Category: Web/Tech

Megan McArdle on Patrick Collison on China

By the time someone gets to be chief executive of a successful firm, they have generally been trained out of saying anything surprising in public. So I was positively astonished Monday when I saw Patrick Collison, the CEO of payments firm Stripe, tweet that “As a US business (and tech) community I think we should be significantly clearer about our horror at, and opposition to, the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government against its own people.”

On first read, that sentiment might seem banal. Of course we should clearly oppose China’s intensifying political repression. But is easier to list American business leaders who have cravenly excused the inexcusable than to name those such as Collison, who have been brave enough to state the obvious. When it comes to China’s human rights abuses, the position of the American business community is prone…

“It must be possible,” Collison tells me, “to acknowledge the basic facts — for example, that concentration camps and forced sterilization programs are reprehensible evils. If it becomes de facto unacceptable to do so, as part of some kind of self-perpetuating silence, it really seems to me that that’s a positive feedback loop that we should hurry to break.”

There is much more at the link, definitely recommended.

Big tech and universal telecommuting

It has gone great so far, but I don’t think it is socially optimal to be doing this forever.  Here is my latest Bloomberg column on that topic, 2x the usual length, excerpt:

If Twitter, Facebook and other tech companies shift toward everyone working from home, it will mean less reliance on esprit de corps and morale to ensure performance, and more management using direct financial incentives and project- and output-based monitoring. Virtual tools can help organize teams, but they simply can’t replicate the intellectual frisson of “gathering the smart people” together, and this could damage performance and innovation.

And:

There is some evidence that when employees work at a distance, they don’t put in extra hours or extend themselves for the benefit of co-workers. That probably means a better work-life balance for many people, but perhaps also inferior performance from a lot of companies over the longer haul.

This move away from workplace morale as a motivator will help self-starter employees, but it may not be good for tech labor overall. In essence, without a local workplace ethos, it is easier to commoditize labor, view workers as interchangeable and fire people. The distinction between protected full-time employees and outsourced, freelance and contract workers weakens. A company can make the offer of, “If you hand in your project, we pay you,” to virtually any worker around the world, many of whom might accept lower wages for remote roles.

Bringing new workers on board is an especially difficult problem for this model.  In the short run, of course, that is a minor concern but over time it grows.

Keller Scholl and Robin Hanson on automation

25 simple job features explain over half the variance in which jobs are how automated.

The strongest job automation predictor is: Pace Determined By Speed Of Equipment.

Which job features predict job automation how did not change from 1999 to 2019.

Jobs that get more automated do not on average change in pay or employment.

Labor markets change more often due to changes in demand, relative to supply.

That is all from their newly published paper on the topic.

Emergent Ventures prize winners, third cohort

I am happy to announce two further winners of the Emergent Ventures prizes to fight Covid-19.

The first is to Statnews.com for their excellent and intelligent reporting on public health, including the coronavirus, with the latter articles being ungated.

This is not only a prize for past achievement, but also resources to allow them to continue into the future.  As most of you know, journalism is a highly precarious enterprise these days.

And to be clear, this is a one-time prize and it involves absolutely no editorial control or influence over what they publish.

Here is a recent NYT article on Statnews.com.  the headline reads: “The Medical News Site that Saw the Coronavirus Coming Months Ago.”

The second winner is Tina White and Covid Watch, for their work on track and trace apps, you will note that Tina and her group were earlier winners of a (smaller) Emergent Ventures fellowship.  This is an Early Response prize, for their critical and timely work to boost the quality of these apps and to make them more privacy-friendly and more palatable to civil liberties concerns.  Here is some coverage:

This App Protects Privacy While Tracing Covid-19 Infections

Here is the second cohort of prize winners, here is the first cohort.  And here is an update from Celine, from Curative Inc., from the very first cohort of winners:

Emergent Ventures is pleased to have been their very first funder, and to have consummated the entire grant process, including the wire of funds (at the time critical for materials purchase), in less than 24 hours.

The general lesson still has yet to sink in

Apple Store’s Temperature Checks May Violate EU Privacy Rules, Says German Data Protection Office

Of course they do.  And yes, I know that is a small thing, and furthermore temperature checks may not even be effective.

The general point is this: you cannot over the longer run have a society based on such inflexible rules of adjustment.  For decades it may seem possible, due to underlying stasis, but eventually the truth will be revealed.  No single anecdote will be so convincing, and it will take a long time for the failures to pile up.  And in the meantime this will breed disrespect for the more valuable laws.

