An image of a green fedora hat, which serves as the logo for this site.Gordy's Discourse

Briefly: Why is the UK so bad at managing coronavirus?

I am wondering why we can't manage coronavirus as well as some other countries.

The countries that have been successful in managing coronavirus have had fast and efficient track and trace systems in operation. I'm talking about countries like New Zealand, South Korea, China and Singapore.

The often touted excuse when one mentions New Zealand is that they have fewer people and are more sparsely populated than the UK. This is true of New Zealand, but it's certainly not true of South Korea or China.

Yet these countries all built effective track and trace systems early on. Even if we account for the UK not being particularly quick off the mark with coronavirus, we've had six months now to put a system in place. But we don't seem to have bothered.

This baffles me.

Boris Johnson seems to be trying to strike a fragile balance between people's lives and the economy, but I think he's going about it the wrong way. The lesson to learn from successful countries is that we should lock down early and implement a rapid and effective track and trace system. Once you've done that, you can open the economy again and track and trace will help keep it open.

I would imagine Boris has all manner of excuses at to why this can't be done in the UK, but they're all nonsense. I say this without even knowing what they are. I say it because this is a national emergency that's costing needless lives and, at times like this, where's there's a will, there's a way.

I can only therefore presume there's no will, and I believe the responsible politicians will be judged severely for that in due course.

It frustrates me that the UK just seems to 'muddle along' these days. We don't grab things by the neck and deal with them. We're never bold and we never try to be world leaders in anything. We should have aimed high. We should have made it our aim to have fewer cases, fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths than any other country.

It's almost as if someone, somewhere decided we simply don't have the wherewithal for that, which is a shocking reflection on what this country has become.

A 15,000 page mathematical proof

Sometimes people do things just because they can. I cannot imagine many people are actually going to read the mathematical proof I mention in this article, but it’s a good example of extreme determination.

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Is the online advertising bubble about to burst? External link icon.

Wired reviews a book called Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang, a former Google employee. The book postulates that the whole online advertising infrastructure is a bubble waiting to burst in the same way the subprime mortgage bubble burst in the mid-late 2000s. This is at least partly because online advertising is largely based on nothing, like subprime mortgages were.

Wired's review says the book:

… lays out the case that the new ad business is built on a fiction. Microtargeting is far less accurate, and far less persuasive, than it’s made out to be, he says, and yet it remains the foundation of the modern internet: the source of wealth for some of the world’s biggest, most important companies.

Back in the old days, if a company wanted to advertise online they'd contact the publisher directly and rent space on their website to show an advert.

These days, though, many advertisers don't advertise on a site directly, they submit a target profile for their adverts and the money they're willing to spend to an advertising network — Google, Facebook or whatever — and then a bunch of algorithms decides who gets what advertising slot.

Advertisers rely on the network's algorithms to do their job properly and return the targeted audience the advertisers require. But do they? Hwang thinks most online advertising is worthless:

There are piles of research papers in support of this idea, showing that companies’ returns on investment in digital marketing are generally anemic and often negative. One recent study found that ad tech middlemen take as much as a 50 percent cut of all online ad spending. Brands pay that premium for the promise of automated microtargeting, but a study by Nico Neumann, Catherine E. Tucker, and Timothy Whitfield found that the accuracy of that targeting is often extremely poor. In one experiment, they used six different advertising platforms in an effort to reach Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44. Their targeting performed slightly worse than random guessing. Such research indicates that, despite the extent of surveillance tech, a lot of the data that fuels ad targeting is garbage.

Hwang goes on to explain how ad blocking software and click fraud further deplete the reliability of the online advertising infrastructure.

There will come a time when advertisers realise that much of the money they're throwing at the advertising networks is wasted, and thus the bubble will burst.

I have wondered about the longevity of the current system for a while now.

