Monday 20 April, 2020

There was a duff link in yesterday’s edition. The Safra Center’s briefing paper on contact-tracing technology is here. Apologies for the error. And thanks to Seb for spotting it.

What’s the secret of coronavirus’s success?

One of the ‘existential risks’ that researchers in Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risks study is a naturally-evolved or maliciously-engineered pathogen which could wipe out the human species. Pondering how SARS-COv-2 operates, one thought is that anyone designing a lethal pathogen could learn a lot from it. For example, one of the things that makes the Coronavirus so difficult to combat is that infected people don’t display symptoms until days after they have actually become infectious.

Dr Zania Stamataki, a research virologist, has an interesting article in today’s Guardian about this.

In fact, viruses generally have to follow certain rules if they want to get ahead. Stealth is critical, because these pathogens are unable to thrive and reproduce alone. Instead, they invade host cells and rely on them to, first, decode their genetic information to produce components for new virus particles, next, assemble those components, and finally, release new viruses to infect more cells. If this process causes tissue damage that leads to organ failure, the virus risks perishing along with its host.

So we move from the selfish gene to the stealthy virus.

Paul Romer’s view about the near-term future

From John Cassidy’s New Yorker piece, “There is no panacea for the coronavirus economy”

Absent large-scale testing, the outlook is grim, he said. “As soon as we stop the shutdowns, we’ll go right back to exponential growth. It won’t even help us much if we get down to very low rates of infection first, because exponential growth is so fast you get right back there very quickly.” Given the limits to testing capacity and the Trump Administration’s refusal to take the lead in this area, Romer suggested that the most likely outcome is a series of reopenings and renewed shutdowns, as the infection rate rebounds. “From an economic perspective, that is almost as bad as a permanent shutdown,” he said. “Nobody is going to invest. Nobody is going to reopen a restaurant.”

Romer (who is a Nobel laureate) has been experimenting with simple agent-based simulation models) which suggest that a viable strategy would require massive testing and quarantining only those who tested positive, rather than quarantining by random sampling. The former would mean that a controlled resumption to some kind of economic normality might be relatively safe. But at the moment, that’s entirely theoretical given that so few states — and certainly not the US — have anything like the testing capability required.

When I looked at his simulation models I thought they’d been built using NetLogo, which is a tool I’ve used myself in the past. But no: he built them himself in Python.

Peter Beard RIP

Absolutely fascinating NYT obituary

Peter Beard, a New York photographer, artist and naturalist to whom the word “wild” was roundly applied, both for his death-defying photographs of African wildlife and for his own much-publicized days — decades, really — as an amorous, bibulous, pharmaceutically inclined man about town, was found dead in the woods on Sunday, almost three weeks after he disappeared from his home in Montauk on the East End of Long Island. He was 82.

The obit is an account of an astonishing life. His artwork is extraordinary — see some of it on his site. But read the obit first.

HT to Tomasz Ulanowski for alerting me to Beard’s death.

The US government’s bailout program is basically a corporate racket

The Trump narrative about the government bailout is that it’s about protecting the most vulnerable. As Scott Galloway points put, it’s nothing of the kind. It’s basically about buttressing the most wealthy.

As long as they keep making old people, and younger people want to take their kids to Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge, there will be cruise lines and airlines. Since 2000, US airlines have declared bankruptcy 66 times. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the sector, boards/CEOs of the six largest airlines have spent 96% of their free cash flow on share buybacks, bolstering the share price and compensation of management … who now want a bailout. They should be allowed to fail. Bondholders will own the firms. Ships and planes will continue to float and fly, and there will still be a steel tube with recirculated air waiting for you post molestation by Roy from TSA.

One principle (applicable everywhere) is that any corporate claim for government assistance on the grounds that its business has been ruined by the virus should be denied if the firm has engaged in share buybacks over the last two decades. Also private-equity firms should be denied government assistance, on the grounds that no civilised society rewards pirates.

Quarantine diary — Day 30


Sunday 19 April, 2050

Quote of the Day

”An alien might someday ask how the entire population was bugged. The answer would be that humans gave each other surveillance devices for Christmas, cleverly named Echo and Home.”

When Covid-19 has done with us, what will be the new normal?

This morning’s Observer column:

The most important implication of the breakneck changes currently under way, though, is that there’s no going back to normality. That train has left the station. The coronavirus isn’t going away. And even when there is a vaccine, the risk will endure, because climate change and the erosion of wildlife habitats will ensure a ready supply of zoonotic viruses. Companies will have learned to build supply chains with resilience built in. White collar workers will have discovered that they don’t have do as much commuting as before. Air travel will go back to being a luxury. And so on.

A useful metaphor for the new normal will be what happens when driving a car on black ice. The worst thing to do is to slam on the brakes, because then you completely lose control. Instead you pump them – brake a little, then back off and repeat the process until back on gritty tarmac. Our immediate futures will be like that: a combination of what some people are beginning to call “the hammer and the dance” – the hammer of successive lockdowns followed by digital dances in which we use surveillance and testing to find and control outbreaks. We are heading into a cautious, rather than a brave, new world – with Orwellian overtones. I wonder what Aldous Huxley would have made of that.