My Conversation with Adam Tooze

Tinges of Covid-19, doses on financial crises, but mostly about economic history.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Adam joined Tyler to discuss the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, his advice for visiting Germany, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

Tooze’s discussion of his own career and interests, toward the end, is hard to excerpt but for me the highlight of the conversation.  He also provided the best defense of Twitter I have heard.

Definitely recommended.

A critique of contact-tracing apps

Here are some relevant criticisms from Soltani, Calo, and Bergstrom:

Studies suggest that people have on average about a dozen close contacts a day—incidents involving direct touch or a one-on-one conversation—yet even in the absence of social distancing measures the average infected person transmits to only 2 or 3 other people throughout the entire course of the disease. Fleeting interactions, such as crossing paths in the grocery store, will be substantially more common and substantially less likely to cause transmission. If the apps flag these lower-risk encounters as well, they will cast a wide net when reporting exposure. If they do not, they will miss a substantive fraction of transmission events. Because most exposures flagged by the apps will not lead to infection, many users will be instructed to self-quarantine even when they have not been infected. A person may put up with this once or twice, but after a few false alarms and the ensuing inconvenience of protracted self-isolation, we expect many will start to disregard the warnings.

And:

At least as problematic is the issue of false negatives—instances where these apps will fail to flag individuals as potentially at risk even when they’ve encountered someone with the virus. Smartphone penetration in the United States remains at about 81 percent—meaning that even if we had 100 percent installation of these apps (which is extremely unlikely without mandatory policies in place), we would still only see a fraction of the total exposure events (65 percent according to Metcalf’s Law). Furthermore, people don’t always have their phones on them.

And:

There is also a very real danger that these voluntary surveillance technologies will effectively become compulsory for any public and social engagement. Employers, retailers, or even policymakers can require that consumers display the results of their app before they are permitted to enter a grocery store, return back to work, or use public services—is as slowly becoming the norm in China, Hong Kong, and even being explored for visitors to Hawaii.

 

Taken with the false positive and “griefing” (intentionally crying wolf) issues outlined above, there is a real risk that these mobile-based apps can turn unaffected individuals into social pariahs, restricted from accessing public and private spaces or participating in social and economic activities. The likelihood that this will have a disparate impact on those already hardest hit by the pandemic is also high. Individuals living in densely populated neighborhoods and apartment buildings—characteristics that are also correlated to non-white and lower income communities—are likelier to experience incidences of false positives due their close proximity to one another.

In another study:

Nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert system under development by Google and Apple, suggesting that it will be difficult to persuade enough people to use the app to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic, a Washington PostUniversity of Maryland poll finds.

And here are skeptical remarks from Bruce Schneier.

I also have worried about how testing and liability law would interact.  If the positive cases test as positive, it may be harder for businesses and schools to reopen, because they did not “do enough” to keep the positive cases out, or perhaps the businesses and the schools are the ones doing the testing in the first place.  Whereas under a lower-testing “creative ambiguity” equilibrium, perhaps it is easier to think in terms of statistical rather than known lives lost, and to proceed with some generally beneficial activities, even though of course some positive cases will be walking through the doors.

I wonder if there also is a negative economic effect, over the longer haul, simply by making fear of the virus more focal in people’s minds.  The plus of course is simply that contact tracing does in fact slow down the spread of the virus and allows resources to be allocated to individuals and areas of greatest need.

Washington Post covers Fast Grants

Here is the opening:

Economist Tyler Cowen first sounded the alarm that America is unprepared for a pandemic in 2005, when he wrote a paper outlining ways the country should respond and, for a few years, ran a blog focused on the possibility of an avian flu outbreak.

Fifteen years later, as a novel coronavirus brings Cowen’s fears into reality, the George Mason University professor is trying to fix what he and others view as a structural problem impeding the scientific response to the crisis: the months-long application and review process scientists must endure to get their research funded.

Here is the full story by Will Hobson.  Recommended.

My Conversation with Glen Weyl

I found it interesting throughout, the first half was on Covid-19 testing, and the second half on everything else.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

And:

For me the most instructive part was this:

COWEN: What do you view yourself as rebelling against? At the foundational level.

But you will have to read or listen to hear Glen’s very good answer.

Definitely recommended.

