Quote of the Day
”Trump is the last station on the Reagan express.”
- Michael Lewis
British exceptionalism vs Greek pragmatism
Statistics from Johns Hopkins today.
It’s worth doing the maths to calculate the death rate per 1,000 citizens. Interesting, ne c’est pas?
Paul Romer’s New Yorker interview
From the beginning, Romer has been one of the clearest thinkers around about the pandemic. In this interview with Isaac Chotiner he lays out what he sees as the only way through the Coronavirus catastrophe. The piece is worth reading in full, but this excerpt stood out for me:
What is your biggest fear about the economy right now?
There was some analysis that was done at the St. Louis Fed, going through job categories and just thinking about the employment consequences of physical lockdown and social distancing. Their conclusion was that we were going to be at an unemployment rate above thirty per cent, so that was the early-warning sign that we’re headed for an economic catastrophe that’s worse than the Great Depression.
Different people have talked about different ways to get through this. Your plan focusses on testing more than almost anything else, and more than some of the other plans. Everyone acknowledges that testing is important, but why is it so central to every idea that you’ve put forward?
The key to solving the economic crisis is to reduce the fear that someone will get sick if they go to work or go shop. So it’s really about building confidence. The thing about testing is that it’s easy to explain and it doesn’t frighten people the way digital contact tracing does. It’s not subject to technological and social, political uncertainty the way digital contact tracing is. It doesn’t require the organizational capacity that doing human contact tracing does. It’s really just a very simple, easy-to-explain idea—that to control the pandemic, we need to get a reasonable majority of the people who are infectious into a quarantine, and then we’re good. That’s really all it’s about. So I wanted to try and articulate a very simple approach for managing this crisis, because I think that’s central to restoring confidence.
For example, think about me going back to my dentist. It doesn’t really matter what the law says or the governor says I can do. I don’t want to go back to the dentist’s office in New York City until I know that he can show me a recent negative test, and he doesn’t want me to come into his office until I can show him that I’ve got a recent negative test. So I think it’s easy to explain this idea to people, and I think it’s also easy to convince people that this is something we could do for as long as it takes to manage this pandemic. Suppose it takes more than twenty-four months to get to a vaccine. If it takes more than twenty-four months, I could see going and getting tested before I go to the dentist and the dentist could get tested. Neither of us has a problem with that.
I really think that confidence is so central to investment decisions, to planning, to anticipating the future, that we need something so simple that nobody worries if it’s going to work, nobody worries if we’re going to abandon it because it’s too painful. Everybody just says, “O.K., yep, that’s the plan. We’re going to stick to it.” And then we go.
Interesting throughout. He’s also not much impressed by those of us who worry about the surveillance dangers of contact-tracing apps.
I’m not worried about the privacy issues, because it’s kind of, like, “Compared to what?” I think we’ve got enormous problems with surveillance right now. This doesn’t seem to me to make it much worse. But I was participating in digital discussions about response to the crisis, and the meeting would go like this: “We need more testing.” Financial people said, “Yep, we got it.” “We need masks and protective equipment.” “Yep, fine.” “And then we need to have the digital contact tracing.” And then, all of a sudden, the whole meeting is taken up with hand-wringing and anxiety and all kinds of fears.
Are tech realities beginning to dawn on NHSx?
NHSx, the tech arm of the NHS, has begun trials of a contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight. The initial version of the app, though, takes a unique approach to Bluetooth-based tracking that gathers data in a central NHS database, which the government claims will allow researchers to better understand the spread of Covid-19. Well, it might or might not help the government, but it raises the hackles of many of us who fear the surveillance-creep implicit in that approach. Besides, for the app to be really useful it has to be (a) done in conjunction with a massively-upgraded national contact-tracing team — real people making telephone calls and perhaps visiting people in their homes, and (b) trusted by enough people who are willing to install it on their phones.
The interesting thing about the NHSx app (which was developed by a Swiss tech firm) is that it explicitly avoids using the API (application programming interface) developed by Apple and Google to enable programmers to build apps for contact-tracing. A big question (for me, anyway) was whether that was due to
(a) the UK government objecting to the stipulation made by the two companies that data gathered by any app using their API must keep the data on the phone rather than uploading it to a central database (in other words a sovereignty issue), or
(b) to a belief in UK exceptionalism (i.e. that our boffins can do things better than anybody else — so yah-booh-sucks to Apple and Google)?
Given that this ‘exceptionalist’ ideology runs through the Johnson administration like the slogan in a stick of Blackpool rock, I had suspected the latter.
In that context, a scoop in today’s Financial Times is very interesting.
Contract documents obtained by Tussell, a data provider on UK government contracts and expenditure, and shared with the Financial Times, show that the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm, has been awarded a new multimillion pound contract by NHSX, the state-funded health service’s digital innovation arm. The six-month contract to develop and support the Covid-19 contact-tracing app is worth £3.8m and was due to begin on Wednesday, the documents show.
The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [application programming interfaces] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”. The work is described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, suggesting it is still at a preliminary phase, but with a deadline of mid-May.
Interesting, isn’t it. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the non Apple-Google-API contact-tracing app rolled out by the Australian government appears to be having, er, technical difficulties. Or that the German government recently (and abruptly) abandoned its own approach and decided to use the Apple-Google API — and therefore the conditions laid down by the companies.
In praise of newsletters
I’ve always liked email newsletters. They were one of the earliest indications that the Internet might be a technology for rejuvenating the public sphere. Among other things, they long pre-dated the Web. And one of my favourites — Humanist — the newsletter of the Humanist Discussion Group — has just started on its 34th year. (It was founded on May 7, 1987.) It pops into my inbox every day, and is full of arcane, cerebral, intelligent and diverting discussions on an impossibly wide range of topics. What I particularly like about it is when Humanities scholars turn their attention to something that I actually know something about — programming languages, hyperlinks or Unix pipes, say — and I start to see things in a different light.
One of the reasons the newsletter works is that it has been adroitly edited for 33 years by Professor Willard McCarty of KCL, one of the most erudite — and certainly the best-read – scholar I am lucky enough to know. You could think of him as a curator of what Jaron Lanier used to call a “hive mind” — but in this case a hive full of clever and reflective bees. So more power to his elbow, as we say in Ireland.
Bill Dutton on the Gadarene Rush by traditional universities to get online
Bill Dutton was the founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and the man who shepherded the fledgling institute through the shark-infested waters of Oxford academia until it was safely established as a leading research institute. He’s now back at the University of Southern California and has been watching quizzically as conventional universities desperately try to get online as a result of the pandemic. Here are some of his observations.
- The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing.
- The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
- We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students.
- So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively.
- We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching.
Quarantine diary – Day 47
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