Monday 1 March, 2021

Two gentlemen of Utrecht (and an inquisitive horse)

Quote of the Day

”No branch of contemporary thinking is more fuelled by nostalgia for an irretrievable past than progressive liberalism. Implicitly or explicitly, the liberal project is a restoration of the world order of the post-Cold War period, before it was jolted by the financial crisis. The message of the virus is: ‘Forget it.’ Whatever its merits and faults, that world has gone for good. The leaders of China, Russia and India appear to have grasped this fact. Whether Western leaders will do so, or instead remain trapped in liberal denial and nostalgia, remains to be seen.”

  • John Gray

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bonnie Raitt & Norah Jones | The Tennessee Waltz


Long read of the day

 5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating

Great essay by Zeynep Tufecki, consistently the wisest commentator on the pandemic and the virus.

The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.

Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.

A last, a genuinely world-beating British product.

From the New York Times:

British government scientists are increasingly finding the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain to be linked to a higher risk of death than other versions of the virus, a devastating trend that highlights the serious risks and considerable uncertainties of this new phase of the pandemic.

The scientists said last month that there was a “realistic possibility” that the variant was not only more contagious than others, but also more lethal. Now, they say in a new document that it is “likely” that the variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.

The British government did not publicly announce the updated findings, which are based on roughly twice as many studies as its earlier assessment and include more deaths from Covid-19 cases caused by the new variant, known as B.1.1.7. It posted the document on a government website on Friday.

Hackers are finding ways to hide inside Apple’s walled garden

One of the reasons I use Apple stuff is because it’s generally been more secure than the alternatives. But there’s a worrying paradox: the iPhone’s locked-down approach to security means that if sophisticated hackers get in then it much harder to detect and eliminate them, as this sobering account by Patrick Howell O’Neill suggests.

Virtually every expert agrees that the locked-down nature of iOS has solved some fundamental security problems, and that with these restrictions in place, the iPhone succeeds spectacularly in keeping almost all the usual bad guys out. But when the most advanced hackers do succeed in breaking in, something strange happens: Apple’s extraordinary defenses end up protecting the attackers themselves.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Bill Marczak, a senior researcher at the cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab. “You’re going to keep out a lot of the riffraff by making it harder to break iPhones. But the 1% of top hackers are going to find a way in and, once they’re inside, the impenetrable fortress of the iPhone protects them.”

Interestingly (and something I didn’t know), Google’s Chromebook—which limits the ability to do anything outside the web browser—might be the most locked-down device on the market today. And Bob Lord, the chief security officer for the Democratic National Committee, famously recommends that everyone who works for him—and most other people, too—only use an iPad or a Chromebook for work, specifically because they’re so locked down. Most people don’t need vast access and freedom on their machine, so closing it off does nothing to harm ordinary users and everything to shut out hackers.

The direction of travel seems clear: we’re probably looking at the end of what Jonathan Zittrain saw as the ‘generative’, fully programmable computer.

Citizen Lab found that hackers were targeting iMessage, but no one ever got their hands on the exploit itself. Apple’s answer was to completely re-architect iMessage with the app’s biggest security update ever. They built the walls higher and stronger around iMessage so that exploiting it would be an even greater challenge.

Ryan Stortz, a security engineer quoted in the piece thinks that this is what will happen.

“We are going to a place where only outliers will have computers—people who need them, like developers. The general population will have mobile devices which are already in the walled-garden paradigm. That will expand. You’ll be an outlier if you’re not in the walled garden.”

Four causes of ‘Zoom fatigue’

Interesting research at Stanford into why working online is so tiring.

Basically, four reasons:

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. Both the amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens is unnatural.

  2. Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing. Most video platforms show a square of what you look like on camera during a chat. But that’s unnatural. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.

  3. Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility. In-person and audio phone conversations allow humans to walk around and move.

  4. The cognitive load is much higher in video chats. In regular face-to-face interaction, nonverbal communication goes on all the time and each of us naturally makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals.

So what should one do?

Switch off your camera as much as you can; wear a wireless headset or ear-pods so that you can walk around a bit; and mute your microphone except when you’re required to speak.

Oh, and don’t under any circumstances schedule back-to-back video meetings.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How TikTok led to a run on Feta cheese.. Cheese suppliers have been swept up in the video recipe phenomenon known as baked feta pasta. Link
  • A Grizzled, Months-Old Chrome Tab Welcomes a Fresh-Faced New Tab to My Browser Window. Lovely imaginary by Simon Henriques. Link

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