Read on

Bill Gates and the pandemic


This is a TED talk that Bill Gates in 2015. That’s five years ago. “Today” he said, “the greatest risk of global catastrophe doesn’t look like this”. At which point up came a photograph of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb. “Instead”, he went on, “it looks like this”. And up popped an electron microscope image of a corona virus.

It’s called foresight.

The Andreessen manifesto

Marc Andreessen is one of the most interesting (and sometimes annoying) people around. As a graduate student he more or less made the Internet mainstream: with Eric Bina he wrote Mosaic, the first proper browser — the program that made ordinary people realise what this Internet thingy was for. Now he runs a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm. And every so often he launches a broadside on the world. His latest is entitled “It’s Time to Build” and this is how it begins…

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…

Worth reading.

More on contact tracing

If you’d like a good general guide to most of the key issues in the arguments about using smartphones for contact tracing, then “Outpacing the Virus:Digital Response to Containing the Spread of COVID-19 while Mitigating Privacy Risks” from the Safra Center at Harvard is pretty good.

And Tyler Cowen points out in his Bloomberg column that the coming societal dependence on smartphone technology will create a new digital divide. “All of a sudden the US will have a new segregation — between those who have smartphones and those who don’t. If you’re on the wrong side of that divide many places and services will be hard if not impossible to reach”.

Quarantine diary — Day 29


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Saturday 18 April, 2020

Thank God for Marina Hyde

If, like me, you are getting so pissed off by the government’s daily Corona briefings, then Marina Hyde’s wonderful column this morning will be music to your ears. Here’s a sample:

News that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, used Friday morning to announce a “six-point battle plan” stirs memories of yore – Thursday afternoon – when the supply prime minister, Dominic Raab, announced his “five tests”. Indeed, those five tests themselves felt like the twitch of a phantom limb, redolent of the time Hancock announced his “five pillars”. Five pillars – like Islam, or the lost Temple of Cybele in Rome, or a Floridian McMansion where the contractor went bust halfway through completing the portico.

You don’t hear a whole lot about Matt’s five pillars these days, though the announcement of them did the job at the time. On Wednesday, Hancock drew attention away from the desperate shortage of PPE in care homes by re-announcing an NHS-style badge for those who work in care. Alas, in a development best described as ironicidal, the care badge website then swiftly ran into difficulties, leaving visitors greeted with the news that there was now a shortage of care badges. Until production is “ramped up”, it’s hard not to conclude that the chief success of the care badge was to form a psychic shield around the health secretary. It will, however, take more than a badge if he doesn’t hit his 100,000 tests a day target for the end of April, having already missed the 25,000-a-day target for the middle of the month.

Can you recall if the 100,000 tests was ever technically a pillar? It all feels beyond living memory. If you told me he had announced them sometime in the mid-Cretaceous period, staring soulfully into the camera even as a T-Rex pursued him, I’d believe you. In fact, it was a fortnight ago…

The twin problem of the British system: government by amateurs and state (in)capacity

It has taken a while, but this is what the virus has taught us so far. The UK has two big problems:

  1. We are governed by amateurs who until recently thought that responsibility for one’s actions was something that only lesser mortals worried about. In recent times, this is mainly about the Tory party and the people who have led it. After its defeat by Tony Blair in 1997, the party was led by a succession of screwballs and jokers — William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. Then along comes David Cameron, who actually won a couple of elections and swaggered into the 2016 Referendum with Etonian swagger: he would convince the Europeans to give him a few token concessions that would be enough to sideline the swivel-eyed nutters in his own party, and the warnings of Establishment capitalism would frighten the punters to deliver the correct verdict. All delusional. He was then briefly succeeded by Theresa May, the embodiment of the Head Girl of a Grammar School; she did at least understand responsibility but unfortunately couldn’t run a bath. And then comes Boris Johnson, the most egregious bluffer of the lot, with an entitlement obsession bordering on the pathological and a smug confidence that there was nothing he couldn’t get through with a few jokes and some faux-Churchillian bluster. And even when he ran into an immovable obstacle called Covid-19 he didn’t get it for a while — as this fascinating Guardian account makes clear. It’s possible that his near-death experience might transform him into a serious human being, but I wouldn’t bet on it once he’s back firing on all cylinders. But thousands of people are paying with their lives for the complacent failures of Johnson and his Brexit-obsessed crew to mobilise earlier.

  2. We have also belatedly discovered the extent to which the British state suffers from a capacity deficit. This is what we learn every day in these government ‘briefings’. And it’s becoming more embarrassing by the minute as European states like Germany and Italy — yes Italy! — demonstrate their superior capacity to address the challenges of the virus. This state incapacity has clearly been building for a long time: it’s partly a product of ideology and an obsession with the short-term; it may also be partly due to the obsession with terrorism over and above other risks (even though pandemic risk was, in theory, the #1 item on the national risk register, with terrorism as #3). We will need a proper inquiry into this when the panic subsides.

The looming battle over smartphone-based proximity tracking tech

Very useful Techcrunch report on the developing row between those who want to have centralised tracking and those who believe the data should be kept on users’ phones, with a server basically just doing notifications to users. This row presages a nightmare scenario with real divergence between centralisers and de-centralisers. The EU seems to be leading the centralised charge (while of course denying that it is favouring anything of that kind), and seeming to consider leaning on Apple and Google to make sure that their forthcoming APIs allow centralised tracking.

