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How China Controlled the Coronavirus / New Yorker
There's been a lot of positive buzz about this piece, but I was hesitant; I've definitely shared too many links in the last six months about the pandemic, China, or both. And yet the buzz was well-deserved. This is a remarkably even-handed, nuanced, and interesting glimpse of a different world:
I followed the robot until it paused on a street lined with dormitories. An electronic voice called out, “Daoda zhandian! ”—“Arriving at the stop!” The street was empty, because most undergraduates hadn’t yet returned. One new policy was that students couldn’t leave after entering campus, unless they received special permission. Every gate to the university had been equipped with facial-recognition scanners, which were calibrated for face coverings. Earlier that day, when I arrived, a guard told me to keep my mask on while being scanned. My name popped up on a screen, along with my body temperature and my university I.D. number. As a faculty member, I could go through the gates in both directions, unlike students. Now I waited with the robot, looking around at the silent dormitories. Finally, three students approached from different directions, masked and holding cell phones. Each of them entered a code on a touch screen at the back of the robot, and a compartment popped open, revealing a package inside. [...] The Chinese lockdown was more intense than almost anywhere else in the world. Neighborhood committees, the most grassroots level of Communist Party organization, enforced the rules, and in many places they limited households to sending one individual outside every two or three days to buy necessities. If a family were suspected of exposure to the virus, it wasn’t unheard-of for their door to be sealed shut while tests and contact-tracing were being conducted. One student I had taught in the nineties sent a photograph of a door in her community that had been closed with two official stamps. “I haven’t seen such things since I was born, but people who are older must have some memory of such scenes,” she wrote, referring to the Maoist campaigns. “We are becoming numb, which may have more bad impact than the virus, in the long run.” [...] Initially, I wasn’t sure if self-directed projects would be appropriate for my students, especially the freshmen, who had just completed the gaokao, the national college-entrance examination. Preparation for the exam has intensified in the past twenty years, in part because of all the one-child households, which tend to focus energy and resources on education. As a result, gaokao prep has become a brutal grind, and high-school students have few opportunities to develop creativity or independence. But I quickly learned that, for all the gaokao’s flaws, it produced diligent researchers. The students had an extremely high tolerance for boredom, which is a lesser-known secret of effective journalism. When I explained the importance of details—numbers, signs, slogans, quotes, facial expressions—they collected data accordingly. My freshman composition classes consisted entirely of engineers, and there was no logical reason for them to be assigned journalism projects, but nobody complained. Even among these only children, there seemed to be little sense of entitlement. Near the end of the fall term, when Serena was neck-deep in Catholics and gay bars, I realized that I had failed to properly register her for the course. The administration informed me that it was too late: she couldn’t receive credit. Serena’s response to her nonfiction experience—first rejected, then denied credit—was to ask politely if she could finish out the term’s work and then do it over again in the spring, this time on the books. That was one tradition that hadn’t changed: in China, a student always respects her teacher, even if the teacher is a moron. [...] In another C.D.C. work meeting, a colleague of Jiang’s suggested using this tool. But her idea was quickly dismissed. “They said, ‘This is a violation of data protection. We can’t do that,’ ” Jiang explained. “It was surprising to me.” It surprised me, too—given the heavy-handed tactics of many lockdown policies, I had assumed that the government used any tools available. But there seemed to have been some resistance from prominent tech companies. Tencent and Alibaba helped the government develop “health code” apps that assist in monitoring and controlling the virus’s spread among citizens, but these tools are much less sophisticated than programs used in South Korea and Singapore. [...] During week nine, in late April, I reviewed some student writing with a freshman class. At the end of the session, I asked if there were any questions about the essays. After a long pause, a student typed into the text box, “Can you talk about what is happening in the U.S.?” [...] But I worried about my daughters, who were the only Westerners at a school of some two thousand students. Our isolation increased throughout the spring: most of my American acquaintances had left, and it became rare to see a non-Chinese person on the street. At the end of May, the twins told my wife, Leslie, and me that a boy in their class had made some anti-American comments, but we didn’t say anything to the teacher. Virtually all of the girls’ classmates treated them warmly, and, with everything on the news, it seemed inevitable that there would be scattered instances of anti-American sentiment. That week, George Floyd had been killed, and the American death toll from the coronavirus was approaching a hundred thousand. The teacher, though, responded quickly. The following Monday, she stood before the class and told a story that, in the Chinese way, emphasized science, education, and effort. She talked about Elon Musk, and she described how his California-based company had successfully launched a manned rocket into space the previous weekend. At the end of the story, she said, “Every country has its strong points and its weak points.”
Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era [...] No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the hands of America. In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria. Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy. When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis. At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock. Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes. A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich. [...] As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds. The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness. How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? [...] Canada performed well during the COVID crisis because of our social contract, the bonds of community, the trust for each other and our institutions, our health care system in particular, with hospitals that cater to the medical needs of the collective, not the individual, and certainly not the private investor who views every hospital bed as if a rental property. The measure of wealth in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect all people in common purpose. This has nothing to do with political ideology, and everything to do with the quality of life. Finns live longer and are less likely to die in childhood or in giving birth than Americans. Danes earn roughly the same after-tax income as Americans, while working 20 percent less. [...] American politicians dismiss the Scandinavian model as creeping socialism, communism lite, something that would never work in the United States. In truth, social democracies are successful precisely because they foment dynamic capitalist economies that just happen to benefit every tier of society. That social democracy will never take hold in the United States may well be true, but, if so, it is a stunning indictment, and just what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he quipped that the United States was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization. [...] The end of the American era and the passing of the torch to Asia is no occasion for celebration, no time to gloat. In a moment of international peril, when humanity might well have entered a dark age beyond all conceivable horrors, the industrial might of the United States, together with the blood of ordinary Russian soldiers, literally saved the world. American ideals, as celebrated by Madison and Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, at one time inspired and gave hope to millions. If and when the Chinese are ascendant, with their concentration camps for the Uighurs, the ruthless reach of their military, their 200 million surveillance cameras watching every move and gesture of their people, we will surely long for the best years of the American century. For the moment, we have only the kleptocracy of Donald Trump. Between praising the Chinese for their treatment of the Uighurs, describing their internment and torture as “exactly the right thing to do,” and his dispensing of medical advice concerning the therapeutic use of chemical disinfectants, Trump blithely remarked, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He had in mind, of course, the coronavirus, but, as others have said, he might just as well have been referring to the American dream.
Quibi, the brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney studio head and DreamWorks co-founder, had promised to reinvent television by streaming high-quality content in ten-minute-or-less chunks to “the TV in your pocket.” (Quibi, which rhymes with Libby, is short for “quick bites.”) Katzenberg believed enough mobile-phone users would want to spend their spare minutes of downtime — while waiting in line for coffee, riding the bus or subway — digesting small plates of premium, Hollywood-quality video, at a monthly cost of $4.99 (with ads) or $7.99 (without ads), when not surfing the amateur stuff on TikTok and -YouTube, scrolling Twitter, or playing Animal Crossing for free. And he was spending lavishly on his hunch. “I can honestly say I’ve never been in such a cocky pitch environment,” Gairdner recalls. “I would describe the atmosphere as almost Wolf of Wall Street, not in terms of actual debauchery, but it’s an incredibly nice office that just goes and goes. They had two lobbies; you went in and checked in at a nice, big lobby, then you were moved to another lobby. There’s massive jars of expensive, nice-seeming candy everywhere. It’s sleek and modern, and you see hundreds of people passing by. And there’s this energy of people who really believe they’ve got the next big thing.” Quibi was to launch in the spring of 2020 with 50 original shows, and another 125 were to be rolled out by the end of the first year. Recognizing the risk of making something for an unproven platform, Katzenberg typically offered to pay producers’ costs plus 20 percent. “People on Quibi have $100,000 a minute to make content,” Katzenberg tells me. “That doesn’t exist on other platforms.” Producers who went into meetings with him skeptical walked out thinking he might be onto something. [...] Drawing on his deep well of relationships earned after more than four decades in Hollywood, Katzenberg recruited an amazing array of talent: Sam Raimi would produce a horror anthology; Idris Elba would star in a car-stunts show; Chrissy Teigen would put on judge’s robes and comically preside over a courtroom; Lena Waithe would make a show about sneakerheads; Anna Kendrick would anchor a comedy in which her character befriends her boyfriend’s sex doll; and the Kardashians would do a mock reality show featuring a mythical fraternal twin brother named Kirby Jenner. [...] Quibi’s future seemed unlimited, and for a moment, when it launched on April 6, it looked as if all of Katzenberg’s glorious predictions might come to pass. That first day, the Quibi app rose to No. 3 in