Tag: modern history
This is just an addendum to the previous post — a few tweets from three years ago
My tweet reads,
Early 20th century politics was organised around printing presses. To be a party, you needed printing equipment. Today’s establishment is the group of people who got control of television. There’s no other worthwhile definition.
An earlier Tweet from Carl Miller said
Whatever the ‘mainstream’ is, it’ll never again have a monopoly on an ability to raising large amounts of money quickly, reaching millions of people, coordinating logistics on the ground. The money, experience and machinery of the political mainstream matters a lot less now.
Half my timeline is now trying to fight to keep that true. I think they’re going to lose.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/t5qlk2FaZG?amp=1
The Internet began somewhere around 1970
The World Wide Web began somewhere around 1990
Mass participation in the internet was reached a little before 2000
With that, anyone could communicate with anyone else, or with any group, easily and free of charge.
That did not mean that anyone could whip up ordinary people with ordinary interests into political hysteria like Black Lives Matter or QAnon. Ordinary people with ordinary interests would not pay attention to that stuff.
Facebook hit a billion users a bit after 2010. It is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that meant that anyone, if they pitched it just right, could reach a mass audience. And that sent politics insane.
The Trump presidency was a glorious carnival, but a carnival is all that it was. When the Saturnalia ends the slaves go back to work. I said when he was elected that it was a setback for neoreaction, and it probably was.
I got a lot wrong though. I did not expect the anti-Trump hysteria to endure. Facebook-era politics was too new, then, for me to have understood how it works.
The Facebook era of politics ends today. As with the Trump presidency, I will miss the fun and excitement. I miss eating a packet of biscuits a day too. But man was not meant to eat that much sugar, and democracy was not meant to exist with uncontrolled access to mass media. From the invention of journalism until the twenty-first century, ability to reach the public with your propaganda was power, and power had its say on who could do it. A decade of unconstrained mass media gave us Trump and Brexit and the Gilet Jaunes1, and it also gave us Open Borders, Trans Rights, Russiagate2 BLM, PornHub, and QAnon. It was destroying our society, and it was going to be stopped sooner or later.
We only really had one thing to say to the normies – that democracy was an illusion, and they were not in charge. I don’t think we need Twitter to tell them that any more. The events of the last week have exposed the relationship between government and media much more obviously than weird technical blog posts.
I spent the night bitching about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the censors. I suppose I had to get it out of my system.
The pogrom will go a bit wider at first, but in the end I don’t think it will do more than roll back to 2005 or so. I do not expect to be censored, because I do not speak to voters. It was the frictionlessness of the Facebook news feed that pulled normies into these games — if you have to go out of your way to find me, then I am doing the regime no harm, and I expect to be ignored, at least if I get through the next few months.
This, of course, is also the system in China. And I admire the Chinese system. When I tried to imagine neoreactionary victory, I struggled a bit with how a monarchical regime could exist in a world of uncensored internet. I don’t have to worry now.
Some practical resilience steps are sensible. Back up everything. Try not to depend on the Silicon Valley giants (GMail is nice, but you’re not the customer you’re the product). It’s possible that something like RSS could make a comeback if it’s awkward enough to use that the normies aren’t included, but don’t chase after the holy grail of a censorship-resistant mass media because that’s a coup-complete problem. Keep your head down, keep the channels open. I had this blog working as a Tor hidden service once, I’ll revisit that but I don’t expect to need it.
I kept no diary. The arguments online were so stupid I just got sick of them and checked out. The social history — well, I’m one of the lucky ones who just did my work from home instead of commuting to an office, and so the main impact on me was to become even more divorced from what the rest of the country is experiencing.
It’s slightly premature to be summarizing, but on the other hand I’d like to start committing to a few things before a standard narrative is established.
The big picture summary is that this was a false alarm. I wrote back in March that lockdowns were justified by the tail risks of the pandemic being really bad, but it’s clear with the hindsight we didn’t have then that they weren’t needed. In terms of spread and lethality, this is well within the parameters of the pandemic preparedness plans that had been worked out in advance and were ditched in March.
Again, we couldn’t have known that at the time. What we could and did know was that the “flatten the curve” slogan was bollocks. That was obvious as soon as you tried to put scales on the axes. If we needed to flatten we would still have a decade to go.
That’s moot of course because of the vaccines. It seems obvious that, having endured the reduction measures this far, we should continue them a couple more months to minimise the damage this winter, since by next winter it will be all over. (The extreme seasonality seems like a huge deal. Like, the virus doesn’t work in summer but we don’t know why not. Wouldn’t it be spectacularly useful to know? UV light? Vitamin D? Central heating turned off? How hard can it be?)
It seems obvious, but it might not be. I think to the global catastrophe I was closest to, the 2007 crash, where most of the damage was caused by the last few months of the fake boom. But I have no handle on the economic impact, I only mention the possibility.
