Monday 17 May, 2021

Quote of the Day

”Hype works on the theory that Americans will put their money where the noise is.”

  • Russell Baker

Remind you of anyone? Elon Musk and cryptocurrency, perhaps?

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mozart | Serenata Notturna K.239


Long Read of the Day

Not only do lockdowns work but…

Guess what? They don’t cause anything like as much economic damage as people (and governments) assumed.

Unmissable post by Noah Smith about what lockdowns (which did have an impact on suppressing the virus) did to the economy.

Most people make the natural assumption that lockdown hurts the economy — if you ban people from going out to restaurants, that stops people from spending money on restaurants, right? Obviously. Many economists made this assumption when they tried to model pandemic policy. In fact, some people go so far as to blame all the economic costs of the pandemic on lockdowns.

If you think something seems fishy about that claim, you’re right. The fact is, even without lockdowns, plenty of people will avoid restaurants and other crowded spaces during a pandemic simply out of fear of catching the virus. And that will hurt the economy.

And lo and behold, when we look at evidence, we find that lockdowns accounted for only a small percent of the economic slowdown. For example, economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson looked at the state border between Illinois and Iowa. On the Illinois side, the towns issued stay-at-home orders, whereas on the Iowa side they did not. And guess what — economic activity fell almost as much on the Iowa side as on the Illinois side!

Same story elsewhere. Take Sweden and Denmark. Denmark locked down and saw its economic activity decline by 29%; Sweden chose not to lock down, and saw its economic activity decline by 25%.

The obvious inference, says Smith, “is that the biggest economic destroyer by far was not government policy; it was fear of COVID”.

In the US, credit and debit card returns suggest that states that didn’t issue stay-at-home orders in the spring of 2020 saw just about the same amount of economic devastation as states that did issue those orders.

There’s lots more evidence in the post — so it’s really worth reading in full. But the inescapable inference is we failed to understand the causal mechanism at work. It’s fear of the virus that was the big economic killer. And if fear is proportional to actual infection rates, then by suppressing the virus, lockdowns reduced fear.

As an example of the value and importance of the blogosphere, this is hard to beat.

Where Search goes next

This is the most interesting paper I’ve come across in ages. It’s written by a group of Google researchers and sets out some ideas for how Internet search could become much more sophisticated and useful. Although current search engines, particularly Google, seem impressive enough to serve as a kind of memory prosthesis for humanity, in fact they’re pretty primitive. You type in a search phrase and they return a list of pages, ranked by an opaque set of criteria. In essence, they’re dilettantes, epistemologically speaking — providing a list of references to sources — none of which they understand but which are hopefully relevant in some way to your query.

But what you’d really like is the kind of answer that you would get from a human who is an expert on the subject area of your inquiry. This new paper examines how ideas from classical information retrieval and large pre-trained language models like GPT-3 can be synthesised and evolved into systems that truly deliver something approximating to an expert answer to a question.

In effect, it’s setting out a remarkably ambitious research and engineering development agenda. What’s striking (and what I like) about it is how intellectually bold it is. Its goal is not Search 2.0 but Search 8.0.

It’s the kind of proposal that Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister would have described as “courageous”, i.e. foolhardy and impracticable. But then the British civil service didn’t have the resources of Google!

What Joe Biden is really like to work for

TL;DR summary of this NYT ‘insiders’ piece is that beneath the President’s folksy demeanour there’s a short fuse and an obsession with detail. But if you like this kind of behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s an enjoyable picture of a relatively normal administration at work.

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Monday 17 May, 2021

A beautifully delicate flower I discovered in our garden on Saturday.

Quote of the Day

”The problem with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.”

  • George Miller

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Light of a Clear Blue Morning


Amazing group.

Long Read of the Day

The Darkness

A sombre essay By Noah Smith.

There is plenty of darkness in the world even at the best of times. Wars, ethnic cleansing, rights violations, suppression of speech and religion…these things are always, or almost always, happening in some part of the globe. No leader and no country is spotless. And yet observers of comparative government and human rights are able to clearly identify times when respect for the rights and liberties of human beings begins to gutter and wane.

