Thursday 6 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”It’s Mussolini or a second chance for America. That’s what’s on the ballot in November.”

Musical alternative to today’s Radio 4’s Today programme

Handel: Semele, HWV 58 “Where’er you walk” sung by Andreas Scholl


Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima

This remarkable (public domain) photograph shows the Japanese delegation on the deck of the USS Missouri, waiting to sign the surrender document.

From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Hiroshima was bombed on the morning of August 6, 1945. The city, flat and surrounded by hills, was in many ways an ideal target for the atomic bomb, at least from the perspective of its creators. Their goal was destruction and spectacle, to show the Japanese, the Soviets, and the whole world, what the potential of this new weapon was. The geography of Hiroshima meant that a bomb with the explosive yield of “Little Boy” (the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT), detonated at the ideal altitude, could destroy nearly the entirety of the city.

The historian Richard Rhodes has a sombre piece today in the Bulletin.

He starts with something that Neils Bohr said to Franklin Roosevelt in the Spring of 1944 about the significance of the weapon when war was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific: “We are in an entirely new situation, that cannot be resolved by war.”

National security”, says Rhodes,

is based on the belief that nations can only make themselves more secure by making their adversaries less secure. That’s a formula for mutual insecurity—for arms races and the continuing threat of war.

In a world armed with nuclear weapons, it’s a formula that holds potential for the deaths of billions of human beings and the destruction of the human and natural world.

National security so-called is the present policy of the nuclear powers, the United States and Russia at the head of the line. The two countries between them maintain a total arsenal of 13,000 nuclear weapons. The other seven nuclear powers combined maintain another 1,200. Should those weapons ever be exploded, they would darken and freeze the earth with a nuclear winter equivalent or nearly so to the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that shrouded the world in smoke and darkness long enough to starve out more than 90 percent of all living species, including the dinosaurs that had dominated the world for the previous 60 million years.

The only rational course is to continue on the course on which we thought Gorbachev and Reagan were about to embark when they met at their 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting and had a discussion that came within “a hair’s breadth” of an agreement between the two leaders to begin the process of abolishing all the nuclear weapons in the world.

Given what’s happening now, that looks like an impossible dream. The US and Russia have 13,000 nuclear warheads between them. Other nations have 1,200 (including the near-bankrupt UK). God knows how many China has. And the West has… Trump.

What if targeted advertising is actually a waste of time and money (for advertisers)?

Fascinating thought from Wired:

In May 2018, as the European Union’s landmark privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect, the main Dutch public broadcaster set in motion a grand experiment. The leadership at Nederlandse Publieke Omroep—essentially the BBC of the Netherlands—interpreted the law strictly, deciding that visitors to any of its websites would now be prompted to opt in or out of cookies, the tracking technology that enables personalized ads based on someone’s browsing history. And, unlike with most companies, who assume that anyone who skips past a privacy notice is OK with tracking, any NPO visitor who clicked past the obtrusive consent screen without making a choice would be opted out by default.

Result: 90 per cent opted out.

Here is where the ad tech industry would have predicted calamity. A study performed by Google last year, for example, concluded that disabling cookies reduced publisher revenue by more than 50 percent. (Research by an independent team of economists, however, pegged the cookie premium at only 4 percent. Needless to say, there were methodological differences.) If the Google study was right, then NPO should have been heading for financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be true. Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

Well, well. Interesting, ne c’est pas?

What the post-pandemic future looks like

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s best to be realistic. I don’t know of any expert who expects that we can go back to the way we were any time soon. Various pieces around the Net are picking up on this sombre assessment.

Here, for example, is “The Coronavirus Is Never Going Away” by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurging in many of the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.

The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.

And here’s Megan Scudellari in Nature on “How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond”:

June 2021. The world has been in pandemic mode for a year and a half. The virus continues to spread at a slow burn; intermittent lockdowns are the new normal. An approved vaccine offers six months of protection, but international deal-making has slowed its distribution. An estimated 250 million people have been infected worldwide, and 1.75 million are dead.

Scenarios such as this one imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic might play out1. Around the world, epidemiologists are constructing short- and long-term projections as a way to prepare for, and potentially mitigate, the spread and impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Although their forecasts and timelines vary, modellers agree on two things: COVID-19 is here to stay, and the future depends on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether seasonality affects its spread, and — perhaps most importantly — the choices made by governments and individuals.

In other words: this virus is here for the long haul. We may as well get used to it.

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