As to the social impact — I can’t help thinking that it’s been a huge dose of realism. Disrupting a year’s schooling for a generation of children surely can’t be anything but positive: one of the biggest problems of our education system is that it trains its victims to believe that everything is under control and their job is just to fit in. A huge dose of chaos is exactly what I would have prescribed. The same goes for society at large. We can’t go on without asking big questions about what is essential or important, and what we can give up in an emergency. The pandemic should give us a much broader perspective on what is thinkable or possible. It might also shake a lot of people, like the schoolchildren, out of their general complacency. People (in Britain at least) who lived through World War II tend to be nostalgic about it. The economic damage aside, an injection of chaos and the unexpected into people’s lives might stimulate them and benefit them.
Even though this was a false alarm, anyone can see it might not have been. There are all sorts of possibilities. If we didn’t get natural immunity to the virus, for instance, it would have to fundamentally and permanently change our whole society. If it had been ten times more lethal, anyone bitching about their freedoms would have been blatantly insane. We would have had to weld doors shut China-style, or die. If it killed children the way it killed the elderly, we would have had to be much more effective, or we would lose a generation. The signs do not suggest that we would have coped with any of these worst-case scenarios very well. Possibly next time we will be more realistic.
We also need to think a bit better about death. But I doubt we will, and that’s worth another post anyway.
28 March 2020
We’re about a month in to a one-in-a-lifetime happening. I want some kind of record of what I was thinking and doing. Most of my thinking is out loud on Twitter, so I’ll be dredging that for material.
“Plague Year” is probably a misnomer. I don’t expect this to be over in 2020.
It started for me in January. An epidemic in Wuhan wasn’t terribly interesting, but @MorlockP on Twitter posted that he saw it as likely to become a global pandemic, and was making preparations for a prolonged isolation. I followed his reasoning, and told the family after dinner that it looked like getting bad, and we should make sure we had long-term stocks in the house for food, water and cleaning equipment. Over the following couple of weeks we bought large plastic boxes and filled them with emergency supplies.
Several other people have said they were spurred into preparations by MorlockP’s tweets. Twitter locked him out of his account a week ago, ever careful to protect us from misinformation.
I remember when I was planning to go to London on January 31st, to celebrate Brexit, I contemplated whether it was safe to head into crowds and underground trains. I decided that it was still early and we could go without worrying, but it might be the last time. I haven’t been in London since.
Things moved slower than I expected through February. We built up our stocks, I mentioned it to friends and colleagues, who thought I was a bit silly. Curtis Yarvin’s American Mind piece asserting that globalism would be ended by pandemics like this one was 1st Feb.
On February 22nd I retweeted a UK government notification, that 9 positive cases of COVID19 had been found in Britain.
By the end of February it was still only a minor subject on Twitter: @thespandrell had already started calling it “boomerpox”, one or two others were saying they had stocked up, Nick Szabo was complaining that the FDA was preventing testing from happening in the US.
By March 2nd, I’d stopped going swimming. It seemed an unnecessarily easy way to catch a virus. I kept going to the gym for a few days more. I’m now back to my pre-gym self: not exercising and living on bread and biscuits. I’m going to put on 20lbs and lose a lot of strength before this is over 1.
The virus was still behind the US presidential primaries and Georgina Bloomberg’s horse novels in volume of discussion on my twitter timeline
I heard a friend of a friend story that the NHS was putting testing pods in every hospital, and were generally gearing up for a major crisis.
By March 9th, the argument had started about whether the British Government was doing enough, or whether it should be closing schools and stuff. “Flattening the curve” had appeared as a concept, illustrated with what I consistently refer to as the graph-with-no-scale.
Gregory Cochran posted his “nuke the curve” piece on the 10th, arguing that it was necessary to eliminate the virus, not just slow the spread. I expressed scepticism over the feasibility, given that if infection rates were kept very low, it would keep reappearing for a long time.
On March 11th, I saw a tweet by @vaughanbell. “If you want to make sense of why the UK government are making the decisions they are making with regard to coronavirus: they have prepared over the last decade for a pandemic (focusing on pandemic flu) and the strategy and evidence based is public”, with a link to the Pandemic Flu planning information document. I studied this. I noted that the plan anticipated a lot of deaths — it advised local authorities to be prepared for “210,000 to 315,000 additional deaths across the UK over a 15-week period”. I noted that the focus of the plan was on keeping government going, not on minimising deaths, and not at all on preventing infections. I tweeted, Most of the strategy document is explicitly ‘we’re all going to get it, so just carry on’. I noted that COVID19 was spreading faster and causing more hospitalisations than the government plan had anticipated, writing What I hope is that behind the summary strategy document, there’s a range of contingency plans that includes this fast-spreading high-hospitalisation extreme. But they’re not showing it. At time of writing, 28th March, these points are still the centre of the arguments.