Apple’s App Store. Instead, Quibi has foundered. [...] One of the most striking things about Quibi is how fully and handsomely realized it is. Production values are high, the app is easy to navigate via thumb swipes, and its so-called Turnstyle technology, which lets users flip their phone from vertical to horizontal and back without compromising the viewing experience, is arguably an improvement over Netflix and YouTube’s landscape mode. [...] People have wondered why Katzenberg and Whitman, in their late and early 60s, respectively, and not very active on social media, would believe they have uniquely penetrating insight into the unacknowledged desires of young people. [...] Katzenberg is on his phone all the time, but he is also among the moguls of his generation who have their emails printed out (and vertically folded, for some reason) by an assistant. In enthusing about what a show could mean for Quibi, Katzenberg would repeatedly invoke the same handful of musty touchstones — America’s Funniest Home Videos, Siskel and Ebert, and Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes. When Gal Gadot came to the offices and delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to elevate the voices of girls and women, Katzenberg wondered aloud whether she might become the new Jane Fonda and do a workout series for Quibi. (“Apparently, her face fell,” says a person briefed on the meeting.)
It’s Way Too Soon To Count Trump Out / FiveThirtyEight
How FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 Presidential Forecast Works — And What’s Different Because Of COVID-19 / FiveThirtyEight
For the more statistically inclined amongst you, FiveThirtyEight's election model is back, and even better than before! These two pieces are classic Nate Silver wonkery, which I always enjoy:
Nor has it been that uncommon, historically, for polls to shift fairly radically from mid-August until Election Day. Furthermore, there are some reasons to think the election will tighten, and President Trump is likely to have an advantage in a close election because of the Electoral College. That, in a nutshell, is why the FiveThirtyEight presidential election forecast, which we launched today, still has Trump with a 29 percent chance of winning the Electoral College, despite his current deficit in the polls. This is considerably higher than some other forecasts, which put Trump’s chances at around 10 percent. Biden’s chances are 71 percent in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, conversely. If these numbers give you a sense of deja vu, it may be because they’re very similar to our final forecast in 2016 … when Trump also had a 29 percent chance of winning! (And Hillary Clinton had a 71 percent chance.) So if you’re not taking a 29 percent chance as a serious possibility, I’m not sure there’s much we can say at this point, although there’s a Zoom poker game that I’d be happy to invite you to. [...] In this article — partly as a corrective against what I see as overconfident assessments elsewhere — I’m mostly focused on the reasons why Trump’s chances are higher than they might appear. But we should be clear: Trump’s current position in the polls is poor. [...] Still, as a rough rule-of-thumb, perhaps you can subtract 2 points from Biden’s current lead in national polls to get a sense for what his standing in the tipping point states looks like. Add it all up, and you can start to see why the model is being fairly cautious. Biden’s current roughly 8-point lead in national polls is really more like a 6-point lead in the tipping point states. And 6-point leads in August are historically not very safe. That margin is perhaps more likely than not to tighten and at the very least, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty about what COVID-19 and the rest the world will look like by November.
Our presidential forecast, which launched today, is not the first election forecast that FiveThirtyEight has published since 2016. There was our midterms forecast in 2018, which was pretty accurate in predicting the makeup of the House and the Senate. And there was our presidential primaries model earlier this year, which was a bit of an adventure but mostly notable for being bullish (correctly) on Joe Biden and (incorrectly) on Bernie Sanders. But we’re aware that the publication of our first presidential forecast since 2016 is liable to be fraught. We’d like to address one thing upfront, though: We think our model did a good job in 2016. Although it had Hillary Clinton favored, it gave Donald Trump around a 30 percent chance of winning on Election Day, which was considerably higher than other models, prediction markets, or the conventional wisdom about the race. Moreover, the reasons the model was more bullish on Trump than other forecasts — such as detecting a potential overperformance for Trump in the Electoral College – proved to be important to the outcome. Also, we’ve found that FiveThirtyEight’s models — including our election forecasts since they were first published in 2008 — have been well calibrated over time. Candidates whom our models claim have a 30 percent chance of winning really do win their races about 30 percent of the time, for example. So if this were an ordinary election, we’d probably just say screw it, take the 2016 version of our model, make some modest improvements, and press “go.” We’d certainly devote more attention to how the model was presented, but the underlying math behind it would be about the same. We are not so sure that this is an ordinary election, though. Rather, it is being contested amidst the most serious pandemic to hit the United States since 1918. So we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how COVID-19 and other news developments could affect various aspects of the race, ranging from its impact on the economy to how it could alter the actual process of voting.
