Saturday 10 October, 2020

What holiday cottages should be like

From my favourite village in North Norfolk


Quote of the Day

”Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course — the distance between your ears”.

  • Bobby (Robert Trent) Jones, the great American golfer.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Wailin’ Jennys | Bird Song Link


Microsoft Thinks You’ve Been Missing Your Commute in Lockdown

A forthcoming feature — ‘Virtual commutes’ — on Teams aims to rebuild the boundaries between work and home life, and signify Microsoft’s move into corporate well-being.

At first I thought this was a spoof. After all, if there’s one area where remote working scores it is in eliminating the daily commute. But,…

The daily commute may have caused its share of headaches, but it at least helped workers define a start and end to their workday while offering a set time to think away from the demands and distractions of the home and office. That positive side of the commute is what Microsoft hopes to re-create.

The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Instead of reliving 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.

The virtual commute feature represents Teams’ move into employee wellness, said Kamal Janardhan, general manager for workplace analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft 365, the parent division of Teams. The company historically has focused on employee connectivity and productivity.

“Enterprises across the world right now are coming to us and saying, ‘I don’t think we will have organizational resilience if we don’t make well-being a priority,’” Ms. Janardhan said. “I think we at Microsoft have a role, almost a responsibility, to give enterprises the capabilities to create these better daily structures and help people be their best.”

Interesting that idea that the daily commute enables people to “set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening”. I’ve occasionally had to do a daily commute to London when working on a particular consultancy gig, and the thing I hated most about it was the evening return in a train packed with exhausted workers staring dully at their phones. Somehow, I don’t think they were reflecting on their days in a calm meditative mood. They were simply knackered.


Political Economy After Neoliberalism

Long read of the day from the Boston Review. It’s a thoughtful essay by Neil Fligstein and Steven Vogel on “Political Economy after Neoliberalism”. Fligstein is a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, and the author of The Architecture of Markets. Vogel is a Professor of Political Science at Berkeley and the author of Marketcraft: How Governments Make Markets Work, so they’re heavy-duty thinkers.

Starting from the fact that Western democracies have for forty or more years been governed by political elites who have drunk the Kool Aid of neoliberalist ideas about the primacy of markets and the inadequacy of the state, Fligstein and Vogel argue that if anything demonstrates the inadequacy of markets and the centrality of government it’s our experience since February. “The pandemic has exposed the fallacies of the neoliberal paradigm,” they write. “The market could not keep businesses running or people working.”

As if to highlight that fact, as economies have struggled desperately to contain the economic consequences of the plague, the stock market has been roaring ahead.

Flkigstein and Vogel propose three ‘core principles’ of an alternative political economy. They then illustrate these principles by discussing the dynamics of the American political economy, focusing particularly on the rise of “shareholder capitalism” in the 1980s. Finally, they apply the principles to the ongoing national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing the United States to Germany.

What are their ‘core principles’?

The first is that governments and markets are co-constituted. Government regulation is not an intrusion into the market but rather a prerequisite for a functioning market economy. Without government, the rule of law, the infrastructure of public order and so on, markets will run wild. Societies need markets; but markets also need society.

The second principle is that “real-world political economy hinges on power, both political and market power. Specific forms of market governance … do not arise naturally or innocently. They are the product of power struggles between firms, industries, workers, and governments within particular markets and in the political arena.”

The third principle is that there is more than one way to organize society to achieve economic growth, equity, and access to valued goods and services.

The balance of power between government, workers, and firms differs greatly across countries and time. And the different power balances in different countries shape distinctive national trajectories of policies. We can expect that the governing institutions will reinforce the status-quo balance of power, particularly in a crisis. It is rare for any one set of actors to have total control in a society, a condition that would lead to extreme rent-seeking behavior. Instead we see constant contestation between different sets of organized actors but a general balance of power that reflects the dominance of one side or another.

The essay goes on to argue that abandoning the neoliberal lens of government versus market and the “one best way” perspective opens up the possibility of a profound rethinking of economic policy that seeks to learn from the great variety of capitalisms that actually exist.

It’s a great essay — one of the only ones I’ve seen that tries to grapple realistically with the challenge of envisaging a more sustainable economic system as societies emerge from the pandemic.


Trump’s death wish

Watching Trump in recent weeks has been a weird experience. It’s like being a spectator at a live show in which the performer is losing his mind. And as I was thinking this I came on something that Judith Butler wrote in the London Review of Book a year ago:

When commentators speak of Trump’s ‘death wish’, they are on to something, though maybe not quite what they imagine. The death drive, in Freud, is manifested in actions characterised by compulsive repetition and destructiveness, and though it may be attached to pleasure and excitement, it is not governed by the logic of wish fulfilment. Repetitive action unguided by a wish for pleasure takes distinctive forms: the deterioration of the human organism in its effort to return to a time before individuated life; the nightmarish repetition of traumatic material without resolution; the externalisation of destructiveness through potentially murderous behaviour. Both suicide and murder are extreme consequences of a death drive left unchecked. The death drive works in fugitive ways, and is fundamentally opportunistic: it can be identified only through the phenomena on which it seizes and surfs. It may operate in the midst of moments of radical desire, pleasure, an intense sense of life. But it also operates in moments of triumphalism, the bold demonstration of power or strength, or in states of extreme conviction. Only later, if ever, comes the jolt of realisation that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting was in fact serving a more destructive purpose.

I do wonder what will happen to him when he loses the election and loses his frantic campaign then to discredit the results and is eventually — by whatever means the American Republic can muster to save its Constitution — physically ejected from office. Narcissists don’t take failure and humiliation well.


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Friday 9 October, 2020

Remember trains?

Once upon a time, people used to go places on trains. Now that I come to think of it, people used to go places even without trains.


Quote of the Day

”The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”.

  • Brian Johnson, BBC Cricket commentator, during a Test Match between England and the West Indies, 1976

He actually said this, live on radio. If ever you needed an illustration of the importance of a comma, then this is it!


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – Beethoven, Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major op.73 “Emperor”

Link

It’s 18 minutes long, but worth it. Leave it playing while you make breakfast.