The 12th of March was the last day I went to work. I find I work more effectively in an office with my colleagues, but I always was able to work from home on occasion, and I’ve been doing it now for two weeks.
The evening of 12th of March, before I left the office for (so far) the last time, I watched Boris Johnson’s press conference. This was where it really became clear that the government was expecting at the very least tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths, didn’t believe it could prevent the virus spreading through the entire population, and wasn’t going to try. I wrote a blog post on my understanding.
Though shocked, I believed, and still believe, that that was a sensible position. As I had suggested to Cochran, though some countries in Asia had reduced the size of the epidemic, nobody had proved that it could be eliminated, or that the measures taken to reduce it could be sustained for the duration that would be required.
I was in a minority, at least within my twitter community. I spent the next four days largely arguing with people who believed the UK strategy was insane or was being changed.
The strongest objection is Taleb’s. His central point is the one that made his name, that mathematical modelling of unknown situations will systematically underestimate the probability of extreme outcomes. He is right. His deduction from that is that governments should take extreme measures to combat the pandemic, because nobody knows how bad it could get. My objection to that is that the outcome of the extreme measured being taken is also an unknown situation, where we do not know how bad it could get. I don’t think it will lead to the collapse of states and a new dark age, but I don’t think the virus will kill two million people in Britain either. How to model the probability of either of these outcomes? Taleb’s whole argument is that you can’t.
Still, it is the best argument for trying to put the brakes on and at least buy some time to get better information. And it seems that my claims through the weekend of 14-15 March that the UK government was not changing course were wrong. Though they are being obfuscatory about it, the models from Imperial College they are using are now modelling “suppression” rather than “slowing”. Unlike under the previous, clear, strategy, there is now no long-term outcome described.
Here of course we are into the realm of politics. “We do not really know what is going to happen, so we’re trying to keep the disease under control for now and we’ll make more decisions later” may be the most rational position, but it doesn’t sound good on TV.
The other news was that a revision of the Imperial College model had shown much more demand on hospitals than had been foreseen earlier, and that therefore different measures would have to be taken to ensure patients could continue to get care. I was and am mystified by this. Firstly, that was obvious from the start — I had tweeted on the 11th that the hospitalisation rate was going to be the really nasty bit, and my interpretation of the announcement on the 12th was that the government knew that hospitals were going to get much worse than even the horror stories we had already heard from Italy. At the same time, if they believed on the 12th that it was not possible to prevent the virus spreading through the population, how did that become possible on the 13th just because the hospitalisation rate was worse? My guess is that in reality there was an ongoing division in the cabinet and the cabinet office over whether to slow or suppress, and Boris Johnson gave in under pressure produced by the revised model.
This is all Britain-centric, but the same thing has been playing out throughout the West. The UK strategy was not an outlier, it was the standard pandemic response used by international organisations and governments, just presented a bit more transparently than in other countries. Most governments have backed away from it, and are in this no-mans-land of lockdowns and no long-term prognosis. Sweden seems to be the only place going ahead with it at this point. To this day, the government is only officially talking about slowing down the spread, but is happy for people to think it is trying to prevent it.
The critical question, from the 12th March, was whether the Asian countries that appeared to be “winning” against the virus could sustain that. As of 28th March, that still isn’t clear. South Korea and Taiwan still seem OK. Japan and Hong Kong are getting a bit of a resurgence of cases. Nowhere is fully back to normal except parts of mainland China away from Hubei province.
Anyway, it was the following week that the masks thing started to really come up with a vengance. From the beginning, we were told not to wear masks, that they didn’t help, and they were in short supply for hospitals so we shouldn’t disrupt supply. Most of my twitter timeline has settled on the theory that masks are the one vital difference between Asia and the West that has enabled the former to get numbers down, where they are still growing throughout the latter. This is pretty plausible, but I note it is a long way from proved.
I need to mention somewhere that there is an amazing split between twitter and the outside world. Both Trump and Boris are at all-time highs in popularity, while twitter is 90% screaming at them — even from their supporters — for being evil and incompetent.
20th of March was when @MorlockP got locked out of his twitter account. From reports, it was not an actual suspension, it was the same thing as happened to me — they demanded confirmation by SMS, but he no longer has the phone number.
I think I’m the only one making the case that half a million extra deaths in the UK would not be all that big a deal. It would be about double the normal rate for the year, mostly elderly. I mentioned that I think I’ve had one elderly relative die, generally of respiratory disease, every year for the last few, and if it were two or three one year that wouldn’t show up as a catastrophe. Yes, younger people die of it too, but rarely. It is unlikely that anyone you know under the age of 60 would die, though quite likely that you would know someone who knew someone who died.
