein came to model him and recalled his “wild hair floating in the wind”, like “the ageing Rembrandt”. His wonderful bronze bust of the scientist is in the Tate Gallery.

Dominic Cummings: the plot thickens

From this morning’s Politico London newsletter:

Lockdown story of the morning: Irresistible scoop from Bloomberg News’ Alex Morales, who reports that Dominic Cummings did indeed heavily influence the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers at a crucial meeting last month. Morales speaks to two sources who say Cummings “played far more than a bystander’s role at a crucial SAGE meeting on March 18,” five days before Britain went into lockdown. Yikes. Guardian readers will be frothing at the mouth to learn that Cummings checks notes “asked why a lockdown was not being imposed sooner, swayed the discussion toward faster action, and made clear he thought pubs and restaurants should be closed within two days.” Oh.

OK, OK: It will of course concern an awful lot of people if an unelected history graduate with zero science expertise is swaying our most eminent scientists on their crucial advice to the government. Downing Street has repeatedly denied Cummings in any way influenced the committee, and this was backed up on the record at the weekend by one of its members, Professor Neil Ferguson. We may never know for sure, but certainly Cummings’ position as described should not come as a surprise — the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported last month that Cummings swung heavily and forcefully behind a strict lockdown once scientists modeled the vast loss of life associated with the initial ‘herd immunity’ plan.

Quarantine diary — Day 39


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Tuesday 28 April, 2020

Lunchtime in Wuhan

In the cafeteria of the factory that makes Lenovo products — including those lovely Thinkpad laptops.

Source: a post on Reddit

Why we need a new “Office for Black Swans”

Very thoughtful blog post by Steve Unger, who used to be a senior official at OFCOM and is now an associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. The first part of the post is about how Britain’s Internet infrastructure has stood up to the strain of lockdown-generated traffic increases. But then he turns to the bigger question: why are democracies so bad at planning for remote but potentially disastrous contingencies? The UK government is providing us with a sobering case-study of this tendency.

There is a more fundamental question beyond communications about how we set priorities for policy in the absence of a crisis. In good times there is a tendency to focus on positive initiatives that will result in positive news stories. This is not meant as a criticism; indeed, the tendency to take an optimistic view of the future is generally a good thing.

But it does create a risk that work to prepare for bad times is crowded out. This capability does exist within government, but it does not always receive the visibility it merits, or the senior sponsorship necessary to drive sustained action across different parts of the public and private sectors. My own experience is that it is prioritised in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but that other priorities emerge as memories fade.

Of course, a key characteristic of ‘black swan’ events such as the current crisis is that they tend to be obvious – with hindsight. However, that does not mean it is impossible to make any preparation for them: COVID-19 is novel, but infectious diseases are not.

I remember a government minister commenting, after several years of serious floods, that although any specific flood might be a once in a lifetime event, somewhere in the country will be flooded every year. That new-found appreciation of the nature of statistics led to greater priority being given to flood preparations. We should apply that same principle more generally.

There is a strong case for creating a new public body to give these issues the sustained attention they require. Its task would be to assess the risk associated with different categories of those low-likelihood high-impact events which may not be addressed by conventional business continuity plans. It would publish recommendations as to an appropriate response. The recommendation may be to do nothing, on the basis that advance preparation is either impractical or too costly – which would at least be the result of a conscious decision. Where some form of action is agreed, it would track delivery.

Another quango? Yes, that is exactly what the response to this crisis should include.

Yep. But how do we ensure that future governments pay attention to what this body warns us about? After all, it’s abundantly clear that the present government had a graphic warning about pandemic risk last year — and did nothing — probably because at the time it was obsessed with Brexit.

David Runciman on Hobbes and power

David Runciman has embarked on a series of podcasted talks on the history of ideas. The first talk, on Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, is a masterly, contextual introduction to the man and his book. I wish I’d heard it before, many years ago, I first embarked on Leviathan, which I found pretty hard going on the first pass. Listening to the talk brought home to me the perennial relevance of Hobbes’s thinking.

This continuing relevance is a theme that David flagged last month in an essay he wrote for the Guardian about the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists.

But now they are not so theoretical. As the current crisis shows, the primary fact that underpins political existence is that some people get to tell others what to do. At the heart of all modern politics is a trade-off between personal liberty and collective choice. This is the Faustian bargain identified by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the country was being torn apart by a real civil war.

As Hobbes knew, to exercise political rule is to have the power of life and death over citizens. The only reason we would possibly give anyone that power is because we believe it is the price we pay for our collective safety. But it also means that we are entrusting life-and-death decisions to people we cannot ultimately control.

