Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 17th, 2020

Inside Trump’s coronavirus meltdown

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Edward Luce has a fascinating column in Financial Times. From the column:

Again and again, the story that emerged is of a president who ignored increasingly urgent intelligence warnings from January, dismisses anyone who claims to know more than him and trusts no one outside a tiny coterie, led by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner – the property developer who Trump has empowered to sideline the best-funded disaster response bureaucracy in the world.

People often observed during Trump’s first three years that he had yet to be tested in a true crisis. Covid-19 is way bigger than that. ‘Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,’ says William Burns, who was the most senior US diplomat, and is now head of the Carnegie Endowment. ‘America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.’

Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2020 at 11:57 am

Four scenarios to explore possible outcomes of the pandemic

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Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2020 at 10:24 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Naomi Klein: How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic

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The Guardian republishes Naomi Klein’s article from the Intercept. It has a grim but probably accurate outlook on our future. Capitalism will always seek ways to profit from any event or trend or crisis. My saying this is not a reflex of anti-capitalism, any more than observing that a disturbed rattlesnake will strike or that rewards influence behavior. Capitalism is just a system to maximize profit, and that drives its behavior. Of course, if there is a calamity the capitalist response will be to seek a way to profit — that is simply what capitalism does.

That doesn’t mean that we simply lie down and let capitalism roll over us, but rather that we seek ways to control capitalize: exploit its strengths while blocking its destructive aspects. Government provides one means: laws and regulations that (for example) set severe limits on pollution — or (to take another example) that set minimum fleet mileage requirements. The regulations thus apply to all corporations in the sector, so no one corporation gets an unfair advantage, and then capitalism can evolve cost-effective solutions that meet the requirements.

Klein writes:

For a few fleeting moments during the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday 6 May, the sombre grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something resembling a smile.

“We are ready, we’re all-in,” the governor gushed. “We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it, we’re ambitious about it … We realise that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these uncharacteristically good vibes was a video visit from the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the governor’s briefing to announce that he will be heading up a panel to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life.

“The first priorities of what we’re trying to do,” Schmidt said, “are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband … We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.” Lest there be any doubt that the former Google chair’s goals were purely benevolent, his video background featured a framed pair of golden angel wings.

Just one day earlier, Cuomo had announced a similar partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “a smarter education system”. Calling Gates a “visionary”, Cuomo said the pandemic has created “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas … all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?” he asked, apparently rhetorically.

It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.

Anuja Sonalker, the CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company selling self-parking technology, recently summed up the new virus-personalised pitch. “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology,” she said. “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces, but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails. Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration “in the community” was already booming. But in the future that is hastily being constructed, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.

This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming and cloud technology, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone, then screen “shared” on a mediated platform. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control), and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence”, but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because, pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fuelled future was being sold to us in the name of friction-free convenience and personalisation. But many of us had concerns. About the security, quality and inequity of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars mowing down pedestrians and drones smashing packages (and people). About location tracking and cash-free commerce obliterating our privacy and entrenching racial and gender discrimination. About unscrupulous social media platforms poisoning our information ecology and our kids’ mental health. About “smart cities” filled with sensors supplanting local government. About the good jobs these technologies wiped out. About the bad jobs they mass produced.

And most of all, we had concerns about the democracy-threatening wealth and power accumulated by a handful of tech companies that are masters of abdication – eschewing all responsibility for the wreckage left behind in the fields they now dominate, whether media, retail or transportation.

That was the ancient past, also known as February. Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Thanks to Cuomo and his various billionaire partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), New York state is being positioned as the gleaming showroom for this grim future – but the ambitions reach far beyond the borders of any one state or country.

And at the dead centre of it all is Eric Schmidt.

Well before Americans understood the threat of Covid-19, Schmidt had been on an aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, pushing precisely the Black Mirror vision of society that Cuomo has just empowered him to build. At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies.

It’s a vision Schmidt has been advancing in his roles as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the US Department of Defense on increased use of artificial intelligence in the military, and as chair of the powerful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises Congress on “advances in artificial intelligence, related machine learning developments and associated technologies”, with the goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk”. Both boards are crowded with powerful Silicon Valley CEOs and top executives from companies including Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and of course, Schmidt’s former colleagues at Google.

As chair, Schmidt – who still holds more than $5.3bn in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), as well as large investments in other tech firms – has essentially been running a Washington-based shakedown on behalf of Silicon Valley. The main purpose of the two boards is to call for exponential increases in government spending on research into artificial intelligence and on tech-enabling infrastructure such as 5G – investments that would directly benefit the companies in which Schmidt and other members of these boards have extensive holdings.