Related, I’ve expressed scepticism about the “health system breakdown” stories. Not that it’s unlikely — it’s likely to happen. I just don’t think it’s happened yet, anywhere. We have detailed stories from one hospital in Lombardy and one in New York. Meanwhile both systems are publishing statistics that show they are not (yet) overloaded. See for instance this March 13 report from Lombardy. That was two weeks ago now, but the first “collapsed” stories I saw were from before that. The reporting I’ve seen saying there is a collapse has been Damien Day style TV, with no detail or authority comparable to that JAMA session.
The other part of this is that people are jumping to conclusions about things they don’t know about based in implications of media reporting, which is a very dangerous thing to do. As I have repeatedly observed, Triage is standard practice in the NHS, and hospitals frequently get overloaded and don’t have beds for everyone. Enormous emphasis has been put on supply of ventilators. From early on, we were told that was the critical factor, that there would not be nearly enough ventilators in intensive care units for every COVID19 patient that needed one.
My experience, that I mentioned above, of relatives dying is that elderly patients with respiratory problems are never put into intensive care. I don’t know if with an infection like this one they generally would be, but nobody has actually said that they would — it’s just been left as an unstated implication of news reports. It’s hard to find the answer, because it’s not something people talk about. Anyway, I don’t know.
However, the reality is, if you just find extra space and beds for patients until they die or get better, then my expectation is that the effect of this pandemic would be otherwise not noticeable to the general population. It would be a very distinct peak in any statistical treatment, but in concrete terms all it would mean that if you knew of twenty old people who died over a ten year period, three or four of them were in 2020. Stalin was exactly right: one million deaths is a statistic. If spread over months and a big country, it’s not a directly observable event.
(One other possibility is that for many, none of them would be in 2021. One reason why this pandemic is more deadly is because we are able to keep people alive for whom every breath is an effort. Were our lives less easy, there would be many fewer in that state).
Also for these reasons, I expect the pandemic to be a non-event in the third world.
This last week (from March 22nd), the conversation has mainly gone to the economic effects (“Money printer go Brrrrr”) and outrage over the still-continuing anti-mask propaganda from Western agencies, as well as the past anti-travel-restriction propaganda from media, governments and NGOs that was continuing well into February. The Lancet condemned travel restrictions on 13 February
There was a bit of a fuss on the 24th over a model published by an Oxford epidemiological group suggesting that possibly over 90% of infections are asymptomatic and that therefore we could be already halfway to herd immunity. This was quite useful as a reminder that we don’t really know how many people will suffer, but there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that it’s that low. The model used only early case data from Italy and the UK to calibrate. Inevitably, media reporting of the publication was absolutely execrable.
On the 25th, in response to completely non-existent popular demand, I published my own pandemic modelling code on GitHub. While the actual model is of little relevance, some of the conclusions I drew from the process may be: “
Of course, nobody would really rely on such crude mathematical treatments when planning for unlikely events, would they?”
So that’s where we stand today. This isn’t a series, it’s a record. I will append to this piece as I go along. As such I don’t think it’s a useful focus for discussion, so comments should go on Twitter or under other posts with more focus.
I watched the British Government press conference this evening, and now I understand the government’s view of the epidemic, and where it differs from those who are accusing it of not taking the situation seriously enough.
In the view of the government, its critics have a significant misunderstanding of how bad the epidemic is.
It’s much worse than we think.
People are pointing at Italy, and saying “look at that — it could be like that here, don’t you understand?”
The government view is that that is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.
Conversely, when people point at South Korea, or Taiwan, the response is that they are only putting the problem off. Korea has had 8,000 confirmed cases. Maybe 80,000 actual infections (probably less given their heavy testing) out of a population of 50 million. The measures they have taken to prevent a rapid spread will have to stay in place basically indefinitely. Only one in a thousand of the population has had the disease, so there is nothing other than their protective measures stopping it. They can carry on having a hundred new cases a day for years. They can wipe it out with even stronger measures, but it will come back.
Italy has 12,000 confirmed cases, maybe 150,000 infections, out of a population of 60 million. Again, that’s only the start. 0.25% of the population. It’s going to get much worse than that. It’s going to get much worse than that everywhere.
The government’s view is that this isn’t going away until most of the people who are going to get it have got it. They don’t know how many that is — anywhere from 10% of the population to 80%. But they’re very clear that whatever that number is, it is not something they can affect. It’s going to spread until enough people have had it that it can’t spread any more. So the policy is not aimed at reducing the spread — only at slowing it over a longer time and protecting the vulnerable. In general, if you’re a young or middle aged healthy person, the government thinks you’re probably going to get it and that’s OK.