Dave Winer: how to break up tech companies

A radical idea

When they contemplate breaking up a tech company, this is how you should do it. Find the component of the company that really is open tech. Something that was open before they came along, that they foreclosed on, and used their monopoly to put everyone else out of business.

That’s where you draw the line of separation. The core should be spun off into a new company that’s well funded, with a charter to commercialize the tech while maintaining zero lock-in. Totally replaceable. Defined APIs that don’t break.

If the company is viable with these constraints, great. If not, they have enough money to plan their own demise. The key thing is they cannot use their dominance to launch new products. Just the open tech.

You would find people willing to staff such a company, there are lots of idealistic developers, still, who believe in the open internet.

In Microsoft’s case, in the 90s this would have meant spinning out the browser.

Today with Facebook it would mean spinning out the open graph.

With Google, it would have to be at least the core search engine. If Alphabet wanted to run ads on search, they’d have to get in line and compete with others who did. This is the price they pay for trying to use their dominance in search to control everything.

Google would also have to spin out Chrome, same way Microsoft would have spun out MSIE in the 90s.

That’s the basic idea. Look for the old open tech buried in the company, that is the source of their monopolistic control, and extract it. Hopefully it’s very painful, to keep successors from tying to do it in the future.

There’s a germ of an interesting idea here. The Internet — as originally designed, and indeed as it is still today — was a network designed to enable what later came to be called “permissionless innovation”. If you had an idea that could be realised using data-packets, and you were smart enough to write the code for the app, then the Internet would do it for you, no questions asked. So what Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn designed was essentially a global machine for springing surprises. And anybody who had access and knowledge could use the network to spring a surprise — like, for example, VoIP or file-sharing. There was no gatekeeper who could say “Hey! you can’t do that.” The result was a Cambrian explosion of creativity. That’s why we say that the Internet is a generative system: it enables people to build on it.

So along comes Tim Berners-Lee at the end of the 1980s and he has a great idea — the World Wide Web — and he’s certainly smart enough to write the code for it; and so he does and then he releases it on the Internet as a new platform for permissionless innovation. And millions of people build interesting things on top of that platform.

One of them is Mark Zuckerberg, who builds Facebook on top of Tim’s platform. But Zuck has no intention of allowing anyone else to build on top of his platform. So the chain of permissionless, generative affordances is broken. But without the Web, Facebook couldn’t function, and left to its own monopolistic devices, Facebook will ensure that nobody ever builds anything on it that hasn’t been licensed and controlled by Zuckerberg.

That’s why it might make sense to go after the public, open technologies that these monopolists have appropriated, and give them back to the world.


Faith in government declines when mobile internet arrives

Interesting note in the Economist.

A recent study by the economists Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, now undergoing peer review, uses the growth of mobile broadband to reveal a link between internet access and scepticism of government.

In general, people’s confidence in their leaders declined after getting 3G. However, the size of this effect varied. It was smaller in countries that allow a free press than in ones where traditional media are muzzled, and bigger in countries with unlimited web browsing than in ones that censor the internet. This implies that people are most likely to turn against their governments when they are exposed to online criticism that is not present offline. The decline was also larger in rural areas than in cities.

A similar pattern emerged at the ballot box. Among 102 elections in 33 European countries, incumbent parties’ vote-share fell by an average of 4.7 percentage points once 3G arrived. The biggest beneficiaries were parties classified as populist—though this may simply have been because they happened to be in opposition when voters turned against parties in power, rather than because of their ideology.

Of course this doesn’t mean that simply acquiring Internet access is enough to reduce trust in government. It may depend on what people read online. And that’s a whole different ball-game. The problem with studies like this is that they confuse the technology with what corporations like Facebook and YouTube/Google do with it.


Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents

This really is the long read of the day — a terrific essay on the legacy of liberalism and how it explains where we’ve got to now.

Sample:

Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.

The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.

But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.

The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.

People are often rude about Fukuyama nowadays, mostly because they misunderstand his famous 1989 ‘End of History’ essay. But I’ve always found him a delightfully clear and elegant writer, and this essay demonstrates this very well.


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Thursday 8 October, 2020

Closed!

And this was in the good ol’ (pre-pandemic) days!


Quote of the Day

”No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a public library.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the radio news of the day

Covita (the Covid adaption of Evita)

Link

I know it’s political. But it is at least musical! It’s a creation of the Lincoln Project


Everything you needed to know about aerosol transmission of the virus but were too busy to ask

“FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission”

Prepared by a group of real experts. You can find it here. Great resource.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.


The Five Cs of Subwoofer Setup

I was idly thinking about how nice it would be to have a subwoofer as part of the audio system in our study. Having read this helpful guide I’ve decided that life’s too short, especially if it involves me having crawl around listening at the same level as the cats.


Trump’s antibody treatment was tested using cells originally derived from an abortion

The Trump administration has been trying to curtail research with foetal cells. But when it was life or death for the president, no one objected. Including, it seems, all those anti-abortion campaigners who support him.

This from Tech Review

This week, President Donald Trump extolled the cutting-edge coronavirus treatments he received as “miracles coming down from God.” If that’s true, then God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue.

The emergency antibody that Trump received last week was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from abortion tissue, according to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the experimental drug.

The Trump administration has taken an increasingly firm line against medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. For example, when it moved in 2019 to curtail the ability of the National Institutes of Health to fund such research, supporters hailed a “major pro-life victory” and thanked Trump personally for taking decisive action against what they called the “outrageous and disgusting” practice of “experimentation using baby body parts.”


Four Myths about Tech

Interesting paper from the Data & Society research institute.

The tech companies that design and build so many of the devices, platforms, and software we use for hours each day have embraced myths that push a flawed under- standing of digital well-being. While we are encouraged that these companies are dedicating greater attention to social media’s effect on the mental and physical health of users, their current approaches to improving user well-being fundamentally misunderstand how people engage with technology. At its worst, this approach funnels time and resources to making technology more “enriching” for middle-class white users, while failing to address the systemic harms that minoritized communities face.

The authors see four particular kinds of myths:

  1. Social media is addictive, and we are powerless to resist it.
  2. Technology companies can fix the problems they create with better technology.
  3. Growth and engagement metrics are the best drivers of decision-making at tech companies.
  4. Our health and well-being depend on spending less time with screens and social media platforms.

