Thursday, 7 May 2020

Wind down.

I've slowed down on the blogging over the course of the lockdown. It's nice to have company in the house but I don't get anything like the same uninterrupted thinking time. A lot of the blogging process is reading and thinking in the quiet hours. Moreover, I think I've taken it as far as I can go with blogger. Hits are still showing a steady increase but growth is glacial and you know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results.

With that, and having moved past Brexit, we've also been having discussions about The Leave Alliance and The Leave Alliance site has been more or less dormant for a few months and it has served its purpose but now it's just sitting there costing money. As to EUreferendum, we feel the name puts limits on exposure, especially with the referendum being a distant memory now.

This then presents the question of what next? Well, we've toyed with the idea of a multi-author site for some time. I was actually me who took some convincing, since we've attempted to bring in other writers before to find that good writing is something of a rarity and taking on the workload of editing as well as producing a daily blog is too much to ask. Now, though, I feel less inclined to blog daily since I'd rather produce less at a higher quality. Much of what is said on this blog is repetition, which is fine for a campaigning blog, but in my view it's getting a bit stale.

So with that, we are now moving to Himself has long complained that my content management system was laborious, and not having my head fully in the programming game means even small edits is a major undertaking for which I seldom have the energy (or interest) so I'm finally giving up the ghost and moving to a Wordpress based system.

For the most part the website is ready but we've still some fine-tuning to do which will happen over the course of the next few weeks and will gradually migrate. Rather than the big launch approach we're going to run it concurrently for a while to iron out the bugs and establish a presence. Once we're confident with it and have the routine down we will then look to take submissions from other bloggers.

I will keep this blog open and will post the occasional piece if it doesn't fit on the main site, but I'm done bashing my head against a brick wall. There are other subjects I'd like to write about and a new start is just what the doctor ordered. When we've migrated I will clean up as an archive site. It will stay online but I'll be downgrading the hosting to save money.

With that I'd like to thank all of you who've supported this blog over the years, especially those of you who've donated. I try to to send thank you notes to each of you so apologies if I missed you. Being an introvert I struggle to make contact with people. It is, nonetheless, hugely appreciated and means more than I can say.

On that note, our new venture has cost us quite a bit to get going. I've paid a proper developer this time meaning we should have the full spectrum of functionality. If you would like to donate to the cause, you can do so here, but as ever, please keep up the retweets and shares etc. Migrating a site always means a slight dip in hits so your support matters now especially. As ever, thank you for reading, and see you over at the new digs.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Failing at every turn

Twitter is not so much a website as a state of mind. When you're plugged into it, it is all consuming. It can be used productively to inform the debate if you have the time and the energy but it can suck you into the distorted Twitter brain state whereby you end up being distracted and absorbed by trivia. In respect of that this lockdown has been a welcome diversion. I've taken to my modelling bench in a big way, scarcely concerned with the outside world.

Now that I'm outside the Twitter bubble looking in, I do wonder how it ever managed to consume so much of my time. Scarcely anything I scroll past is worth a nanosecond of my time. It tends to gravitate toward petty partisan bickering, neglecting the central issues almost entirely, to the point where its denizens have lost sight of what is actually important.

Part of the problem with the national debate is that we are a nation of news junkies, always waiting for the next big thing which begets a media always trying to engineer the next big thing. Reality, though, is much less interesting. Things seldom happen in rapid succession. The Brexit saga was weeks of inactivity, speculation and churn, only periodically punctuated by something of actual consequence. That's partly why this blog has drifted away from the subject. I keep an eye on it, but there's nothing especially new that's worth a post.

As it happens, Corona is unfolding in much the same way. There are milestone events with a cacophony of noise in between. More causal consumers of news rely on mainstream outlets such as the BBC trusting their judgement as to what is actually important. Consequently there is little hope of any kind of informed debate. The BBC is readily distracted by soap opera and lacks the capacity to do thorough and far reaching journalism. The important news stories will drift by unnoticed.

As to the online debate, very few are actually interested in what's really going on, consuming media as ammunition for their own agendas. In aid of that people tend to prefer filtered narratives even if they have only a passing relationship with reality. Primarily it's about media consumers abusing news for personal entertainment.

This is where Corona and Brexit have yet more interesting parallels. Whether or not the lockdown was the right thing to do, the more important debate is how we get out of it now that we are in it. Like the Brexit debate, people will churn over the former question for years on end rather than address themselves to the mechanics of the situation, largely because it requires a level of greater understanding and a much more objective outlook.

