Categories
Technology

VR’s killer app: Unreality

Tron (1982): Why should all realities (fail to) look like our reality?

Benedict Evans sees virtual reality going back into hibernation:

We tried VR in the 1980s, and it didn’t work. The idea may have been great, but the technology of the day was nowhere close to delivering it, and almost everyone forgot about it. Then, in 2012, we realised that this might work now. Moore’s law and the smartphone component supply chain meant that the hardware to deliver the vision was mostly there on the shelf. Since then we’ve gone from the proof of concept to maybe three quarters of the way towards a really great mass-market consumer device.

However, we haven’t worked out what you would do with a great VR device beyond games (or some very niche industrial application), and it’s not clear that we will. We’ve had five years of experimental projects and all sorts of content has been tried, and nothing other than games has really worked.

Benedict Evans, The VR Winter

Like the supporter of a perennially mid-ranked football team, I too get my hopes up about VR every dozen years or so.

In the long-term, as with AI that passes the Turing Test, ubiquitous VR seems inevitable.

Why wouldn’t we spend our time in VR if some of these were true:

  • It was prettier than reality
  • It was easy to get things done there
  • It was possible to get the impossible done there (fly, visit Mars, have sex with your favourite Hollywood crush)
  • It was safer
  • It emitted less CO2

Like AI, VR also runs aground on the shores of reality.

The journey from “Wow!” to “Wait! What?” for 2020’s incarnation of Amazon Alexa is about two minutes of interaction.

It’s even shorter with VR.

It seems clear that throwing Moore’s Law at the problem will eventually bodge together a solution.

The snag is you can’t be confident the Moon won’t have crashed into the Earth before then.

Don’t believe the hype

I think VR has a branding problem.

Reality is today not easy impossible to recreate, whether it’s a sassy live-in helper named Alexa or a virtual reality New York.

Don the headset to try any good VR game, and you’re bedazzled by the transportation.

If the game is great – Half-Life: Alyx is the state-of-the-art – then there’s at least one or two mechanics that suggest we’re finally on the cusp of our William Gibson future.

But then you poke a non-player character in the face and he says nothing.

Or you can open a drawer but not a door.

Or you bump into your sofa.

Wait! What?

A moment ago you were there – somewhere.

Now you’re a child with a wind-up toy monkey clanging cymbals, frustrated it’s already run out of tricks.

Game over

I think Virtual Reality has a branding problem.

If the label on your tin promises ‘reality’, it’s always going to smell off when you open it.

True, half my wish list for VR involves recreating reality.

But more than half of it doesn’t.

Imagine if the first video game developers had tried to recreate a photo-realistic Wimbledon before they’d got started with Pong.

Or if Space Invaders really had to look like the world was being invaded by aliens before it shipped.

Instead, their creators used what they had to make super-stylised reductions of reality – and in time games did take over the world.

You might argue today’s VR games are the baby step equivalents of Pong or Space Invaders.

I disagree.

Today’s VR developers try to use the graphical fidelity you’d get in the best of today’s games to conjure up their virtual realities.

Doing so, they set up their own failure:

The game can’t generate its world on demand. This means every playable option has to be worked out in advance by a game designer. Which means there can’t be many options. Which isn’t like our reality.

The game can’t visualise its world on demand. This means every environment has to be created by game artists, or at best compiled from a limited set of props. Because game artists, money, and storage capacity are all finite, this means the world can’t be very large. Slash it has to be tiny. Which isn’t like our reality.

The game world doesn’t behave like our world. This means that while it might look like our world for an instant, an instant later it doesn’t. So it’s not virtual reality. It’s not even camping in the pit of the uncanny valley. To be honest it’s not even looking at the uncanny valley on a map.

A solution: Virtual unreality

What if VR designers stopped trying to wow us with the theatrics of recreating a real-world office, a lifelike shark cage, or of running away from a flesh-and-blood zombie, and instead focused on creating their own realities?

Simple shapes. Limited colours. Narrower rules. Not many things you can do.

What if it was less 2018’s Annihilation and more 1979’s Asteroids?

I’m not suggesting someone create a VR shoot-em-up like Asteroids. They already have.

I’m suggesting tackling the problem at a higher level.

Maybe your virtual unreality (VU) world has rooms. Maybe it has doors and floors. Maybe it has some physics.

Maybe it contains ten objects. Maybe just three.

And that’s all it has.

But these three to ten things all interact in your VU in a completely internally consistent way.

Your VU engine can cover any eventually, which is important because it means it can generate VU on-demand, on-the-fly.

Say I’m walking towards my real-life sofa – the VU can put something in my way, or curve an in-VU pathway to take me away from it.

If that hack takes me into a new space that previously wasn’t on the VU engine’s map, it doesn’t matter because the alternate world is simple enough that the engine can adjust accordingly, and the dance I did doesn’t violate any internal rules.

You’re in a place. Nothing is wrong, because you can’t do much – but everything you can do you can do.

Why not start with these simple building blocks? Work outwards from there?

Less Matrix. Less Tron, even.

More Flatland.

Manic Miner (1983): Nothing like mining. Utterly immersive.
Categories
Society Technology

A singular feeling

“I’ve had enough,” said Simon the other day in a lockdown Zoom chat. “I just want things to stop for a while.”

“God I miss the 1990s,” he added.

“It’s true,” I said. “Nothing happened in the 1990s.”

“Maybe the PlayStation.”

Like a lot of people, I’ve got the sense the world has been going slightly crazy in the past few years.

The financial crisis. A bear market. Online warfare. Trump. Brexit. Russian bots. A bear market, again. A whipsaw rally.

A virus that flies commercial. Around the world in a month, not a year. A horror story you see coming, between the photos of your aunt’s cat on your social media feed.

I realised I’ve been thinking about this all wrong.

This isn’t an overwhelming number of things happening.

It’s all the same thing happening.

It’s exactly what my friend Simon says. The world is speeding up.

It took over 500 years to go from Gutenberg’s printing press to IBM’s electric typewriter.

It took 25 years to go from the electric typewriter to the Compaq desktop PC.

15 years from there to the Imac. Ten years from iMac to iPhone.

Five years from mobile phone calls to Facebook to WhatsApp.