These may sound counter-intuitive, so it’s worth reading the (short) paper to see their reasoning.

Basically, though, it’s really only relevant to the surveillance capitalism operators.

Recommended, nevertheless.


“Modelling anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen”

This is the title of a really interesting paper which was published last May in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences. It’s by two Stanford researchers, Rohan Mehta and Noah Rosenberg, who wanted to understand the dynamic interactions between a pandemic and human behaviours related to the disease. So they defined anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for example, or aversion to wearing a mask, as cultural pathogens which, when they spread through a population, can promote the spread of diseases. The question is: how do these interactions play out? What are their dynamics?

There’s a useful summary of the research published by Stanford University. Here’s a clip:

To couple the transmission of disease with the transmission of a sentiment, the researchers used what’s called an S-I-R model, which divides populations into groups, or “compartments” – namely those who are susceptible, infected and recovered. “The S-I-R model with one dimension for behavior and one dimension for disease is among the simplest ways to understand how the behavioral dynamics affect the disease dynamics,” said Rosenberg.

In the case of modeling anti-vaccination sentiment as a transmissible preference, this would mean susceptible individuals are undecided about vaccines; infected individuals are those who have the anti-vaccination sentiment; and recovered individuals are pro-vaccine and not susceptible to anti-vaccination sentiment.

There could realistically be a broad spectrum of feelings associated with any particular sentiment, but simplifying the model provides a clearer connection to disease dynamics. For example, individuals who are pro-vaccine could change their minds in the real world, but the model assumes they cannot (as if they have already been vaccinated as a result of their sentiments and cannot undo the action).

“We want these kinds of models to have some realism, but the more complicated we make them, the harder it is to fully understand all the potential behaviors that could emerge,” said Rosenberg. “The goal is to understand how phenomena affect each other, rather than to make projections. We see clearly in the model how anti-vaccination sentiment can promote spread of the disease for which the vaccine is being applied.”

The point of a study like this is that it tries to take a holistic or system-wide view of a problem. At the moment, we tend mostly to build models of how an epidemic spreads so that we can predict likely outbreak scenarios. But which scenario turns out to be accurate depends not just on the characteristics of the pathogen, but also on how the human population responds to these strange circumstances. This is why governments across Europe and elsewhere have been taken aback by the new surges in infections. The problem will get worse when credible vaccines for Covid-19 start to appear, because what happens from then on depends on how people respond to the possibility of vaccination. The disease modelled in the research reported in the journal article was measles, but of course the scenario that everyone would like to study relates to Covid. It seems that Stanford has given them more resources to work on that.

The Abstract for the paper reads:

Culturally transmitted traits that have deleterious effects on health-related traits can be regarded as cultural pathogens. A cultural pathogen can produce coupled dynamics with its associated health-related traits, so that understanding the dynamics of a health-related trait benefits from consideration of the dynamics of the associated cultural pathogen. Here, we treat anti-vaccine sentiment as a cultural pathogen, modelling its ‘infection’ dynamics with the infection dynamics of the associated vaccine-preventable disease. In a coupled susceptible–infected–resistant (SIR) model, consisting of an SIR model for the anti-vaccine sentiment and an interacting SIR model for the infectious disease, we explore the effect of anti-vaccine sentiment on disease dynamics. We find that disease endemism is contingent on the presence of the sentiment, and that presence of sentiment can enable diseases to become endemic when they would otherwise have disappeared. Furthermore, the sentiment dynamics can create situations in which the disease suddenly returns after a long period of dormancy. We study the effect of assortative sentiment-based interactions on the dynamics of sentiment and disease, identifying a tradeoff whereby assortative meeting aids the spread of a disease but hinders the spread of sentiment. Our results can contribute to finding strategies that reduce the impact of a cultural pathogen on disease, illuminating the value of cultural evolutionary modelling in the analysis of disease dynamics.


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Wednesday 7 October, 2020

Locked!

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

”A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.”

  • G.H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (Live In London)

Link


Many Top AI Researchers Get Financial Backing From Big Tech

Surprise, surprise. Interesting story in Wired.

Mohamed and Moustafa Abdalla, two brothers who are graduate students at the university of Toronto, embarked on an interesting mini-project. They looked at how many AI researchers at Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Toronto have received funding from Big Tech over their careers. They examined the CVs of 135 computer science faculty who work on AI at the four schools, looking for indications that the researcher had received funding from one or more tech companies.

For 52 of those, they couldn’t make a determination. Of the remaining 83 faculty, they found that 48, or 58 percent, had received funding such as a grant or a fellowship from one of 14 large technology companies: Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Huawei, Samsung, Uber, Alibaba, Element AI, or OpenAI. Among a smaller group of faculty that works on AI ethics, they also found that 58 percent of those had been funded by Big Tech. When any source of funding was included, including dual appointments, internships, and sabbaticals, 32 out of 33, or 97 percent, had financial ties to tech companies. “There are very few people that don’t have some sort of connection to Big Tech,” Abdalla says.

Adballa says industry funding is not necessarily compromising, but he worries that it might have some influence, perhaps discouraging researchers from pursuing certain projects or prompting them to agree with solutions proposed by tech companies. Provocatively, the Abdallas’ paper draws parallels between Big Tech funding for AI research and the way tobacco companies paid for research into the health effects of smoking in the 1950s.

Their paper, “The Grey Hoodie Project: Big Tobacco, Big Tech, and the threat on academic integrity” is on arXiv.

The Abstract reads:

As governmental bodies rely on academics’ expert advice to shape policy regarding Artificial Intelligence, it is important that these academics not have conflicts of interests that may cloud or bias their judgement. Our work explores how Big Tech is actively distorting the academic landscape to suit its needs. By comparing the well-studied actions of another industry, that of Big Tobacco, to the current actions of Big Tech we see similar strategies employed by both industries to sway and influence academic and public discourse. We examine the funding of academic research as a tool used by Big Tech to put forward a socially responsible public image, influence events hosted by and decisions made by funded universities, influence the research questions and plans of individual scientists, and discover receptive academics who can be leveraged. We demonstrate, in a rigorous manner, how Big Tech can affect academia from the institutional level down to individual researchers. Thus, we believe that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place.