Needless to say, the argument for centralised tracking is that the pandemic overrides namby-pamby reservations about privacy and the danger of constructing the architecture of a surveillance state. Behind this lies the framing of the pandemic as a “war” on the virus, accompanied by the usual soothing bromides that the powers and the tech will be withdrawn once the war is over. But ‘wars’ like this never end (just like the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11), and the architecture of surveillance is therefore never dismantled.

Other uses of a smartphone-tracking app

Robert Shrimsley in today’s Financial Times

Quarantine diary — Day 28


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Friday 17 April, 2020

Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable

Today’s Financial Times has a very interesting, wide-ranging interview with the French President. One segment in particular stood out for me:

There is a realisation, Mr Macron says, that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change. People have come to understand “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”

“Mr Macron likened the fear of suffocating that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”

This is the top story today IMHO. One way of looking at the Coronavirus crisis is as a dry run for the really existential crisis that’s on its way further down the line — catastrophic climate change. And the question is: will the trauma of the pandemic persuade publics worldwide that we can’t go on as before?

Just now, though, the yearning is for the current crisis to be over. Alas, that moment might be some way off. So it’s worth thinking trying to figure out what a realistic scenario might look like, and what needs to be prioritised as we make the transition into that new future.

In that context, a recent YouGov survey of British public opinion is interesting. According to one report, the survey found that:

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

  • 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.

A global poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori found wide divergences of views when people were asked if they believed that things would get back to normal soon.

Personally, I don’t take this poll seriously simply because the question it was asking (“do you expect things to return to normal by June?”) is daft. But it does suggest wide cultural divergence in expectations on how long this crisis will last.

The YouGov poll was commissioned by a number of organisations, one of which was the Royal Society of Arts. Matthew Taylor, its Chief Executive, has an interesting essay on what comes next. “It is natural to think about the next few months of the pandemic as ‘the crisis’ and ‘the world afterwards’”, he writes. “But it may be more useful to think of three stages:”

  • the immediate crisis
  • the transitional period
  • the emergence of a new normal.

The transition period may last some time and it is important to start exploring the principles that could and should govern it. Emergency powers and measures aren’t right for an extended period of time.

Democracy, transparency, devolution, protecting health, and protecting the most vulnerable should be some of our priority principles for transition.

Taylor’s essay spells some of this out in more detail.

The WHO shouldn’t be a plaything for great powers

Just because Trump is scapegoating it doesn’t mean the WHO hasn’t made mistakes. Trump’s ploy to de-fund the WHO is a transparent effort to distract from his administration’s failure to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. It would also be disastrous because many countries, especially poor ones, currently depend on the WHO for medical help and supplies. However, writes Zeyney Tufecki, it is also true that in the run-up to this pandemic, the WHO failed the world in significant ways.

It failed, she argues, because it’s unduly attentive to the whims of the nations that fund it and choose its leader. In July 2017, China moved aggressively to elect its current leadership, for example. Instead of fixing any of the problems with the way the WHO operates, though, Trump seems to merely want the United States to be the bigger bully than China.

Tufecki’s argument is that one can see the desire not to offend China in the WHO’s initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan. The organisation, she continues, should

not have brazenly tweeted, as late as January 14, that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” That claim was false, and known by the authorities in Wuhan to be false.. Taiwan had already told the WHO of the truth too. On top of that, the day before that tweet was sent, there had been a case in Thailand: a woman from Wuhan who had traveled to Thailand, but who had never been to the seafood market associated with the outbreak—which strongly suggested that the virus was already spreading within Wuhan.

The trouble with the WHO is the problem that every major UN organisation has — it’s dominated by the countries that fund it. And ever since China has begun to become more involved in international organisations — and stumping up funding for them — they have become more attentive. Much the same seems to be happening to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is being pushed by China and a number of other authoritarian states to change Internet protocols to make the network more susceptible to central control — using as a rationale the need to update the network to be able to serve the Internet of Things.

Still, Facebook hasn’t yet caught up with Trump’s disapproval of the WHO. It will will steer users who interact with coronavirus misinformation to the WHO!

Libra turns out to be a feeble duck, but, sadly, one that is not yet dead.

When Facebook unveiled its Libra cryptocurrency project last June, the company described it as a futuristic global money that could serve as the foundation for a new kind of financial system. But on Thursday it rolled out a feebler design for Libra after the effort encountered numerous hurdles and heavy regulatory scrutiny. It’ll basically be just another PayPal. Couldn’t happen to nastier people.

Twitter, masks and expertise.

So, it turns out that the medical establishment is no longer quite so sure that wearing masks in public is not necessary. That, at any rate, is my reading of this editorial in the British Medical Journal, a pukka source if ever there was one.

“Covid-19: should the public wear face masks?”, it asks. And the answer: “Yes — population benefits are plausible and harms unlikely”. This is really interesting because the “expert” advice relied upon by the government was dismissive of the importance of masks except in clinical settings, and the only places where the case for wearing masks was consistently argued were social media, and especially Twitter.