People aren’t shouting at each other on Twitter because they have gotten angrier.

They’re shouting on Twitter because it exists, and before it didn’t.

People don’t disagree with you because they know better.

Everyone disagrees because nobody is sure of anything.

The government lied. Wall Street lied. The news lied. Facebook lied. Now everything might be a lie.

And faster and faster it goes.

This is how we make way for the singularity.

Not with a bang. Not a whimper.

A whirligig.

Categories
Society

Life moves pretty fast

A quick update on developments in Covid-19, most of which support the thesis outlined on this blog over the past six weeks.

(The notable exception is the lost years to Covid-19 fatality research. Seemingly much higher than I was presuming).

We now know there were indeed probably vastly (i.e. orders of *magnitude*, not low %) more cases of Covid-19 in hotspots than officially being estimated even a few weeks ago, although this data is still very preliminary and uncertain:
https://www.marketwatch.com/…/more-than-21-of-new-york…

We now know there’s a strong chance the virus will slow in summer due to sun/warmth, and may never spread catastrophically in the hot developing world for same reason; always seemed likely but the pushback was (and still is) no sure proof:
https://metro.co.uk/…/us-says-covid-19-lives-just-2…/

More evidence/modelling suggesting the virus could indeed have been spreading in NYC and (I am suggesting) London weeks before being officially recognized:
https://www.nytimes.com/…/coronavirus-early-outbreaks…

It’s still too early to be sure, but signs from Sweden are that ultra-lockdown, with its catastrophic impact on the global economy, is probably an over-reaction. E.g. Sweden is still bad but better than us:
https://twitter.com/jburnmurdoch/status/1253459552164556802

(I think our first three-week lockdown was prudent in the circumstances but we need to transition to something softer ASAP. Also, you probably have to lockdown *very* early to have a big impact on spread, and then you leave yourself vulnerable to importing future waves. E.g. Early test-and-trace success Singapore is now back to 10,000+ cases).

I’m actually disappointed by what I see as a low % of antibodies in early New York results (21%) that has so shocked the US media for being high. But all told this is a meaningful set of developments.

On the other hand a new research paper very depressingly suggests on average 10 years of life lost to a Covid-19 fatality, which is definitely higher than I would have thought from casually skimming the data in the past weeks:

https://wellcomeopenresearch.org/articles/5-75

One outstanding question for me remains whether full lockdown is a bit of a sideshow once the virus is spreading at scale, and doesn’t much impact the natural history of a local pandemic.

Remember I’m just an interested citizen trying to convert uncertainty into risk as a way of coping with lockdown.

I definitely have my own biases, so please take everything here with a pinch of salt.

Categories
Society

Locked and unloaded

A week before the UK government spun on its heels and ordered a nationwide lockdown, I got my hair cut.

While I still could.

My hairdresser and I discussed the virus, the shutdown in Italy, and how business for him had already slowed to a trickle.

I warned he’d probably have to close up entirely in a few days. I’d studied the graphs, and it was clear we were going the way of Italy. An Italian-style lockdown seemed inevitable.

But he was having none of it.

Why should there be a lockdown in the UK? This wasn’t Italy. We didn’t have lots of people dying. How could they order everyone to stay at home? People needed to get their hair cut.

And he couldn’t survive without work for weeks on end.

Who could?

Here, there, everywhere

I don’t want to single out my hairdresser for his lack of foresight.

Because ever since the novel coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19 – appeared on our collective radar, most people have been confounded by events that seemed pretty predictable.

If the virus was discussed at all by Western firms and economists at the start of 2020, it was in the context of supply chain disruption.

I was astonished at talk in January and February about how China would suffer as companies permanently shifted their supply chains to nearby places like Vietnam.

The implication was this was a Chinese problem – even as the virus was already spreading to neighbouring regions and beyond.

Why wouldn’t the virus come here? And if we failed to contain it in just a dozen places, why wouldn’t it spread everywhere?

Well, we know what happened next.

The latest surprise is from people who are shocked to learn that if you switch off the economy, you barrel towards a depression.

Yet just a month ago – as every newspaper and Twitter pundit screamed at the government to impose a total lockdown instead of – they all but alleged – killing people for kicks, there was almost no talk about the economic consequences.

I felt heretical when I wrote here a few weeks ago:

I believe there’s a very high probability the strategy of isolating everyone as much as possible that is being pursued across the world will crash the global economy.

Note: This is a bad thing.

If you think we have political/inequality problems now, you won’t like it better with a couple of million suddenly unemployed in the UK alone, alongside tens of thousands of bankrupt businesses.

– Fear is a Virus, Bennallack.com, March 18, 2020

Back then even the financial press was still talking blandly about “economic downsides” and a “potential recession”.

I thought a recession was pretty nailed-on. Only the loneliness of my position gave me pause.

This blog is still new and it has no readers. So I decided to share that post with my friends on Facebook.

It’s a sign of how nervous I was about pointing out the – cough – ‘economic downside’ that I only shared it with close friends via a special list. Their response was still pretty frosty.

Now people have started to lose their incomes at a record pace – or seen their friends lose theirs – and suddenly everyone gets that you have to do some outputting to have some economic output.

This week we were told the Office for Budget Responsibility sees UK GDP plunging 35% if we continue in lockdown.

The Guardian put this decline into context for those fortunate folk who don’t spend their lives immersed in financial esoterica:

We’re gonna need a bigger Y-axis.

Meanwhile in the US, all measures of distress are flashing red.

For example the Empire State Manufacturing Index just came in at minus 78.2%. That’s more than twice as bad as the worst figure seen in the financial crisis.

With many millions having lost their jobs, the US unemployment rate is up to at least 12% – the worst since the Great Depression.

By the time you read this, I estimate at least 22 million Americans will have officially filed as unemployed.

I suspect the real figure could be well over 25 million, given how the State apparatus is being overwhelmed by surging demand.

All this in less time than it takes your monthly Netflix subscription to roll around.

No obvious solution to Covid-19

Did we have to go this way? I don’t believe so, although we’ll never have a counterfactual to know for sure.

As I’ve written before, one alternative would have been to exploit the restricted demographics of the victims of Covid-19.

We keep being told the virus “does not discriminate”. But we know its lethality definitely discriminates: by age and underlying health.