Last week, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan asked a question at a Congressional hearing that seemed to come out of nowhere. While the biggest tech CEOs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Google’s Sundar Pichai — were being questioned about antitrust violations and harm they’ve done to consumers, Jordan used his valuable time to ask about...cancel culture? The laughs came in hot. It was “the dumbest question,” internet commenters charged. Jordan quickly joined the inglorious canon of technologically challenged lawmakers who are seemingly unable to hold tech CEOs accountable with actually good questions (remember Zuckerberg’s “Senator, we run ads” moment?). But here’s the thing: Even though the question was badly phrased (“Is the cancel culture mob dangerous?”) — and its messenger wasn’t great either — the setting was absolutely right. For all the noise that gets made about “cancel culture,” it is in fact technology companies who should have to answer for it. The way we talk on the internet is broken, and users are not the ones who broke it — tech companies did that, and they did it for profit. [...] Our behaviors on these platforms are too often conflated with who we are. This is to our detriment. We forget that the platforms themselves impact behavior, mediate it, intercept it, and reframe it. Angela Xiao Wu from New York University, writing about how we analyze platform data, argues that “platform data do not provide a direct window into human behavior. Rather, they are direct records of how we behave under platforms’ influence.” It’s another way of saying that understanding ourselves based on what we do on these platforms completely overlooks the fact that the platforms themselves are not neutral. [...] The sites on which much of the cancel culture conversation takes place are the reason this notion exists in the first place. As such, tech CEOs should absolutely be questioned on “cancel culture” — by which I mean: the consequences of the rules they’ve set up for online speech.
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The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker / Atlas Obscura
Cooking rice on a stovetop can be fraught. Add too much water and you end up with porridge. Without a keen sense of timing, you end up with undercooked grains. But for others, making rice is as easy as pressing a button. In a recent viral video, Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng reacted dramatically to a BBC personality cooking rice with a saucepan rather than using a rice cooker. “World War Two is over, use technology!” he admonished viewers in a follow-up on his Instagram. He has a point. The automatic rice cooker is a mid-century Japanese invention that made a Sisyphean culinary labor as easy as measuring out grain and water and pressing a button. These devices can seem all-knowing. So long as you add water and rice in the right proportions, it’s nearly impossible to mess up, as the machines stop cooking at exactly the right point for toothsome rice. But creating an automatic rice cooker was not so easy. In fact, it took decades of inventive leaps, undertaken by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology. For centuries, most Japanese cooks made rice with a kamado, a box-shaped range topped with a heavy iron pot. It was painfully tricky. Cooking rice this way, says columnist and food writer Makiko Itoh, takes heat modulation: high heat until the water and rice boils, then low heat, then high heat again. “And that, with a wood-burning stove, is very difficult.” Each day, Japanese women rose at dawn and labored for several sweaty hours to make rice. (A contemporary restaurant in Nara, Japan, offers a kamado-cooking experience that starts with 15 minutes of pumping a bellows to fan the flames.)
The big town on Tenerife is Santa Cruz, and its airport, beneath a set of cascading hillsides, is called Los Rodeos. There, on March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s — one belonging to KLM, the other to Pan Am — collided on a foggy runway. Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed in what remains the biggest air disaster in history. The magnitude of the accident speaks for itself, but what makes it particularly unforgettable is the startling set of ironies and coincidences that preceded it. Indeed most airplane crashes result not from a single error or failure but from a chain of improbable errors and failures, together with a stroke or two of really bad luck. Never was this illustrated more calamitously, and almost to the point of absurdity, than on that Sunday afternoon over 30 years ago.