This makes uncomfortable reading for those of us — including me — who are deeply suspicious of much of the stuff that circulates on those media. What it highlights — as Ben Thompson has been pointing out in his (paywalled) newsletter — is that the abundance of information on social media has both a good and a bad side: there’s a lot of crap but there’s a lot of good stuff too. And in a situation like the current pandemic, where so much is unknown (for example the mortality rate and the proportion of the population that is asymptomatically infected) then mainstream media has been too dependent on ‘expert’ opinion — that has been shown to be faulty.

The tech giants are here to stay

One of the few certainties about the post-pandemic world is that the dominance of the big five tech giants we be further enhanced. See Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the NYT for a fuller exposition. This will change the regulatory landscape; and the debate about what to do about this kind of corporate power.

“It’ll be all over by Christmas”

No it won’t. But if you want a real dystopian take on the next phase of this, then Charlie Stross’s blog post should see you right.

Quarantine diary — Day 27


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Thursday 16 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.”

Tools for blogging

Someone asked me the other day how I plan the content of this blog. Answer: I use the wonderful Little Outliner created by Dave Winer. It’s everything a tool should be — lightweight, always-on (it runs in the browser) and agile. Here’s a screenshot of yesterday’s plan.

Dave was the author of the first great outliner — ThinkTank for the Apple Macintosh. I still remember the first day I saw it. And I used it — and its successors — ever since.

An outliner is really a tool for thinking with. One of the great ideas Microsoft had when creating PowerPoint was to build into it an ‘outliner’ mode which allowed one to focus on the flow of the argument rather than fiddling with the slides.

When the world stopped

When The World Stopped from Michael S Cohen on Vimeo.

Nice idea: a photographer grabbed images from webcams all over the world, digitally enhanced them and made an eerily compulsive film.


The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Sobering and perceptive essay by Evgeny Morozov. He’s long been a critic of a particular Silicon Valley ideology — “solutionism” — the belief that for every problem, social or otherwise, there is a tech solution. But solutionism has transcended

its origins in Silicon Valley and now shapes the thinking of our ruling elites. In its simplest form, it holds that because there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate “post-ideological” measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.

Morozov sees solutionism and neoliberalism as a sinister pair of ideological twins.

If neoliberalism is a proactive ideology, solutionism is a reactive one: it disarms, disables and discards any political alternatives. Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination. The solutionist mandate is to convince the public that the only legitimate use of digital technologies is to disrupt and revolutionise everything but the central institution of modern life – the market.

Great essay. Worth reading in full.

Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the Internet again?

From Tech Review:

You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.

The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.

Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.

Nice piece, but it will only make sense to those of us who were early users of the Net. 1999 was the year before the first Internet bubble burst. Google and Blogging were still new. And Facebook wasn’t even a glint in an eye.

And, as Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society points out, in 1999 the Internet was much smaller. Also, many people still accessed it via dial-up lines, which meant that it could be expensive scrolling through endless messages etc.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Quarantine diary — Day 26


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Wednesday 15 April, 2020

Using AI to find candidates for trying against COVID —

Er, for “AI” read machine learning. Usual mistake, but interesting nevertheless.

A team at BenevolentAI, a UK company that uses machine learning to aid drug discovery, had been searching through their database of all existing, approved drugs, searching for one that could be repurposed to treat the novel coronavirus. And according to this report they found one in just three days.

“Most drug companies had been looking at antiviral drugs, but we approached it from the other end and looked at what processes used by the virus could be disrupted,” said Peter Richardson, vice president of pharmacology at the company.

Protein kinases — enzymes that speed up chemical reactions in the body — seemed a promising area to look into. Some of these regulate the way substances can enter human cells — disrupt them, and the virus might be unable to get into the lung, heart and kidney cells it has been so prone to invading.

Baricitinib, a drug developed by Eli Lilley and approved in 2018, stood out because it not only inhibited kinases but also prevented the cytokine storms — the body’s own extreme autoimmune reactions that have led to so many fatalities with Covid-19. It was also likely to be compatible with other drugs being used to treat the disease, such as remdesivir. Richardson and a team of three part-time researchers identified an initial 370 kinase inhibitors, and then narrowed it down to six that looked most likely to work.

“It validated using AI for this kind of problem,” says Richardson. “It would have been impossible for the four of us to do it at that speed otherwise. If you took 250 people you still couldn’t do it at that pace because there would be too many competing ideas. You really can’t do it without an organised knowledge graph and the ability to query it.”

Interesting. I suppose they had to describe it as AI, given that the letters appear in the firm’s name. Benevolent Machine Learning doesn’t have the same ring to it.

How coronavirus almost brought down the global financial system

Another amazing long read from Adam Tooze, this time about how close the world came to a financial meltdown because of the Coronavirus. Most of it stuff I hadn’t known or understood. Tooze is a really phenomenal historian, with an astonishing grasp of how the finance industry works. * Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World*, his history of the 2008 banking crisis, is terrific. And now he seems to be really on top of the Coronavirus crisis. I’ve been thinking that what we’re facing at the moment is what the world would have been like if the Spanish flu and the Great Depression had come together.

This essay, which is worth reading in full (requires a cup of coffee and some peace and quiet) is mainly about how the central bankers of the West succeeded — just — in avoiding a global meltdown. But it ain’t over yet. And most poor countries don’t have the resources — financial or professional — to deal with the virus.

Security for home workers

From Bruce Schneier’s blog.