Given the enormously wide variation in experiences of different countries in dealing with their pandemics – hard though they are to be confident about, given the varied testing regimes – there’s probably much else going on besides. (I suspect Vitamin D, obesity, and pollution will also prove to be part of the picture.)

I concede the government probably had no choice but to order a nationwide lockdown – albeit this was partly as a consequence of its muddled initial response.

But it should have been stressed (and planned) that this was to be temporary. Maybe a month to give us breathing room.

Personally I suspect Covid-19 is massively infectious where it spreads (countries like ours, as opposed to hot countries in Africa where it seems pretty impotent, and especially in big, polluted cities with public transport systems like London and New York) but also mostly harmless.

Indeed I’ve a hunch that working back from what I guess is a pretty low mortality rate (maybe as low as 0.3%) that five to ten million Britons have had the virus, largely asymptomatically.

It also seems reasonable to assume the virus was spreading rampantly in March in places where the old and vulnerable are clustered, such as hospitals and care homes. So unfortunately the very people most likely to die from this coronavirus may have been in the firing line in the first wave.

Cast your mind back. There was none of this six-foot wide berth on the pavements going on then. Everyone was hugging, hand shaking, and going to the Cheltenham races.

If it’s as infectious as it seems, why wouldn’t it have spread everywhere? It probably did.

So what then was the alternative to opt-in economic carnage?

Like everyone I’d have preferred testing, tracing, and aggressive quarantine, but that’s much easier written than done from scratch.

As I said last time, my Plan B would have been mandatory lockdown of the over-65s and anyone else deemed vulnerable, coupled with aggressive physical distancing. No handshakes, no kisses, et cetera.

It’s instructive to look at Sweden. That country has no enforced lockdown, and while a fear-mongering Guardian stresses its deaths per million figure is higher than its neighbours, it is still not much more than half of ours.

Judging by these stats, far fewer Swedes are dying with the virus than Britons, adjusting for population.

Remember: That’s with no lockdown.

This is a bit of a flyer, but I believe it’s possible we may learn in time the whole lockdown manoeuvre was a phoney war that did nothing much to alter the natural history of the virus.

Here’s locking down you, kid

This all matters because full lockdown is the embodiment of government-sanctioned catastrophic thinking – modelling the worst that can happen and then turning every dial to 10 to try to ward off that supposed direst outcome.

It’s blown up the economy, and people’s common sense.

I know people in their 40s who leave their mail on the porch for days, then bleach it. They unpack their shopping with disposable gloves.

One of my closest friends isn’t going for walks during lockdown. He even says he’ll stay inside after the lockdown is lifted.

“Why shouldn’t I do everything I can not to get this disease?” he retorts when challenged. “Can you tell me there’s no chance I will be sick or die if I catch it?”

My friend believes this is a winning argument. In reality it only proves how detached from rationality people have become.

The sensible justification for lockdown is to curb the transmission rate of the virus and so curb the pressure on the health service – so that hopefully we won’t need, for example, the NHS Nightingale hospital in London that currently lies all but empty.

Lockdown is not so that someone like my healthy friend doesn’t get a mostly harmless virus that they’ll probably eventually get anyway.

I try to reason with him. Will he no longer eat at restaurants in case of food poisoning? Will he quarantine himself away from October to April so he doesn’t become one of the 12,000 to 17,000 seasonal flu victims in Britain each year? Will he no longer travel by accident-prone car?

What about his lifestyle? Will he stop drinking – he often goes over the limit – and will he lose weight and eat a vegetarian diet?

Of course not. His newfound ‘rational’ regard for his health extends only as far as Covid-19.

My friend recites the official death toll – roughly 13,000 in the UK as I write, though I calculate it’s probably more like 20,000 if you take into account care homes and other out-of-hospital deaths.

But he doesn’t know this statistic includes everyone who died in a hospital that tested positive for Covid-19, regardless of whether they were even showing symptoms, let alone if it killed them.

No doubt many are dying of the virus – the death rate in the UK is well above average right now.

But 13,000 were not killed by Covid-19. Probably nothing like it.

If you went out today and got hit by the proverbial bus – and then when you were tested after dying in hospital you were found to have the virus – you’d go into the coronavirus stats.

Again, regardless of whether you were even showing symptoms.

Consider this graph:

The BBC continues:

Every year, about 600,000 people in the UK die.

And the frail and elderly are most at risk, just as they are if they have coronavirus.

Nearly 10% of people aged over 80 will die in the next year, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, at the University of Cambridge, points out, and the risk of them dying if infected with coronavirus is almost exactly the same.

BBC, Updated 14 April

Meanwhile, any young person who is unlucky enough to die with Covid-19 is splashed across all the newspaper front pages, as if in warning to their teenage peers who are struggling to stay inside with their parents, 24/7.

Because this virus does not discriminate, remember?

Only, it does discriminate. Last I looked fewer than 100 people under-40 had tested positive for Covid-19 at death.

Most will have unfortunately had underlying health conditions.

Saving for the future

Of course if we’re doing a lockdown then we should all lock down.

I am, despite my personal misgivings and the fact I suspect I’ve already had it. The kids should, too.

My point is not that we should freestyle our actions in the face of the virus.

It is that the climate of fear we’re enduring in the UK – and which is so absent in grown-up Sweden – has distorted everything.

That’s why anytime a politician suggests we need to look for a way out of lockdown, an army of the terrified or the virtue-signalling shouts them down.

Like me, the professional pundits among them are mostly middle-class journalists writing from their comfortable home offices, enjoying their ongoing salaries, and perhaps removed from the reality of the millions who’ve lost their jobs.

They protest that we can’t put a price on health.

Firstly, we can and we do it all the time. (Learn about QALY).

Secondly, this lockdown will itself kill people.

Again this felt dangerous to write four weeks ago, but now academics are steadily popping up to say the same thing.

Even the fearful Guardian has looked into domestic abuse killings, which have already doubled.

But there’ll be lots more going on than that.

People aren’t seeing their GPs. People aren’t exercising. People are drinking more. They are deliberately socially isolated – a known marker for all sorts of bad outcomes.

