Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: impact of coronavirus, Trump’s failures and the grow of VR and blockchain

We are beginning to see countries emerge from lockdown typically as the spread of coronavirus begins to peter out. Sweden has been something of an outlier in Western Europe with a relatively approach to social distancing and its embracing of the process of herd immunity as Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern, and Daniel B. Klein recount:

As the pain of national lockdowns grows intolerable and countries realize that managing—rather than defeating—the pandemic is the only realistic option, more and more of them will begin to open up. Smart social distancing to keep health-care systems from being overwhelmed, improved therapies for the afflicted, and better protections for at-risk groups can help reduce the human toll. But at the end of the day, increased—and ultimately, herd—immunity may be the only viable defense against the disease, so long as vulnerable groups are protected along the way. Whatever marks Sweden deserves for managing the pandemic, other nations are beginning to see that it is ahead of the curve.

As we attempt to move back to something close to normal life, many of us are beginning to look at ways of mitigating the risks we face particularly in our workplace. It looks increasingly like it’s indoor spaces where we’re most vulnerable to infection. Dr Erin Bromage reviews case studies of where we have a clearer view on where coronavirus was spread, providing some helpful advice:

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

It’s proving hard to get a clear picture on the impact of coronavirus on countries health, complicated by difficulties in gathering statistics and attributing deaths to the virus. The Economist has pulled together figures on excess mortality for different countries which provide an indication of how big a mark the virus has left on different populations.

Excess mortality since region/country’s first 50 covid deaths

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic but Edward Luce’s account provides one of the better ones:

In hindsight, Trump’s claim to global leadership leaps out. History will mark Covid-19 as the first time that ceased to be true. US airlifts have been missing in action. America cannot even supply itself.

The coronavirus pandemic has made disparities between different parts of society more apparent with knowledge workers often able to work from home. Service and manufacturing workers on the other hand are more likely to face unemployment or working in environments where working with social distancing might not be possible. Sara Selevitch’s account of life as a restaurant worker in Los Angeles makes clear some of the challenges many people are facing:

What I am getting used to instead is the arrival of a future that tech companies have been priming us for: public spaces populated mostly by delivery drivers purchasing doomsday groceries and meals for those wealthy enough to stay home.

The reality ignored by every #StayAtHome PSA is that people’s ability to social distance relies on the labor of others. It’s not so much that the work we’re doing is itself essential. It’s our working, rather, that is essential to maintaining the status quo.

Amazon is one of the organisations that has strengthened its hold on society during the pandemic acting as online department store for the masses (or at least those who can afford Amazon Prime). Unfortunately some of Amazon’s workers are doing better than others, so it’s encouraging to see some of their more privileged workers such as Tim Bray making their voices known:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.

The election of Barack Obama gave many of us hope that America would become a post racial society but the election of Donald Trump has brought on a retrogressive trajectory. Here Adam Serwer reflects on what he describes as America’s racial contract:

The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so it’s great to see him writing about the food industry again even if the words are not especially flattering:

The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly, ensuring that food workers have sick pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some degree of efficiency in favor of much greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case not only for a different food system but for a radically different diet as well.

Franklin Foer points to the fragility of the American democratic system given the threat from the Russian state and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to address it:

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

Virtual reality has been one of those technologies that has seemed just around the corner for the last 10 years. While the consumer version of Oculus’s VR headsets have now been available for over 10 years now and there’s little sign of them making major in roads, even within the gaming community. Benedict Evans reflects on where to next:

To put this another way, it’s quite common to say that the iPhone, or PCs, or aircraft also looked primitive and useless once, but they got better, and the same will happen here. The problem with this is that the iPhone or the Wright Flier were indeed primitive and impractical, but they were breakthroughs of concept with clear paths for radical improvement. The iPhone had a bad camera, no apps and no 3G, but there was no reason why those couldn’t quickly be added. Blériot flew across the Channel just six years after the Wrights’ first powered flight. What’s the equivalent forward path here? There was an obvious roadmap for getting from a duct-taped mock-up to the Oculus Quest, and today for making the Quest even smaller and lighter, but what is the roadmap for breaking into a completely different model of consumer behaviour or consumer application? What specifically do you have to believe will change to take VR beyond games?