In these such situations you have to understand all of the moving parts - their history and function, and how we got where we are. The adjacent debates, though, are far more accessible, more popular, and more profitable if you're in the business of harvesting clicks and likes. The more I see of that dynamic, the less I want anything at all to do with it - especially since it isn't remotely productive in any sense. Twitter influence is not influence. If you are influential on there then chances are you are part of the problem.

With Corona I've been less able to analyse events not having any prior knowledge but my experience on the Brexit front lines has taught me that if there are answers out there, or at least better questions, then the media and their favoured prestige experts are of zero value and the people who rate them can't be persuaded of anything because they're wedded to a tribal narrative construct.

One such example is the trading of graphs on Twitter. Every single national epidemic curve graph on the internet is fiction. No exceptions. Every national epidemic curve chart is based on ropey data, but more importantly an aggregate curve gives you no clue as to what is happening in the country as a whole, or what will happen when the lockdown is relaxed. They have no epidemiological value in terms of trying to control the disease. A declining aggregate curve may simply represent one large area in decline while concealing a number of other areas with small outbreaks which are rapidly increasing.

We have to control this epidemic one infection at a time, one outbreak at a time. We are looking at several peaks so the notion we are "through the peak" of a fictional political construct is PR spin and should be disregarded as irrelevant. The decline we see is really only the result of the lockdown but the virus is still out there and there is no indication the government has understood or implemented the necessary toolset to avoid a second spike. There is simply no evidence that current government activity other than the lockdown has been in any way successful at controlling outbreaks - and it may even be counter-productive. 

Then on a deeper examination of the issues, we find that there is a major missing element to our understanding of the virus where exposure alone is not enough to cause illness. If that turns out to be true then it will be used as a vindication by all those who said the lockdown was never necessary whether they too the time to understand or examine the issues or not. That's the other part of the problem. Media consumers seek vindication for their predispositions and validation. Information and understanding is optional. This is why much of the corporate media has abandoned its obligation to inform.

If there is indeed another dimension to the virus we have not yet understood then a great deal of the current controls are unnecessary, and most of the necessary controls are not being applied or applied incorrectly. The contact tracing system crucial to hopes of easing lockdown will be outsourced to private call centre operators including Serco, The Times reports. This ought to be the sole domain of local authorities based on local knowledge and conducted by trained field operatives. This is just going through the motions. This should be the main story of the week but that's unlikely with our trivia addicted media.

As I understand it strategies do exist to control outbreaks based on high quality intelligence gathering, focussing resource where it is most likely to occur but instead the government is pegging its hopes on gimmicky contact tracing app for the general population - which from a technical perspective is problematic but highly questionable also in epidemiological terms. Standing back from the media noise, there is no apparent signal that anyone in the government has really grasped what we are dealing with or has any real idea what to do. Much like Brexit. 

It seems the Downing Street machine is adept at spin, mobilising its supporters to cement narratives in the general population but it doesn't have the ability or institutional knowledge to handle anything of complexity and importance. That's something of a problem when the entire business of government deals with matters of complexity and importance. Our system simply isn't fit for purpose. and it's costing us a hefty price in blood and treasures. 

Friday, 1 May 2020

Games with numbers

At the moment I'm more cautious than usual about venturing an opinion. This epidemic has too many moving parts to understand exactly what is happening. There are plenty of forceful opinions about but not much in the way of useful or accurate data, and even if there were, data alone doesn't necessarily clarify anything, and a figure like daily deaths is a somewhat arbitrary statistic since it's an aggregation of multiple outbreaks in various states. 

Particularly, there are a number of reporting irregularities while we also have a hidden epidemic where there is really no way to tell how severe it is. We're getting conflicting information where what is actually happening could be the exact opposite of what you might reasonably assume, all the while (much like the Brexit debate) the nation conversation is polluted by half-understood notions and alternative political narratives which again have no bearing on the real world. Time and again the same dynamic applies with cynical actors using events to stoke discord. The right are as bad as the left.

As regards to the politics, it again mirrors Brexit where we have a poorly advised executive attempting something it doesn't understand while fending off a feral and largely ignorant media, leaving the rest of us in the dark, where the more you expose yourself to the daily soap opera, the less likely you are to get an an accurate picture.

Meanwhile the lockdown argument continues to rage. Whatever the science says, the continuation of the lockdown is 100% a political decision. At some point it has to end simply because it is not economically sustainable and the public don't have the stamina or the means for a prolonged outage. 