They also say the fatality rate is up to 1%. So if 80% get the virus and 1% of them die, we are looking at half a million dead this year in Britain. They spelled that out, explicitly stopping just short of doing the multiplication, because the 80% is just a worst-case estimate: it may be a quarter of that and half the death rate, and only 60,000 deaths.
If 60,000 are going to die, mostly over about 90 days at the peak of the epidemic, that means a minimum of hundreds of deaths a day, day after day after day. That’s what the government is telling us to expect. (On top of the thousand or so who die every day normally).
Are they right? How the hell should I know? If they’re wrong, there’s only a few ways they could be wrong.
Maybe the disease can just be wiped out. Nuke the curve, push the R0 below one, and hold it there until the virus doesn’t exist any more. That’s basically what happened to SARS. But even the places where they seem to be doing well are still getting a steady drip of new cases, and there are large regions where it is not under any control, so halting the spread would need a Moldbug-esque abolition of globalisation, which whatever its merits is not politically on the cards.
Maybe we could hold it off until there are better treatments, or a vaccine. The general view is that a vaccine is at least a year off, while treatments might improve over the next couple of months, but the government is already aiming to keep the peak a couple of months away.
Maybe most people just aren’t susceptible for some reason, so the total infections to expect is much lower, and snuffing the epidemic out is much more feasible.
Maybe the virus will just go away somehow. I’m not clear on how that would happen, but I’m no microbiologist.
Note that now it is the government that is taking the pessimistic view, and the critics that are clinging to the hope of a way out.
This is the most important question. If you want to know the future, the most important thing to look at is the places where the virus seems to be on the decline. Is it really finished, or is it just temporarily suppressed? If you can actually get rid of the disease with less than 1% of the population having suffered, then the government has got this completely wrong.
The other side of things is that, aside from protecting the weak and elderly, the government is expecting a big chunk of the population to get sick and doesn’t care whether you or I are in that chunk or not. But you and I can care. In this view, trying too hard to avoid catching it is antisocial: disrupting society and endangering the policy of having the virus burn out in a controlled way over a season, with well-timed interventions to smooth the worst of the peak. But a little selfishness is allowed. Frankly, I’m OK with being ill for a couple of weeks, but I have a close family member with respiratory issues, and I am prepared to go well beyond official advice to avoid introducing the disease to my home. That’s good policy for me even if it doesn’t help the government achieve its goals.
I went down to London last night to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union. I no longer see it as a vitally important thing — I neither voted in nor blogged about the referendum — but for many years, through the nineties and the oughts, leaving the EU was at the centre of my political position. That includes the early stages of blogging, with posts like this and this and this, and by joining in the celebrations I was, in a way, acknowledging my younger self.
I also wanted to be able to say I was there, to stand on Parliament Square and cheer and sing songs and generally larp at being part of a movement for a couple of hours. It was cheaper than going to a Luton Town game.
Also, while my opinion is that the exit doesn’t change anything fundamentally, it’s worth noting that I have claimed first that the referendum is a bad thing because the establishment media will so dominate that Remain is bound to win and they’ll just use it to shut up debate for another generation, and then that even though Leave won, they wouldn’t actually leave, they’d just hold it up and eventually drop it. With this track record of being consistently wrong, I have a slight lack of confidence in my current pessimistic projections.
My explanation for being wrong is that I have been overestimating the competence and power of the establishment. The atomisation of society is now degrading the strength of the political parties themselves, being media-driven and bioleninist is reducing the competence of establishment leaders, new media is making democracy more real and less fake in a very damaging way.
The central event of last night’s celebration, after the terrible singing and before the countdown to 23:00 GMT, was of course the appearance of Nigel Farage. People were calling his name from the time the lights went on, and every warm-up speaker remarked that none of this could have happened without him.
That is surely true. And that says something very interesting about the way democratic politics works. Because Farage does not really seem to be a “Great Man” of the kind who are supposed by some theories to be able to shift history by themselves. He can speak on television OK, but he is no great orator or demagogue, or even an entertainer like Boris or Trump. He is intelligent and competent but he is no master strategist, or prophet, or technical genius. Anyone who could successfully run a corporate department with thirty employees could have done what he did. But without him there could have been no sustained UKIP. UKIP caused the referendum by costing the Conservative Party seats. The referendum led to Brexit.
Why say UKIP could not have sustained itself without Farage? Because every time it tried, it failed. Other than him, all the leadership of the party after the Alan Sked pressure-group era were insane, stupid, or lazy. Farage was competent enough to run the party, worked very hard on it, and caused it to continue existing.
It is truly remarkable that there were over four million people1 willing to vote for UKIP, but there was only one capable person willing to run it.
Farage devoted most of his adult life to the cause, out of idealism. Many of the other four million would have been as capable as he was, but they had better things to do with their lives. None of the other few dozen people who were in the leadership of the party were of the two or three percent of people who have the abilities needed to do it successfully.