When one raises the question of relationships with big tech companies with some academics the general response is that there’s nothing to see here. Prominent medical researchers who have links to Big Pharma give the same responses. Nothing to see here, move along. Until, of course, there is something to see.


Face masks: what the data say

One of the strangest (and annoying) aspects of the pandemic as it evolved was the reluctance of the government’s scientific advisers to recommend the wearing of non-N95 face masks. People who decided to make their own and wear them were regarded in many places as cranks. And now masks are mandatory in shops and other buildings. So somewhere along the line crankiness became Holy Writ. And of course in the US, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, refusing to wear a mask became a test of masculinity or patriotism, or both. (Or a litmus test for idiocy.)

I always thought that the issue was a bit like Pascal’s Wager: it was unlikely to do one harm, and might do some good, so why not wear one?

Now I find a paper in Nature, no less, saying “The science supports that face coverings are saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the debate trundles on. How much evidence is enough?”


Security flaw left ‘smart’ chastity sex toy users at risk of permanent lock-in

There’s a long list of things I don’t understand about this, but here goes:

Security researchers have discovered that a major security flaw in one popular sex toy could have been catastrophic for tens of thousands of users.

U.K.-based security firm Pen Test Partners said the flaw in the Qiui Cellmate internet-connected chastity lock, billed as the “world’s first app controlled chastity device,” could have allowed anyone to remotely and permanently lock in the user’s penis.

The Cellmate chastity lock works by allowing a trusted partner to remotely lock and unlock the chamber over Bluetooth using a mobile app. That app communicates with the lock using an API. But that API was left open and without a password, allowing anyone to take complete control of any user’s device.

Because the chamber was designed to lock with a metal ring underneath the user’s penis, the researchers said it may require the intervention of a heavy-duty bolt cutter or an angle grinder to free the user.

At first I assumed it was a spoof — “Middle Ages meets smartphone era”. But apparently not.

And this thing is, apparently, a toy.


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Tuesday 6 October, 2020

Venice, 2017.


Quote of the Day

“There’s so much denial going on about how aerosols are the principal cause of spread. It’s quite weird. Think of coronavirus as infectious smoke, with some heavy smokers and lots of very light smokers, and you’re there. The problem: you can’t tell who the heavy smokers are.”


Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Glenn Gould – J.S. Bach, Variazioni Goldberg – 1981

Link


Excel spreadsheet error blamed for UK’s 16,000 missing coronavirus cases

There’s been a huge hooh-hah (understandably) about the error that left large number of virus cases unreported. But, as this account by The Verge may suggest, many users of the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet may have the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I) feeling. We’ve all screwed up on Excel at one time or another.

The 15,841 “missing” cases made public today were originally recorded between September 25th and October 2nd. All those who tested positive for COVID-19 were notified by the UK’s health authorities, but the failure to upload these cases to the national database meant anyone who came into contact with these individuals was not informed. It’s an error that may have helped spread the virus further through the country as individuals exposed to the virus continued to act as normal.

According to reports from The Guardian and Sky News, the mistake was caused when PHE tried to collate data from multiple sources in the form of CSV files by loading them into Excel. This popular spreadsheet software has limits in how many rows it can load — 65,536 rows in older versions and 1,048,576 rows in more recent versions. Based on these reports, it’s not clear which version of Excel PHE is using, but the row-limit was reached regardless. As PHE workers tried to load more cases into the national database, they were rejected.

The solution, at least, is as simple as the error, and the overly large files have reportedly now been split into smaller batches. PHE didn’t confirm this but says the problem is now resolved, and that it passed the details of the backlog of confirmed cases onto the UK’s contact tracers as of 1PM local time on Saturday.

It reminds of an adage that I used to cite in the early days in defining ‘Big Data’ — which was the amount of data that wouldn’t fit on an Excel sheet.

HT to Ian Clark.


More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma is Jeff Orlowski’s much-discussed film about the toxic impact of social media on society, and particularly on young people. I wrote about it in my Observer column a few weeks ago.

For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task. Orlowski adopts a two-track approach. In the first, he assembles a squad of engineers and executives – people who built the addiction-machines of social media but have now repented – to talk openly about their feelings of guilt about the harms they inadvertently inflicted on society, and explain some of the details of their algorithmic perversions.

They are, as you might expect, almost all males of a certain age and type. The writer Maria Farrell, in a memorable essay, describes them as examples of the prodigal techbro – tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening and “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found.”

Biblical scholars will recognise the reference from Luke 15. The prodigal son returns having “devoured his living with harlots” and is welcomed with open arms by his old dad, much to the dismay of his more dutiful brother. Farrell is not so welcoming. “These ‘I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my Ted Talk’ accounts,” she writes, “typically miss most of the actual journey, yet claim the moral authority of one who’s ‘been there’ but came back. It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics.”

It is, but Orlowski welcomes these techbros with open arms because they suit his purpose – which is to explain to viewers the terrible things that the surveillance capitalist companies such as Facebook and Google do to their users. And the problem with that is that when he gets to the point where we need ideas about how to undo that damage, the boys turn out to be a bit – how shall I put it – incoherent.

Now comes a really insightful commentary by Niall Docherty from the Social Media Collective, a network of social science and humanistic researchers who work in the Microsoft Research labs in New England and New York.

“While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions,” he writes,

“its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.”

He takes issue with the core argument of the film, namely that social media are designed to manipulate their users for corporate gain. But, says Docherty,

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting actually take place. So responsibility for the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind,

we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will.

This is an interesting approach to the problem which addresses the thorny question of why — if social media is so bad for people — do they continue to use it. It will annoy some people, I guess, because they will see it as letting the tech companies off the hook. But it also forces one to re-evaluate one’s own preconceptions. Which of course is also what Bruno Latour does for a living!


GOP Elites Thought They Could Buy Exemption From a Pandemic

Twitter user Kate Bennett tweeted an extraordinary film clip of the White House Rose Garden party to celebrate Trump’s nomination of a reliable right-wing lawyer to the Supreme Court.

