03 July 2020

19 June 2020


You searched for "microbiology".
Here are the results for "Game of Thrones".
(Search instead for "microbiology".)
Dear Amazon Music,
I should be grateful if you would kindly not give me search results other than those I have requested. For example, results for "Atlus", when I have typed "Altus". Especially since Altus is a well-known and well-respected musician with a string of albums to his name, many of which are actually listed in your own catalogue. Thank you.
Regards, etc.

Dear Google,
Some time ago you pursued the strategy of diverting searchers for "mediocracy" towards "mediocrity", even though the former word was a well-established member of the Oxford Dictionary. Although users were given the option of "search instead for mediocracy", the diversion is bound to have had some effect, statistically speaking.
   I note that, for some time now, the diversion from mediocracy to mediocrity has not been generated by Google Search. However, there are no doubt many other diversions currently in force, and these are likely to feed back on language, and hence on the thought processes of the millions who use your service.
Regards, etc.

Dear internet software giants,
By correcting users' search entries, you are having effects on the way language is used, and are influencing the direction of culture. While your strategy provides assistance to the differently abled — and happens conveniently to coincide with profit maximisation — you may wish to consider whether the effect is beneficial overall.
   One of the strengths of the internet has been to allow the representation of minority viewpoints and preferences via the Long Tail effect. (Sometimes those 'minority' viewpoints turn out to be less minority than had been thought.) However, the effect depends to some extent on respecting deviations from the popular option when entered into search bars.
Regards, etc.

PS. Bizarre but true: for several days at the start of 2017, there was a glitch in Google Search that caused clicking on "search instead for" to generate exactly the same page as before — as if one had pressed the refresh key.
Here are the search results for mediocrity. (Search instead for mediocracy.)
Here are the search results for mediocrity. (Search instead for mediocracy.)
Here are ...
So it actually became nigh impossible to search for deviant terms. A nightmarish situation that seemed like a cross between Kafka and Groundhog Day.

06 June 2020

COVID lockdown

The government of Sweden, unlike that of every other European country, did not impose a major lockdown on its citizens in response to COVID-19. This policy has been criticised for generating a higher death rate, and for failing to prevent an economic slump. The architect of the policy, Anders Tegnell, has been forced to apologise. But several advantages of the Swedish approach have not received attention. The absence of a lockdown avoids, among other things:
1) driving people batty — whether from claustrophobia, the general artificiality of the new lifestyle, or the fact that it's imposed coercively from above (if this effect fails to show up in subsequent mental health statistics, it doesn't follow it's not real)
2) having permanent unhelpful effects on young children with relatively plastic brains, for whom the artificiality may soon become hardwired as normal
3) habituating citizens to the idea that the state has a right to direct, organise and scrutinise their lives, for the sake of health or other supposedly desirable social goals.
   The longer a lockdown continues, the worse these effects are likely to become. Three weeks? Most people can cope, and will deal with it as a one-off. Three months? There are likely to be long-term effects, but they can be reversed, given time. Six months or longer, and we are likely to be in the territory of permanent changes in human psychology, and in attitudes to the government-individual relationship.
   Our lives are being determined by an order of priorities chosen by members of the medical and allied professions. Saving lives is well and good, but it is not the only value, and not necessarily the most important one.

It is time to think about rowing back, not about ways of progressing the COVID intervention regime still further. Digital contact tracing is a disturbing development from this perspective. Criticism has focused on the possibility of data harvesting, but there are other concerns. The NHS Test and Trace website asks individuals who have tested positive to provide details of "people you have been in close contact with in the 48 hours before your symptoms started". According to a BBC article, the people whose details have been entered are then contacted and
told to stay at home for 14 days. You will be asked to self-isolate, even if you do not have symptoms, to stop the danger of the virus spreading. You should not leave your home for any reason.
There is no reference in the article — or elsewhere on the web, as far as I have been able to ascertain — to what happens if you are contacted in error. Error could come from the person entering your details online, or occur anywhere along the bureaucratic pipeline. The requirement to self-isolate is currently voluntary, but coercion is evidently on the cards:
the Department for Health has said that if people don't comply "we will not hesitate to introduce tougher measures, for example making visits to check they're home or issuing fines if they are found outside the house".
We seem to be facing a scenario where the police have the power to investigate a person, and fine them, purely on the basis that someone entered the person's name and address into a computer somewhere.