The primary risk is that those on the receiving end refuse to do what they are told. At that point, there are only two choices. Either people are forced to obey, using the coercive powers the state has at its disposal. Or politics breaks down altogether, which Hobbes argued was the outcome we should fear most of all.

It’s this last risk that keeps coming to mind when thinking about worst-scenarios if the virus overwhelms the ability of US authorities to manage it. Just think of how many unlicensed guns there are in that benighted country :-(

Terrific interview with Bill Gates on the Coronavirus crisis

Ezra Klein has interviewed Gates before, but this new interview is just great. It’s an hour long, But it’s accompanied by a transcript if you want to speed through it. Unmissable IMHO,

Van Gogh in 4K

Here’s something for a lockdown afternoon — a 4K video tour of the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It’s a vivid reminder of what a wonderful artist he was. When I lived in Holland it was my second-favourite museum (first was the nearby Stedelijk — which is now doing live online tours). But this set of videos brings back wistful memories of the Van Gogh museum — coupled with a resolution to go there in person whenever it becomes possible again.

The UK gets ready to launch its contact-tracing app

BBC report here. But the app uses a centralised database — which means that the matching process that works out which phones to send alerts to — happens on an NHS-controlled server. There’s also a claim is that the app doesn’t have the deleterious impact on iPhone battery life that comes from having Bluetooth running constantly (compared with Apple-API-compatible apps, which doesn’t require that). It’s not clear how the NHSx designers are confident about this.

But the most important thing is the NHSx app’s reliance on a centralised server, which has security and surveillance risks. What it means, really, is that the UK is taking the route explicitly rejected by the German authorities yesterday.

The BBC report has a good illustration of the difference between the two approaches.

Quarantine diary — Day 38


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Monday 27 April, 2020

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

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

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

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

And now?

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

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

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

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

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

Cummings and SAGE meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to this summary

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

Quarantine diary — Day 37


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Sunday 26 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

We need a president who is a cross between F.D.R., Justice Brandeis and Jonas Salk. We got a president who is a cross between Dr. Phil, Dr. Strangelove and Dr. Seuss.

The New Yorker has had some wonderful cover illustrations during the crisis. This is one of them.

Contact apps won’t end lockdown. But they might kill off democracy

This morning’s Observer column

I could go on but you get the point. The problem with magic bullets is that they sometimes miss their target. The biggest issue of all with smartphone contact-tracing, though, is that it would mark a step-change in state surveillance capabilities. Such a momentous decision cannot be left to Matt Hancock and his colleagues in their Downing Street bunker. This is a central point in a landmark review of the issue conducted by UK research group the Ada Lovelace Institute. A decision to deploy mandatory proximity-sensing technology, says the institute, is too important to be left to technocrats. There has to be proper parliamentary scrutiny and primary legislation with real sunset clauses. No fudging with orders in council by frightened ministers. I agree. If we get this wrong, not only will we not succeed in easing the lockdown, but we might also be kissing goodbye to the shrivelled democracy we still possess. There’s no lockdown exit through the App Store.

Do read the whole piece

Contact-tracing, Singapore-style

It was one of those calls on a sunny Saturday afternoon during a barbecue that led to Singapore-based British yoga teacher Melissa (not her real name) learning she was at risk of contracting the virus.

“It was surreal,” she says, describing the moment an unknown number flashed up on her phone.

“They asked ‘were you in a taxi at 18:47 on Wednesday?’ It was very precise. I guess I panicked a bit, I couldn’t think straight.”

Melissa eventually remembered that she was in that taxi – and later when she looked at her taxi app realised it was a trip that took just six minutes.

To date, she doesn’t know whether it was the driver or another passenger who was infected.

All she knows is that it was an officer at Singapore’s health ministry that made the phone call, and told her that she needed to stay at home and be quarantined.

The next day Melissa found out just how serious the officials were. Three people turned up at her door, wearing jackets and surgical masks.

“It was a bit like out of a film,” she says. “They gave me a contract – the quarantine order – it says you cannot go outside your home otherwise it’s a fine and jail time. It is a legal document.

“They make it very clear that you cannot leave the house. And I knew I wouldn’t break it. I know that I live in a place where you do what you’re told.”

Two weeks later, Melissa had shown no symptoms of Covid-19 and could leave her house.


“Beware of over-hyping contact tracing apps in coronavirus fight”

Very good OpEd piece in Nikkei Asian Review by James Crabtree, who is based in Singapore.

Quarantine diary — Day 36


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Saturday 25 April, 2020

Seen on our walk yesterday evening.