The whole idea of pay-per-click and pay-per-view is flawed, which is to say it's excellent for enriching the advertising networks but dreadful for the advertisers themselves. Clicks and views don't, of themselves, earn any money for advertisers; they want sales. This means the advertising network has different measures of success to the advertiser, and that pulls the two parties in different directions.

The networks have long told us to value click through rates and strive to raise them, but that measure is just for the networks. I'm well aware there's a connection between clicks and sales — a user has to click through in order to buy the product — but it would be far more useful if the networks' objective was to produce sales rather than clicks. What the networks earn should be a percentage of what the advertiser earns, but it's fairly obvious why the networks would want to avoid that sort of system.

Advertisers and their networks are also operating in an ecosystem that doesn't consider users much.

Advertisers pay money for targeted clicks based on dodgy targeting data. Users on the other hand want rid of the lot of it. Users are unwilling participants and there's no way you can get the best out of that sort of system. Users will always resist advertising to some degree of course, but the less friction advertisers create with users, the better it will be for them.

The online world is so laden with adverts these days that it changes user behaviour. Users install ad blockers to get rid of the ones they can, and they develop visual blockers in their brains to get rid of the ones they can't. Our brains simply filter them out.

Because we're overloaded with adverts, we take less notice of them. I sometimes do surveys about advertising and I've never seen the adverts they ask me about. It's only after the survey that I might look for the advert and note it has been there all along.

Surely it would be better for advertisers and networks to consider how they can get adverts in front of users in such as way that they won't be irritated, won't want to block them and might actually want to click on them.

The current advertising systems work on volume (because that enriches the advertising networks), whereas they'd have more success working on quality instead. Fewer adverts per site (I'd argue for just one per site) will enrage users less and thus make them less likely to want to block things. Linking the advertising networks' income to sales rather than clicks or views would work better for advertisers. And if algorithmic targeting doesn't work, go back to looking at a site and seeing what sort of visitor you think it'll attract. It's not that hard.

Better still, cut the advertising networks out altogether. Go back to a system where advertisers contact site owners directly and make an offer to buy some advertising space.

The upshot, though, is that I believe Tim Hwang is right. Online advertising in its current form will eventually explode.

Don’t trust your nadgers to the Internet of Things External link icon.

I had no idea internet connected chastity devices existed until I read the article I link to. It seems they can be compromised and hackers can lock your plonker away forever.

Breaking open the chastity cage by hand would require bolt cutters or an angle grinder.

The thought of bolt cutters or an angle grinder within millimetres of my testicles had me crossing my legs.

Apparently the devices aren’t that reliable anyway. One user, who preferred to remain anonymous, said:

The app stopped working completely after three days and I am stuck.

Another said:

My partner is locked up! This is ridiculous as still no idea if being fixed as no new replies from emailing. So dangerous! And scary! Given what the app controls it needs to be reliable.

Well, quite.

The lesson is simple: if you’re going to lock your gentleman’s sausage away, don’t do it via the Internet of Things.

This isn’t the first time sex toys have been hacked. Live-streaming footage from a dildo camera has been hijacked, and hackers have taken control of a bluetooth-enabled butt-plug. I swear I’m not making this up.

All is not well in the teledildonics world.

The operating systems they run in space External link icon.

I found the article I link to quite interesting. It's about the operating systems they use in space.

We’ve got extremely demanding requirements for this mission.

Typically, rebooting the platform such as this takes roughly 40 seconds. Here, we’ve had 50 seconds total to find the issue, have it isolated, have the system operational again, and take recovery action.

It goes on to mention how their operating systems have to be deterministic. That means an app can't take 10 seconds to open one day and 15 seconds on another day. Anything the OS runs must take the same amount of time each time it's executed, down to the millisecond.

Do patterns in pulsar blips indicate cosmic strings? External link icon.

The four forces of the universe are the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. These forces are theorised to have been part of a single superforce in the early universe. When the universe cooled, the four forces split off in stages to become the ones we see now. This all happened in the first billionth of a second after the big bang.

