The Viral Virus

Graph of word "test*" over time
Relative Frequency of word “test*” over time

Analyzing the Twitter Conversation Surrounding COVID-19

From Twitter I found out about this excellent visual essay on The Viral Virus by Kate Appel from May 6, 2020. Appel used Voyant to study highly retweeted tweets from January 20th to April 23rd. She divided the tweets into weeks and then used the distinctive words (tf-idf) tool to tell a story about the changing discussion about Covid-19. As you scroll down you see lists of distinctive words and supporting images. At the end she shows some of the topics gained from topic modelling. It is a remarkably simple, but effective use of Voyant.

COVID-19 contact tracing reveals ethical tradeoffs between public health and privacy

Michael Brown has written a nice article in the U of Alberta folio on COVID-19 contact tracing reveals ethical tradeoffs between public health and privacyThe article quotes me extensively on the subject of the ethics of these new bluetooth contact tracing tools. In the interview I tried the emphasize the importance of knowledge and consent.

  • Users of these apps should know that they are being traced through them, and
  • Users should consent to their use.

There are a variety of these apps from the system pioneered by Singapore called TraceTogether to its Alberta cousin ABTraceTogether. There are also a variety of approaches to tracing people from using credit card records to apps like TraceTogether. The EFF has a good essay on Protecting Civil Rights During a Public Health Crisis that I adapt here to provide guidelines for when one might gather data without knowledge or consent:

  • Medically necessary: There should be a clear and compelling explanation as to how this will save lives.
  • Personal information proportionate to need: The information gathered should fit the need and go no further.
  • Information handled by health informatics specialists: The gathering and processing should be handled by health informatics units, not signals intelligence or security services.
  • Deleted: It should be deleted once it is no longer needed.
  • Not be organized due to vulnerable demographics: The information should not be binned according to stereotypical or vulnerable demographics unless there is a compelling need. We should be very careful that we don’t use the data to further disadvantage groups.
  • Use reviewed afterwards: The should be a review after the crisis is over.
  • Transparency: Government should transparent about what they are gathering and why.
  • Due process: There should be open processes for people to challenge the gathering of their information or to challenge decisions taken as a result of such information.

260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus

The New York Times has a nice content analysis study of Trump’s Coronavirus briefings, 260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus. They tagged the corpus for different types of utterances including:

  • Self-congratulations
  • Exaggerations and falsehoods
  • Displays of empathy or appeals to national unity
  • Blaming others
  • Credits others

Needless to say they found he spent a fair amount of time congratulating himself.

They then created a neat visualizations with colour coded sections showing where he shows empathy or congratulates himself.

According to the article they looked at 42 briefings or other remarks from March 9 to April 17, 2020 giving them a total of 260,000 words.

I decided to replicate their study with Voyant and I gathered 29 Coronavirus Task Force Briefings (and one Press Conference) from February 29 to April 17. These are all the Task Force Briefings I could find at the White House web site. The corpus has 418,775 words, but those include remarks by people other than Trump, questions, and metadata.

Some of the things that struck me are the absence of medical terminology in the high frequency words. I was also intrigued by the prominence of “going to”. Trump spends a fair amount of time talking about what he and others are going to be doing rather than what is done. Here you have a Contexts panel from Voyant.

Is this crisis a turning point?

The era of peak globalisation is over. For those of us not on the front line, clearing the mind and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

John Gray has written an essay in the New Statesman on Why this crisis is a turning point in history. He argues that the era of hyperglobalism is at an end and many systems may not survive the shift to something different. Many may think we will, after a bit of isolated pain, return to the good old expanding wealth, but the economic crisis that is now emerging may break that dream. Governments and nations may be broken by collapsing systems.

The Last One

Whatever happened to The Last One software? The Last One (TLO) was a “program generator” that was supposed to take input from a user who wasn’t a programmer and be able to generate a BASIC program.

TLO was developed by a company called D.J. “AI” Systems Ltd. that was set up by David James who became interested in artificial intelligence when he bought a computer for his business, and apparently got so distracted that he was bankrupted by that interest (and lost his computers). It was funded by an equally colourful character, Scotty Bambury who made his money as a tire dealer in Somerset. (See here and here.)

Personal Computer magazine cover from here

The name (The Last One) refers to the expectation that this would be the last software you would need to buy. As the cover image above shows, they were imagining programmers being put out of work by an AI that could reprogram itself. TLO would be the last software you had to buy and possibly the first AI capable of recursively improving itself. DJ AI could have been spinning up the seed AI that could lead to the singularity! 

Here is some of the text from an ad for TLO. The text ran under the spacey headline at the top of this post.

The first program you should buy. …

THE LAST ONE … The program that writes programs!