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

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

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

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

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

And now what do we find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the UK government knew — last year

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

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

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

From today’s inbox.

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

Can this be genuine?

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

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

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

Autocrats are using the pandemic as cover for power-grabs

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

Quarantine diary — Day 35


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Friday 24 April, 2020

Quote of the day

“There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.”

So who is providing the ‘science’ that the UK government claims to be following?

Answer: the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies — SAGE. But here’s the strange thing: its list of members is secret, its meetings are closed, its recommendations are private and the minutes of its deliberations are published much later, if at all.

Yet, as the New York Times notes, government ministers endlessly invoke SAGE’s name without ever explaining how it comes up with its advice — or even who these scientists are.

Why is this? Various possible explanations. One is Whitehall’s traditional (and pathological) dislike of openness and transparency in favour of official secrecy. Another is a desire to shield scientists and medics from hysterical trolling like what has happened in the US to Dr Anthony Fauci.

But there is a more sinister explanation. It is that it will provide this chaotic Johnson administration with a cast-iron alibi for escaping responsibility for their catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic when the time comes for an inquiry into what happened. “We were just following scientific advice”, they will say. It’s a variant on the old WW2 excuse about just following orders.

This lack of transparency was once a puzzle. Now that the economy is tanking as a result of how the pandemic has been handled, it’s become a scandal. Will any of the journalists who (virtually) attend the government’s daily briefings ask why SAGE’s membership and advice is not being published?

Coronavirus: YouTube bans ‘medically unsubstantiated’ content

According to a BBC report, YouTube has banned any coronavirus-related content that directly contradicts World Health Organization (WHO) advice.

The Google-owned service says it will remove anything it deems “medically unsubstantiated”.

Chief executive Susan Wojcicki said the media giant wanted to stamp out “misinformation on the platform”.

The move follows YouTube banning conspiracy theories falsely linking Covid-19 to 5G networks.

Mrs Wojcicki made the remarks on Wednesday during her first interview since the global coronavirus lockdown began.

“So people saying, ‘Take vitamin C, take turmeric, we’ll cure you,’ those are the examples of things that would be a violation of our policy,” she told CNN. “Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy.”

Well, we should be thankful for small mercies, I suppose. So that’s Coronavirus dealt with then? But is YouTube now going to take down all the conspiracy theories about MMR that have been uploaded by anti-vaxx nutters and disseminated by YouTube? After all, as Charles Arthur remarked on this morning’s Overspill, measles kills people too.

Correction: in the first edition of this blog yesterday the reference to ‘MMT’ should have been to MMR. Thanks to the reader who pointed out the error.

How to deal with credulous fools

The quotation at the top comes from a lovely essay by Bertrand Russell. I particularly liked the way he ended it.

I admire especially a certain prophetess who lived beside a lake in Northern New York State about the year 1820. She announced to her numerous followers that she possessed the power of walking on water, and that she proposed to do so at 11 o’clock on a certain morning. At the stated time, the faithful assembled in their thousands beside the lake. She spoke to them, saying: “Are you all entirely persuaded that I can walk on water?” With one voice they replied: “We are.” “In that case,” she announced, “there is not need for me to do so.” And they all went home much edified.

As the Italians say, even if it’s not true it deserves to be.

If people have to stay at home are are thereby unemployed, there are lots of jobs they could do

We need to think like FDR about this. There are lots of things that need doing, but at the moment are not being done. Alex Tabarrok has some useful ideas in that line:

Sick pay pays sick people to stay home but to defeat the virus we also want lots of healthy people to stay home. We also want to support people who are at home because they can’t find work. We can accomplish these goals by subsidizing work using services like Upwork or Mechanical Turk. Jobs on platforms like Upwork are the shovel-ready work of the 21st century. A 21st century jobs program would pay people to stay home and isolate, support people without work, and produce some useful output all at the same time.

Instead of paying people to dig and then fill ditches* we could pay people to help train machine-learning apps, enter data, subtitle videos. take surveys, maybe even fold proteins to disrupt viruses.

More generally, how about paying people to take online courses? i.e. an income support program and a human capital investment program at the same time. Of course, not everyone would do well and people would cheat but think of these programs as a combination of paying people to isolate, maintaining aggregate demand and providing a source of income when low-wage restaurant and other service-jobs are declining but with a work requirement.

Footnote This was a reference to a famous passage in Keynes’s General Theory:

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again… the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”

A book for its time

David Vincent’s new book is out! Talk about timing!

