Monday 15 February, 2021

Seen on our walk (in freezing cold) the other day

Quote of the Day

”Adolescence is the only time when we can learn something.”

  • Marcel Proust, 1918.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Dire Straits | Sultans Of Swing (Ukulele version) | Overdriver Duo


They’re a pretty talented pair who have done lots of other famous cover versions. Thanks to Quentin for spotting it.

Long Read of the Day

 Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons by Bruce Schneier

Absolutely fascinating essay, of particular interest to anyone who’s a keen indoor cyclist. Here’s how it begins:

President Biden wants his Peloton in the White House. For those who have missed the hype, it’s an Internet-connected stationary bicycle. It has a screen, a camera, and a microphone. You can take live classes online, work out with your friends, or join the exercise social network. And all of that is a security risk, especially if you are the president of the United States.

Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the NSA to help him handle them.

Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.

US presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features.

President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.

Now why does that last paragraph not surprise us?

Great read from beginning to end.

Bill Janeway’s course is online

Bill Janeway is one of the most interesting people I know. Sometimes also the most annoying, because just when I’ve read something interesting it turns out that he read it ten years ago. His book  Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Reconfiguring the Three-Player Game between Markets, Speculators and the State changed the way I thought about tech, investment and irrational speculation. He’s had a remarkable career as a venture capitalist and an academic economist, so you could say he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And that he’s not just a theoretician.

Every year he gives a lecture course in Cambridge on “Venture Capital in the 21st Century”. But this year he’s marooned in New York. So he’s decided to give the course online, and make it publicly available. This is a big deal IMHO.

This trailer may give you a hint of why I think that.


With Covid, we’re fighting the last war — as usual

Remember the first lockdown — now almost a year ago — and the hysteria about cleaning surfaces, disinfecting doorknobs etc.? And the dismissive official attitude towards wearing masks? And the scepticism about the evidence that actually the virus was more likely to be spread by aerosols? Me too. So this article — in Nature, no less — will make you feel wearily cynical:

A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare (E. Goldman Lancet Infect. Dis. 20, 892–893; 2020).

Despite this, some public-health agencies still emphasize that surfaces pose a threat and should be disinfected frequently. The result is a confusing public message when clear guidance is needed on how to prioritize efforts to prevent the virus spreading.

The article goes on to report that the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority estimates that its annual COVID-related sanitation costs will be close to US$380 million between now and 2023. Late last year, the authority asked the US federal government for advice on whether to focus solely on aerosols. It was told to concentrate on fomites (i.e. surface contamination), too, and has so far directed more resources towards cleaning surfaces than tackling aerosols.

Now that it is agreed that the virus transmits through the air, in both large and small droplets, efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers. People must also be reminded to wear masks and maintain a safe distance.

It’s not rocket science. Which is why agencies such as the WHO and the US CDC need to update their guidance on the basis of current knowledge. They have a clear responsibility to present clear, up-to-date information that provides what people need to keep themselves and others safe.

And then I found a piece on ‘Hygiene Theatre’ that Derek Thompson had written in The Atlantic last week:

Six months ago, I wrote that Americans had embraced a backwards view of the coronavirus. Too many people imagined the fight against COVID-19 as a land war to be waged with sudsy hand-to-hand combat against grimy surfaces. Meanwhile, the science suggested we should be focused on an aerial strategy. The virus spreads most efficiently through the air via the spittle spray that we emit when we exhale—especially when we cough, talk loudly, sing, or exercise. I called this conceptual error, and the bonanza of pointless power-scrubbing that it had inspired, “hygiene theater.”

My chief inspiration was an essay in the medical journal The Lancet called “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” (Fomites is a medical term for objects and surfaces that can pass along an infectious pathogen.) Its author was Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. At the time, Goldman was a lonely voice in the wilderness. Lysol wipes were flying off the shelves, and it was controversial to suggest that this behavior was anything less than saintly and salutary. Other journals had rejected Goldman’s short essay, and some were still publishing frightening research about the possible danger of our groceries and Amazon packages.

But half a year later, Goldman looks oracular.

He does. And the rest of us look a bit foolish.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Radio.Garden. A combination of Google Earth and all the world’s radio stations. Magical. Link Thanks to Gerard de Vries for the link.
  • Scientists Stored This Famous Japanese Painting in Protein Molecules. According to researchers, using this method, the entire contents of the New York Public Library could be stored within a teaspoon of protein molecules. Link
  • Facebook’s Dead Users Could Outnumber the Living Within 50 Years. If Facebook’s growth continues at its current rate, more than a billion users will die before 2100 — effectively making the social network a mass grave. Quaint. Assumes Facebook will survive more than a decade or two more. Link.

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