This is just the start. Throw unemployment into the mix, food poverty, educational disruption, and most especially loss of tax revenues for future health spending, and it seems very possible more people will die from lockdown than from coronavirus.

You still think I exaggerate? The government is reportedly looking at 150,000 deaths as a long-term result of an ongoing lockdown.

And University of Bristol researchers estimate that with a 6.4% decline in GDP, we’ll see more loss in life expectancy due to lockdown than we saved from Covid-19.

Clearly this is all very uncertain.

However it gives lie to the idea that caring about the economic impact is simply advocating for greed.

Buy now, pay later

Just in case I’ve won you over and from now on you’ll pause a moment before shouting “Murderer!” at any politician who suggests ending lockdown would be desirable, allow me to snatch away my victory by concluding with some more economy-minded thoughts.

Because even aside from its impact on our health, lockdown is a terrible thing to hurl at the economy we all depend on.

Government and Bank of England support – while commendably swift and extensive – is implicitly picking winners and losers.

For example, self-employed people who happen to operate through a limited company are being massively disadvantaged compared to sole traders, by overnight government edict.

That would have been a fierce multi-year wrangle before.

Or take physical retailers. While the secular trend towards online shopping is clear, some were managing to adapt to a hybrid model, helped along by firms like Shopify. They (and their landlords) have been chopped off at the knees, again overnight.

Shutting down the entire economy will have broken lots of fragile connections that have taken years to build up. People and firms will make other arrangements, and so they may not be around when the switch is thrown back on. A free market is an ecosystem, where millions of entities depend on one another.

This means that after an initial growth spurt when we’re finally allowed out again, the recovery will proceed in fits and starts. Productivity will likely be dinged for years.

Entrepreneurship has fallen. Who’s starting a business now? Who will start one if saddled with debt from the upcoming recession?

That’s important because small and new companies are the lifeblood of innovation, and of job creation.

Talking of debt, all that government support doesn’t come free.

Here’s an estimate from the Financial Times:

Alas, poor austerity, I knew thee well…

The government is quite right to be spending money. Injecting funds now to suspend as much of the existing infrastructure as possible in economic carbonite will help kickstart growth when we do come out of lockdown.

Indeed those – especially in the US – who criticise state action as subverting the free market even when the government has already done the ultimate subversion by telling industry to go home and watch YouTube, well, that is how laissez faire capitalists get a bad name.

So yes, the state spending has to be done – but there will be a reckoning.

Hopefully the powers-that-be won’t try to austerity our way out of the deficit this time. If they do then our great grandkids will still be living with the consequences of Covid-19.

But one way or another, making up for lost output now by pulling it forward from the future will need to be paid for.

Taxes will rise, and savers may see their cash inflated away.

Calculating the final cost of all this – in lives and years lost versus those saved, in temporary and permanent economic impairment, and on household balance sheets – will take years.

But at the least, realise there is a cost.

And maybe don’t shout at the telly when somebody muses it’d be a good idea to end this lockdown ASAP, even if the health experts ultimately decide we can’t.

Categories
Society

Fear is a virus

Unpopular opinion: In a couple of months we’ll probably see the global lockdown strategy to tackle COVID-19 is flawed and unworkable.

I believe there’s a very high probability the strategy of isolating everyone as much as possible that is being pursued across the world will crash the global economy.

Note: This is a bad thing.

If you think we have political/inequality problems now, you won’t like it better with a couple of million suddenly unemployed in the UK alone, alongside tens of thousands of bankrupt businesses.

When virus fears go viral

We’re lucky this virus overwhelmingly kills only the elderly or vulnerable. This should give us a fighting chance to respond flexibly, compared to if everyone was equally likely to be killed by it.

However there’s little suggestion of that in the tactics to-date.

I’m definitely NOT saying do-nothing to mitigate the spread. But I struggle with the logic of the current universal approach.

Yes, like everyone I’ve seen and shared the flattening the curve graphs. And I too find the argument very convincing:

Doing something is clearly better than doing nothing.

But again, rather than “all in it together” I can’t see why for instance we don’t try to reduce escalation of hospital cases by extremely isolating the more vulnerable to try to reduce the hospital load.

This would then leave the rest of us soldiering on to keep the economy going – and to get on with getting and shaking off the virus, which is exactly what is needed in the long run.

Is the immediate lockdown aiming to buy time to get through the first wave, to make more ventilators, et cetera?

If so, then let’s communicate that it’s a one-time drastic measure. That might reduce uncertainty and enable businesses to plan and raise financing, rather than giving up and firing staff or folding.

Any vaccine is 12-18 months away, so the plan can’t be meant to get us to that, surely?

Is total lockdown the solution because even if COVID-19 only kills say 0.2-0.4% of under-60s, that’s still a huge number?

That makes some sense, though I’d like to see how the 0.2% for the youngest cohorts is further segmented according to existing health conditions (as would everyone else, I know.)

Perhaps the epidemiologists are correctly telling us that the more comprehensive the lockdown, the fewer COVID-19 deaths.

But does their analysis take into account all the non-virus externalities caused by such a lockdown?

And how many of the old and vulnerable cohort predicted to die by the models would have – very sadly – died anyway over the lengthy forecast period?

Misheard immunity

On balance, I suspect the initial – misunderstood – approach by the UK government was probably along the right lines, if flawed in presentation and implementation.

It did not seem to do much to specifically isolate the old – probably for political reasons – to the extent that the populace took the strategy to be aimed at deliberately killing them.

Nor was there much emphasis on the quick and easy wins of social distancing – versus later guidance to self-isolate and avoid pubs and restaurants, which is going to be economically ruinous.

But it at least foreshadowed the elephant in the room: that most of us are going to (and need to) get this virus.

In my (clueless) opinion it would make much more sense for everyone over-65/vulnerable and their carers to be isolated indefinitely (i.e. stay inside, food delivery at a distance of five-foot from the front door) and for the government to spend several tens of billions mobilising the army/others to deliver food and other essentials and give income support until the threat abates.

The cost would be astronomical, but it would be targeted and will anyway probably be less than seeing a self-inflicted economic armageddon because you tried to lock away everyone in the prime of their productive lives and blew up several vital sectors (e.g. hospitality, retail) doing so.