Quarantine diary — Day 34


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Thursday 23 April, 2020


At a time when the entire country would love to throw off the shackles of self-isolation and quarantine I thought this might lift spirits. It’s from a series of photographs I took of kite-surfers on Brancaster beach in North Norfolk last year.

Click on the image for a bigger version.

Who’s behind all those “reopen” sites in the US?

Cory Doctorow runs Pluralistic, a clever site which is also available as a daily email newsletter. I’m finding it a great source of news and information which mainstream outlets seem to miss. Today he pointed to a remarkable piece of detective work by Brian Krebs, who runs one of the best security websites on the Internet. As Trump-fuelled demonstrations against the lockdown started to appear in (mostly) Democrat-governed states, he noticed a spike in new websites supporting these demonstrations. So he started to investigate who was behind this surge in new domains. Answer: (in Cory’s words) “Koch Network, grifters, GOP orgs and musketfuckers.” Some of the sites were basically fronts for selling libertarian tee-shirts. But it’s an interesting example of how how gun-fanatics and alt-right activists will exploit any opening for both political and financial gain.

Also illustrates how the US is morphing into a failing state.

A rhyme for our time

A friend who has a lovely wry sense of humour sent me this.

She described it in her email as “a piece of doggerel that I wrote to cheer myself up”. Well, it certainly cheered me up. But doggerel it certainly isn’t.

Contact-tracing apps. Our looming Faustian bargain

If you’re worried about proximity-sensing apps then this podcast episode with David Aaronovitch and Danny Fortson provides a very accessible explanation of the technology and why we might plausibly accept a Faustian bargain between privacy and escape from lockdown.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for the pointer.

Quarantine diary — Day 33


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Wednesday 22 April, 2020

This morning Elsie Pinniger, my mother-in-law and Grandma to two of my children, succumbed to Covid-19 in hospital in Stoke-on-Trent. She was a sweet, cheery, feisty soul, and it was awful to think of her dying alone, though it seems that she slipped peacefully away. This is such an inordinately cruel disease because it prevents family members being with their loved ones at the end. But it’s also very hard on the nurses who in addition to providing professional care become the humans who hold the hands of patients coming to the end. I’ve seen so many accounts of nurses who are distressed by being the ones who hold a mobile phone close to a patient who is saying goodbye to those s/he has loved. This afternoon, looking through all the family photographs I have, I found this one of Elsie as a lovely young woman around the time of her marriage to Gordon, who died some years ago.

May she rest in peace.

No exit via the app store

The The UK Government and NHSX are looking to smartphone-based proximity-sensing technologies to provide an exit from COVID-19 emergency lockdown measures. The Ada Lovelace Institute has done an impressive (and rapid) inquiry into whether such measures would be be safe, fair and equitable.

Summary of their findings

  • There is an absence of evidence to support the immediate national deployment of symptom tracking applications, digital contact tracing applications and digital immunity certificates.

  • Effective deployment of technology to support the transition from the crisis will be contingent on public trust and confidence, which can be strengthened through the establishment of two accountability mechanisms: the Group of Advisors on Technology in Emergencies (GATE) to review evidence, advise on design and oversee implementation; and an independent oversight mechanism to conduct real-time scrutiny of policy formulation.

  • Clear and comprehensive primary legislation should be advanced to regulate data processing in symptom tracking and digital contact tracing applications. Legislation should impose strict purpose, access and time limitations.

  • Until a robust and credible means of immunity testing is developed, focus should be on developing a comprehensive strategy around immunity that considers the deep societal implications of any immunity certification regime, rather than on developing digital immunity certificates.

  • Full and robust Parliamentary scrutiny and legislation will be crucial for any future regime of immunity testing and certification.

  • Technical design choices should factor in privacy-by-design and accessibility features and should be buttressed by non-technical measures to account for digital exclusion.

The most important point IMHO is that any deployment of this technology has to be authorised not by a ministerial order but by Parliament in the form of a new bill which has a sunset clause and periodical reviews built into the legislation.

Marc Andreessen on the need to build

Marc Andreessen is the guy who, while still a student, was largely responsible for bringing what had hitherto been a playground for geeks — the Internet — into the mainstream. He did this by creating (with Eric Bina) the first real web browser, Mosaic, and then co-founding Netscape. Some years later he became a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

He’s a thoughtful,perceptive, opinionated chap, and every so often produces a think-piece which seems to have a lot of influence on how people think about tech. Some years ago, for example, he published “Why software is eating the world”. Now, stunned by the Coronavirus disaster, he’s taken up his word-processor again with an essay entitled “It’s Time to Build”. Here’s the opener:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have…

It’s a good read, and one nods along. But, as Charles Arthur pointed out to me today, it’s really a stump speech rather than a manifesto. Andreessen knows an awful lot about the non-physical, online world where winners take all, marginal costs are near-zero and margins are huge. But in the physical world, where little of that applies, he’s as much of an amateur as the rest of us.