Rather than just being short-termist, we need to think about long-term effects, and in other areas than just health. In particular, we need to think about what UK economists Peacock and Wiseman* termed the displacement effect — later renamed the ratchet effect by American economist Robert Higgs — i.e. the tendency for expansions in government to be far easier to produce than to reverse.
Under modern ideological conditions, a national emergency produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed. The crisis-driven surge of government growth may be analyzed usefully in terms of a multi-phase ratchet effect.
   Opportunists, both inside and outside the formal state apparatus, play distinctive roles during each phase of this phenomenon. Indeed, their actions create the ratchet effect. These opportunists pursue their objectives by means of new government personnel, new government policies, new government agencies, new statutes, and new court decisions.
   When the crisis ends, some emergency agencies (perhaps renamed or relocated within the bureaucracy) remain in operation; some emergency laws remain in force; and some court decisions reached during the crisis stand as precedents for future decisions, including decisions to be handed down in normal times. Above all, the populace goes forward with altered political and ideological sensibilities.
[Robert Higgs, 'The political economy of crisis opportunism']
We know that the topic of public health, and in particular infectious diseases, provides fans of collective action with one of the most compelling justifications for intervention. One need not posit that love of intervention is the primary motive, to consider that there may be a pro-intervention bias at work. There are plenty of commentators and analysts of medicine — I suspect it is the majority — whose personal utopias are essentially collectivist, and who may see this crisis (consciously or unconsciously) as an opportunity to move things in a direction they regard as morally desirable.

* Alan T. Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, NBER Books, 1961.

05 June 2020

exploiting a bad situation

The writing seems to be on the wall for Hong Kong. How long can a tiny but valuable quasi-state maintain any independence when the country surrounding it — and no doubt wishing to repossess it — is a hundred times bigger? The COVID pandemic seems to be providing an opportunity for some judicious encroachment.
   In a Facebook post last week, Leung Chun-ying (Hong Kong's Chief Executive from 2012 to 2017) dismissed Western criticism of the new security legislation:
The UK, Australia, and Canada — three English-speaking countries dominated by white people — followed in the footsteps of their big brother, the US, to issue a joint statement and interfere in China's internal affairs.
Leung's ambivalence towards Hong Kong's special status emerged in 2015 when he appeared to endorse Chinese assertions that he occupied a "special legal position" which overrode Hong Kong's judicial systems, and that separation of powers "is not suitable for Hong Kong".
   His sympathies in the matter of security legislation clearly lie with the Chinese government:
The national security legislation was made for Hong Kong and enacted for Hong Kong, so Hong Kong must stand by our country and truly make Hong Kong China's Hong Kong. We must clearly show these countries that Hong Kong is not their colony.
Leung put pressure on corporations that have a local presence — including the HSBC banking group — to toe the Chinese line:
It has been one week, but HSBC still hasn't taken a stance on the national security legislation. The UK government has followed the US government; whether or not HSBC will follow the UK government is something we need to be highly concerned about.
The implied threat seems to have done the trick. On Wednesday, both HSBC and multinational conglomerate Jardine Matheson publicly expressed support for the new laws that China plans to impose on Hong Kong.
   Readers with accounts at HSBC may wish to consider switching to another bank.