The video clip in the link is worth watching in the context of this piece in NYMag:

It is too early to know with certainty that the Barrett nomination party was a superspreader event. But we do know that at least eight of the event’s attendees have now tested positive for COVID-19. And we also know that the White House might as well have hired the novel coronavirus as its party planner, the proceedings were so well-tailored to the bug’s spread (a throng of people speaking indoors, in close proximity, without masks, for an extended period of time). So it seems safe to assume that the event played some role in the cluster of infection that has put Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the hospital, much of Mitch McConnell’s caucus in quarantine, and the broader population of Washington, D.C., at an increased risk of serious illness.

The White House told The Wall Street Journal Sunday that its officials and guests do not generally wear masks or practice social distancing “because they are tested daily.” This appears to confirm that all those serial huggers in the Rose Garden on September 26 did indeed believe their privileged access to rapid tests would exempt them from the hard facts of pandemic life.

All of which invites the question: Why didn’t they know better?

The answer, of course, is that — like elites everywhere — they think they can buy exemption from the virus. Mercifully, the virus knows better.


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Monday 5 October, 2020

Conversation piece

Arles, 2015


Quote of the Day

”A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Hot House Flowers – “Don’t go”: Diamond Awards festival, 1988, Antwerp.

Link

Terrific Irish band. I first heard them sing this at a street concert in Kerry many years ago.


What do we do with Cruise ships now?

Why, dismantle them, of course, and recycle whatever we can.

Neat set of photographs from Reuters.

Well, well. What’s next? Universities?


What happens if there’s no Brexit trade deal?

You can guess the answer, but Politico has done a really useful deep dive into the matter.

(Number of stars indicates how bad things could be — for the UK.)

Tariffs: ★★★★★
Custom checks:
State aid: ★★
Dispute settlement: ★★★
Health: ★★★★★
Air travel: ★★★★
Road transport: ★★★
Security/intelligence: ★★
Environment/climate:
Energy:
Fishing: ★★★★
Digital: ★★★★
Finance: ★★
Citizens’ rights/immigration: ★★
Science and Education: ★★★
Pet travel:
Gibraltar: ★★★

It’s a long read, but worth it. If some of the assessments puzzle, dig into the text for an explanation.

Great piece of public-interest journalism.


The dangerous and inexorable rise of the instant expert

Interesting essay in the FT by Andrew Hill triggered by a new book by Roger Kneebone about the nature of expertise.

TL;DR summary: attaining expertise is hard and there are no short-cuts.

The real threat to becoming an expert, though, is an increasing yearning for quick fixes, pat answers, and instant gratification. “There’s a growing sense that anyone can learn to do anything — and quickly,” laments Prof Kneebone in his book. People applaud Tik Tok experts over those who have “done time”, or they assume that real skills displayed on social media can be picked up without effort or the acquisition of basic techniques.

Mr Trump is a case in point. He has sometimes been swift to claim “natural ability” in matters that his expert advisers took years to understand. But that is no surprise. After all, in the TV show that vaulted him towards the presidency, the apprenticeships he bestowed were a high-profile reward for a few weeks of showy salesmanship, not the first step in a hard but fulfilling journey towards mastery.

Yeah: just look at how Trump now regards himself as an expert on Covid-19.


What is the virus doing to us?

One answer, prompted by reading this thoughtful essay by historian Peter Frankopan, is that it’s softening us up for authoritarian rule. The crisis, he says, “has the capacity to be apocalyptic”.

More than eighty countries declared a state of emergency as a result of the virus, according to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights. In some cases this resulted in impassioned debate about the erosion of civil liberties, for example in Israel, where the government approved a controversial measure in March to digitally track those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

In Britain, meanwhile, the 329 page ‘Coronavirus Bill’ was passed in a single day – suspending the requirement for councils to meet the eligible needs of the disabled and vulnerable people, amongst others, as well as the right to cancel or re-arrange elections and to close ports and borders. Police releasing drone footage of walkers in the Peak District, officers reprimanding people for using their own front garden, or Thames Valley police issuing appeals for local residents to inform on each other if they suspect they are ‘gathering and then dispersing back into out communities’ during the lockdown show that the relationship between citizens and the authorities has changed dramatically in a matter of a few weeks. The new mantra of our pandemic and post-pandemic world is best expressed by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha – a general who himself took power in a coup in 2014: ‘right now it’s health over liberty.’

There are, of course, pockets of resistance, such in the US, where armed militias gathered on the steps of some state assemblies to demand an end to lockdown. Ironically, they were encouraged by President Trump who issued a series of tweets effectively urging civil disobedience: ‘Liberate Michigan’, he tweeted; ‘Liberate Minnesota !’Liberate Virginia !’ But even in the complicated and contradictory United States of 2020, things have not been straightfoward, with Trump asserting that his powers are not so much presidential as dictatorial: ‘When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,’ he said in a press briefing in mid-April – a few weeks after he had boasted that ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about’, before a bilateral meeting with Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar.

The push away from democratic norms to autocratic measures is framed by the justification that the crisis is so severe as to require emergency measures that usually reflect a war footing. So it is no surprise that so many leaders around the world have referred to the coronavirus as a ‘war’, nor that wartime parallels are the ones we turn to in order to make sense of the situation: it is no coincidence either that the death toll from the Vietnam War contextualised mortality figures from the US, or that those of the height of the Blitz in the twenty eight days to 4 October 1940 were set against those to Covid-19 in the four weeks to mid-April.

Not a cheery read. But riveting nevertheless.


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Sunday 4 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

”Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.

  • Christopher Hampton, playwright.

Jim and Helen’s Window

The window in their house, which they turned into the wonderful Kettle’s yard gallery in Cambridge.


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel: As steals the morn (L’Allegro, HWV 55) Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley, Voices of Music 4K

link


Home with a drone

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s the scenario. It’s 3.30pm and you’re away from home. A burglar breaks in by forcing the french window in the living room. Shortly afterwards, two things happen. A small drone sitting unobtrusively in its housing-cum-charging-station whirs into life, and your smartphone beeps. The drone leaves its housing and begins a flight through the house on an inspection path that you have programmed into it, streaming live, high-definition video to your phone as it goes. The burglar sees and hears the drone, grasps what’s happening and flees.