Quarantine diary — Day 32


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Tuesday 21 April, 2020

If you need cheering up, how about this?


One of the great comedians of his generation. I love his epitaph: “I told you I was ill”.

Politico’s daily summary

One of the joys (well, sometimes) of my early morning is finding Politico’s daily London Playbook (i.e. newsletter) by Jack Blanchard in my inbox. This is how it opens today:

THEY’RE BACK! Parliament returns today from its extended Easter recess to lead a country utterly changed from just one month before. When the House rose on March 25, Britain had been in lockdown for less than 48 hours, and fewer than 500 U.K. citizens had died from COVID-19. Boris Johnson was still running the country and a picture of jovial health; Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the opposition and taking part in his final PMQs. The Premier League was due to resume from its brief hiatus on April 30, and most people thought “Zoom” was an ice lolly from 1986.

Fast-forward 4 weeks … and Zoom has become such a crucial part of our lives that MPs will be using it to hold debates in the Commons chamber as of tomorrow. More than 16,500 Britons have died from the illness; a fierce debate is underway about when to lift a lockdown now destroying the U.K. economy; Johnson is recuperating at Chequers after almost losing his life to COVID-19, and Keir Starmer is leading a Labour Party already plunged into fresh civil war. Dominic Raab has the nuclear codes in his pocket; Liverpool’s title charge has been suspended indefinitely, and NHS nurses have been dressing in bin bags after supplies of protective kit ran out. So MPs shouldn’t be short of things to talk about when proceedings get underway.

If you’re a politics junkie you can subscribe here

Zoom’s security woes were no secret to business partners like Dropbox

Well, well. On the day that the UK House of Commons ‘returns’ using Zoom (the House of Lords is apparently going to use a Microsoft system), the New York Times reports that Dropbox became so concerned about Zoom’s security holes that the company commissioned a number of hackers to find the holes, which they then reported to Zoom.

Zoom’s defenders, including big-name Silicon Valley venture capitalists, say the onslaught of criticism is unfair. They argue that Zoom, originally designed for businesses, could not have anticipated a pandemic that would send legions of consumers flocking to its service in the span of a few weeks and using it for purposes — like elementary school classes and family celebrations — for which it was never intended.

“I don’t think a lot of these things were predictable,” said Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook who recently signed on as a security adviser to Zoom. “It’s like everyone decided to drive their cars on water.”

Motherboard is reporting that there are currently two Zoom zero-day exploits, one for Windows and one for MacOS, on the market.

And there’s a report that over 500,000 Zoom accounts are being sold on the dark web and hacker forums for less than a penny each, and in some cases, given away for free.

But still…amphibious cars — now there’s a good idea!

Another previously-profitable business is suddenly defunct

The big in-person conferencing event is suddenly passé. As someone who has always loathed conferences, this troubles me not at all. But to those who are addicted to them, it’s obviously depressing news. Here’s one gloomy take on it all:

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that conferences won’t be returning to normal anytime soon. Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that Facebook won’t host any events with 50 people or more until June 2021; Microsoft announced that it won’t be having in-person conferences until at least July 2021. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that large gatherings in the state are “unlikely” until the availability of a coronavirus vaccine, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested that his city won’t see large-scale events until 2021. Some in the tech industry are already predicting that CES in January will be canceled, as well.

Brightcove’s Larsen acknowledged that she wouldn’t send her own team members to in-person events right now, adding: “Until there is a vaccine that works, it is going to be really hard to get 10,000 people together in a space.”

The trouble is that while Zoom and streaming technology can replace some of what people get from in-person gatherings, there are still things that will be missing. As Ben Evans says in his current newsletter:

Conferences are a bundle: the content (which works as video, mostly), but also the chance meetings & networking, and the meetings you book because everyone’s in town, and sometimes also a trade fair, and none of those work as video, far less a random text chat room. And if you do switch the in-person meeting in a hotel room in that particular city to a video call from across the world, why do you need to do it on that particular date? There’s a second wave of products to be created here, I suspect.

America’s ‘underlying conditions’

Terrific, long essay by George Packer, whose book [The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American decline] ( set the scene for what the country is now experiencing. This is how the essay begins:

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.

If you read nothing else today, read this.

Quarantine diary — Day 31


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