Friday 6 November, 2020

Quote of the Day

“How is it possible to feel too old to learn TikTok dances but too young to be this out of touch?”

  • Hip couple in a New Yorker cartoon.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Don McClean | Starry, Starry Night | Live


His tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.

America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent

Sobering and insightful essay by Zeynep Tufecki, who is one of the sharpest minds writing about our current catastrophes.

TL;DR summary: Trump was ineffective and easily beaten. A future strongman won’t be.

Trump is just one more example of the many populists on the right who have risen to power around the world: Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, my home country. These people win elections but subvert democratic norms: by criminalizing dissent, suppressing or demonizing the media, harassing the opposition, and deploying extra-legal mechanisms whenever possible (Putin’s opponents have a penchant for meeting tragic accidents). Orbán proudly uses the phrase illiberal democracy to describe the populism practiced by these men; Trump has many similarities to them, both rhetorically and policy-wise.

But there’s one key difference between Trump and everyone else on that list. The others are all talented politicians who win elections again and again.

In contrast, Trump is a reality-TV star who stumbled his way into an ongoing realignment in American politics, aided by a series of events peculiar to 2016 that were fortunate for him: The Democrats chose a polarizing nominee who didn’t have the requisite political touch that can come from surviving tough elections; social media was, by that point, deeply entrenched in the country’s politics, but its corrosive effects were largely unchecked; multiple players—such as then–FBI Director James Comey—took consequential actions fueled by their misplaced confidence in Hillary Clinton’s win; and Trump’s rivals in the Republican primaries underestimated him. He drew a royal flush.

But ‘Trumpism’ is now a powerful force in American democracy — a contemporary kind of Peronism. And soon or later a really astute demagogue in the Orban/Erdogan league will spot its potential.

Interesting also to see the signs that the Republicans are done with Trump. When Fox called Arizona for Biden and Trump phoned Rupert Murdoch to demand a retraction, Murdoch curtly refused. For him and Mitch McConnell and the others Trump has been a useful idiot. He delivered what they wanted — tax cuts, umpteen Conservative senior judges and a stacked Supreme Court. So he’s now surplus to requirements — and becoming a real embarrassment, even to them. So he’s toast. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Lockdown sceptics vs zero-Covid: who’s got it right?

Tim Harford has a really good post on his blog, bringing his customary tone of good sense and rationality to a debate that has become vicious (especially in the Tory party):

Some lockdown sceptics have advanced a variety of dishonest or deluded views over the course of the pandemic. Months ago, one correspondent wrote to assure me that the infection fatality rate was just one in 2,000. This implies 33,500 deaths if the whole UK population was infected. We have suffered 67,500 excess deaths; am I to conclude that we have all had the virus twice? Then, in what now looks like a line from a Shakespearean tragedy, there is Donald Trump’s early declaration: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

But there is an honest argument against lockdowns — namely that while the disease is dangerous, the lockdown cure is worse. The virus has the power to kill many more people than died in the first wave. Yet in England and Wales, the vast majority of those who have died were 65 or over, with two-thirds of them aged 75 or over. The honest lockdown sceptic asks, is it wise or fair to impose radical limits on the freedom of all with no apparent end in sight? Thousands of lives are being saved — but millions of young people are seeing their prospects sacrificed. Is their sacrifice worthwhile?

The zero-Covid position reaches the opposite conclusion from the same starting point: since there will be no end to the suffering as long as the virus is circulating, the answer is to eliminate the virus in the UK and Ireland. We are island nations, like New Zealand. If community transmission can be stopped, then border controls — plus contact tracing for the occasional outbreak — can keep the virus out.

The most prominent British advocates of the zero-Covid approach are the scientists calling themselves “Independent Sage”. In July, they explained that the first step would be to apply lockdowns until we reached “control”, defined as one new case per million people per day. Thereafter, a contact- tracing system, plus support for people in isolation, would eliminate the virus on these shores.

Both sides of this debate hold out tempting rewards if only we are willing to suffer now. But both are mistaken. Zero-Covid looks prohibitively costly for European countries. A relentless lockdown would be needed even to reach the “control” step, with no guarantee against backsliding.

And his conclusion. There’s no magic bullet, just hard slog and competence, bot alien concepts to the Johnson administration.

Germany has learnt to live with the virus as a constant yet contained threat. The secret is no secret: lockdown suppressed the virus enough to allow contact tracing, mask-wearing and general vigilance to take over. In July, at a time when the British were still emerging from their homes, blinking in the sunlight, I visited Bavaria. Masks and sanitisers were everywhere, but it was thriving.

The UK had the same opportunity but we are squandering it. Our contact-tracing system was slow to grind into action, our testing capacity was overwhelmed by the predictable surge in demand as schools reopened and, most recently, a technical error led to many thousands of positive test results not entering the contact tracing system promptly.

Forget the clash of grand ideas, of Sweden versus New Zealand. Just stop bungling the basics. It is not much of a slogan. But it might just be a solution.

Great post.

How introducing friction into a communications system improves things

The holy grail of geeks is to make things “frictionless” — to do away with all the cumbersome blockages and delays of analog life. And, to a great extent, they have achieved their goal — to make everything just a click away — in the process achieving what the economist Ronald Coase envisaged in his great 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm”. In that, he explained why it is that people choose to form partnerships, companies and other business entities rather than trading bilaterally through contracts on a market. (It was all about whether the ‘transaction costs’ of contracting out were higher than the costs of doing it inside the organisation: that’s why the great US automobile firms wound up running rubber plantations in tropical countries.) One of the most important affordances of the Internet was that it often dramatically reduced transaction costs, and therefore changed the shape of corporations.

As the so-called “marketplace of ideas” was inexorably sucked into social media, the same affordance was deployed. The transaction cost of having to copy and paste a piece of information before passing it on to someone else was retuced to zero with a simple ‘Like’, ‘Share’ or re-tweet button. Which meant that ideas, lies, information (and disinformation) started to circulate with the speed of light. When feedback loops operate at that speed, any control engineer can tell you what happens to systems whose behaviour is determined by that feedback.

All of which is by way of background to an interesting piece by Kevin Roose in today’s New York Times. The TL;DR summary is “On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter Did Better by Making Their Products Worse”. What happened is that the social media platforms effectively introduced some friction into the feedback loops.

For months, nearly every step these companies have taken to safeguard the election has involved slowing down, shutting off or otherwise hampering core parts of their products — in effect, defending democracy by making their apps worse.

They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds. And as results came in, they relied on the calls made by news organizations like The Associated Press, rather than trusting that their systems would naturally bring the truth to the surface. ImageAn alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted. An alert on the Facebook newsfeed notifying users that votes are still being counted.

Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.

But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)

I don’t like the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor but it does provide a way of thinking about how a market operates. We saw what happened when stock markets were effectively automated — when trading is mostly done by machines. And then we saw how that led to the epidemic of so-called High Speed Trading described by Michael Lewis in his book, Flash Boys — and the instabilities that introduced into what was once a marketplace for investors valuing companies on the basis of long-term prospects as well as short-term gains. Similarly, our marketplace of ideas has become a space also distorted by high-speed ‘trading’ in every kind of information, good, bad and indifferent. So we shouldn’t be surprised at where we’ve got to. Going frictionless is great — until it isn’t.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • FDR’s 1994 State of the Union address. This is what politicians used to be like. Link
  • Bentley will ditch internal combustion engines by 2030. Don’t all rush to buy a collector’s item. Link.

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