Fiction? Not at all. It’s just Amazon’s latest gizmo – announced at its autumn hardware event on 24 September. It came with a nice video to illustrate the above scenario – though it featured an implausibly nervous burglar who, upon seeing the drone, fled as though he had seen a ghost. But other, less dramatic uses for the drone were suggested. It would be useful, for example, if you arrived at your non-remote workplace (remember them?) and wondered if you’d left the kitchen window open. This viewer wondered about equally mundane questions: how would the device deal with his cats, which regularly roam the house seeking surfaces that are forbidden to them when he’s physically present; how does the drone deal with closed internal doors – or indeed with the interior of any normal dwelling? Advertisements for so-called “smart” homes invariably feature the interiors of sterile, open-plan dwellings that no sane adult would wish to inhabit…

Read on


The Proper Function of Government

Link

I haven’t watched the Yes Minister series for years and years. And then stumbled accidentally on this and marvelled once more at the masterful, cynical insight of the script. Take a few minutes to watch it. It’s worth it.


Bedside manners

My irreverent WhatsApp feed continues to delight.


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Saturday 3 October, 2020

One of our cats. Interesting thing is that when I first looked at it I thought it must have been taken with one of my high-end cameras. But in fact it was taken with the little Sony RX100M4. It’s a pretty good advertisement for that device.


Quote of the day

“If you think technology can solve your problems, then you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems”.

  • Mariana Mazzucato

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Deep River Blues – Tommy Emmanuel

Link

Just the song for a rainy morning. You may need to skip the ad at the beginning.


Thirty glorious years

Long read of the day.

TL;DR Postwar prosperity depended on a truce between capitalist growth and democratic fairness. Is it possible to get it back?

I love long-sweep essays, and this one by Jonathan Hopkin fits that bill. Here’s how it opens:

With the end of the Second World War, the economies of western Europe and North America began a period of spectacular growth. Between 1950 and 1973 GDP doubled or more. This prosperity was broadly shared, with consistent growth in living standards for rich and poor alike and the emergence of a broad middle class. The French call it les trente glorieuses – the 30 glorious years – while the Italians describe it as il miracolo economico. The story of how this golden age of shared economic growth came to be has almost been forgotten, despite it being less than a century ago. There has never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves.

How did western countries, in one quarter of the 20th century, manage to increase both equality and economic efficiency? Why did this virtuous combination ultimately fall apart by the end of the century? The answer lies in the awkward relationship between democracy and capitalism, the former founded on equal political rights, the latter tending to accentuate differences between citizens based on talent, luck or inherited advantage. Democracy has the potential to curb capitalism’s inherent tendency to generate inequality. This very inequality can undermine the ability of democratic institutions to ensure that the economy works for the majority.

The rise and fall of democratic capitalism in the postwar era is one of the most important events in modern history…

My hunch is that in the long view of history, the the kind of democracy that emerged from the wreckage of WW2 in the period 1946 to 1971, and then began its long decay from then to the present, may come to be seen as a kind of blip. It was a by-product of the global shock of a global war, and it lasted until the economic ideas that informed it and the impact of the war on successive generations began to run out of steam.

Hopkin’s argument is that the war “cut capitalism down to size” and gave a decisive push to establish a new form of economic system in which political demands took primacy. As a result, the postwar era established a new form of ‘managed’ or ‘democratic’ capitalism that delivered a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

Democratic capitalism redressed the balance between the brutal inequalities of early industrial capitalism and the need for social consent to secure political stability. It rested on three broad pillars: a redistributive welfare state that provided economic security while narrowing income gaps between rich and poor, corporatist dialogue between employers and the labour force, and highly regulated capital markets. Aspects of this form of capitalism sometimes existed in nondemocratic societies too. But as a basic set of socioeconomic institutions it was most associated with the democratic form of government in which competitive elections and representative political parties incorporated citizen demands into policymaking.

All that began to change in the 1970s, when a combination of high inflation, faltering growth and industrial disputes over wages ushered in an era of social and political turbulence that brought a revival of liberal market ideology in the shape of the neoliberalism that seized the imagination of politicians and governing elites throughout the West. But, says Hopkin,

The promise of the neoliberal era to unleash the power of individual incentives to spread prosperity has not been fulfilled. Average growth rates across the advanced capitalist systems failed to match those of the postwar boom years. Since the 1970s, an increasingly unequal income distribution has meant that, for many, living standards failed to improve by much at all in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, strikes, demonstrations, riots and even terrorism expressed social tensions. By the 1990s, a resentful apathy, reflected in falling voter turnout and disengagement with formal party politics, signalled mass frustrations. The neoliberal revolution succeeded not only in shifting policy, but in fundamentally undermining the institutional preconditions of democratic capitalism. Governments progressively delegated important policy decisions to non-elected bodies, some of them supranational. Meanwhile, anti-union legislation and the declining bargaining power resulting from offshoring and heightened global competition took a heavy toll on worker rights.

Which is how we got to where we are now.

Long read, but worth it.


Trump and the virus

All of a sudden people are apparently rushing to pray for Trump as he battles with Covid. Pardon me if I sit this one out. My fear is that it will be a replay of the Boris Johnson story. You may recall that Johson damn nearly died from the virus, but was saved by the NHS and then wrapped himself in the NHS flag afterwards to ride a wave of feeble-minded public sympathy over his self-induced ordeal — brought about largely by his inability to take the virus seriously in the early days. Just like Trump.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see how Photoshop remains the staple tool of satirists, as in this picture retrieved from my irreverent WhatsApp feed:

But there are some really interesting aspects of what has happened.

Michael Kruse has a fascinating article in Politico.com about it.

Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Art of the Deal, once told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear by far.”

Weakness, however, inhabits the absolute center of the most primal aspects of the long-arc engine of Trump. He knows, in the most deep-seated way, of the utter unavoidability of human vulnerability—anybody’s, everybody’s and, of course, his own. And yet Trump resolutely followed the mandate his father modeled to squelch any such concession. Fundamentally disparate but inextricably linked, these are two of the most essential and major motivators of Trump’s lifelong pattern of behavior. Now, with the news that Trump has tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than a million people worldwide, all of this has come to a perilous head.

The wee-hours shock wave of his diagnosis has exposed the fragility of his bravado. The man who’s trumpeted his genes and his blood and his virility while deriding his foes for low energy is now stricken and sequestered, cut off from the adoring supporters who stoke not just his political prospects but his needy psyche. He is 74 and obese, and already was facing a pending public reckoning—and the fear of being seen as anything other than strong in the end is precisely what has made him so weak.