None of these forces should be confused with The Force, which is only accessible to Jedi Knights.

If the universe cooled very quickly, it's possible it was 'fractured' when the forces split up. The popular analogy is with an ice cube when it gets a crack in it. It is these fractures that created the cosmic strings.

Cosmic strings were first proposed by a theoretical physicist called Tom Kibble in the 1970s, just before he went on to invent the dog food that bears his name. Cosmic strings would be extremely thin — about the diameter of a proton — but they'd also be very long, stretching right across the universe. It's all very topological if you want to get into it (and I certainly don't).

They'd still be in existence too, which means they're discoverable. In theory.

Pulsar in the Crab Nebula.
Pulsar in the Crab Nebula.
Credit: Optical: NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al. X-Ray: NASA/CXC/ASU/J. Hester et al.
Before we get to the point of this article, we need to describe another astronomical phenomenon: pulsars. Pulsars are small, compact stars (usually neutron stars) with a strong electromagnetic field. They rotate very quickly — often at sub-second intervals — and beam electromagnetic radiation out of their poles. We can see that radiation when they're pointed towards us, rather like a lighthouse.

The consistency of a pulsar's rotation and its emission of radiation makes it very handy as a clock for measuring time and distance in the universe.

There is a group of astronomers who watch pulsars, which is understandable as they're more entertaining that most things on television these days. Sometimes these astronomers see distortions in the blips of radiation from pulsars. These distortions can be caused by gravitational waves, and the gravitational waves are caused by things like two black holes colliding.

If that's the case, you'd expect the gravitational waves to be distorted in a different way for each pulsar because the distortion would depend on the masses of the black holes in question. But what one experiment purports to have found is that the distortions all look similar, suggesting a common cause.

One candidate for that common cause is cosmic strings.

But let's not jump the gun. The paper is still being peer reviewed and there could be other causes of the distortions: faulty instruments, skewed analyses or maybe someone was microwaving a pie at the time they took the measurements.

It's an intriguing thought, though, that we might be able to detect something from fractions of a second after the big bang; something as bizarre as a cosmic string too.

Briefly: Cambridge's crazy roundabout

I have just been reading an article about Cambridge's crazy roundabout that operates in the Dutch style. This means there are new give-way rules for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

I appreciate the council is just looking at ways to make roads safer, but I'm not sure a confusing roundabout system — one that operates contrary to every other roundabout in the UK — is the answer. Ultimately, safety is better served by the separation of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

We no longer exist in an era where Dick, Georgina and their dog Timmy can cycle the roads and solve crimes without ever meeting a car. Councils sometimes just don't seem to have realised that times have moved on and road use is significantly higher these days.

What we need are cycle paths and walkways that are physically separate from roads. I know it's hard to back-fit a system like that into our existing infrastructure, but even brand new road networks are still shoving all modes of locomotion together.

If you want an idea of how ludicrous that is, imagine if cars had to share the same infrastructure as trains. It would be a nightmare, and a dangerous one. Yet we keep throwing motorists, cyclists and pedestrians together and then we whinge when one of them has an accident.

We need to be introducing separation, which will have the beneficial side-effect of speeding up all modes of transport, reducing journey times and increasing safety. Harebrained roundabouts aren't the answer.

Briefly: BA and the Paradox of Disbelief

BA's insistence that its site cannot issue vouchers unless someone requests them, despite much evidence to the contrary, shows they have fallen into the Software Developers' Paradox of Disbelief.

I've been there many times myself: written some software, tested it to within an inch of its life, thought it was perfect and passed it on to the testing people. Within five minutes they've thrown it back at me having found 14 million errors.

The first response is always: that's impossible. Often followed by: there's no way it can do that. Sober thought soon shows that neither of those statements can possibly be true, and deeper investigation always leads to an "oh yeah" moment.