The vast majority of the non-vulnerable could then aim to social distance according to the 80/20 rule, rather than Prepper-style…

  • Keep apart from one another
  • Wash our hands regularly and without fail
  • Zero hugs, zero kisses, zero handshakes
  • Stay at home when we get the virus
  • Sensible social restrictions where greatest modelled impact
  • Use hand sanitiser gel like Howard Hughes having a bad day
  • More regular cleaning of communal spaces, especially fomites like door handles, counters, and lift buttons

…but otherwise life, work, eating out, and buying a latte goes on.

The virus would spread, but social distancing could slow it down.

The cost of economic collapse

A deep recession will cause untold personal misery for millions, and smash tax revenues.

There will be less money for hospitals, schools, nurses, and the rest of the Richard Scarry professions. Poor kids will grow up with greater food insecurity. Relationships will break down.

More immediately, closing GP surgeries for instance means children’s rashes going undiagnosed, odd lumps not spotted. People are going to die anyway due to lockdown, albeit fewer from COVID-19.

Calls for economic stimulus as an offsetting response are misguided. You don’t electroshock a patient you deliberately put into a coma.

Direct loans/grants for individuals/businesses are much more sensible but I doubt they can stave off a big recession.

Eternal return

The full lockdown strategy would be a clear winner if the current COVID-19 outbreak was a one-time event.

But I’ve not heard anyone explain how given we got to today’s state from just a handful of hapless travellers bringing us the virus mere weeks ago – from the very few places in the world where it was at that point established – why it won’t keep happening repeatedly until we get a vaccine or treatment, or until we’ve mostly all had it.

The current Draconian lockdown probably won’t even work therefore and will be abandoned. The cost will be for nothing.

I’m following the official government guidance and I think you should, too. This isn’t a call for anarchism.

But we will probably have to do something different soon.

Update: New data suggests more young people are being hospitalised than was reported earlier in the crisis. This would undermine the case for a more segmented approach to guidance.

From the FT:

Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s executive director, said two thirds of those who are in intensive care for the virus in Italy are under the age of 70, and 12 per cent are under 50. In South Korea, nearly a fifth of deaths were of people under 60, he said earlier in the week.

Interestingly, more than 80% of those who have tested positive for the virus in Germany are under-60. That said, given Germany’s low death rate and high testing, this could be seen as reassuring if it indicates the virus is actually quite widespread already.

Update 20 March 2020: I just went out to buy bread and (like every day this week) a socially-distanced latte from the small indie coffee shop in the station that is probably going to go bust after a month of this semi-lockdown.

The streets are full of old people shuffling around, chatting, not wearing masks, buying provisions. I counted them (this is in a subdued suburb of West London) and in a 20-minute walk I got to over 100 definite over-60s and more than 40 over-70s.

I would estimate about one-quarter of everyone I saw was in this vulnerable group. Anecdotal but suggestive.

At the same time today we have the government back-tracking on a rumoured London lockdown.

So to me it looks like the worst of both worlds — a half-baked London lockdown where people come and go at leisure (i.e. NOT what seemingly worked in Wuhan in China, which was much stricter) and at the same time a crashed economy – with as far as I can see a large potential COVID-19 exposure to elderly / vulnerable demographics.

I’m not saying my thought piece above is correct. But I maintain it’s a question worth asking. Especially given we don’t seem to be doing the lockdown properly.

Caveat: Armchair know-nothing non-epidemiologist, just musing aloud.

Categories
Investing

Beyond Meat, post-barbarianism

A whalebone (or baleen) corset was de rigueur for the fashionable young things of yesteryear.

I’m mulling over an investment in a vegan food delivery subscription service, allplants*, which is raising money on Seedrs*.

My analysis is about to get tastier. I’ve ordered a sample of its frozen meals!

It sure beats building a discounted cashflow model in Excel.

Follow my link to allplants* and you’ll get £20 off your first order.

Let me know what you make of the meals on Twitter.

Deliver who?

Of course there are already a banquet of meal delivery services competing to lose money in the pursuit of ours.

I’ve invested in another, SimplyCook*. The jury is out on that one.

And to be honest, I’m not yet convinced about allplants. The meals seem expensive, though as my friend H. pointed out, if you’re not confident about your cooking but you want to wean yourself off meat, they may look a bargain.

But there’s no special proprietary technology here – nothing like the lab-grown frankenburgers of Beyond Meat – so it’s really a bet on branding, execution, and what seems like a strong team.

Not nothing, but not ideal.

If it wasn’t for the tailwind I believe such businesses have from the shift away from eating meat, I probably wouldn’t look at it.

Green shoots

You see, in the past few years the move towards more plant-based diets has become a stampede.

From the BBC:

According to the latest research by the Vegan Society, conducted in 2018, there are around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain.

It’s estimated that this is up from 150,000 in 2006, and that there are twice as many women than men who are vegan.

Around 360,000 people also describe themselves as lifestyle vegans, who commit to only using or buying cosmetics and clothes free from animal products, for example.

As someone who tried and failed to stay a vegetarian in the ’90s – I managed a few years on bean sprouts and nut roasts – I rather sheepishly welcome this trend.

And I think it’s only just begun.

Eating animals – and drinking the infant milk of ruminants, and hard boiling the embryos of chickens – guarantees a fine old time on a Friday night in Chinatown, but it sounds odd when you think about it.

I often like to annoy self-righteously woke friends by pointing out the things they do today that history will consider terrible.

Just driving a petrol-fuelled car past a playground might seem callous in 30 years’ time.

And eating ‘real’ meat will probably go the same way:

Bones brigade

We underestimate how much times and tastes change – especially as technology adapts to enable us to become more sensitive souls.

Your great great great grandfather lit his rooms with blubber and the oil drained from the head cavity of sperm whales.

His wife wore corsets and hooped skirts fashioned from the skeletons of these intelligent and now endangered animals.

For many years the perfume trade coveted a substance called ambergris – basically whale vomit. Ambergris was used to fix fragrances. It was also occasionally eaten with eggs.

During the 18th Century millions upon millions of whales were hunted and sliced to ribbons for our ancestors to wine and dine in London under lights lit by whale oil, wearing the bones of whales for clothing, and smelling of whale puke.

And the Victorians called native people barbarians!