In a similar manner, Chris Dixon and Eddy Lazzarin explores the development of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, positing that we’ve seen three waves of innovation (with presumably more to come):

Crypto Price-Innovation Cycle

Andy Greenberg’s profile of Marcus Hutchins provides an engaging tale of redemption in the latters transition from black to white hat hacker:

Stadtmueller began, almost as if reminiscing to himself, by reminding Hutchins that he had been a judge for more than three decades. In that time, he said, he had sentenced 2,200 people. But none were quite like Hutchins. “We see all sides of the human existence, both young, old, career criminals, those like yourself,” Stadtmueller began. “And I appreciate the fact that one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero. And that is, at the end of the day, what gives this case in particular its incredible uniqueness.”

Header image: Clearing VII by Antony Gormley from his 2019 Royal Academy exhibition.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: coronavirus, the Republican Party, sensory deprivation and other matters

The following is a collection of articles and commentary that has caught my eye over the last week. Coronavirus still dominates news although fortunately there’s more to what I’ve read than talk of social distancing and estimates on fatalities. I hope you enjoy…

While Britain wasted the opportunity to get ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, it is America that really dropped the ball as Jay Rosen aptly makes clear :

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence. 

Getting a clear understanding on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is complicated by the fact that it is associated with particularly affecting those with pre-existing health conditions. Despite this, research reported in The Economist estimates that many of those people whose deaths has been attributed to coronavirus would have been otherwise had many more years of life:

Estimated years of life lost from covid-19 deaths by age group and long-term conditions

The coronavirus pandemic presents challenges in many cases where the business as usual approach simply doesn’t work. Susan Athey, Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder and Alex Tabarrok point to the need for the right incentives to ensure that vaccines aren’t simply invented but also get produced in quantities needed:

Usually, to avoid the risk of investing in capacity that eventually proves worthless, firms invest in large-scale capacity only after the vaccine has proved effective. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are huge social and economic advantages to having vaccines ready to use as soon as they have been approved. If we leave it entirely to the market, we will get too little vaccine too late.

The coronavirus pandemic is a health problem that can readily be mitigated or compounded by the distribution of the right information in a timely manner. Anne Helen Petersen reports on Montana based Dr. Annie Bukacek’s questioning of the severity of the coronavirus nd how it has exacerbated political divisions:

Bukacek and others like her frame their opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, now and in the future, as part of a larger spiritual, political, and ideological battle. Their resistance is local, and, even here in Montana, still very much in the minority. Which perhaps explains the feeling of discombobulation, watching and hearing about the protests in the news or in your feeds: They’re such a small percentage of an otherwise largely compliant whole. But in a state of emergency, it only takes a handful, speaking to people’s deepest and darkest fears, to destabilize an entire society.

China adopted a rather different approach as the crisis became more apparent. Chinese state took a tight grasp on what information could be shared by the press and social media as reported by Shawn Yuan:

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

Coronavirus and the associated social distancing has brought forward all sorts of experiments which might otherwise have taken years to come forward. One of these is Universal Studios’ decision to release Trolls World Tour directly into homes at the 48-hour rental price of $19.99, earning a healthy $77m in revenues before marketing expenses. It will be interesting to see if this represents an outlier based on an unprecedented circumstances or a sign of the declining importance of the cinematic experience.

Taking a more far reaching approach, author Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the coronavirus pandemic may be enough to wake us from complacency and the status quo:

We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.

Donald Trump is often perceived as something of a roughneck that rubbed more traditional elements of the Republican Party the wrong way. Given this, it’s interesting to read Evan Osnos’ detailed read on how Trump furnished support from the wealthy enclave of Greenwich Connecticut.