When I think about how COVID-19’s security measures are affecting organizational networks, I see several interrelated problems:

One, employees are working from their home networks and sometimes from their home computers. These systems are more likely to be out of date, unpatched, and unprotected. They are more vulnerable to attack simply because they are less secure.

Two, sensitive organizational data will likely migrate outside of the network. Employees working from home are going to save data on their own computers, where they aren’t protected by the organization’s security systems. This makes the data more likely to be hacked and stolen.

Three, employees are more likely to access their organizational networks insecurely. If the organization is lucky, they will have already set up a VPN for remote access. If not, they’re either trying to get one quickly or not bothering at all. Handing people VPN software to install and use with zero training is a recipe for security mistakes, but not using a VPN is even worse.

Four, employees are being asked to use new and unfamiliar tools like Zoom to replace face-to-face meetings. Again, these hastily set-up systems are likely to be insecure.

Five, the general chaos of “doing things differently” is an opening for attack. Tricks like business email compromise, where an employee gets a fake email from a senior executive asking him to transfer money to some account, will be more successful when the employee can’t walk down the hall to confirm the email’s validity — and when everyone is distracted and so many other things are being done differently.

Worrying about network security seems almost quaint in the face of the massive health risks from COVID-19, but attacks on infrastructure can have effects far greater than the infrastructure itself.

After the analogue hammer, comes the data-driven dance.

From Sifted

“Coronavirus has reminded even the most conservative among us that there is a role for the state after all. No government can outsource their way through this test. Suddenly, the absence of data skills at the centre of government is a life and death issue. The hammer blows will decrease. As the dance begins, states must respond with agility, using public and private data. An era of central data units may emerge. Regulation for data registries and more powerful registrars seems certain as public trust in government data and a new locus for privacy and surveillance are all being tried and tested on a daily basis. This is one big A/B test for governments, whether democratic or autocratic. This may not be the internet founders’ much longed-for government 2.0 moment, but we are all in beta now.

The “hammer and the dance” metaphor is becoming a meme.

Why content moderators should be designated as key workers

Important paper from the Turing Institute arguing that, just now, the people who try to keep mis- and disinformation off social media should be regarded as part of the world’s critical infrastructure.

The current crisis surrounding COVID-19 has scaled up the challenge of content moderation, severely reducing supply and massively increasing demand. On the “supply side”, content moderators have, like other workers around the world, been told not to come into work. YouTube has already warned that, as a result, it will conduct fewer human reviews and openly admits it may make poor content takedown decisions.

On the “demand side”, the growth of the pandemic has seen an upsurge in the amount of time spent online. BT recently noted an increase in UK daytime traffic of 35-60%, and social networks report similar increases, particularly in their use for education, entertainment and even exercise. Sadly, harmful activity has increased too: Europol reports “increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material” and the World Health Organisation has warned of an emerging “infodemic” of pernicious health-related disinformation. Recently, concerns have been raised that false claims are circulating online about the role of 5G.

At a time when social media is desperately needed for social interaction, a widening gap is emerging between how much content moderation we need and how much can be delivered. As a result, AI is being asked do tasks for which it is not ready, with profound consequences for the health of online spaces. How should platforms, governments, and civil society respond to this challenge? Following Rahm Emmanuel’s exhortation to “never let a crisis go to waste,” we argue that, now that the challenges in content moderation have been exposed by the pandemic, it is time for a reset.


Quarantine diary — Day 25


his blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Tuesday 14 April, 2020

Smartphone proximity-tracking is coming, so it’s vital to think about the dangers and how to avoid them

In addition to Ross Anderson’s observations on the Light Blue Touchpaper blog, another really useful source is the briefing on the technology by Privacy International. It concludes that Bluetooth is probably the least-bad option, provides an excellent primer on the technology and comes to a rounded, careful verdict:

Bluetooth LE has the capability of being both the least intrusive of tracking technologies (based on proximity between people choosing to use the app), whilst at the same time being highly intrusive in movement and interaction tracking (because its proximity is so small, and works as broadcast), and deanonymisation will necessarily cascade as the infection continues to spread, and uptake of apps increase.

As with everything we’re seeing in the age of Covid-19, we must be highly aware of the limitations of the choices we are offered. It is also important that technical and legal safeguards around the processing and storage of data — especially when those data can be used for deanonymisation — are not bypassed or ignored in the rush to deploy technology, however well-meaning or indeed vital it may be. It’s also important to ensure that there exists a genuine need to use location tracking that is supported by the scientific evidence, given contact tracing is more effective at earlier stages of tackling pandemics.

Balancing the risks of location tracking also involves consideration of whether the apps will be effective given the down-sides. In the example of the United Kingdom, as identified by the Big Data Institute, this not only relates to adoption of the app – they estimate that over 60 per cent of the UK’s population would have to be using the app for digital contact tracing to reach enough people as they become infected. It is also essential, in their view, that people identified by the contact tracing app be promptly tested. This may require a significantly higher rate of testing that we’ve so far seen in the UK. As of March 24, UK government data shows 90,436 people have been tested in Britain (population 66.44 million) compared to more than 330,000 in South Korea (population 51.47m).

Alternatives to using Bluetooth include the use of apps collecting GPS and Wifi location data and storing everything on a central server, or government authorities going directly to telecommunications operators themselves. Despite the drawbacks of Bluetooth, some of which we’ve explored in this primer, with the use of changing UUIDs, apps only tracking other users, and opt-in of upload of localised data, it’s a far less intrusive tracking method than some alternatives.