His lengthy record of germophobia, encapsulated by his well-documented hatred of shaking hands, often has been considered merely a bullet point on his list of idiosyncrasies. But in fact it reflects his latent knowledge of the power of infection to wreak quick and terrible consequences. “Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu,” he said in 1999. “And who knows what else?” he said in 2004. “You don’t want to be a liability,” he said, getting perhaps unwittingly closer to the crux, in 2013. “You don’t want to become somebody’s patient.” Trump, according to Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, was “preoccupied by a fear of communicable disease.”

There’s a delicious sense of chickens coming home to roost about all this.


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Friday 2 October, 2020

If only…

Arles, July 2017.


Quote of the Day

”Writing a novel does not become easier with practice.”

  • Graham Greene

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

John Field: Nocturne No. 10 in E minor

Link


EU plans for controlling tech companies

Politico has obtained a leaked copy of measures that EU regulators are considering imposing on certain kinds of tech companies. Cory Doctorow has provided a neat annotated list on Pluralistic.net.

First of all, stuff that the EU is considering prohibiting:

  • Mining your customers’ data to compete with them or advertise to their customers (think: Facebook Like buttons on publisher pages, Amazon’s own-brand competitors)

  • Mixing third-party data with surveillance data you gather yourself (like Facebook buying credit bureaux data), without user permission (which is the same as never because no one in the world wants this)

  • Ranking your own offerings above your competitors (think: Google Shopping listings at the top of search results)

  • Pre-installing your own apps on devices (like Ios and Android do) or requiring third party device makers to install your apps (as Android does)

  • Using DRM [Digital Rights Management] or terms to service to prevent users from uninstalling preinstalled apps (no immortal shovelware)

  • Exclusivity deals – mobile OS/device companies can’t force an app vendor to sell only through the app, and not on the open web

  • Using DRM or terms of service to prevent sideloading

  • Nondisparagement/confidentiality clauses that would prevent your suppliers from complaining about your monopolistic behavior

  • Tying email to other services – you have to be able to activate an Android device without a Gmail account

  • Automatically logging users into one service on the basis that they’re logged into another one (eg using Gmail doesn’t automatically log you into Youtube)

Then there are projected new ‘requirements’ that companies will have to provide:

  • Annual transparency reports that make public the results of an EU-designed audit that assesses compliance

  • Annual algorithmic transparency reports that disclose a third-party audit of “customer profiling” and “cross-service tracking”

  • Compliance documents showing current practices, on demand by regulators

  • Advance notice of all mergers and acquisitions

  • An internal compliance officer who oversees the business

This is an interesting leak, not so much for the specific kinds of measures that they are contemplating, but as revealing the general conception of regulation that underpins EU thinking. In a way, it’s as if they are regarding tech companies much as we regard banks. That may work in some circs. But it may also reflect an inadequate conception of the power of tech companies.


The mystery of John Banville’s mysteries

Lovely essay in the NYT by Charles McGrath about John Banville and the background to his forthcoming novel Snow:

The Irish novelist John Banville is a famous perfectionist — the kind of writer who can spend a day on a single sentence. His books, most written in the first person, are lapidary, intricate, Nabokovian. Or just difficult, some readers have complained, more interested in style than in storytelling. They invariably come laden with words that seem meant to prove his vocabulary is bigger than yours: flocculent, crapulent, caducous, anaglypta, mephitic, velutinous.

A Banville novel typically takes four or five painful years to complete, after which the author is still dissatisfied. In a 2009 interview, he told The Paris Review that he hated his own books. “They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame,” he said, and then added: “They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”

In March 2005, however, while staying at a friend’s house in Italy, Banville sat down one morning and for some reason began writing a mystery novel set in 1950s Dublin. By lunchtime he had 1,500 words — or a week’s worth at his usual pace. He thought to himself, “John Banville, you slut,” but kept going and finished in five or six months. “I was a little appalled at the speed with which I got the thing done,” he said in a recent email. He had been reading Simenon — though not the Inspector Maigret crime novels — and was inspired by him to see what could be accomplished with a narrow vocabulary and a spare, straightforward style.

Many years ago I wrote a few pieces for the Irish Times when Banville was the paper’s Literary Editor. The striking thing (to me) when dropping in copy was the way everybody referred to him as “Mr. Banville”. Even then he was just like his writing: fastidious, distant, intimidating. Looks like he hasn’t changed. But he’s a terrific writer, so he’s excused normality.

The NYT piece has a couple of terrific photographs of him, btw.


What Trump’s tax-returns tell us

Basically, that he’s incapable of running a business.

All of his casinos, property developments, etc. have been commercial disasters. The one thing that really worked for him was his spell on The Apprentice and the celebrity status that that gave him, which he then assiduously leveraged by endorsements and lending his name to various ventures. He earned a staggering amount from that alone. He then spent a lot of those earnings on buying hotels and 15 golf courses in various parts of the US and the world (including, as I now know, one in Ireland). But these are proper businesses and he can’t run such things, so some of them have been bleeding money over the years.

By 2016, his earnings from the celebrity glow of The Apprentice were declining rapidly (all celebrity has a half-life) and he had an urgent need to find a new way of rekindling it because of the losses on the golf and hotel businesses.

So here’s my idea for a comic novel based on these circumstances…

Trump’s big idea for reigniting his celebrity status was that running for president would be a way to do it. Think of all the free publicity. His name in lights every day on cable TV, etc. So he decided to run. The end-game would be that he could then start his own TV network — Trump TV — challenging Fox and Murdoch and becoming a new media mogul. The idea was not to be elected: even his narcissism didn’t make him think that he might succeed. The celebrity-enhancement flowing from the campaign was the goal. Trump didn’t actually want to be president: too much like hard work.

Far-fetched? Hey — this is a novel, remember. Pure fiction. No requirement to adhere to the facts.

But… Michael Lewis’s terrific book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy opens with the night of the election and the stunned astonishment in the Trump campaign team at what was unfolding. It was one long “Oh, shit!!!!!” Moment. The plan had backfired. They had actually won the election. Trump was going to have to be President!