Many politicians are idealistic, but it is easier to be idealistic where there is a career path. There is no career path to being a fringe anti-establishment politician. Farage got an MEP’s salary for thirty years, but that was by no means guaranteed. Victorious, he will pick up some media bucks, but he will never be treated as an elder statesman. Nobody else with the “corporate department head” level of ability showed up to discard their career and do the work.
There are strong echoes here of the situation with academia. For every competent right-wing intellectual working full time with donor funding or their own money, there are hundreds of left-wing intellectuals with a stable academic career. Tens of thousands of people shouting Nigel Farage’s name on Parliament Square give a hint of how important that fact is.
It’s a very common trope, on left and right, that the voters are being denied their influence and that democracy is on the decline.
I’m pretty sure the reverse is true: the Western democracies are becoming more democratic as the unprincipled exceptions and institutional arrangements that limited the influence of the voters are eroded.
In particular, the things that are pointed at as undemocratic, such as the attempt to remove Trump, and the failure to execute Brexit, are the second line of defence after democracy has blasted through the barriers that used to exist. Trump could not have made it to the presidential election a decade ago, and though there has always been a majority or close to for leaving the EU, only in 2016 did that become a possibility.
Meta: I’ve decided once again to try to put minor observations on the blog, rather than leaving them in twitter conversations. If you are using a feed reader and liked the old very-low-volume feed, switch to https://blog.anomalyuk.party/category/main/feed and I’ll keep “minis” like this out of the “main” category.
The New York Times has published a long analysis of the effects of the hacking of Democratic Party organisations and operatives in the 2016 election campaign.
The article is obviously trying to appear a balanced view, eschewing the “OMG we are at war with Russia” hyperbole and questioning the value of different pieces of evidence. It does slip here and there, for instance jumping from the involvement of “a team linked to the Russian government” (for which there is considerable evidence) to “directed from the Kremlin” without justification.
The evidence that the hackers who penetrated the DNC systems and John Podesta’s email account are linked to the Russian Government is that the same tools were used as have been used in other pro-Russian actions in the past.
*Update 4th Jan 2017: that is a bit vague: infosec regular @pwnallthethings goes into very clear detail in a twitter thread)
One important consideration is the sort of people who do this kind of thing. Being able to hack systems requires some talent, but not any weird Hollywood-esque genius. It also takes a lot of experience, which goes out of date quite quickly. Mostly, the people who have the talent and experience are the people who have done it for fun.
Those people are difficult to recruit into military or intelligence organisations. They tend not to get on well with concepts such as wearing uniforms, turning up on time, or passing drug tests.
It is possible in theory to bypass the enthusiasts and have more professional people learn the techniques. One problem is that becoming skilled requires practice, and that generally means practice on innocent victims. More significantly, the first step in any action is to work through cut-out computers to avoid being traced, and those cut-outs are also hacked computers belonging to random victims. That’s the way casual hackers, spammers and other computer criminals work, and espionage hackers have to use the same techniques. They have to be doing it all the time, to keep a base of operations, and to keep their techniques up to date.
For all these reasons, it makes much more sense for state agencies to stay arms-length from the actual hackers. The agencies will know about the hackers, maybe fund them indirectly, cover for them, and make suggestions, but there won’t be any official chain of command.
So the hackers who got the data from the DNC were probably somewhat associated with the Russian Government (though a comprehensive multi-year deception by another organisation deliberately appearing to be Russian is not completely out of the question).
They may have had explicit (albeit off-the-record) instructions, but that’s not necessary. As the New York Times itself observed, Russia has generally been very alarmed by Hillary Clinton for years. The group would have known to oppose her candidacy without being told.
“It was conventional wisdom… that Mrs. Clinton considered her husband’s efforts to reform Russia in the 1990s an unfinished project, and that she would seek to finish it by encouraging grass-roots efforts that would culminate with regime change.”
Dealing with the product is another matter. It might well have gone to a Russian intelligence agency, either under an agreement with the hackers or ad-hoc from a “concerned citizen”: you would assume they would want to see anything and everything of this kind that they could get. While hacking is best treated as deniable criminal activity, it would be much more valuable to agencies to have close control over the timing and content of releases of data.
So I actually agree with the legacy media that the extraction and publication of Democratic emails was probably a Russian intelligence operation. There is a significant possibility it was not, but was done by some Russians independent of government, and a remote possibility it was someone completely unrelated who has a practice of deliberately leaving false clues implicating Russia.
I’ve often said that the real power of the media is not the events that they report but the context to the events that they imply. Governments spying on each other is completely normal. Governments spying on foreign political movements is completely normal. Governments attempting to influence foreign elections by leaking intelligence is completely normal. Points to Nydwracu for finding this by William Safire:
“The shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed; he later said that he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.”