On the ground where I grew up, some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance (except when the fable is untenable), a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit. In the long battle between the self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self. To borrow a phrase from a neighbor in disgrace, we stopped worrying about “the moral issue here.”

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that has appeared just around the corner for quite some time. An indication of the still limited uptake can be found in Steam’s release of figures that point to just 1.9% of their users owning VR headsets…still very niche.

Many of us are on the lookout for the next big thing in digital media which is likely to unseat Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tik Tok…Nathan Baschez gives a pretty detailed look at Clubhouse which he describes as “halfway between a podcast and a party” in what is being described as an emerging wave of spontaneous social apps.

It’s sometimes hard to visualise the income inequalities we face not only between nations but also within them. Matt Korostoff’s data visualisation of the average median US household income in comparison to the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes a good start.

Comparison median US household income with wealth of Jeff Bezos

In a rather different world to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon is Sirin Kale’s exploration of the world of dropshipping which begins to sound more and more like a Ponzi scheme:

This year, his Shopify records show he’ll clear about $90,000 (£69,000) in personal profit. He describes dropshipping as a “real-life video game”, albeit one he doesn’t seem to enjoy an awful lot. “When you do dropshipping and Facebook ads, it’s like going to the casino and pressing the slot machine, and based off what happens, that’s how your emotions are going to be,” he says.

Tom Lamont uses Sam Winstons experiment with sensory deprivation in his exploration of how we are all responding to a world of over stimulation and information overload:

Winston went into the dark for a month in a bid to escape the digital bell-chimes, the bouncing icons, the bulletins and info-blasts – our exhausting daily scroll. “But when you go into the dark for a long time,” Winston admitted to me, recently, “you’re not going into a void. You’re going into yourself. And good luck finding blissful empty quiet there.” There was nothing to compete with the loud, incessant inner monologue or drown it out. I wondered, then, whether we’d created and refined all our sparkly informational distractions because on some level we knew the relentlessness of the subconscious had the real power to overload.

Kevin Kelly pulled together 68 pieces of unsolicited advice on his birthday. You will probably have heard a number of them before but it’s hard to fault them for providing advice for life.

Header image: Home by Gordon Cheung from the Tears of Paradise exhibition at Edel Assanti gallery.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: Coronavirus, where we’re heading and music from the fringe

The world feels like a rather different place from when I last posted here as coronavirus reshapes the world we are living in. I am now on furlough as my employer looks to look at ways to chart a new course in a world where social distancing has become the norm.

I have also watched with dismay as various governments have resorted to finger pointing and disinformation rather than collaborating on addressing this global problem.

Below are some of the coronavirus and non coronavirus related content that has shed some interesting light on the world we live in since I last posted.

Much was made by British PM Boris Johnson of the country’s science led approach to coronavirus . Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake’s report provides a rather different point of view suggesting that the government’s intransigence cost the nation precious time in addressing the crisis.

It has been interesting exploring the different approaches countries have taken to coronavirus pandemic given that decisions have been made under a situation of considerable uncertainty. One of the outliers has been Sweden and while it’s far from clear as to whether they’ve taken the right approach, it’s interesting to read an interview with the strategy’s author, Anders Tegnell:

It’s still too early to say whether Stockholm’s policy will turn out to be a success story or a blueprint for disaster. But, when the microbes settle, following the global crisis, Sweden may be able to constitute a kind of control group: Did other countries go too far in the restrictions they have been imposing on their populations? Was the economic catastrophe spawned globally by the crisis really unavoidable? Or will the Swedish case turn out to be an example of governmental complacency that cost human lives unnecessarily?

Scott Alexander takes a critical look at the failure of politicians and journalists to address threat posed by coronavirus in a situation of uncertainty:

People were presented with a new idea: a global pandemic might arise and change everything. They waited for proof. The proof didn’t arise, at least at first. I remember hearing people say things like “there’s no reason for panic, there are currently only ten cases in the US”. This should sound like “there’s no reason to panic, the asteroid heading for Earth is still several weeks away”. The only way I can make sense of it is through a mindset where you are not allowed to entertain an idea until you have proof of it. Nobody had incontrovertible evidence that coronavirus was going to be a disaster, so until someone does, you default to the null hypothesis that it won’t be.