All software developers suffer from The Paradox at some point in their careers. It's genetic; we share about 80% of our DNA with sheep and that's where we get it from. Sheep live in perpetual disbelief. You can see it in their faces.

BA seems to be sticking to their guns a bit longer than most software developers do, but they'll surely recognise they've fallen for The Paradox at some point. Unless of course they already know that and are just fronting it out because they're greedy, unethical and don't fancy paying too many refunds.

Software should be thoroughly tested, but never by the people who wrote it.

Small nuclear reactor gains approval External link icon.

A small nuclear reactor made by a company called NuScale has been granted safety approval in the US. It's capable of producing 50 megawatts of electricity and should begin shipping by the mid 2020s.

Alas my hopes were soon dashed. I had visions of being able to order one from Amazon and then unplug myself from the national grid. But when they say it's a small nuclear reactor they're speaking relatively. It's 76ft tall and 15ft wide, which I'd struggle to accommodate in my flat. I was hoping for something the size of a desk lamp.

There's also no mention of price, which usually means it'll be expensive. I'm guessing it'll certainly be more than £100 outside of potential Black Friday deals.

There's nothing specific in my flat's lease to prevent me storing enriched uranium on the premises and the reactor has many in-built, automated systems for safety. The chances of me obliterating the South West of the UK would be slim.

This very much sounds like the enterprise version of the product, but I hope a home version of it is also planned.

Facebook depressed about upcoming privacy restrictions External link icon.

We value your privacy website confirmation box.Facebook is getting uppity about one of the changes Apple will be implementing in iOS 14.

The change in question concerns something called the IDFA, which is the IDentifier For Advertisers. This is a random identifier that Apple assigns to its devices. This identifier can then be given to advertisers so that they can track the effectiveness of their adverts. It protects a user's privacy because, although the advertiser can see a particular, anonymous user has responded to an advert in a certain way, they don't get any personal details about that user from the IDFA. It allows them build up patterns of behaviour.

The change Apple will be implementing is that, in iOS 14, its devices will ask the user for permission to use the IDFA. Facebook (and other advertising platforms) fear that a lot of users won't give that permission and therefore advertisers won't be able to track the performance of their adverts effectively.

Facebook said:

Like all ad networks on iOS 14, advertiser ability to accurately target and measure their campaigns on Audience Network will be impacted, and as a result publishers should expect their ability to effectively monetise on Audience Network to decrease.

Ultimately, despite our best efforts, Apple’s updates may render Audience Network so ineffective on iOS 14 that it may not make sense to offer it on iOS 14.

I'm afraid I have no sympathy for advertisers. Facebook's comments demonstrate they were quite happy to take this identifier knowing full well that users might not like them doing so.

I appreciate that advertising is crucial to the economy of lots of websites, but any tracking of a user should only be performed with that user's informed permission. If a site is worth it, I'll let them track me. If they want to deny me access if I won't allow tracking then that's fine by me, but I want to make an informed decision either way.

It strikes me as odd that the sort of tracking we take for granted these days was ever allowed in the first place.

At last, another supersonic jet External link icon.

You have to give it to the bearded ballooning flop, he's ambitious. Branson's Virgin Galactic company have just unveiled a new supersonic jet capable of flying at three times the speed of sound.

Concorde, the last supersonic jet, died 17 years ago and that could get us from London to New York in three hours. This new Virgin Galactic jet will do it in two.

It's staggering to think we've gone 17 years without a commercial supersonic aeroplane and nobody's come up with a replacement yet. We're going backwards.

There are few greater miseries than travelling and it all needs to be speeded up. Planes, trains and automobiles should be aiming for double or triple their current cruising speeds. Yes, yes, you may wag your finger and mention things like safety or the environment, but that shouldn't stop us. We should use our brains to find ways to make fast transport that's safe and environmentally friendly too.