Emphasis above is mine. The technology is not a magic bullet. But it would be useful provided that people identified by proximity-sensing are promptly tested. Evidence so far suggests that the British state is nowhere near being able to do that.

Remember that the pandemic is also providing terrific opportunities for Big Brother. Which is why any legalised use of it requires sunset clauses.

As this useful compendium site demonstrates.

The point about sunset clauses (i.e. provisions in enabling legislation) is that they enable legislatures periodically to review the continuing need for the surveillance powers. That’s why framing the crisis as a ‘war’ on the virus is so dangerous: there isn’t any logical end-point for a ‘war’ against such a pervasive and elusive adversary. And so the powers will continue to be necessary ad infinitum. We should have learned that from the “war on terror”.

Zoom Is a Nightmare. So why is everyone still using it?

Here’s a fairly routine catalogue of Zoom’s multifarious flaws. But the author does ask an important question: should we collectively impose a sunset clause on our use of Zoom? That is, should we move to something better when this crisis eases or ends?

And what would that ‘something better’ be?

Missing the office? There’s an album for that

Now this is something you’d could not make up. You can buy an album of sounds from pre-1990s offices from the Smithsonian archive. They include a manual typewriter in action (and an electric one, though I’m not sure if it’s an IBM Golfball one) and even a Coffee-break, Complete with the sounds of coffee being poured from a jug!! Sacre Bleu!

What it brings back to me is the closing scene of the film All the President’s Men – which overdubs the distant commentary on TV coverage of Nixon’s Inauguration ceremony with the sounds of the Washington Post‘s newsroom, clacking typewriters and all.

Sigh. I had an Olivetti portable typewriter once. And an IBM Golfball too, for that matter. Remind me to tell you about the Boer War sometime.

Quarantine diary — Day 24


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Monday 13 April, 2020

Suppression may be working

At least estimates from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggest that various countries pursuing lockdown strategies may be approaching the point where R(0), the reproduction rate, gets to lower than 1.

RIP John Horton Conway

The great mathematician has been taken by Covid-19. He was, said his biographer, Siobhan Roberts, “Archimedes, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and Richard Feynman, all rolled into one”. He was one of the greatest mathematicians of his time, with “a sly sense of humour, a polymath’s promiscuous curiosity, and a compulsion to explain everything about the world to everyone in it.”

Most lay people will probably know of him through his Game of Life which, among other things, provides a fascinating demonstration of how simple rules can produce very complex outcomes. There will be many obituaries, and in due course a Royal Society memoir of him. But for now Siobhan Roberts’s 2015 Guardian profile conveys a vivid impression of what a remarkable person he was.

Thanks to Guy Haworth for alerting me to the sad news.

Covid-19 and contact-tracing smartphones

Now that it’s been confirmed that the UK government is considering using the technology to address the next phases of the pandemic, it needs to be subjected to some really searching scrutiny. Ross Anderson, who is Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge, has just published a masterful survey of the various issues raised by the technology. Its title, “Contact Tracing in the Real World” captures the fact that no technology — including this one — is a magic bullet. It may be that smartphones are good at detecting other nearby smartphones, for example, but they know nothing about context, or for that matter about human beings. “On Friday, when I was coming back from walking the dogs”, Ross writes,

“I stopped to chat for ten minutes to a neighbour. She stood halfway between her gate and her front door, so we were about 3 metres apart, and the wind was blowing from the side. The risk that either of us would infect the other was negligible. If we’d been carrying bluetooth apps, we’d have been flagged as mutual contacts. It would be quite intolerable for the government to prohibit such social interactions, or to deploy technology that would punish them via false alarms. And how will things work with an orderly supermarket queue, where law-abiding people stand patiently six feet apart?”

It’s a great blog post — worth reading in full.

I was reminded of a story I heard from the early days of the Wuhan outbreak. A journalist (I forget who) was travelling by train through part of China and was astonished to find that his phone recorded him having visited areas suspected of being hotspots of Covid 19 — even though he hadn’t left the train at any stage. It turned out that his phone was just logging mobile masts located in the cities he was passing at high speed.

As Lisa Geilelman and her fellow-authors point out in their new book, Raw Data is an Oxymoron.

The UK death rate from Covid-19 is twice that of Ireland, even though — proportionately — both countries started out with the same level of ICU provision. Why?

Answer (from a striking Twitter thread by Elaine Doyle, a medical historian) is that the Irish government started earlier and took the threat more seriously than Johnson & Co. For example, the UK allowed 250,000 people to go to the Cheltenham racing festival. The Irish cancelled the country’s National day (St Patrick’s Day, March 17).

A really depressing but salutary read.

Quarantine diary — Day 23


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.

Sunday 12 April, 2020

Surveillance and the pandemic: it doesn’t have to be a nightmare

This morning’s Observer column:

The capabilities of this technology would make totalitarian leaders drool. On the other hand, it appears to be very effective in helping countries to manage the crisis. And it is probably not a coincidence that the democratic societies that appear to have coped best – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, for example – have evolved from, er, authoritarian pasts. In normal circumstances, liberal democracies would have to think very hard about intruding so comprehensively into their citizens’ privacy.

