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Friday

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.26.20

I've been sitting on this silly link for a while, waiting for a slow day. Telemedicine for Home Repairs? the NYT asks in a nearly-audible over-inflected newscaster's voice. (An alligator with sunglasses? Traffic signs, indoors?)

Anyway, NYT aside, I love the idea of zooming with a repair-person while they walk me through how to fix my leaky faucet or whatever. I like the idea of knowing how to solve these problems myself, and this is like office hours, where someone is obligated to sit there and twiddle their thumbs while you fumble your way through.

Furthermore, I love how this places me - normally invisible, dismissible, borderline gadfly - squarely in the middle, controlling the sightline of the repair-person. If they ask me to point the camera at the fiddly part, and I ask, "What's going on? what are we looking at?" then I don't have to move the camera until they fully answer. I mean, without being rude about it, you can prolong their gaze while they give meaningful answers, instead of brushing you off. And you're not even being intrusive, because the nature of the call has changed, and you're now the agent, and so having your questions answered is part of the deal! So great.

(I expect this never to happen locally, and I expect the prices where it does take place are higher than what I'm willing to pay.)

....

An unrelated annoyance: when the coasts were in the middle of their peak, the papers were filled with articles about the epidemiology and symptoms and outcomes of Covid. Now that I'm in the middle of a wave, I want to read updates on all these articles. What do we know now, better, based on the first wave of states? Who got how sick? Do we know why some 20-somethings end up in the hospital? Didn't I read somewhere about how we should think of this as a disease of the heart, not the lungs?

But no one (mainstream) is publishing those articles anymore. No one has updated what was generally available 2-3 months ago. This is driving me crazy.


 

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Semi-Weekly Check Ins, Reassurances, and Concerns, 6/26

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.26.20

This is intended to be our system for checking in on imaginary friends, so that we know whether or not to be concerned if you go offline for a while.

Episode 28.


 

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Florida Numbers

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.25.20

Rebekah Jones is the scientist who was running the Florida Covid dashboard, until she was fired in May for refusing to fudge the numbers.

Texas may be melting down, but I think the De Santis response of suppressing the truth is another level of WTF entirely.


 

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Johns Hopkins

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.24.20

This article on the ineptitude of Johns Hopkins is fascinating.

My university, Johns Hopkins, recently announced a series of exceptional measures in the face of a coronavirus-related fiscal crisis. Suddenly anticipating losses of over $350 million in the next 15 months, the university imposed a hiring freeze, canceled all raises, and warned about impending furloughs and layoffs. Most extraordinarily of all, it suspended contributions to its employees' retirement accounts... But while many colleges face challenges, no major research university moved with as much haste or revealed as acute vulnerabilities as Johns Hopkins did.
How does a university with a $6-billion endowment and $10 billion in assets suddenly find itself in a solvency crisis? How is one of the country's top research universities reduced, just a month after moving classes online, to freezing its employees' retirement accounts?

There is no unique mystery to their problems - it's exactly what you think it is. But the scale and details are still a bit amazing.

Johns Hopkins does not publicly reveal its investments. Available IRS filings do, however, show that over 9 years it paid more than $88 million in fees to an investment firm whose founder formerly served as chair of the university's board. Quite possibly, our endowment pays out more to its investment managers than our university contributes, annually, to employee retirement accounts. Was there ever much doubt which would be cut in a crisis?

Also check out the salaries:

All told, the compensation of the 28 key employees reported to the IRS in 2018 amounted to over $29 million. That sum alone exceeds by nearly 50% the costs of the pay raises the university would have granted this year to all of its employees.
Then there is the issue of deferred compensation for top executives. According to the university's latest audit, total liabilities related to deferred compensation amounted to over $130 million -- or $30 million more than the institution will save by suspending contributions to its thousands of employee retirement accounts this year.

I just find it particularly jarring that it's happening at the very place that was out in front with their dashboard of case-counts so early, in this self-same pandemic. (I'm perfectly clear that that has nothing to do with budget cuts or overcompensated boards.) Just the proximity of topical knowledge is weird to think about.

via my daddy-o


 

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Risk Assessment

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.23.20

I'm really struggling with figuring out where to draw my personal boundaries for safe behavior when the most risks - by far - are outside of my control. (Those being the risks associated with the fall semester starting back up.)

Obviously we could opt out of society in the fall, and that could mean loss of one job. So far we have not seriously considered that option.

But otherwise:

if you've got a huge security breach outside of your control, what heuristic do you use for deciding what's acceptable levels of risk in the rest of your life, the smaller areas where you can exercise control?

Option 1:
The giant breach sets the bar, in the sense of "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link". In that case, we will regularly be indoors, wearing masks, with 10-30 other individuals, I'm guessing. Big enough spaces to accommodate social distancing, but up to several hours at a time, in the case of the kids' classrooms. So we would just go about general life with that as our bright line. Might as well go to Target. Probably not restaurants, or anything discretionary, but not going to great lengths to avoid situations that are on par with the exposure we get from our jobs and kids' schools.

Option 2:
Acknowledge the giant breach. Then try to mitigate all the little exposures that we can control, and just live with the cognitive dissonance of the giant breach. Do you really skip the outdoor birthday party when your kid sees those same kids every day at school?