At the start of the week, Liam Porr had only heard of GPT-3. By the end, the college student had used the AI model to produce an entirely fake blog under a fake name. It was meant as a fun experiment. But then one of his posts reached the number-one spot on Hacker News. Few people noticed that his blog was completely AI-generated. Some even hit “Subscribe.” While many have speculated about how GPT-3, the most powerful language-generating AI tool to date, could affect content production, this is one of the only known cases to illustrate the potential. What stood out most about the experience, says Porr, who studies computer science at the University of California, Berkeley: “It was super easy, actually, which was the scary part.”
One common way of dismissing GPT’s achievement is to categorize it as mere prediction, as opposed to true intelligence. The problem with this response is that all intelligence is prediction, at some level or another. To react intelligently to a situation is to form correct expectations about how it will play out, and then apply those expectations so as to further one’s goals. In order to do this, intelligent beings—both humans and GPT—form models of the world, logical connections between cause and effect: If this, then that. [...] Though analytic philosophers and some early AI pioneers thought of intelligence as consisting in this kind of logical-symbol manipulation—the kind of thing computers excelled at from the beginning—humans actually develop this ability at a later stage in learning. In fact, when humans do manage to develop logical symbol manipulation, it is a skill co-opted from the language faculty; a simulation layer developed on top of the much looser sort of symbol manipulation we use to communicate with one another in words and gestures. Even after years of training, there is no savant on the planet who could outperform a basic calculator doing arithmetic on sufficiently large numbers. Rationalism is an extremely recent refinement of the language faculty, which itself is (in evolutionary terms) a relatively recent add-on to the more basic animal drives we share with our primate cousins. Thus, the ancient question of what separates humans from animals is the inverse of the more recent question of what separates humans from computers. With GPT, computers have finally worked backward (as seen in animal terms), from explicit symbol manipulation to a practically fluent generative language faculty. The result might be thought of as a human shell, missing its animal core.
The idea that female world leaders were outperforming male ones was based on several high-profile anecdotes. By early June, New Zealand, led by 39-year-old prime minister Jacinda Ardern, seemed to have rid its shores of the virus. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has been praised by others around the world for her strong response to the crisis, and for the low infection rate in her country. And in Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Covid-19 response has won her high approval ratings. But most of these reports don’t reference any data to support their narrative. A recently released study finally tests the idea that women heads of state have excelled at handling the crisis. The research, conducted by two economists at UK universities, suggests this phenomenon is more than just anecdote.
An interesting thing happened on the internet with week. U.S. travel management firm was hit with Ragnar Locker ransomware. The company agreed to pay and handed over $4.5 mln in bitcoin. But the online chat room where the ransom negotiations took place was left online, giving a rare and *incredibly* interesting insight into how these things actually go down.
We show that the presence of African American soldiers in the U.K. during World War II reduced anti-minority prejudice, a result of the positive interactions which took place between soldiers and the local population. The change has been persistent: in locations in which more African American soldiers were posted there are fewer members of and voters for the U.K.’s leading far-right party, less implicit bias against blacks and fewer individuals professing racial prejudice, all measured around 2010. Our results point towards intergenerational transmission from parents to children as the most likely explanation.
Some of the world’s greatest cultural and historical treasures are housed in London’s British Museum, and a significant number of them were taken during Britain’s centuries-long imperial rule. In recent years, many of the countries missing their cultural heritage have been asking for some of these items back. Benin City in Nigeria is one of those places. They've been calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes, hundreds of artifacts looted in 1897 when British soldiers embarked a punitive expedition to Benin. Many are now housed in the British Museum. And it's just the beginning. As the world reckons with the damage inflicted during Europe’s colonial global takeover, the calls for these items to be returned are getting louder and louder.
About 3.4 million people in England – 6% of the population – have had Covid-19, with infections more common among members of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, according to the results of a large home antibody testing study. The results from the study, known as React-2, are based on home finger-prick antibody test results from 100,000 participants across the 314 local authorities in England.
In particular, back in March, Paul showed that frequent was much more important than sensitive and he was calling for millions of tests a day. At the time, he was discounted for supposedly not focusing enough on false negatives, even though he showed that false negatives don’t matter very much for infection control. People also claimed that millions of tests a day was impossible (Reagents!, Swabs!, Bottlenecks!) and they weren’t impressed when Paul responded ‘throw some soft drink money at the problem and the market will solve it!’. Paul, however, has turned out be correct. We don’t have these tests yet but it is now clear that there is no technological or economic barrier to millions of tests a day.