It’s all a matter of perspective.

At the turn of the last century, rural British schoolgirls would go out shooting rooks, crows, and much else that flapped with what were called rook rifles.

Communities even held rook shoots. The aim was to destroy the juvenile birds before they could fly.

It was quite the social event. Later they’d eat their kills.

I’m not judging our ancestors – that’s the point. Rookeries can grow to become a nuisance, especially in an environment denuded of predators, and people have to eat.

And Beyond Rook wasn’t on the menu in 1892.

But one can only imagine what the Instagram generation would make of a rook shoot today.

There’s a fun scene in the Amazon Prime* series Mrs Maisel where some well-to-do 1950s housewives are lectured on the virtues of a racoon fur coat versus mink.

Only 70 years ago – and the fur-clad models looks like something out of Vikings.

Tastes change, and technology enables them to change.

Why wear racoon when you can wear environmentally conscious high-tech waterproof clothing from Finisterre?

Blame the size of a planet

Technology is pushing into meat substitutes partly because of this growing squeamishness, but also because we can’t feed 11 billion people a Western-style meat diet without finally finishing off the planet.

Besides the sheer amount of land needed for everyone to enjoy a beef burger, there’s the carbon impact:

Unless you want to see a much smaller population of water-borne humans dine exclusively on fish, tapering our eating of meat looks like a matter of urgency.

So how to profit from avoiding the End of the World?

There are surprisingly few ways to play this trend via stock market-listed equities.

You could consider US stocks like Beyond Meat, Ingredion, and Hain Celestial, or you could buy say Unilever and hope it pivots in time.

Otherwise you’re looking at risky startups like allplants.

Enjoy your £20 off if you do decide to do your due diligence on its vegetable moussaka or its BBQ jackfruit burrito bowl.

You’re getting a taste of things to come!

*Affiliate links

Categories
Society Technology

Why you’re doomed to techno-befuddlement by the time you’re 70

A friend aspires to be as adept at using consumer technology in 30 years – when he’ll be in his late 70s – as he is today.

This will be me and my friend in 30 years’ time. Children will smirk at us before being re-submerged in their entertainment vats.

He believes many older people have been lazy about keeping up with the underlying advances of the past 50 years.

And he argues that because he works in software engineering and makes an effort to understand the principles behind new technology, he will be in a good position to achieve his goal of being able to program his semi-bio-engineered cyborg gardener using mind control as easily as his grandchildren in the year 2054.

I believe he’s missing the point, and we’ve had many debates.

Silver surfer wipeout

We first got onto this topic after my friend expressed frustration with his septuagenarian mother, who was struggling to read her online banking webpage.

She’d had the Internet for years! Why couldn’t she just fill in the boxes and click the right buttons?

Because, I argued, she didn’t grow up with it. It’s not in her bones, or her muscle memory, or the appropriate synaptic connections.

While most older people I know have basically got the hang of parsing webpages by now, it was fascinating watching them try in their early encounters with the Internet.

Very often they’d start reading from the top left. They’d scan right, then return to the left hand side, drop their eyes down a bit, and continue the process.

They were reading the webpage like a book!

Ever wondered why anyone clicked on banner adverts or got confused about content versus text ads in the sidebar?

Now you know.

Reading a webpage like a book is bonkers to my generation.

Most of us grew up with – or at least encountered – video games.

We were taught very young to treat the screen like a plate of tapas to pick and choose from, rather than as a sacred text.

Perhaps even those who missed games (many young girls, in the early days, for instance) were still trained to have a roving eye by the frenetic activity of Saturday morning cartoons, or by the visually didactic offerings of Play School and Sesame Street.

Older people grew up on books, and watched movies at the cinema that were first staged like theatre productions. Their hands were held by the film’s creators through the viewing. Though they couldn’t articulate it, they mostly knew what to expect next (what shot, what reaction shot, what panning shot, and so on).

Whereas we were taught to take what we needed from a screen. Webpages, when they came, were no big leap.

Of course we were also young, inquisitive, and took pleasure in being adaptable – qualities that do seem to wane.

In any event, reading webpages has diddly-squat to do with understanding hypertext or TCP/IP.

Similarly, many of our parents well understood what a video tape was capable of doing.

The reason they struggled to program their VCRs was because they grew up in a world of wooden horses and plastic cars and just one fancy piece of electronics in the corner of the living room that at first they weren’t allowed to touch.

Are you already a luddite?

If you’re in your mid-to-late 40s and you believe your grandkids won’t be helping you with your household appliances in 30 years, ponder the following:

  • Do you spend fewer than 10 hours a day consuming content via a handheld digital device?
  • Do you still own a CD or DVD collection, or even an iTunes library?
  • Do you take a photo of every meal you have in a restaurant and then distribute it on social media?
  • Do you ever answer your front doorbell?
  • Do you take 546 portraits of yourself in front of every cultural landmark you pass, and know which is your good side, the right angle for your chin, and what’s your best filter?
  • Are you innately au fait with the rule of three?
  • When was the last time one of your memes went viral?
  • Do you answer your phone and/or leave voice messages?
  • (You actually have a landline?!)
  • Did you meet your last three partners on dating apps?
  • Has your Facebook account been dormant since 2016?
  • How often do you Snapchat something you’re ashamed of?
  • Do you fall asleep with your iPhone?
  • Can you even imagine sitting in front of adverts on the TV?

Sometimes you should be answering yes, and sometimes no.

Hopefully the questions speak for themselves. Most of us my age are already past it.

And this is just 2010-2020 technology. If you’re under 30 and you’re thinking “sure”, wait until you see what’s coming next…

The future is child’s play

My point is that what defines technological advances, eras, generations – and alienation – is not how the technology works.

It’s what people do with it.

A clue my friend is going to be metaphorically reaching into the befuddled darkness in his old age with the rest of us is he thinks none of the stuff in that list is new, and that it’s mostly stupid.

He doesn’t use Snapchat, he says, because he hasn’t got time, but anyway it’s just text messaging with pictures.

Posting photos of every dinner to Instagram is pointless, narcissistic, and distracting.

And so on.

Yes, perhaps I agree with him – but I would because I’m his age.

Our parents thought Manic Miner was a waste of time, too.