Governor Abbott held a press-conference yesterday where he said, "Isn't it something to watch this state melt down? Let's acknowledge that it's not ideal. If all these number have doubled by next month, we should really talk more seriously about taking some vague, undetermined steps."

I get the sense that none of the authority figures are willing to stake down actual thresholds that will trigger stricter measures, because they know we'll blow through those thresholds and then they'd have to do the thing they hinted at. Like when you don't want to threaten a punishment that you don't intend to enforce, so you just let the kids' behavior creep slowly up because you're feeling lazy and just want to be left alone.


 

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Third Revolution Reading Group, Chapter 3

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.23.20

The first years of interaction between the CCP and the internet in China - Summary by LW:

I made notes as I read, these are expanded comments on those rather than an independent assessment drawn from independent knowledge and sources. The additional dimension that's interesting to me, both for this book about near-contemporary China and for general nonfiction, are the sources from which the chapters are drawn and how those sources are archived. so some remarks about that follow.

Economy's description of the CCP's interactions with the internet begins with an interview with a strong source, pseudonym Michael Anti, a 2012 Ted talk is the main English source of fame that she mentions for him; he's a Chinese journalist, he seems to me perceptive. Economy notes that Facebook pulled his profile, ostensibly because it's a pseudonym. The handful of celebrities that I know use pseudonymous profiles to communicate with a closer circle, those aren't removed though. Things that make you go hmmm. Broad strokes from him, ending pessimistically, because who will counter the CCP's efforts at control.

Then boilerplate background, dont look too closely at the leap from a few sentences about Chin Shi Huang (he burned books) to a bit about a not very effective Song reform of regulations concerning the activity of printers a millennium later. She gets better with a bunch of well-chosen anecdotes covering evolution of government attention to the internet in China. Her sources for a conviction following a forwarded list of Chinese email addresses and Falun Gong's big flashmob organization in 1997-1998 are an Economist article and an Oxford researcher. (btw, the Economist has at least one good China desk journalist-- their obit of Li Wenliang was IMO very well done)

She's good on the career and activity (to the extent that it's public in English) of the architect of China's great Firewall, Fang Binxing (btw, anyone whose Chinese is good enough, please chime in on any significant omissions that are available in Chinese about him compared to what's in Economy's book). She doesn't mention how technically variable it is, with effectiveness depending on sophistication of local implementers for blocking the internet outside the large integrated Chinese providers. She doesn't mention how recruiting of technical workers to keep the firewall implemented is done, or whether they are security service lifers. She discusses how bloggers and trolls were recruited (indiscriminiatley) and paid (not much), and she describes the official decrees (2006-7) that are used to coerce cooperation from corporate management, both domestic and international.

She details a number of well-chosen incidents where the internet provided censored domestic news, all of which generated large public responses-- death and injury caused by officials, and a train crash.

She cites a few studies that get at the scale of China's microblog censorship-- CMU counted 16% of posts deleted in a study interval from 2011.

She relates the internet rise and internet fall of a party member, billionaire Ren Zhiqiang, tens of millions of followers, online presence erased after he called for reform in the wrong way.

A page and a half describing the social credit system in general terms. The closest she comes to assessing how broadly China's integrated communication, banking, and identity conglomerates (weibo and Tencent) can be used as instruments of control (not just censorship) is to mention 22 million high speed rail reservation denials in 2018 (source is an article in The Verge). She doesn't discuss at all the mechanics-- is there a general standing order to deprecate those with low standing, or are there initiatives that focus on particular classes of malfeasors? Does one person in some ministry give the order? Even if the answers are inacessible, she doesn't go into any detail about the mechanics of this crazily powerful system.
She certainly doesn't discuss efforts to detect money laundering, or the financial scale of the system-- does information and financial power relate to real estate and stock market activity?
She does mention polls showing that ordinary Chinese like the idea of credit scoring as a practical tool for daily life.

The citations from Chinese sources are thin-- Economy is mostly learning about China from reading in English and speaking with insightful Chinese. Her citations are to where the information is stored today, that is to websites of organizations with varying degrees of stability (stability of both organization and web servers). There's no archive for a lot of what she does cite, and as I say she doesn't cite much in China. Some Chinese links (to approved news and government orgs) are stable but eg ch4 note 118 gives DNS error. SCMP was a Murdoch outlet, now owned by Alibaba. How much integrity to those archives have? With effective centralization of power in China, there's not much limit to the ability to alter and hide transient records.
Even with the best intentions, storing the state of systems that are not designed with archiving in mind is complicated; was there anything significant in the comments of Google Reader? Journalists now are basically obligated to do their own archiving because the archives of entities that go bankrupt disappear. The ability of people in the future to look at the details of what's happening now is going to be much worse than for prior decades with paper archives.


 

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Semi-Weekly Check Ins, Reassurances, and Concerns, 6/23

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.23.20

This is intended to be our system for checking in on imaginary friends, so that we know whether or not to be concerned if you go offline for a while.

Episode 27.


 

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C@n @f W@rms

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.22.20

The Heebieville public school system is hardly a bastion of activism, but I am 100% sure that the following Spanish arose from a Latin@ employee, whose goal was to communicate clearly to a broad audience of Latin@ parents:

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