But these are not normal times, and it seems likely that western governments will move to deploy smartphone tracking as a way of monitoring and controlling the pandemic. When they do there will be an explosion of (understandable) outrage from civil liberties organisations, but governments will ride roughshod over these with reassuring bromides about how such “emergency” measures will be rolled back once the crisis has passed. Recent history (think 9/11) does not provide much comfort here. And we are going to have zoonotic-virus crises for the foreseeable future, so the “war against the virus” will become like the war on terror.

In that sense, we seem to be heading into a nightmarish future. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

Read on

MORE This is a fast-moving topic. Since I wrote the column lots of useful related stuff has appeared. For example:

  • An excellent White Paper by The ACLU which provides useful background on some of the privacy issues under five headings: 1. What’s the goal of the deployment? 2.What data? Is it aggregate and anonymized data, or individually identifying information? How precisely can the information pinpoint individuals’ locations? 3. Who gets the data? Does the government get access to the raw data, is it shared only with public health entities such as qualified academics or hospitals, or does it remain in the hands of the private entity that originally collected it? 4. How is the data used? For centralized government action,such as issuing or enforcing quarantine orders,or for punitive measures? 5. What is the life cycle of the data? When will it be deleted?
  • Apple and Google are collaborating on cross-platform technology to do some of this stuff. The joint venture includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores. Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.
  • Cory Doctorow wrote an accessible explanation of the proposed technology, and followed it up with a link to a paper by French cryptographer Serge Vaudenay arguing that there are some potentially severe risks in the proposals advanced so far — “sick and reported people may be deanonymized, private encounters may be revealed, and people may be coerced to reveal the private data they collect”.

The overall project, though, is a fascinating example of collective IQ in action.

“Death comes to all — but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder”.

Terrific New Yorker essay by Zadie Smith which manages to be both sardonic and impassioned.

Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort—and its relative success—been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America. Maybe this is why plagues—being considered insufficiently hierarchical in nature, too inattentive to income disparity—were long ago relegated to history in the American imagination, or to other continents. In fact, as he made clear early on in his Presidency, entire “shithole” countries were to be considered culpable for their own high death rates—they were by definition in the wrong place (over there) at the wrong time (an earlier stage of development). Such places were plagued in the permanent sense, by not having the foresight to be America. Even global mass extinction—in the form of environmental collapse—was not going to reach America, or would reach it only ultimately, at the very last minute. Relatively secure, in its high-walled haven, America would feast on whatever was left of its resources, still great by comparison with the suffering out there, beyond its borders.

This is about the US but it reminds one of why the ubiquitous government trope that “we are all in this together” is so nauseating.

Quarantine diary — Day 22


Errata: The link to the Toby Ord talk mentioned in yesterday’s edition was missing. It’s here


Saturday 11 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There can be no return to normal, because normal was the problem in the first place.”

Graffito in Hong Kong

This is the most incompetent British government in living memory, and yet British journalism seems utterly incapable of holding it to account

I’m not the only one who is pissed off at the government’s Daily ‘Briefings’, in which Ministers provide little information of real value, and the journalists present seem unable to ask the important, hard questions or to follow up on unsatisfactory or evasive answers. There’s a strange kind of atmosphere at the events; it’s almost as though the hacks feel that this bunch of amateurs are doing their best, God bless them, and we shouldn’t crucify them. This journalistic failure is exasperating because it must be clear by now that the UK has a spectacularly incompetent government. This is not entirely surprising because — as I’ve said before — the prime criterion for membership of the Cabinet was to have been wrong on the single most important issue to have faced Britain since 1946. But still…

It turns out that Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor, has also been watching these info-charades with exasperation. Eventually one of the hacks who is in daily attendance asked him what questions he thinks they should be asking.

Here’s Campbell’s list:

  1. “Do you still think it was a good idea to have allowed 250,000 people to amass at the Cheltenham Festival after the WHO had officially declared coronavirus a pandemic?” Follow-up: “How many people have now been infected and/or died as a result?”

  2. “There were three million people daily on the London Underground at the time other countries were in lockdown. Does that partly explain why London has been so badly hit?”

  3. “Everyone will be pleased the Prime Minister is out of intensive care, and wish him well in his recovery. But was he wise to boast about shaking hands with coronavirus patients? Or be so lax at social distancing, not least at these briefings? And was this not all part of a pattern — he and you did not take this virus as seriously as you should have done, which is one of the reasons why more than seven thousand people have died?”

  4. “Would you accept that he did not follow his own government’s advice at all times? And the signals that sent may have led to the loss of life?”

  5. “Can you provide the current figures on all aspects of testing please?” Follow up: (if there is no answer) “You have consistently said this is a top priority. Priority means more important than other things. If it is so important, why can you not give us the figures?” Follow-up: (if there is an answer) “How does that fit with the plan to get to 100,000 tests per day?”

  6. “New Zealand has a population one thirteenth of the UK, yet has carried out a quarter of the number of tests we have, and been in lockdown longer than we have. Do you think these might be factors in their managing to keep the death toll to one? Not one thousand, Mr Raab. But one.”

  7. “Can you tell us how many NHS and social care workers have now died as a result of Covid-19? And what investigations have been carried out into how many of them had adequate PPE?”