While they're at it, they should also be reconfiguring airports. Somehow we accept the idea that we have to be at an airport a ludicrous two or three hours before we actually fly. Why? You may wag another one of your fingers and mention logistics or security, but stop being so defeatist. Find a way to do it in half an hour, which should be considered the maximum wait for any transport these days.

Of course, this Virgin Galactic jet is still at the prototype stage, but the hope is that it will be able to transport up to 19 passengers at 60,000 feet. It will still have to make it into economical production, negotiate the various aviation rules and get past mountains of well-meaning but misguided health and safety regulations. So I'd say there's little chance of this jet ever operating commercially.

Even if it does, the only people who'll be able to afford tickets will be the ultra-rich, as was the case with Concorde. I doubt I'll see economical supersonic travel in my lifetime. We just don't have the cojones to pursue this sort of thing these days.

Other than Beardy Branson, that is. He offers the merest wisp of hope.

Paying off hackers

How is it that it's legal to pay off hackers and thereby fund their continuing exploits? I've read of a number of instances of this in recent months and I'm sure there are others we don't hear about.

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Briefly: Hurdles and horses

How is it that hurdlers can knock down a number of hurdles on the way and still be declared winners? The clue about what the participants must do is in the name: they must hurdle. If they’re going to allow that, they should rename the event to the-running-through-planks-of-wood-whilst-occasionally-hurdling-one race.

If you’re going to allow that sort of nonsense in athletics events then I could win a marathon by driving 26.1 miles and running — or at least ambling — the last 0.1 miles.

Whilst we’re on the subject of sport (I’m watching Britain’s Greatest Olympic Moments), what in the name of arse is dressage all about? Some woman just got a gold medal for sitting on a horse whilst it walked sideways a couple of times, pranced about like it had trodden in something untoward and dribbled a lot. Who, I wonder, thought that was a good idea?

Briefly: The law and banks

The law is an ass

I was reading an article on the BBC about how the government is considering increasing the maximum sentence for assault on emergency workers to two years.

I support the increase but it's still not right.

The maximum sentence for tax evasion is seven years and an unlimited fine. Both are crimes of course, but the respective punishments are the wrong way around. How is it that physically assaulting someone attracts a lesser punishment than diddling the government out of some money?

Banks stink

Another thing in what's becoming a general day of complaining, I note banks aren't allowing some people to switch to cheaper mortgages.

The problem, it seems, is that whilst they could pass credit checks for an expensive mortgage when they took it out, they can't pass credit checks for a cheaper mortgage now.

That is completely bonkers and something so ludicrous can only be explained by the banks preserving their own interests. Sure, they'll blame something else (like the credit checking rules they follow), but that's just a cop out.

I quite often get asked in surveys if I think banks have my interests at heart and this just one of the reasons why I always answer no.

Apple have decided I need to give them more money External link icon.

Apple unveiled some major changes at their recent Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 20). There will be all-new versions of iOS and iPadOS (14) and a new version of macOS (11, so-called Big Sur).

They also announced they plan to move away from Intel processors and switch to their own ARM processors across the board. They already use ARM processors in their iPhones and iPads, so the shift affects their laptops and desktops.

A photo of my early 2013 MacBook Pro.
The poor guy is obsolete.
It all sounds very exciting but I'm a bit grumpy about it. I have a fairly modern iPhone and iPad but an older MacBook Pro: an early 2013 model.

Apple has decided this particular model is obsolete and will not be allowed to run the new version of macOS. The specs of my early 2013 model are virtually identical to the late 2013 model and I'm sure my MacBook Pro would run Big Sur just fine. What they've really decided is that it's time for me to give them more money.

It's a great business if you can get it. Sell hardware that's impossible (or, at least, very tricky) to upgrade, couple that with complete control of the OS and then decide on a whim to make people buy some new hardware after seven years. No wonder they're so rich.

If Windows was any good I'd look to swapping back, but Windows has been a detestable pile of poo since Windows 7 went out of date. I hate Windows 10 almost as much as I hated my previous mop.