My father – who worked in Information Technology all his life – said I was in too much of a hurry to encourage him to get a home email address. Who was ever going to email him at home?

Whereas young people play with the new technology around them.

It’s not even new technology when you’re young. It’s just the world.

Their play may seem silly at first. But often they’re learning how to navigate the future.

Photographing your dinner seems ridiculous to those of us who made it to 46 without a daily visual record of what we ate.

But we weren’t cultivating multi-faceted media personalities from our pre-teen years with as large a footprint online as off.

I sent my friend a video this morning. It shows kids having fun using their AirPods as covert walkie-talkies in class:

My friend replied as follows:

A typically convoluted and wasteful solution. I’m sure they have great fun doing it, though.

(To get his tone, read his second sentence in the sarcastic voice of Basil Fawlty, rather than with the camaraderie of a Blue Peter presenter.)

His response illustrates why my friend will surely have to call out the droid training man six times before it’s finally packing away the grocery deliveries the way he wants it to.

Or why he’ll be one of the last to order an autonomous car that has a hot tub instead of a driver’s seat.

Or why he’ll never meet a partner on Tinder who will only make love after micro-dosing LSD.

Or why he’ll insist on sending text messages, rather than sharing head-vibes via an embedded emote transmitter-receiver.

Or why he’ll die of a heart attack because he hadn’t tracked his blood via a wearable monitor disguised as a signet ring.

Or whatever actually does come down the road; the challenges of tomorrow’s technology won’t look like those of today.

I don’t mean to make fun of my friend. I applaud his aspiration.

But he has got a solution for a totally different problem.

Categories
Society

The four horseman of the Apocalypse for the after dark High Street

Cardiff, 2010: Those were the days (BBC)

Economists and pundits are befuddled by the decline of the UK High Street, and all the pubs and restaurant chains that have shrunk or gone bust.

Most blame high rates but I find that unconvincing. It’s hardly new.

Others point to Brexit uncertainty. While it’s true this act of gross national self-harm hasn’t helped anyone bar a few politicians, it’s surely not what’s ailing Britain’s purveyors of boozy revelry.

No, I believe it’s all about sex.

Carbon dating

Most people over 40 have no idea just how ‘dating’ – or ‘hooking up’ – has changed since we were young.

I put both terms in quotes, because these are American imports that weren’t even really a thing in the UK 20 years ago.

Like good investing, getting horizontal in Blighty used to be simple but not easy.

Boy had a few drinks. Girl had a few drinks. Semi-drunk boys and girls met somewhere social, got off, thought “you’ll do”, and hung about until they realised they wouldn’t or they got married.

Sadly, imports have destroyed this traditional British way of life.

First there was the TV show Friends, and latterly Tinder.

Nobody is putting themselves out there

I’ll illustrate via the experiences of a friend of mine.

Let’s call him Frank.

Frank has gamed the algorithms of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge.

Looking at his profile is a glimpse into what life must be like as an Instagram model with a winning way with a bikini, or as Barack Obama on Twitter.

Frank’s profile is a long stream of Likes, Matches, and interactions. He browses them at his leisure, and engages a few in chat.

When Frank has decided he’d like to meet one, he sends them exactly the same 12-word semi-witty suggestion that he has found gets the highest positive response rate.

I know… romantic.

Needless to say all his photos have been A/B tested, too.

Furthering his odds, Frank is in the demographic sweet spot for men – early 30s, works out, decent earner, still has all his own hair.

Okay, he is probably in the foothills of the spectrum, but that doesn’t matter in the era of apps. If anything it’s a boon.

He’s interesting enough to talk to in real-life, if a bit insensitive.

Frank gets lots of traction from dating apps, that’s my point.

But it is a truth universally acknowledged since Austen that when it comes to the sexual marketplace, the grass is always greener.

We don’t serve your kind in here

Frank wants to be a real-life player, like the men he read about on dodgy Internet forums when he was a teenager.

And perhaps because I’m more than a decade older, Frank decided I’d be the perfect ‘wingman’, in the parlance of such tribes, to go out with him for non-screen mediated interactions in social venues – or, as we used to call it, “on the pull”.

Our missions are a perpetual disappointment.

Of course the truth is going on the pull was almost always hugely disappointing. So Frank is getting some authentic reality right there.

Throw in a first-generation PlayStation, Blur on a CD player, and a couple of bottles of Hooch, and Frank could be living the ’90s dream.

But as one who did live that dream, I had to inform Frank after several doomed Saturday nights that this was even worse.

Because – in short, rounding down – nobody is doing it anymore.

They’ve just stopped.

Okay, I’m sure students on campus are still getting off at the college disco or whatnot, but in everyday life, women have stopped going to pubs to meet men, and men have stopped going to look for them.

If women are in pubs now, it’s to meet and socialise, and who can blame them.

Browsing long streams of “hey!”s and/or propositions on a dating app with a hot chocolate must be a ten-fold improvement for the average woman compared to being drooled on by the least shy, most cocksure, or most drunk male on a Saturday night.

As for men, I think dating apps are a cruel place for most of us in terms of garnering the attention of women, but really it was the same back in the old days. We just didn’t have apps telling us to expect anything different.

Anyway, back to my point – most people have realised the only thing they’re likely to attract in today’s near-empty pubs is a cold.

There’s probably a broader trend here, too, informed by movements in identity politics and #metoo, perhaps.

People no longer seem to signal their status like they used to, and they have less fun with / less tolerance for it all.

In other words, they don’t flirt in most social spaces.

In the long run this is probably for the good, especially for women who can do without low-level harassment in the workplace, but still it’s easy to forget how much has changed.

Twenty years ago I worked in an office where the newest recruit – male or female – was hazed by having a bunch of framed porn photos on their desk until someone newer was hired.

I didn’t work for Hustler. It was just an office of normal media people. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was especially off.

Yikes. We’ve changed.

Goodbye to all: apps

Which brings me back to my four horseman. (Can you hear their mounts stamping at the door and braying to be heard?)

I believe the epochal shift in sexual and social dynamics – mostly due to dating apps, but with a strong supporting cast – has changed nightlife forever. (It’s probably doing much else besides.)