I am acutely aware of the health impacts of coronavirus after hearing about the death of close friends’ father and colleague. But as the days wear on, we are likely to see a growing economic and social cost, particularly in sectors where face to face contact is a core part of delivering goods or services. Torquil Campbell points out the impact that changes necessitated by coronavirus are going to have on musicians who have become increasingly dependent on live music for their income.

But then came the virus. No amount of hype, no amount of press adoration or zeitgeist-defining hipness could protect us from the chilling effects of it on our business. The customers we count on to come out and spend some money at night were told they should not do so—even that they must not. And we have no idea when or if they will ever be told that going out the way they used to is okay again.

It has been heartwarming to see how communities have responded to in supporting vulnerable members of the community in the UK with the setting up of mutual support groups. The government has provided additional funding to support third sector organisations working directly in coronavirus related areas. That being said, many third sector organisations will increasingly struggle to make ends meet as they cope with growing demands for social services, sickness based absences and declining fundraising revenues. This is on top of cuts that many providers have faced by government funding cuts over the last 10 years.

The Economist looks at how coronavirus is forcing many companies to innovate taking on changes that would be unlikely to be adopted under normal business conditions:

But the defining feature of the latest innovation revolution is breakneck speed. Companies are being forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome “analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school. In a recent briefing consultants at Bain urged companies to throw out old data, test quickly and often, and assume you will be in testing mode for some time to come.

Benedict Evans’ weekly newsletter provides one of the more insightful sources for news in the technology sector . A recent newsletter included his presentation Standing on the shoulders of giants looks at likely changes including the increasing importance of regulation as tech becomes more like other business sectors.

John Luttig suggests that startups faced with declining growth rates across different tech categories are unlikely to see the furious growth rates of old. In this world, organisations are likely to place more attention on marketing and sales rather than research and development that previously dominated:

Like any mature industry, Silicon Valley must battle to maintain growth in the face of immense economic gravity. For the first time in Internet history, startup growth will require a push from the company and not a pull from the market. Unlike the organic pull that drove many of the dotcom-era successes, today’s Internet startups need to fight for growth by investing more heavily into sales, marketing, and operations.

Many years ago I studied Public Policy at a time when a lot of questions were being asked about the role of the state in New Zealand where I was studying at the time. My interest in the role of public provision continues with America’s health system often striking me as painfully wasteful with its high per capita costs and its delivery of poor overall health outcomes. Scott Alexander’s look at how the Amish operate within this framework makes for an interesting read and a valuable lens to examine the wider US health system:

The National Center For Health Statistics says that the average American spends $11,000 on health care. This suggests that the average American spends between five and ten times more on health care than the average Amish person.

Ezra Klein takes a broader view in his look at both the public and private sector indicting the former for its vetocracy and the latter for its short termism. The article is definitely based on the experiences of the US but many of the conclusions could just as easily be transferred to the UK and other societies:

Here’s my answer: The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it. They’ve become, in political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s term, “vetocracies,” in which too many actors have veto rights over what gets built. That’s true in the federal government. It’s true in state and local governments. It’s even true in the private sector.

I can remember catching Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture) play in London in 2006 after avidly following his writings on the intersection between music, technology and non Western music. I finally got round to picking up his book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture which provides a welcome look at various traditionally out of sight corners. On a similar tip, I enjoyed Paula Erizanu and Livia Ștefan Martin’s look at manele music in Romania for the Calvert Journal, looking again at the intersection of music and culture:

For manele’s critics then, perhaps it’s time to focus their energies towards analysing and improving the cultural, economic, and political context that created the genre’s get-rich values they so disapprove of. In the meantime, it’s time to dance and let dance — while acknowledging and paying dues to the complicated history of both manele and lautareasca.

Header image: Bridget Riley from her 2019 show at the Hayward Gallery