First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public-facing opinion articles and interviews, the thrust of Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend limitless public money building the infrastructure of high-tech surveillance, while allowing Chinese tech companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to pocket the profits from commercial applications, the US’s dominant position in the global economy is on the precipice of collapsing.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) recently got access, through a freedom of information (FOI) request, to a presentation made by Schmidt’s NSCAI in May 2019. Its slides make a series of alarmist claims about how China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless appetite for surveillance are causing it to pull ahead of the US in a number of fields, including “AI for medical diagnosis”, autonomous vehicles, digital infrastructure, “smart cities”, ride-sharing and cashless commerce.

The reasons given for China’s competitive edge are myriad, ranging from . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2020 at 9:51 am

Colleges Are Deluding Themselves

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And not just colleges — this pandemic will alter many institutions and conventions as we adapt to life in an era of pandemics, this being the first. Covid-19 is a meme-altering mechanism, and common memes will be altered (or go extinct). World War II was the same kind of global event, and when it was over, things did not go back to the way they were before. Things changed. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, writes in the Atlantic about one meme change:

Crises challenge all of us. They reveal our true character and provide great tests of our strength. For college presidents, the coronavirus pandemic is the direst crisis we have ever faced. Even in the best of times, leading an institution of higher education demands an ability to weigh many competing individual interests against moral responsibility for the whole. The current health emergency makes striking the right balance all the more difficult—and multiplies the damage any missteps could cause.

Just as elected officials in many states have moved to end sheltering in place and return American life to pre-COVID-19 standards, leaders at many high-profile colleges and universities have announced plans to welcome students back to their classrooms, residence halls, and playing fields in the fall—with some modifications to allow for greater social distancing. But rushing to reopen our society and our schools is a mistake that will ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of citizens falling sick and worse. We should not let our own financial and reputational worries cloud our judgment about matters of life and death.

American higher education was in crisis long before the coronavirus showed up at our doors. For what feels like an eternity, our sector has been criticized for being too slow to respond to changing realities. Student debt in the United States totals more than $1.5 trillion. Alternative credential providers are nipping at the heels of degree-granting schools. Unfavorable demographic trends suggest that the number of college students will decline. In this environment, we face fair questions about higher education’s business model, cost, and long-term prospects—and about whom higher education ultimately serves. Do we serve the students and families who appear at our doors each fall full of hope and faith? Or does self-preservation come first?

The pandemic makes those questions more urgent than ever.

Institutions such as mine understand crisis better than most. Thirteen years ago, when I was named president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black school in Dallas, it was on the precipice of closure. The board of trustees and staff made hard choices. We eliminated football and shifted our educational model. The decisions we made—both early in my tenure and ever since—were all sensitive, because the population we serve was as economically vulnerable as the institution was. In subsequent years, despite the risk to the school’s finances, we reduced tuition for students’ sake.

Paul Quinn is located in a neighborhood that is filled with good people who have been underserved and largely ignored. The majority of our students, 80 to 85 percent of whom annually are eligible for Pell Grants, have lived the entirety of their lives on the margins, where nothing is simple. While the institution may have faced an existential crisis 13 years ago, many of our students face their own existential crises daily. Navigating such paths not only forces you to confront reality, but it also gives you clarity as to what is truly important.

During the present health crisis, administrators at colleges and universities should harbor no illusions. In the absence of a vaccine or much more widespread testing, our institutions are the perfect environment for the continued spread of COVID-19. In a recent working paper, the Cornell University sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell used data on course enrollments to analyze the potential spread of epidemics on college campuses. They found that—even without the effects of shared residences and extracurricular activities—physical classes alone put almost all students on campus in close proximity to one another. Weeden and Cornwell concluded that, as the former wrote on Twitter, “the ‘small worlds’ networks on college campuses create fertile social conditions for an epidemic spread.” Even replacing the largest lecture courses with online classes would not be enough to reduce the risk, they found.

Because of the manner in which most residential colleges are operated, these institutions cannot use traditional face-to-face instructional methods and expect anything other than an unacceptable rate of disease transmission. Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders.

We must ask ourselves: What would make leaders gamble with human life this way? The answer is twofold: fear and acquiescence—both of which, when left unchecked, lead down a path to moral damnation. The fear of the fiscal damage associated with empty campuses in the fall is the primary reason that schools are exploring every option to avoid that possibility. Many schools literally cannot afford an online-only existence; students would not want to pay the same amount for such an experience, but charging them less would lead to bankruptcy for some institutions. Exploring options to avoid financial ruin does not make you a bad leader. On the contrary. However, if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.

The other reason higher-education leaders may be forced into questionable decisions is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2020 at 9:25 am

Recomendo: The (free) book

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I get Recomendo’s free weekly newsletter and have found their recommendations to generally be both interesting and reliable. They now have a free PDF book of 500 of those recommendations. Just put “0” in the price field and you can download it at no cost.

Written by Leisureguy

17 May 2020 at 7:19 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

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