As I mused to Frank at the end of one of our uneventful evenings, I see four apps in particular as the riders of the Apocalypse that have spelled doom for traditional nightlife:

  • Tinder – And Hinge, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, Grindr, and all the others. People no longer need to go out, spend money, and get drunk to meet to people. So they don’t.
  • Netflix – …and chill. Clues in the vernacular. Even if you’re not chilling with that special someone who made it through your Tinder funnel, you’re probably bingeing on a box set rather than trying to ring fun out of a provincial nightclub.
  • Deliveroo – Why get a sweaty kebab when you can have your favourite chain meal whisked from dark kitchen to your door in 30 minutes?
  • WhatsApp – You don’t even need to go to the pub to drown your sorrows. Cheap beer and a group of your fellow unlucky lovers will get you through those long nights of the soul.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

There’s that pub near you that’s always busy, or you were out on Friday night in Shoreditch in London and it was rammed.

Yes, yes. There will always be a few successful pubs that are hubs for the local community, presuming we don’t transition to living in vats wearing VR headsets.

I suppose too that there will always be the very trendiest parts of town, the most Instagrammable new restaurants, and the odd capital letter Event that stokes your target demographic’s FOMO.

I’m talking about the continental landmass, not those exotic islands.

The waters are rising, and the end times are upon that old world.

Categories
Technology

Would you rather be killed by a robot?

Few of us want to die, but we have a greater aversion to going one way than another.

A classic example is air travel. Despite being statistically far safer than driving, many more people are afraid of flying and it is air plane crashes that make the nightly news.

Of course the safety of air travel is what makes a rare calamity headline-worthy. Just another car crash caused by a sleepy, drunk, or texting driver will be lucky to make the local papers.

But there’s also something else going on.

Drivers – and perhaps even passengers – seem to accept their agency in a highway accident in a way that many airplane travellers do not. We feel helpless at 35,000 feet, but we suspend our disbelief. We’re equally helpless at 80mph on the motorway should a lorry jack-knife in front of us, but a few seconds before we felt like we were the kings of the road.

The difficulty in making an all-terrain level 5 autonomous car that’s fit for purpose has curbed the enthusiasm of those of who thought (/hoped!) we were on the edge of a self-driving revolution.

But the squishy calculus that we apply to fatal accidents could hold back a rollout even if sufficiently viable technology comes along.

Do Androids dream of L-plates?

What’s sufficient?

In the US, the National Highway Traffic Administration estimated that 36,750 people were killed in US traffic crashes in 2018.

If the entire fleet had switched over to autonomous vehicles on January 1 2019 and the number of deaths had subsequently dropped by one to 36,749 would it be celebrated as a success?

Unlikely – although the one extra person who lived to read that statistic at the end of the year might disagree.

Even leaving aside the many complicating factors absent from this illustration (noise in the statistical data, unintended effects such as greater alcoholism as everyone could now drink and ‘drive’, an increase in drug use or suicide among newly-unemployed truck drivers) we intuitively know the US public isn’t going to accept 36,749 robot-mediated driving deaths a year.

I don’t think the American public would accept 749 annual fatalities from buggy robot driving.

Perhaps not even 49.

Obviously this makes no logical sense, but there it is.

These questions will only amplify as AI migrates further off the desktop and the cloud and visibly into our daily lives.

  • Would you be happy if a robot lifeguard saved three elderly swimmers in difficulty over your six-year old child?
  • Would you chalk it up to statistically predictable bad luck if an AI screen for breast cancer gave you a false negative, even if you’d stood a lower chance of such an erroneous result than had a friendly-faced radiologist seen the same slide?
  • Should a robot driver head towards a fatal collision with an oncoming out-of-control vehicle, killing several, or instead swerve to crush a baby in a pram?

That last example is regularly trotted out in the insurance industry, where such issues aren’t just interesting after-dinner talking points.

Someone will have to be responsible if someone is going to pay.

But for most of us, the questions are mushier. We recoil at their asking, but the machines need to know what to do.

One option is to avoid AI, even if doing so leads to worse outcomes and perhaps tens of thousands of preventable deaths.

Another is to live in a world where we come to accept the odd random destruction or death from poor or faulty or simply inexplicable AI decisions in the same way ancient people sighed and chalked up heart attacks or plagues as evidence of the whims of capricious gods.

That sounds defeatist. But it’s arguably better than 36,750 Americans dying every year at the hands of human drivers because nobody wants to be killed by a bug.

Categories
Technology

Instagram: On the node

A candid photo exposes the reality behind so many aspirational Instagram photographs set in impossibly beautiful locations:

Norway’s Trolltunga: The Instagram myth
Trolltunga: The reality

CNBC notes:

A decade ago, fewer than 800 people a year traveled to Trolltunga. Next year, that figure’s expected to hit 100,000.

People queue with dozens of others, babbling and checking their phones, to be photographed standing at Trolltunga in meditation.

What’s going on?

The 1990’s interpretation: Cheap air travel and a generation that puts more of a premium on experiences than stuff are seeking out the world’s greatest places.

The 2000’s interpretation: The explosion of information on the Internet and the ubiquity of smartphones has made people more aware of where they can visit and what sort of experiences they should pursue.

The 2019 reality: Instagram has made every place a de facto node on a real-world physical network. Social media influencers and network effects drive superlinear traffic to the most popular nodes, which only increases their subsequent popularity.

Instagram will eat the world

Twenty years ago, the National Geographic could publish a photo of Trolltunga to the fleeting interest of a magazine browser. One or two might add Norway to their holiday lists.

Today’s aspirational Instagram user identifies Trolltunga as a resource. In consuming that resource – by visiting, photographing, and posting – they make a honey trap that attracts 100 more.

Hence the most popular spots are noded and overrun, and this kind of mathematics implies they’ll be impossible within an iteration or two.

Solutions?

  • Restricted access to the most popular nodes (quotas, dollars)
  • A counter-cultural trend towards more obscure nodes (at best a delaying tactic)
  • Simulcra nodes. A fake Grand Canyon. A 3D printed Taj Mahal. Machu Picchu remade for middle-class China to visit by train.
  • The Instagram craze dies down (unlikely)
  • Eventually we all live in the matrix, anyway

Many of these solutions sound phoney.

Are they phonier than the myth of Trolltunga today?