Modeling COVID-19 on a network: super-spreaders, testing and containment

These would seem to be some important results:

To model COVID-19 spread, we use an SEIR agent-based model on a graph, which takes into account several important real-life attributes of COVID-19: super-spreaders, realistic epidemiological parameters of the disease, testing and quarantine policies. We find that mass-testing is much less effective than testing the symptomatic and contact tracing, and some blend of these with social distancing is required to achieve suppression. We also find that the fat tail of the degree distribution matters a lot for epidemic growth, and many standard models do not account for this. Additionally, the average reproduction number for individuals, equivalent in many models to R0, is not an upper bound for the effective reproduction number, R. Even with an expectation of less than one new case per person, our model shows that exponential spread is possible. The parameter which closely predicts growth rate is the ratio between 2nd to 1st moments of the degree distribution. We provide mathematical arguments to argue that certain results of our simulations hold in more general settings.

And from the body of the paper:

To create containment, we need to test 30% of the population every day. If we only test 10% of the population every day, we get 34% of the population infected – no containment (blue bars).

As for test and trace:

Even with 100% of contacts traced and tested, still mass-testing of just over 10% of the population daily is required for containment.

The authors are not anti-testing (though relatively skeptical about mass testing compared to some of its adherents), but rather think a combination is required in what is a very tough fight:

Our simulations suggest some social distancing (short of lockdown), testing of symptomatics and contact tracing are the way to go.

That is all from a new paper by Ofir Reich, Guy Shalev, and Tom Kalvari, from Google, Google, and Tel Aviv University, respectively.  Here is a related tweetstorm.  With this research, I feel we are finally getting somewhere.

Whether or not we are living in a simulation, *they* are living in a simulation

Savers at the Bank of Nook are being driven to speculate on turnips and tarantulas, as the most popular video game of the coronavirus era mimics global central bankers by making steep cuts in interest rates.

The estimated 12m players of Nintendo’s cartoon fantasy Animal Crossing: New Horizons were informed last week about the move, in which the Bank of Nook slashed the interest paid on savings from around 0.5 per cent to just 0.05 per cent.

The total interest available on any amount of savings has now been capped at 9,999 bells — the in-game currency that can be bought online at a rate of about $1 per 1.9m bells.

The abrupt policy shift, imposed by an obligatory software update on April 23, provoked a stream of online fury that a once-solid stream of income had been reduced to a trickle with the stroke of a raccoon banker’s pen.

“I’m never going to financially recover from this,” one player wrote on a Reddit forum. “Island recession incoming,” said another.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

Covid-induced innovation in the business world

The Economist has a full article on this topic, here is one good excerpt:

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.

The article is interesting throughout, and here is my earlier post on the rising speed premium in a pandemic world.

The essential Ben Thompson on isolation and quarantine

…while I have written about Taiwan’s use of cellphone-enforced quarantines for recent travelers and close contacts of those infected, I should also note that every single positive infection — symptomatic or not — is isolated away from their home and family. That is also the case in South Korea, and while it was the case for Singaporean citizens, it was not the case for migrant workers, which is a major reason why the virus has exploded in recent weeks.

Here’s the thing, though: isolating people is hard. It would be very controversial. It would require overbearing police powers that people in the West are intrinsically allergic to. Politicians that instituted such a policy would be very unpopular. It is so much easier to let tech companies build a potential magic bullet, and then demand they let government use it; most people wouldn’t know or wouldn’t care, which appears to matter more than whether or not the approach would actually work (or, to put it another way, it appears that the French government sees privacy as a club with which to beat tech companies, not a non-negotiable principle their citizens demand).

So that is why I have changed my mind: Western governments are not willing to take actions that we know work because it would be unpopular and controversial (indeed, the fact that central quarantine is so clearly a violation of liberties is arguably a benefit, because there is no way people would tolerate it once the crisis is over). And, on the flipside, that makes digital surveillance too dangerous to build. Politicians would rather leverage tech companies to violate liberty on the sly, and tech companies, once they have the capability, are all too willing to offload the responsibility of using it wisely to whatever government entity is willing to give them cover. There just isn’t much evidence that either side is willing to make hard choices.

That is from Ben’s Stratechery email newsletter, gated but you can pay to get it.  There is currently the risk that “test and trace” becomes for the Left what “chloroquine” has been for Trump and parts of the political right — namely a way to make otherwise unpalatable plans sound as if they have hope for more than “develop herd immunity and bankrupt the economy in the process.”

To be clear, I fully favor “test and trace,” and I’ve worked hard to help fund some of it.  That said, I wonder if we will anytime soon reach the point where it is a game changer.  So when people argue we should not reopen the economy until “test and trace” is in place, I increasingly see that as a kind of emotive declaration that others do not care enough about human lives (possibly true!), rather than an actual piece of advice.