The major restraint on interference in foreign elections is generally the danger that if the candidate you back loses then you’ve substantially damaged your own relations with the winner. The really newsworthy aspect of all this is that the Russians had such a negative view of Clinton that they thought this wouldn’t make things any worse. It’s been reported that the Duma broke into applause when the election result was announced.
The other thing that isn’t normal is a complete public dump of an organisation’s emails. That’s not normal because it’s a new possibility, one that people generally haven’t begun to get their heads around. I was immediately struck by the immense power of such an attack the first time I saw it, in early 2011. No organisation can survive it: this is an outstanding item that has to be solved. I wouldn’t rule out a new recommended practice to destroy all email after a number of weeks, forcing conversation histories to be boiled down to more sterile and formal documents that are far less potentially damaging if leaked.
It is just about possible for an organisation to be able to adequately secure their corporate data, but that’s both a technical problem and a management problem. However, the first impression you get is of the DNC is one of amateurism. That of course is not a surprise. As I’ve observed before, if you consider political parties to be an important part of the system of government, their lack of funding and resources is amazing, even if American politics is better-funded than British. That the DNC were told they had been hacked and didn’t do anything about it is still shocking. Since 2011, this is something that any organisation sensitive to image should be living in fear of.
This is basically evidence-free speculation, but it seems possible that the Democratic side is deficient in actual organisation builders: the kind of person who will set up systems, make rules, and get a team of people to work together. A combination of fixation on principles rather than practical action, and on diversity and “representativeness” over extraordinary competence meant that the campaign didn’t have the equivalent of a Jared Kushner to move in, set up an effective organisation and get it working.
Or possibly the problem is more one of history: the DNC is not a political campaign set up to achieve a task, but a permanent bureaucracy bogged down by inferior personnel and a history of institutional compromises. Organisations become inefficient naturally.
Possibly Trump in contrast benefited from his estrangement from the Republican party establishment, since it meant he did not have legacy organisations to leak his secrets and undermine his campaign’s efficiency. He had a Manhattan Project, not an ITER.
The task of building–or rebuilding–an organisation is one that few people are suited to. Slotting into an existing structure is very much easier. Clinton’s supporters particularly are liable to have the attitude that a job is something you are given, rather than something you make. Kushner and Brad Parscale seem to stand out as people who have the capability of making a path rather than following one. As an aside, Obama seems to have had such people also, but Clinton may have lacked them. Peter Thiel described Kushner as “the Chief Operating Officer” of Trump’s campaign. Maybe the real estate business that Trump and Kushner are in, which consists more of separate from-scratch projects than most other businesses, orients them particularly to that style.
Nothing really new here, but pulling a few things together.
Start with Joseph K’s observation:
Between the replication crisis and the Great Poll Failure of 2016, quantitative social science has basically committed suicide
— Joseph K. (@fxxfy) November 9, 2016
This is a good point, and I added that the failure of financial risk models in 2008 was essentially the same thing.
The base problem is overconfidence. “People do not have enough epistemic humility”, as Ben Dixon put it.
The idea in all these fields is that you want to make some estimate about the future of some system. You make a mathematical model of the system, relating the visible outputs to internal variables. You also include a random variable in the model.
You then compare the outputs of your model to the visible outputs of the system being modelled, and modify the parameters until they match as closely as possible. They don’t match exactly, but you make the effects of your random variable just big enough that your model could plausibly produce the outputs you have seen.
If that means your random variable basically dominates, then your model is no good and you need a better one. But if the random element is fairly small, you’re good to go.
In polling, your visible effects are how people answer polling questions and how they vote. In social science, it’s how subjects behave in experiments, or how they answer questions, or how they do things that come out in published statistics. In finance, it’s the prices at which people trade various instruments.
The next step is where it all goes wrong. In the next step, you assume that your model—including its random variable to account for the unmeasured or unpredictable—is exactly correct, and make predictions about what the future outputs of the system will be. Because of the random variable, your predictions aren’t certain; they have a range and a probability. You say, “Hillary Clinton has a 87% chance of winning the election”. You say “Reading these passages changes a person’s attitude to something-or-other in this direction 62% of the time, with a probability of 4.6% that the effect could have been caused randomly”. You say, “The total value of the assets held by the firm will not decrease by more than 27.6 million dollars in a day, with a probability of 99%”.
The use of probabilities suggests to an outsider that you have epistemic humility–you are aware of your own fallibility and are taking account of the possibility of having gone wrong. But that is not the case. The probabilities you quote are calculated on the basis that you have done everything perfectly, that you model is completely right, and that nothing has changed in between the production of the data you used to build the model and the events that you are attempting to predict. The unpredictability that you account for is that which is caused by the incompleteness of your model—which is necessarily a simplification of the real system—not on the possibility that what your model is doing is actually wrong.