Now, for the first time, your computer is truly ‘personal’. Now, simply and easily, you can create software the way you want it. …

Yet another sense of “personal” in “personal computer” – a computer where all your software (except, of course, TLO) is personally developed. Imagine a computer that you trained to do what you needed. This was the situation with early mainframes – programmers had to develop the applications individually for each system, they just didn’t have TLO.

The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level

Neoliberalism shrinks public budgets; solutionism shrinks public imagination.

Evgeny Morozov has crisp essay in The Guardina on how The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level. He argues that neoliberalist austerity cut our public services back in ways that now we see are endangering lives, but it is solutionism that constraining our ideas about what we can do to deal with situations. If we look for a technical solution we give up on questioning the underlying defunding of the commons.

There is nice interview between Natasha Dow Shüll Morozov on The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov in which they talk about his book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism and gamification.

Back in The Guardian, he ends his essay warning that we should focus on picking between apps – between solutions. We should get beyond solutions like apps to thinking politically.

The feast of solutionism unleashed by Covid-19 reveals the extreme dependence of the actually existing democracies on the undemocratic exercise of private power by technology platforms. Our first order of business should be to chart a post-solutionist path – one that gives the public sovereignty over digital platforms.

Robots Welcome to Take Over, as Pandemic Accelerates Automation – The New York Times

But labor and robotics experts say social-distancing directives, which are likely to continue in some form after the crisis subsides, could prompt more industries to accelerate their use of automation. And long-simmering worries about job losses or a broad unease about having machines control vital aspects of daily life could dissipate as society sees the benefits of restructuring workplaces in ways that minimize close human contact.

The New York Times has a story pointing out that The Robots Welcome to Take Over, as Pandemic Accelerates Automation. While AI may not be that useful in making the crisis decisions, robots (and the AIs that drive them) can take over certain jobs that need doing, but which are dangerous to humans in a time of pandemic. Sorting trash is one example given. Cleaning spaces is another.

We can imagine a dystopia where everything can run just fine with social (physical) distancing. Ultimately humans would only do the creative intellectual work as imagined in Forester’s The Machine Stops (from 1909!) We would entertain each other with solitary interventions, or at least works that can be made with the artists far apart. Perhaps green-screen technology and animation will let us even act alone and be composited together into virtual crowds.

2020 Brings the Death of IT | I, Cringely

It’s the end of IT because your device will no longer contain anything so it can be simply replaced via Amazon if it is damaged or lost, with the IT kid in the white shirt becoming an Uber driver.

How many of us have laughed at The IT Crowd? I remember when I was in support at the University of Toronto and would advise people to turn their computer off and back on. Suprisingly that actually helped in some cases, as did wiggling the cable to the printer (back when there were lots of pins.) Robert X. Cringely, who is apparently not the only Cringely, has a prediction that 2020 Brings the Death of IT in his I, Cringely site. He predicts that all of us working at home in isolation is going to accelerate a computing paradigm called SASE (Secure Access Service Edge – pronounced “sassy”) where individual devices are connected to cloud-based services. IT will disappear because to fix something you will just order another from Amazon. There will be no fixing the local, just replacing it. The rest is all up in the cloud and maintained by someone like Google. Locally we just have appliances.

Econferences: why and how? A blog series

We are all having to learn how to do more remotely. This series of blog posts deals with the why, the what and the how of online conferences.

Open Book Publishers has just published a series of blog entries on Econferences: why and how? A blog series. This series adapts some of the interventions in a forthcoming collection I helped edit on Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene. We and OBP moved quickly when we realized that parts of our book would be useful in this time when all sorts of scholarly associations are having to move to online conferences (econferences.) We took two of the case studies and put preprints up for download:

I have also written a quick document on Organizing a Conference Online: A Quick Guide.

I hope these materials help and thank Chelsea Miya, Oliver Rossier and Open Book Publishers for moving so quickly to make these available.

Covid-19 Notice on YouTube

COVID-19 Popup Notice on YouTube

When you go to YouTube now in Canada, a notice from the Public Health Agency of Canada pops up inviting you to Learn More from a reliable source. This strikes me a great way to encourage people to get their information from a reliable source rather than wallow in fake news online. This is particularly true of YouTube that is one of the facilitators of fake news.

More generally it shows an alternative way that social media platforms can fight fake news on key issues. They can work with governments to put appropriate information before people.

Further, the Learn More links to a government site with a wealth of information and links. Had it just been a short feel good message with a bit of advice, the site probably wouldn’t work to distract people towards reliable information. Instead the site has enough depth that one could spend a lot of time and get a satisfying picture. This is what one needs to fight fake news in a time of obsession – plenty of true news for the obsessed.