Wednesday 11 November, 2020

Geometry in stone

The Gibbs Building, King’s College, Cambridge.

Quote of the Day

”Saints should always be presumed guilty until they are proved innocent.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Abide with me | Sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.


Music for Armistice Day. I’m not a religious person, but I do think the Anglicans have terrific hymns. This is one of them.

Long read of the Day

 The cheap pen that changed writing forever

An irresistible essay if, like me, you’re fascinated by the tools we use to write.

A vaccine will provide an interesting test of the power (or lack thereof) of social media

Very thoughtful Covid Diary post by David Vincent:

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11). Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health. Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided. Traffic on social media was growing. Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter. Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make. Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery. The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance. It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour. There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them. That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows. For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority. The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose.

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

Typically astute post. I agree with him that the vaccine will be an interesting test case. People say all kinds of misleading and/or daft things to the poor wretches who work for polling companies. But I’m willing to bet that if proof of vaccination becomes the criterion deciding whether you can legally resume some semblance of ‘normal’ life, then there will be few refuseniks.

See also David’s elegant riposte to Milord Sumption who, in his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture of October 27, denounced the political response to the pandemic as “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country.”

For some reason, I always think of Lord Sumption as Lord Sumptuous. He reminds me of a cat which has not only swallowed the cream, but has also obtained a controlling interest in United Dairies. As David observes, he is “a wearer of power braces, a man with a high regard for both his principles and his intellect.”

The technological is now geopolitical

Here’s Steve Blank on “The Chip Wars of the 21st Century” in the Texas National Security Review:

Controlling advanced chip manufacturing in the 21st century may well prove to be like controlling the oil supply in the 20th. The country that controls this manufacturing can throttle the military and economic power of others. The United States recently did this to China by limiting Huawei’s ability to outsource its in-house chip designs for manufacture by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a Taiwanese chip foundry. China may respond and escalate via one of its many agile strategic options short of war, perhaps succeeding in coercing the foundry to stop making chips for American companies. If negotiations fail, China might take drastic measures, turning the tables on the United States. On the more modest end of the spectrum, China might start some type of trade war with Taiwan to ensure access, following the playbook Beijing used to coerce Korea over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) or Australia over its recent decision to lead a call for investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus. On the more extreme end, these Taiwanese chip foundries might be subject to an aggressive campaign of sabotage. And even though observers of the region might downplay the risk, it is not impossible that this could be used as a part of a casus belli for China’s long-held desire to reunify by force. Such is the importance of chips in this era.

Either way, Washington should be worried. If the United States were to be deprived of access to these foundries, the U.S. defense and consumer electronics industries would be set back for at least five years. Moreover, because China is investing in its own chip foundries, it could become the world leader in technology for the next decade or more. That’s why it was encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate propose $25 billion to help America’s semiconductor industry. But this should only be the start…

Interesting essay. It would have been even more worrying if Trump had won. The big question is whether US pressure on the Chinese tech companies could eventually lead China to move on Taiwan. Unlikely, still, but…  

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