  8. “Yesterday three nurses who were recently photographed wearing bin liners as protection were diagnosed as having coronavirus. Do you think there might be a link? Would you apologise to them for being sent to the frontline without proper protection?”

  9. “On March 15, almost a full month ago, the Prime Minister told the Commons that all social care workers would have proper protective equipment “by the end of the week”. Which week did he mean? And by what date will that promise be met?”

  10. “Mr Raab, almost one thousand British people died yesterday. So in one day, around a quarter of the total number of people killed in the entirety of the Troubles in Northern Ireland over thirty years. Do you really believe you are on top of this in the way you should be?”

  11. “Are the figures you give us the real death toll? Do they include all deaths in people’s homes, and those in care homes, where the virus may have been an issue? If so, is there not a danger we are already ahead of Italy?”

  12. “You keep saying you follow the science. Would you please publish the scientific advice on which you are relying?”

  13. “You keep saying you follow the scientific advice. But can you confirm that on all issues such as whether to impose or lift lockdown, how much testing to do, how many ventilators and PPE sets to procure, these are decisions finally taken by ministers?”

  14. “Successive Prime Ministers have written personal letters to the families of military personnel who lose their lives on the frontline. Will you be doing this for public servants who have lost their lives in the fight against the virus?”

  15. “A number of bus drivers have lost their lives. Will there be a proper investigation into whether any or all of these deaths were linked to the lack of protective equipment?”

  16. “We understand why the public transport system has kept running. But, especially in the early days of lockdown, it is clear many non-essential workers continued to use buses. Will you accept some responsibility for the deaths of public transport workers, as a result of the lack of clarity of advice?”

  17. “You have been very critical of Premier League footballers. They have now set out how they intend to make a major contribution to those dealing with the crisis. Will you now call on bankers to donate part of their bonuses, hedge funds to donate some of the massive profits they are making even now, with the Prime Minister’s friend and backer Crispin Odey reportedly making £115 million in the period of the crisis, and indeed those members of the Cabinet who have considerable personal wealth? Or is it one law for working class young men, and another for rich, privileged, middle aged multi-millionaires?”

  18. “Where is Priti Patel?” [The Home Secretary, i.e. Minister of the Interior] And, as a follow up, “Mr Raab, do you accept many of the people you thanked and praised as key workers yesterday — carers, cleaners, porters, supermarket staff and so on — are considered by your immigration plans to be unskilled, non-essential workers? In light of your new-found admiration for them, will Ms Patel, when she is found, be revising the policy?”

  19. “If Parliament could meet weekly in 1940, as a world war was raging, why not now? Why is our democracy reduced to the lowest level of public accountability in modern history?”

  20. “Mr Raab, as these briefings are pretty useless — partly your fault, partly ours — do you not think Parliament should return as a matter of urgency so that you can be properly questioned and held to account?”

Campbell’s main beef “is the tendency to let go of questions which are not properly answered, not simply within briefings, but from one briefing to the next. Testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment — these remain huge issues, but the journalists’ attention span is poor. They have utterly failed to hold the government’s feet to the fire on any of them. Promises come and go, and are not met, yet the media caravan moves to the next promise, leaving behind the failure to deliver on the last one.

“I said days ago”, he continues, that

the media should have created the pressure to provide data on tests, ventilators and PPE each day, along with cases, deaths, and public transport use. There is a reason why the government does not volunteer the information as readily as it does stats for the roads and the trains — because it is not good. Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised we would get to 100,000 tests per day, and no minister should be able to get past a microphone without being probed on where they are with that. It is a total failure of journalism that this is not happening.

All spot-on, IMHO

Zoomed out: two rules for staying sane with online meetings.

As last week for the first ‘real’ week of working at home for many people, I’m beginning to hear that many of them are finding online conferencing very tiring. And I can understand that. The most annoying thing is that many organisations which are dysfunctionally addicted to meetings think that they can do the same now that they have figured out to use Zoom of WebEx. They’re a bit like middle-aged men who’ve just bought their first motorbike. The current obsession with video-conferencing needs to be pared down. So here are two rules.

  1. Cut down on meetings — break the dysfunctional cycle. And only use online for meetings that are really essential.

  2. For most purposes, video is actually not essential: may be worth doing right at the beginning just to give everyone a picture of who’s at the meeting. But then switch off the camera. Zoom has a helpful feature when used in audio-only mode, in that the name of the current speaker is displayed when they are foregrounded.

Follow these rules, or wind up like a zombie at the end of the week.

Following on the item yesterday on what TLS writers and critics were reading during lockdown, A reader wrote to point out something that one of them — Muriel Zagha — wrote:

“Communicating on screens is like receiving news of astronauts in orbit. Atomized, we wave at each other. We have no idea how long the flight will take.”

Think of that every time you wave at a colleague encased in a postage-stamp-sized frame at the top of your screen!

“We have the power to destroy ourselves without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t” A talk by Toby Ord

A sobering talk by the author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Takes an hour, but worth it.

Quarantine Diary — day 21


This blog is now also available as a once-a-day email. If you think this might work better for you why not subscribe here? (It’s free and there’s a 1-click unsubscribe if you subsequently decide you need to prune your inbox!) One email a day, in your inbox at 07:00 every morning.