22 May 2020

coercive charity: drug patents

Treatment of pandemic disease Z requires drug that was discovered, after costly research efforts, by pharmaceutical corporation X, which now has a patent over the intellectual property. As a general rule, the drug cannot be manufactured without observing prevailing laws on intellectual property, and these normally require payment of a patent royalty to X, the rate typically being set by X.
X the corporation is, of course, ultimately a group of individuals: shareholders, directors, employees.
Individuals in developing countries, or their governments, cannot afford the patent fees set by X.
For every increment of leniency given against the basic patent provisions, the income of X — and hence the income of the individuals behind X — declines accordingly.
Acceptable solution:
Pharmaceutical corporation X voluntarily agrees to soften, or waive, its patent rights in certain cases, e.g. by reducing for a specified period the patent royalty for manufacture in, or export to, specified countries.
(Cost of charitable act is borne by individuals behind X — voluntarily.)
Another acceptable solution:
Western governments, with the support of an overwhelming majority of their citizenry, subsidise the cost of the drug to developing countries.
(Cost of charitable act is borne by individual taxpayers — voluntarily, in the vast majority of cases.)
Possibly acceptable solution:
Western governments, with the support of a simple majority of their citizenry (explicit or implied), subsidise the cost of the drug to developing countries.
(Cost of charitable act is borne by individual taxpayers — in a large proportion of cases, involuntarily.)

Bad solution:
The global political elite endorses the breach of patent laws.
* Short-term costs of charitable act: borne by individuals behind X — involuntarily.
* Long-term costs #1 of charitable act: borne by individuals behind all other pharmaceutical corporations (given that the breach of legal principles softens global respect for drug patent laws) — involuntarily.
* Long-term costs #2 of charitable act: borne by all other individuals globally who benefit from patent and copyright laws, whether directly or indirectly (given that the breach of legal principles softens global respect for intellectual property rights generally) — involuntarily.
* Long-term costs #3 of charitable act: borne by all individuals, living or not yet born, who might benefit in the future from new drugs developed by corporations (given that the weakening of patent rules reduces the incentives for private pharmaceutical research) — involuntarily.

A distinction should be made between a developing country choosing unilaterally to ignore patent law as an act of emergency, with drug companies having the option of not pursuing the breach (under pressure from world opinion); and the global political elite actively legitimising such breaches in general and in perpetuity.

Spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières:
Gilead has no business profiteering from this pandemic and must commit to not enforce or claim its patents and other exclusive rights.
Change the emotive word "profiteering" to "making a profit" and you get, au contraire, precisely what is a pharmaceutical company's business: making profits from selling the drugs it has developed for the purpose of treating diseases. It is reasonable that those who risk their money on R&D, with an uncertain return, should expect to make an appropriate profit on their investment if the risk pays off.
   MSF seem to be implying that there comes a point in the seriousness or prevalence of a disease when that should cease to apply.

It's easy to be generous with resources that don't belong to you, without their owners' consent, but does this deserve to be described as "caring"?

If "profiteering" is taken to mean, more generally, exploiting a bad situation in order to to advance one's own agenda, then there are other possible offenders than those in the business sector.

08 May 2020

coercive charity

The Guardian's Polly Toynbee writes about the UK's deaths from COVID-19. What appears to incense her in particular is inequality in COVID mortality rates between richer and poorer regions. She accuses the government of causing a widening in health inequality.
   Absent from Polly Toynbee's article is an assertion along the following lines:
whenever there is an unfair situation, individuals should be forced to increase their contributions to the government in order to finance a programme to remedy the unfairness.
Such an assertion would bridge the gap in the article between {something unfair is happening} and {it's the government's fault if it doesn't get sorted out}.
   One may guess the bridging step has been omitted because fewer of the article's readers would be ready to concur with it, compared to the article's other assertions. The average reader may be willing to think "health inequality is unacceptable", or "something should be done", but less willing to agree that they, and others, should be forced to finance the solution.
   It seems to have become standard practice to leave it as understood that there should be an increase in coercive charity, when a pro-intervention commentator complains about a social problem, without bothering to state the demand explicitly. If we ask how this practice has arisen, a similar answer suggests itself: since the issue of coercive charity (i.e. being forced to pay taxes to finance welfare) is contentious, it is concealed, presumably in the hope that readers will forget it's there or, in some cases, never become aware of it in the first place.
   By evading the question of financing, discussions of social topics are cartoonised into being about caring: if you don't agree with the writer's implied demand for more government expenditure, it must be because you are indifferent to the sufferings of others.
   Welfare always has limits, given that its costs ultimately have to be borne by individuals. There will inevitably be inequalities in the distribution of medical care: if not dependent on wealth, they will be determined by the preferences of NHS doctors or other agents of the state.

