Wednesday 9 December, 2020

Danger: Blogger at Work

On his holidays, too.

Quote of the Day

“Exercise if bunk. If you are healthy you don’t need it: if you are sick, you shouldn’t take it.”

  • Henry Ford

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton & Bob Dylan | Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right | LIVE


It’s an unusual take on one of my favourite songs. I prefer the original version with the clawhammer pick.

Long Read of the Day

 How Americans Came To Distrust Science, by Andrew Jewett | Boston Review | 8th December 2020


A large part of the American public has distrusted “science” since the early 20th century, seeing it variously as a threat to religious beliefs, a disruptor of moral values, and a slippery slope towards a totalitarian state. “A tendency to trace social ills to the cultural sway of an ideologically infected science continues up to our own day, even as the details of the indictment have changed.”

There was only one Brexit deal — ever

It was always wealth vs sovereignty: how much loss of the former in return for how much gain in the latter. Fabulous Guardian column by Rafael Behr.
Short read, and well worth it.

Now we know what went on in Matt Hancock’s secret meeting with Mark Zuckerberg

Great reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Mark Zuckerberg threatened to pull Facebook’s investment from the UK in a private meeting with Matt Hancock, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

The minutes, from May 2018, show that an obsequious Hancock was eager to please, offering “a new beginning” for the government’s relationship with social media platforms. He offered to change the government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.

Hancock sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, “so he can bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”.

Zuckerberg attended the meeting only days after Hancock – then the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) – had publicly criticised him for dodging a meeting with MPs. Civil servants had to give Zuckerberg explicit assurance that the meeting would be positive and Hancock would not simply demand he attend the Select Committee, and noted that the meeting began with an ambience of “guarded hostility”.

The government fought tooth and nail to prevent the Minutes of the meeting being released. In the end, the Information Commissioner ordered their release.

“In the Commissioner’s view the requirement for due transparency and openness is particularly acute in the present case given Mr Zuckerberg’s absence in the UK public domain… In view of the high level of personal control which the Facebook founder and CEO enjoys over some of the most influential and powerful social media platforms in the UK, the Commissioner considers that the demand for such transparency is correspondingly high.”

The Christchurch mass killer was radicalised by YouTube

The New Zealand mosque shooter was radicalised on YouTube: Among the findings of a New Zealand government investigation into the 2019 mass killing in Christchurch was that the shooter had been radicalized more on YouTube than he had in the darker corners of the internet. The Times technology columnist Kevin Roose also has a good Twitter thread on the missed opportunities to take YouTube’s dangers seriously.

But the NZ authorities also came in for criticism, as the New York Times reports:

Still, the Royal Commission — the highest-level inquiry that can be conducted in New Zealand — faulted the government on several counts. It found that lax gun regulations had allowed Mr. Tarrant to obtain a firearms license when he should not have qualified. And it said that the country’s “fragile” intelligence agencies had a limited understanding of right-wing threats and had not assigned sufficient resources to examine dangers other than Islamist terrorism.

A system mired in bureaucracy and unclear leadership was ineffective. But the two independent commissioners who conducted the inquiry stopped short of saying that the disproportionate focus on Muslims as a potential source of violence had allowed Mr. Tarrant’s attacks to happen.

A page from my Lockdown audio diary

Sunday 29 March — Day 8

There’s a cynical academic joke that you hear in every university. It goes like this: Q: Why are academic disputes so acrimonious? A: Because the stakes are so low.

The point of the joke, I suppose, is to emphasise that professors argue about issues which are of no interest to any normal person — and so in that sense, they’re just contemporary manifestations of those fabled medieval disputes about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. That is to say, arguments about stuff that doesn’t really matter, where the stakes are very low.

As it happens, though, we now find ourselves in the middle of an academic dispute where the stakes could not be higher. The question at issue is how best to combat the Coronavirus — and millions of lives may depend on getting the right answer.

The current contestants in this battle of ideas are teams of researchers from two of Britain’s best universities — Imperial College, London and Oxford. Both have constructed mathematical models of the pandemic which, they hope, enable them to understand the dynamics of its contagion, and also enable them to simulate the likely impact of various policies to manage the outbreak.

A few weeks ago, after the Johnson administration had its “Oh shit this could be really serious moment” you may recall that the Prime Minister started to give daily Press Conferences flanked by two eminent knights who embodied the “scientific advice” that he was determined assiduously to follow. This blogger — and thousands of observers overseas — watched incredulously as these eminences laid out a strategy based on the concept of herd immunity: the idea was that about 60 per cent of the population would need to get the virus first, after which this supposed immunity would kick in.

A quick session with a calculator confirmed the hunch that this idea looked bonkers. Just think about the numbers. The UK currently has nearly 70m inhabitants. 60% of 70m is 42m, most of whom, it was assumed, would only get a mild dose, recover and thereby acquire herd immunity. But if the mortality rate of the virus was one per cent (which was one of the guesses at the time) then that meant that the UK government policy was assuming that 420,000 people might die. At which point even those of us who know nothing about epidemiology but can do simple arithmetic began to wonder what these eminent scientific knights had been smoking.

Clearly, the modellers at Imperial College wondered the same thing, and they spent a frantic weekend running simulations to determine what a less crazy strategy would be — and concluded that ‘containment’ would be not only the best bet, but the only sensible thing to do. Their conclusions seemed to convince Johnson and his advisers, and so over a weekend the government pivoted on a sixpence to a new policy — containment and lockdown in order to prevent our beloved NHS with its 8,000 ventilators from being overcome. Which is how we came to be where we are now and why I am composing this from deepest quarantine.

At this point Oxford University enters the fray. According to a report in last Tuesday’s Financial Times, the Oxford model suggested that the virus may already have infected far more people in the UK than anyone had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population. If the results are confirmed, the FT report continued, they would imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment. The vast majority would develop very mild symptoms or none at all.

The research, observes the FT, presented a very different view of the epidemic to the Imperial College modeling which had such a dramatic influence on government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Professor Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford, who led the study. Experts in the semiotics of academic warfare will be able to decode that genteel observation. The professor is, er, surprised. It’s a bit like when lawyers say “with the greatest possible respect…”

I have no idea which group of modellers is right. Perhaps neither is. But the interesting thing about the Oxford hypothesis is that it is testable in a way that would have appealed to Karl Popper.

If people have acquired immunity through having had a mild dose of the disease, then they will have antibodies in their blood. There are, I think, recognised tests for detecting these antibodies. So all that is needed is for a research team (it could be from a polling firm like YouGov) to administer this test to a random sample of the UK population. The results would tell us not only if the Oxford conjecture is accurate but also what proportion of the population has immunity. And when we know that maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.

(Oh, and by the way, if you heard the sound of someone clapping, it’ll be the ghost of Karl Popper.)

From 100 Not out! – a Lockdown Diary. If you liked this you can get the book on the Kindle store

And here’s the audio recording for that day:


Another, hopefully interesting, link

  •  Mount Everest is higher than we thought, say Nepal and China. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!