Something tells me I'm the one you've been looking for

This week: what the UK government got wrong in its pandemic response, why we should learn to love redundancy, and what the porn industry can tell us about how to fight Covid-19. Plus more reasons to be cheerful.

I've had two New Statesman columns published since the last Ruffian, and they work as a pair: both are about the government's early-stage pandemic response. My overall view is that the Johnson government listened to its experts, and that was the problem (the opposite failing to the one his opponents accuse him of, weirdly). My first column is about the nature of expert advice and why the phrase "guided by the science" is essentially meaningless. Science is a debate, and politicians should interrogate advisers instead of passively accepting a consensus view which obscures differences of opinion. This week's column is an attempt to understand why the government's experts were slow to sound the alarm. I argue it was because they were so well prepared for a flu pandemic that they found it hard to adjust to a novel problem they hadn't foreseen. (In the article I mention a study of CV-19 responses which found governments that listened to expert advice acted more slowly, here's the skinny).

The fact that the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, happens to be an infectious diseases specialist seems like a lucky break for us, case of right man, right time. He's certainly an excellent explainer and communicator - if you want an overview of what we know about this virus, watch his lecture at Gresham College from a couple of weeks ago, it's long - I confess to watching it at double speed - but very watchable. Even more interesting, however, is a talk he gave at the same place in 2018, also on epidemics. It's obviously from a rather different perspective. One point he makes is that the much-repeated claim that a globalised and inter-connected world makes us more vulnerable to pandemics isn't quite right, because the risks are offset by the wealth this produces. As a society, the best defence against pandemics is being rich - not so much because of better healthcare but better nutrition, sanitation, housing, and water. In other words, there is no trade-off between prosperity and epidemic resilience; each depends on the other. But much of what he says here is makes the last few months even more puzzling. Whitty stresses the speed with which epidemics slam into societies, often taking them by surprise. This made me wonder anew at why our experts under-estimated how fast Covid-19 would hit Britain. In the last ten minutes he runs through what we'd need to do in the face of an emerging threat, and describes airport screening and travel bans as "utterly useless". Maybe he still believes that. What struck me the most (and btw I actually watched this after filing my column) is quite how confident he is the next pandemic will be a flu virus. He notes that when an epidemic comes it will be chaotic and unpredictable, and that "no plan survives contact with the enemy". But he doesn't even moot the possibility that it might be a coronavirus, an eventuality for which we didn't even have a plan. I like and hugely respect Whitty and I'm glad he's there. But I'm left wondering whether Britain might have moved faster if we hadn't had an infectious diseases specialist as CMO when Covid-19 hit. A marginally less expert and confident chief adviser might simply have observed what other countries were doing and gone with that, rather than trying to optimise for the perfect response, before falling into line anyway.

The pornography industry has long been at the forefront of technological innovation, driving developments in e-commerce and cybersecurity. So it should come as no surprise that public health experts are looking to it for guidance on how to organise a testing programme. Producers of adult films have been tackling the problem of making movies safely when there's a deadly virus around for over twenty years now. "I don't think I could be in this industry without [testing]," says one performer. "Bareback sex with strangers 20 times a month? It would be like the most dangerous job in the world."

The word "redundant" does not connote good things for most of us, because its primary usage is "superfluous to requirements"; in other words, useless. But if you're an engineer, it's a lovely word, a word that sings of resilience and adaptability and good sense. A redundant component is one that that exists in case another one fails. It's the backstop, the safeguard, the save-the-day hero. Modern aeroplanes have layers of redundancy built in so that several things can fail at once and the plane will stay in the air. The internet is designed around the principle of redundancy - knock out any one part of the network, and information finds a different path to its destination (its original architects aimed to build a communication system capable of surviving a nuclear attack - that requires some serious redundancy). It is deliberately designed to have massive spare capacity so that it can cope with spikes in demand. That's why it hasn't buckled under the sharp rise in demand for it over the last few months. Imagine how much worse this crisis would be without a functioning internet - economically, socially, emotionally. As this very good piece explains, the pandemic has exposed the downside of our obsession with optimisation. The rest of the economy, including government, can learn from the design philosophy of the internet, and build in more redundancy. (By the way I like how the word itself is onomatopoeic, at least in speech - two "duns" when one would do.)

The frantic discourse around the pandemic has been making me think about what it means to believe or know or hold an opinion, it's not always easy to tell when I'm overreaching myself. More of which another time perhaps, but meanwhile here are two very good pieces on the virtue of "epistemic humility". The first comes from a scientific perspective, the second - beautifully written - from a philosophical one.

The Ruffian's newish regular feature: bright spots amidst the gloom.

  • Actually I can almost stand this feature down this week because someone has collected 162 of them.

  • Check out this comprehensive dashboard of vaccines and treatments in development; more detail here. Here's an interesting report on why Israel is at the forefront of this research. More on the same from this guy, a great explainer.

  • Confirmation that people do carry antibodies after infection and become at least somewhat immune, a very big phew - so much depends on it, including vaccine development.

  • Consistent with other sources of alternative energy, the price of solar power is falling incredibly fast, much faster than forecasts predicted, driven by innovation.

  • Deaths from malaria has been substantially reduced in recent years by the use of bed nets and insecticide, but it still kills 400,000 a year, most of them children. Scientists have just made what sounds like a massive breakthrough in controlling the disease.

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Some of us are getting more reading done during lockdown but will we actually remember any of it? Possibly not. This short blog post from Doug Lemov ruminates on the problem, especially as it pertains to learning (Doug is a teacher coach - I wrote about him here). The quote at the end of his post is a pleasingly succinct definition of effective pedagogy, by the way. More on that in my book, Curious.

For decades now, clever people have been trying to build popular household robots, but so far there's only one. This fascinating backstory to the Roomba, as told by its inventor, is a lesson in effective innovation, particularly need to identify a specific need and to simplify as much as possible.
Two interesting perspectives on running a media business. First, Alison Roman, a young American cookery writer and "influencer" (she does not like the term) who's a big hit with millennials and others mainly because her recipes are damn good but also because her personality fizzes off the page and smartphone screen. She has given an interview about her career in which she is winningly candid about her struggle to grow a brand without losing her soul (maybe too candid - her comments about Chrissy Teigen kicked up a fuss but ignore that, the interview itself is more interesting). Second, a podcast conversation with two men in their fifties who just started a business for the first time. One of them is Malcolm Gladwell. The other is his best friend of thirty years, the journalist Jacob Weisberg. They're co-founders of Pushkin Industries, a podcast company, or is it - one of the questions they discuss is how to define what the company does. Either way, they clearly have big ambitions, and haven't been knocked too far off course by the pandemic. They're interviewed by the author (and Pushkin showrunner) Michael Lewis. Not only is the conversation interesting, it's irresistibly positive, fun and cheering.

This is perfectly done.

When George Michael wrote Heal the Pain, from his first solo album, he felt it was inspired by Paul McCartney, with its leaping melody and consoling tone. If you're a pop star of the first order you can call your idols and ask them to work with you, which is what Michael did, and the two artists later recorded a new version as a duet. It doesn't get played much because I don't think Michael knew what to do with it once it was done, but it's lovely - the way their voices blend, and the cross-generational nature of it, more poignant now we know what became of the younger man. Talking of healing, BBC Radio 3 has been a balm for many of us in lockdown. One initiative of its lockdown initiatives is commissioning composers to write "postcards" - 30 second pieces that solo instrumentalists can record at home. This piece for solo violin, by Huw Watkins, is exquisite, both mournful and hopeful.