Update 13 May
A colleague has received a promotional postcard from clothing retailer James Meade, offering to donate £5 to the NHS for every order over £50 placed before 31 December. An interesting idea, and certainly more ethically sound than simply demanding the government do more.

24 April 2020

blaming capitalism

Social critics tend to use the word "capitalism" when discussing the West. In fact, of course, we live in a mixed economy, i.e. one that combines elements of capitalism and socialism. A society in which 40-50% of GDP is allocated to the state can hardly be described as free market capitalism.
   Sometimes the things being complained about are plausibly more traceable to capitalism than socialism (e.g. pollution), but more typically it's simply assumed that it must be the capitalist part that is responsible, with little basis for the assumption. For example, the supposed dumbing down that tends to go with massification is often blamed on capitalism, although massification is likely to be correlated with income redistribution.
   During and after the 2008/09 financial meltdown, numerous commentators were ready to blame the crisis on "capitalism". Simplistic labels assist in the process of making simplistic assessments: we were living under capitalism, hence it must be capitalism's fault; it was the banking system that went wrong and banking is part of capitalism, hence capitalism was to blame; etc. In fact, the circumstances that led to the meltdown were a complex mixture of markets and intervention.
   If you interfere with the market, and the market goes wrong, you should consider the possibility that the interference contributed to the problem, or may even have been the primary source of the problem.
   The fact that nothing as sophisticated as this tends to happen, and that we get knee-jerk blaming of "capitalism" — usually without anyone bothering to consider what the term means — should not perhaps surprise us. Many (most?) contemporary social commentators have studied for degrees in humanities subjects. The humanities are increasingly dominated by the Marxist worldview, though it tends nowadays to come under the more respectable-sounding label of "Critical Theory". Marxism involves commitment to the belief that capitalism is unjust, intrinsically flawed, bound to end badly etc; and Critical Theory tends to uncritically identify Western societies as "capitalist".
   I have not yet come across any accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic that finger capitalism as a culprit, but I suspect it's just a matter of time.
   At the moment, we seem to be at the gloom/despair stage rather than the anger/blame stage. The Atlantic, for example, asks whether the USA is a broken state. America, like other nations, is temporarily in a bad way, but it seems a little premature to start talking about failed states.

10 April 2020

light entertainment

Some products that may help to relieve cabin fever. Nothing too dark.
The King's Watch series by Mark Hayden. The description "Harry Potter for adults" has been used before, but this seems like the real deal. Clever, densely plotted, and very very British. The hero is a man's man but most of the other characters are feisty women.
For murder mysteries with relatively little gore, try Faith Martin's Jenny Starling series.
Under the Silver Lake, a 2018 American noir comedy starring British-American actor Andrew Garfield. Seems to perfectly evoke the spirit of trendy central LA. Bizarre but stylish, with more than a hint of David Lynch.
For romantics: the 2000 Hong Kong classic In the Mood for Love, featuring the iconic Maggie Cheung. A bittersweet portrayal of love in another era.
Violin: Individualistic rendition of the Bach concertos by Japanese violinist Shunske Sato. Fizzing with oomph and flair.
Opera: Having nominated Kathleen Battle for position of most mellifluous voice, I propose as second candidate British soprano Lucy Crowe. This album of Handel arias provides a perfect showcase for her talents.