We are now in one of those times. The news headlines from around the world give us a continual stream of dark portents. Concentration camps and forced mass sterilization of minorities in China. Millions rendered stateless by a new law in India amid a retreat of secularism. A coup attempt and election denial as a normalized political strategy in America. Rising authoritarianism in Turkey, in Hungary, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in Israel. Protesters massacred in Myanmar, massacred in Iran, suppressed in Belarus, suppressed in Hong Kong. Mass surveillance everywhere. Internet shutdowns. “Anti-terrorism” laws.

And the bottom line?

If electoral democracy in America relies on Democrats never losing an election, it’s doomed. If the GOP doesn’t change its tune and agree that the rules by which Americans choose their leaders are legitimate, the next decade could be one of rolling constitutional crises…or worse.

Welcome to DarkSide: the inexorable rise of ransomware

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Public discourse about cybercrime and its practitioners is way behind the curve. As Ross Anderson and his colleagues have shown, criminals are rational actors, not lone hackers with poor hygiene and a penchant for pizza. They see what they do as a low-risk activity with very high profit margins. And they operate in a networked world in which even large and wealthy companies are still failing to take computer security seriously. The significance of the Colonial hack is its confirmation of cybercrime as a major new industry…

Read on


Further to my column (see previous item) here are some additional points from a Financial Times report by Hannah Murphy and another article by Misha Glenny in Saturday’s edition of the paper.

  • Ransomware attacks up by over 60% (to 305m) during pandemic, according to data from SonicWall. (Murphy)

  • In 2020 there was an increase of 485% in registered attacks over 2019 , according to Bitdefender, a cybersecurity firm (Glenny)

  • Over 25% of victims pay up, according to Crowdstrike.

  • About “two dozen” gangs dominate the market, earning at least $18B in ransoms in 2020 according to cybersecurity firm Emisoft, with average payment of $150,000

  • After tracking one criminal group, the Dutch telecoms company KPN found that it demanded an average of $260,000.

  • Non-techie criminals are now joining the party as RAAS has emerged — where groups rent out their software on the dark web to “affiliates” and take a cut of their earnings

  • DarkSide, the RAAS outfit behind the Colonial attack runs such an affiliate programme, according to cybersecurity firm FireEye, which means that some other group may have participated in the attack.

  • It’s believed that a group of tech and cyber companies, as well as the FBI, thwarted the Colonial attackers by shutting down US-based servers the hackers were using to store data before then sending it on to Russia.

  • On May 4, Toyota Sec, a subsidiary of the Japanese giant that sells point-of-sale systems for retailers, was hit by another DarkSide attack.

Australia Beat COVID. Why Couldn’t The U.S.?

by Nicolas Berggruen

To date, Australia has lost just 910 lives to the coronavirus, compared to 597,000 lives and counting in the U.S. Since both nations are rooted in the same individualist Anglo-Saxon culture and have a similar form of democratic federal government, one wonders why they diverged so sharply in coping with COVID. What is the underlying difference between these democracies that led one country to effectively save its citizens while the other erratically muddled through at such a high human cost?

From the very beginning, Australia’s response was speedy and robust: travel bans, mandatory quarantines, lockdowns and easily accessible COVID testing, including drive-through clinics. These were all largely possible because Australia seems to possess what America lacks: the trust of citizens in their government, particularly at the local level. The kind of “Live free or die” distrust of authority, polarized politicization of the pandemic and widespread resistance to sensible public health mandates that appeared in the U.S. never materialized in Australia.

So why did Australia do so well and the US do so badly? Basically, Berggruen thinks, “because Australia seems to possess what America lacks: the trust of citizens in their government, particularly at the local level.” It turns out that Australians’ trust in their government has actually increased during the pandemic. In a July 2020 poll, a remarkable 80% said they trusted the authorities.

Berggruen cites an Australian columnist, Waleed Aly, who convincingly captured the national character thus:

“Our whole history is one of reliance on the state, heightened regulation and mass compliance. So, we were the first nation to make seatbelts compulsory in cars. We’re one of extremely few to make bicycle helmets compulsory. We were early adopters of mandatory breath tests for motorists. We have extensive prohibitions on smoking in public places, including vast outdoor ones. … We’re the only English-speaking country to make voting compulsory. … I’d venture that every one of these measures, from compulsory voting to bicycle helmets, is wildly popular here. In general, we’d argue they’re common sense and regard critics of them as unreasonably ideological.”

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