Thursday 20 August, 2020

Made my day this morning!

Quote of the Day

“Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true”.

  • Samuel Johnson

Musical alternative to this morning’s radio news

Glen Campbell playing the William Tell Overture


And if this doesn’t leave you gibbering, then I don’t know what will.

How a brand of chalk achieved cult status among mathematicians

Improbable but lovely story — with a happy ending… Who knew that mathematicians take chalk so seriously?


Tony Connelly on Phil Hogan’s resignation from the European Commission

Connelly is Ireland’s most astute political commentator. This morning he was on song about the resignation of Ireland’s European Commissioner.

Phil Hogan’s resignation is a very dramatic development, marking a decisive moment in one of the most fractious periods in Irish politics.

It is almost unprecedented for a European Commissioner to resign. He has held one of the most important European portfolios at a time when international trade has been at the forefront of historic upheavals in global politics, from Brexit to trade wars with the United States and China, and even how the Covid-19 pandemic could change the way trade operates.

But it was that very pandemic which caused his downfall. His defensive, then fragmented response to the Clifden golf dinner raised the hackles of many Irish people angered at what were seen as double standards, and dismayed the coalition government, which feared that the critical message on curtailing infections was being drowned out by the crescendo of public anger over the controversy.

Phil Hogan did apologise, at times profusely, first in a statement, and then during an RTÉ News interview. But his position was damaged further by his defence that a negative Covid-19 test absolved him of the 14-day period of restricted movements. Official statements suggested otherwise.

Despite a passionate appeal for forgiveness and to be able continue his work as trade commissioner, the Government still could not express full confidence in him, and this put Dublin on a potential collision course with the European Commission.

That collision has been averted. Phil Hogan has chosen to resign himself.

(Readers puzzled by the “golf dinner” business may find this report helpful.)

The stock market is crazily out of sync with the real world.

From Quartz this morning…

Should we be worried about a stock bubble? It seems odd to discuss irrational exuberance when the economy is anything but exuberant, but these are unlikely times. To help answer this question, consider Boom and Bust: A Global History of Financial Bubbles, a new book by William Quinn and John Turner. Their research suggests there are three necessary ingredients for a financial firestorm: speculation, marketability (how easy it is to buy an asset—think innovation in stock trading apps, or the brainiacs who brought us mortgage-backed securities), and credit.

Quinn and Turner find that asset booms are happening more frequently, and that government policy—meant to make housing more affordable, or shed unsustainable debts, for example—is often the spark that lights the financial fire. If ultra-low interest rates and the boom in brokerage apps like Robinhood are any indications, a bubble in equities could be inflating as we speak.

Is there a pattern here? For example, social media make it easy for anyone to say virtually anything online — and have it spread like wildfire. The result: a polluted public sphere which distorts perceptions of political and social reality. Apps like Robinhood make it possible for anyone to buy and sell shares instantly. The result: an asset bubble which is totally removed from economic reality.

Citizen Lab report on Chinese censorship of Covid news

The Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto carried out daily tests on WeChat censorship practices, collecting 2,174 censored keywords between January to May 2020. The data provide a window into censorship practices related to COVID 19 on WeChat, the preeminent chat application in China. The country’s censorship regime is highly distributed, organised through a process of “intermediary liability” in which the platforms themselves largely decide what content to censor and how to do so.

OnWeChat, censored keywords and images are removed from chats without any notice to the sender or receiver — making censorship decisions largely opaque. The Citizen Lab’s daily experiments involved automatically sending thousands of news articles between WeChat accounts controlled by the Lab and then observing which of those triggered censorship, thereby allowing researchers to observe exactly what content is being censored on a daily basis. After finding a news article that was censored, they then identified which combination of keywords may have triggered its censorship.


The first period (December 31, 2019 to March 2020) covered the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in China. Censored keywords focussed on:

  • early warning of the virus,
  • interactions between China and the WHO)
  • general health information
  • criticism of China’s response to COVID-19.

The second period (beginning in March 2020) covers the phase in which the virus becomes a pandemic and goes global. During this phase, the focus of censored content went beyond issues in China proper to cover:

  • international responses to COVID-19
  • international criticism of the Chinese government.

The third and final phase focused on the period in which the United States became the global epicentre of the pandemic. Censored content in this period included:

  • conspiracy theories,
  • U.S. criticism of China’s political system,
  • critical and neutral references to China-US relations, and
  • U.S. domestic politics.


Great research. Reminds me of the work that Gary King and his colleagues at Harvard have done on examining how the Chinese censorship system works in practice.

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