We are told we are through the peak, but the peak is a narrative construct based aggregated data. This tells you this government has no idea what it's doing. If they're looking at a national figure they're still treating it as a single outbreak rather than several concurrent outbreaks at various stages. The virus could easily become endemic and we simply have to adapt to living with a highly contagious deadly virus. That probably means sustained social distancing measures coupled with track and trace while treating Covid patients in separate facilities. It may be some time before anything close to normal is resumed.

What makes this virus especially problematic is that we know so little about it. Any easement of the lockdown is a political gamble that could see a second surge, and with country to country comparisons being next to worthless we have no yardstick. A worthwhile look at this appears in The Guardian.
"But, of course, people are not so interested in the numbers themselves – they want to say why they are so high, and ascribe blame. But if it’s difficult to rank this country, it’s even trickier to give reasons for our position. Covid-19 mainly harms the elderly, with the average age of deaths above 80, and its fatality rate doubles every seven years as a person ages. Italy’s population is elderly (it has a median age of 47), while Ireland’s is much younger (a median age of 37), so we would expect different effects. And Covid-19 is a disease of crowded areas – New York is rather different from Reykjavik. An obsessive comparison is being made between Norway and Sweden: Sweden’s more relaxed social distancing policies may or may not have been instrumental in their current death rate being 233 per million, compared with Norway’s 38.
Even – if we can imagine it – we reach some sort of stable situation, will we ever know the direct and indirect health effects of the epidemic, taking into account reduced road accidents, the benefits of reduced pollution, the effects of recession and so on? Many studies will try to disentangle all these, but my cold, statistical approach is to wait until the end of the year, and the years after that, when we can count the excess deaths. Until then, this grim contest won’t produce any league tables we can rely on."
For now we're having to make policy on the fly on the basis of assumption and guesswork, where only time will tell. Unhelpfully we'll remain in the dark as government continues to shift the statistical goalposts. So long as the party faithful submit to the narrative they can successfully distort the national debate to cover up a multitude of sins. With a lazy and incurious media failing to investigate, we may never know how it's unfolding.

Ultimately the economics will be the decider. This lockdown is quite an expensive do for this government and there are no more rabbits in the hat. The various bailouts and funds to prop up businesses and individuals simply cannot be long term measures. This is cartoon physics. The coyote is over the cliff but hasn't yet looked down. The function of Corona funding is to keep the pilot light burning on the normal order of things, but the longer this goes on the less likely there is a normal to go back to. What is done is not so readily undone. The mantra will eventually shift from "save the NHS" to "save the economy".

Thankfully the government is now displaying signs of having exhausted all the possible errors so unless they get creative they might just start getting a few things right. That, though, is going to take some time to come to fruition so we can reasonably assume the lockdown has to roll on a while longer. Having dismantled a great deal of local capability we are faced with rebuilding our response apparatus from scratch. No easy feat.

In the early days of this epidemic we didn't have a clear idea what to expect. With only heavily redacted Chinese news to go on and Italy only just climbing the curve, we had to assume something approaching the worst case scenario. It doesn't appear to be as bad as expected in that it's not a movie style apocalypse, but that's no reason for complacency. This virus is still filling up morgues and we still have no idea what will happen in the near future. Those still claiming it's just the flu haven't grasped that the flu has a high degree of predictability. The unpredictability is what has authorities spooked, and it was politically impossible for any government to take a reckless gamble on the basis of unknowns.

As it transpires, the inaction on the early days was because the government was following a plan to deal with a flu like epidemic. It's precisely because Covid isn't like the flu that our limited containment strategy never stood a chance of working. As to whether it's more deadly than the flu, we simply don't know being that our methodology for recording deaths from either is highly questionable. Ultimately all the "it's just the flu" brigade have succeeded in doing is convincing me to take the flu much more seriously. As a younger person it doesn't really feature in my regular concerns but it probably should. The danger here is that our response to Covid is so inept it simply becomes another mass killer that we all ignore until it affects us.

I haven't looked at any news reports in any serious depth for a week now largely because I'm unconvinced that any of the headlines give us any real information. News from other countries is interesting but not especially useful, and the UK press is mostly toadying sycophancy or shrill, unhinged bleating which is even less useful except as a further marker in the decline of British political culture. That, in the long run, could be more deadly than Corona and more expensive than the lockdown.