Lewis points out that when Trump won the Republican nomination he was astonished and infuriated that he was now obliged, by law, to start forming a Transition Team to plan for forming an Administration. And he did everything in his power to hobble that process.

The New York Times’s exposé of his tax returns adds the final touch necessary for the plot of my comic novel. Their analysis suggests that Trump is now personally liable for something like $400m of debts for which he is the sole guarantor. The banks who are on the hook for that can’t touch him while he’s President. But if he loses…. Well, next stop the bankruptcy court, or worse. No wonder he’s desperate not to lost the election.


More on how to model (and explain) the spread of Covid-19

Further to my post yesterday about Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating article on why focussing simply on R0, the reproduction rate for Covid-19 might be misleading because it misses the importance of ‘super-spreading’ events, Seb Schmoller pointed out a new research paper published by the Royal Society the other day which appears to support Tufecki’s line of argument.

Here’s the Abstract of the paper:

The basic reproduction number ℛ0 of the coronavirus disease 2019 has been estimated to range between 2 and 4. Here, we used an SEIR model that properly accounts for the distribution of the latent period and, based on empirical estimates of the doubling time in the near-exponential phases of epidemic progression in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Switzerland and New York State, we estimated that ℛ0 lies in the range 4.7–11.4. We explained this discrepancy by performing stochastic simulations of model dynamics in a population with a small proportion of super-spreaders. The simulations revealed two-phase dynamics, in which an initial phase of relatively slow epidemic progression diverts to a faster phase upon appearance of infectious super-spreaders. Early estimates obtained for this initial phase may suggest lower ℛ0.

The key sentence in the concluding section reads:

Spatial heterogeneity of the epidemic spread observed in many European countries, including Italy, Spain and Germany, can be associated with larger or smaller super-spreading events that initiated outbreaks in particular regions of these countries.

This is just the latest demonstration of how limited our understanding of this pandemic is — still. We’re learning as we go, but without a good understanding of the dynamics of infection and spread, we’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.


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Thursday 1 October, 2020

Quote of the Day

“There ain’t no Sanity Claus”.

  • Groucho Marx, in A Night at the Opera

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac: Second Hand News

Link


US mainstream media: still living in the past

Wonderful blast from Dave Pell in his daily newsletter:

One of things we learned last night is that the media still hasn’t adjusted to the Trump era. The immediate headlines continued a never-ending streak of false equivalence and both sides-ism. One guy lies constantly. One guy is a bully. One guy has dragged America’s reputation into a bottomless pit. One guy turned last night’s debate into a debacle. And yet, just after the conclusion of the broadcast, these were some of the headlines I screen captured, all of which give the impression that both participants were equally responsible for the disaster. NYT: Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate. WaPo: Personal Attacks, Sharp Exchanges Mark Turbulent First Debate. CNN: Pure Chaos at First Debate. AP: Debate Anger: Biden Tells Interrupting Trump, “Shut Up, Man.” Boston Globe: First Debate Between Trump, Biden Marked By Chaos, Rancor as Candidates Made it Personal. LA Times: Trump and Biden Trade Bitter Personal Attacks in First Debate. Bloomberg: Trump-Biden Debate Descends into Bickering and Chaos. Time: Shouting Over Each Other. Yeah, it was just a couple of guys who were both losing their cool, and there are some very fine debaters on both sides. Give me a break. The debate did not “descend” into bickering and chaos. It was dragged there by the same monster who has dragged America to this maddeningly dangerous precipice. By morning, many of these headlines had been updated to more accurately depict what we all saw and heard. But the knee-jerk response was towards the false equivalence that has propped up Trump for years.

Spot on. I’m continually amazed by the small-c conservatism of mainstream US journalism.

James Fallows published a fine essay on this that I blogged recently.


Larry Tribe on watching “a coup d’Etat in progress”

Laurence Tribe is Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard and one of the most eminent Constitutional scholars in the US. He’s also a member of the ‘Real Facebook Oversight Board’ that my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr has assembled. Yesterday that Board held its first public meeting. Here’s what Larry Tribe said in his opening statement:

Link


Understanding how Covid spreads: it’s about averages and bursts

Here’s the long read of the day — a terrific piece by Zeynep Tufecki in The Atlantic.

The gist of it:

I’ve heard many explanations for these widely differing trajectories over the past nine months—weather, elderly populations, vitamin D, prior immunity, herd immunity—but none of them explains the timing or the scale of these drastic variations. But there is a potential, overlooked way of understanding this pandemic that would help answer these questions, reshuffle many of the current heated arguments, and, crucially, help us get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

By now many people have heard about R0—the basic reproductive number of a pathogen, a measure of its contagiousness on average. But unless you’ve been reading scientific journals, you’re less likely to have encountered k, the measure of its dispersion. The definition of k is a mouthful, but it’s simply a way of asking whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once. After nine months of collecting epidemiological data, we know that this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters, but this knowledge has not yet fully entered our way of thinking about the pandemic—or our preventive practices.

The now-famed R0 (pronounced as “r-naught”) is an average measure of a pathogen’s contagiousness, or the mean number of susceptible people expected to become infected after being exposed to a person with the disease. If one ill person infects three others on average, the R0 is three. This parameter has been widely touted as a key factor in understanding how the pandemic operates. News media have produced multiple explainers and visualizations for it. Movies praised for their scientific accuracy on pandemics are lauded for having characters explain the “all-important” R0. Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. (If people are masking and isolating or immunity is rising, a disease can’t spread the same way anymore, hence the difference between R0 and R.)

Unfortunately, averages aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior. If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion. If I also walk into that bar, not much will change. Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. Sometimes, the mean is not the message. Meanwhile, if the bar has a person infected with COVID-19, and if it is also poorly ventilated and loud, causing people to speak loudly at close range, almost everyone in the room could potentially be infected—a pattern that’s been observed many times since the pandemic begin, and that is similarly not captured by R. That’s where the dispersion comes in.

There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.

This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries…

One of the implications of this is that we’re doing testing and tracing the wrong way round. Once we’ve found an infected individual, we should be looking backwards to find who infected them rather than focussing on whom they might have infected.

Like I say, a long read. But worth it.


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