In the case of the polling, what that means is that the margin of error quoted with the poll is based on the assumptions that the people polled answered honestly; that they belong to the demographic groups that the pollsters thought they belonged to, that the proportion of demographic groups in the electorate are what the pollsters thought they were. The margin of error is based on the random variables in the model: the fact that the random selection of people polled might be atypical of the list they were taken from, possibly, if the model is sophisticated enough, that the turnout of different demographics might vary from what is predicted (but where does the data come from to model that?)
In the social sciences, the assumptions are that the subjects are responding to the stimuli you are describing, and not to something else. Also that people will behave the same outside the laboratory as they do inside. The stated probabilities and uncertainties again are not reflecting any doubt as to those assumptions: only to the modelled randomness of sampling and measurement.
On the risk modelling used by banks, I can be more detailed, because I actually did it. It is assumed that the future price changes of an instrument follow the same probability distributions as in the past. Very often, because the instruments do not have a sufficient historical record, a proxy is used; one which is assumed to be similar. Sometimes instead of a historical record or a proxy there is just a model, a normal distribution plus a correlation with the overall market, or a sector of it. Again, lots of uncertainty in the predictions, but none of it due to the possibility of having the wrong proxy, or of there being something new about the future which didn’t apply to the past.
Science didn’t always work this way. The way you do science is that you propose the theory, then it is tested against observations over a period of time. That’s absolutely necessary: the model, even with the uncertainty embedded within it, is a simplification of reality, and the only justification for assuming that the net effects of the omitted complexities are within error bounds is that that is seen to happen.
If the theory is about the emission spectra of stars, or the rate of a chemical reaction, then once the theory is done it can be continually tested for a long period. In social sciences or banking, nobody is paying attention for long enough, and the relevant environment is changing too much over a timescale of years for evidence that a theory is sound to build up. It’s fair enough: the social scientists, pollsters and risk managers are doing the best they can. The problem is not what they are doing, it is the excessive confidence given to their results. I was going to write “their excessive confidence”, but that probably isn’t right: they know all this. Many of them (there are exceptions) know perfectly well that a polling error margin, or a p-value, or a VaR are not truly what the definitions say, but only the closest that they can get. It is everyone who takes the numbers at face value that is making the mistake. However, none of these analysts, of whichever flavour, are in a position to emphasise the discrepancy. They always have a target to aim for.
For a scientist, they have to get a result with a p-value to publish a paper. That is their job: if they do it, they have succeeded, otherwise, they have not. A risk manager, similarly, has a straightforward day-to-day job of persuading the regulator that the bank is not taking too much risk. I don’t know the ins and outs of polling, but there is always pressure. In fact Nate Silver seems to have done exactly what I suggest: his pre-election announcement seems to be been along the lines “Model says Clinton 85%, but the model isn’t reliable, I’m going to call it 65%”. And he got a lot of shit for it.
Things go really bad when there is a feedback loop from the result of the modelling to the system itself. If you give a trader a VaR budget, he’ll look to take risks that don’t show in the VaR. If you campaign so as to maximise your polling position, you’ll win the support of the people who don’t bother to vote, or you’ll put people off saying they’ll vote for the other guy without actually stopping them voting for the other guy. Nasty.
Going into the election, I’m not going to say I predicted the result. But I didn’t fall for the polls. Either there was going to be a big differential turnout between Trump supporters and Clinton supporters, or there wasn’t. Either there were a lot of shy Trump supporters, or there weren’t. I thought there was a pretty good chance of both, but no amount of Data was going to tell me. Sometimes you just don’t know.
That’s actually an argument for not “correcting” the polls. At least if there is a model—polling model, VaR model, whatever—you can take the output and then think about it. If the thinking has already been done, and corrections already applied, that takes the option away from you. I didn’t know to what extent the polls had already be corrected for the unquantifiables that could make them wrong. The question wasn’t so much “are there shy Trump voters?” as “are there more shy Trump voters than some polling organisation guessed there are?”
Of course, every word of all this applies just the same to that old obsession of this blog, climate. The models have not been proved; they’ve mostly been produced honestly, but there’s a target, and there are way bigger uncertainties than those which are included in the models. But the reason I don’t blog about climate any more is that it’s over. The Global Warming Scare was fundamentally a social phenomenon, and it has gone. Nobody other than a few activists and scientists takes it seriously any more, and mass concern was an essential part of the cycle. There isn’t going to be a backlash or a correction; there won’t be papers demolishing the old theories and getting vast publicity. Rather, the whole subject will just continue to fade away. If Trump cuts the funding, as seems likely, it will fade away a bit quicker. Lip service will occasionally be paid, and summits will continue to be held, but less action will result from them. The actual exposure of the failure of science won’t happen until the people who would have been most embarrassed by it are dead. That’s how these things go.