The simple truth is macOS is just so much better than Windows (in my humble opinion, anyway) and their hardware is pretty good too. I must therefore consider buying a new laptop or desktop if I want to avoid being hurled out of an airlock and into the vacuum of an unsupported OS.

The thing is, should I limp through for a while and wait for ARM-based hardware, or should I just go ahead and buy an Intel machine now?

This is a question the article I link to attempts to address.

Apple claim they'll transition to ARM-based processors over a period of two years, but the first macOS machines to use them will be available before 2020 is done.

The ARM-based machines should be cheaper for Apple to make but I'm pretty sure they won't be cheaper for the consumer to buy. This is Apple we're talking about after all. Therefore price is not a consideration.

Apple claim they will continue to support Intel-based hardware for many years to come but it will at least start to feel out of date when the ARM-based hardware starts to ship.

Decisions, decisions.

The man protecting the world from extinction External link icon.

There's a chap in Wales who monitors space for potential Extinction Level Events (ELEs), which is things like an asteroid or comet heading for Earth.

An asteroid the size of a cricket pitch would take out a city and an asteroid 10 km wide would cause global mass extinction.

Such an object is certain to head our way too. They've impacted before and it was one such object that wiped out the dinosaurs. Of course we don't know when it'll happen — it might be tomorrow or it might be in a million years — but it will happen.

If we see it early enough we should be able to deflect it off course. Bruce Willis got rid of that last one.

Lies, damn lies and 36 alien civilisations External link icon.

The latest news from the ET hunters is that there are 36 extraterrestrial civilisations in the galaxy (advanced enough to communicate). Or is it 211? Or maybe it’s between 100 and 3,000. The article I link to bandies a few numbers around.

The trouble with doing a statistical analysis of this sort of thing is we only have a sample size of one: us. We’re the only intelligent civilisation we know about (and I use the term intelligent in the loosest possible sense).

Such low numbers — and even 3,000 is low amongst 250 billion stars — would explain the Fermi Paradox, which wonders why we haven’t heard from any alien civilisations so far.

The most troubling term in the so-called Drake Equation they use to calculate these things appears to be L, which estimates how long an intelligent civilisation lasts. In fact, Drake himself thought that was they key term.

It took us 4.5 billion years to evolve and we’ve only been intelligent enough to send potentially communicative radio waves out into space for about 100 years. Again, the sample size we’re using couldn’t be any smaller.

I’m quite chuffed the proper scientists’ efforts produced a number so close to one I calculated a couple of years ago myself. I was a bit more pessimistic with my completely unscientific guesswork. I estimated there are 23 civilisations in the galaxy. I chose 420 years for that L number. I based that on someone’s study of Earth civilisations that have risen and fallen to date.

I’m sticking to the idea that alien civilisations are deliberately ignoring us because they’re fed up with the dreadful reality TV we’re broadcasting out into the cosmos. If they came here at all it would be to ask us to shut up.

The naughtiness of gravity External link icon.

Gravity generally behaves itself. It keeps us anchored to the planet and when we drop things we know they'll fall down rather than up.

Alas, at its extremes — such as inside a black hole — the theory that describes gravity gets its knickers in a twist. It starts to spit out an infinite number of infinite answers that are impossible to resolve.

So something's amiss and we probably need another way to describe gravity. Gravity is described by General Relativity and the other three forces of nature are described by Quantum Theory. So the most obvious new way to describe gravity would be to lump it in with the other three forces and use quantum theory, but physicists have been trying to do this for nearly 100 years without success.

It would be useful if we could perform experiments on gravity at its extremes. The trouble is, if you built some experimental apparatus that harnessed enough energy to test gravity at its extremes, the experimental apparatus itself would turn into a black hole. That sort of thing pisses physicists off and probably breaches a number of health and safety regulations.

So where do we go from here?

In the article I link to, four physicists talk about how naughty gravity is.