Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

[Day 2]

I spent some time this morning going through contacts on my iphone reminding them of my email address and this blog reference so that we have an easy way of keeping touch with each. Also, one of my ‘Winchester’ friends had been a purser on a cruise liner in a past life and gave us lots of practical advice how to protect yourself against rampant virus – rather than reproduce her email here, I will forward it to anyone reading this blog if you drop an email note.

My good friend, Professor Dan Remenyi, has written a letter/article which he has submitted to his local newspaper and it is very stimulating to read. With his permission, I reproduce it here, together with a few thoughts that I had on the matter as well.

Where do we go from here? [by Professor Dan Remenyi]

We are indeed in a right mess. The government’s response to Covid 19 will destroy tens of thousands of small businesses and will cause millions of people to be laid off. The rescue package announced by the government which consists of, inter alia, a bundle of financial relief including a third of £1 trillion of loans will push the UK further into a financial chasm. Many small businesses struggle on a month-to-month basis and if they have to take out loans from the government in order to continue in the immediate term, their prospects of longer term survival may not be good at all. Providing loans may not be the answer to the problem.

All of this government action seems to be based on a computer model which has told our leaders that by requiring everyone to self-isolate and thus stay away from pub, restaurants and theatres, the potential death toll will drop from 250,000 to 20,000. Even without examining the detail of this model there seems to be a number of loopholes in the apparent logic behind the assumptions. I sincerely hope that the severe economic and social hardship so many of us are about to endure will really save so many lives and reduce the physical misery that is being caused to the nation’s health by this disease.

But this faith in computer models is to say the least surprising. It was a computer model that initiated the reckless financial behaviour which cause the crash of 2008. It was at least computer model thinking if not a particular model itself which led to the Boeing Company designing the 737 Max with its dodgy aerodynamics. In general modelling society to project what will happen in the future is a very or highly dodgy business. I am extremely sceptical of computer models and especially those which have such enormous impact on our society.

There is another issue behind our current situation which deserve some thought. In former times there must’ve been many strange diseases which struck society such as the Black Death or smallpox, the occasional outbreaks of cholera or the Great Spanish Flu of the earlier part of the 20th century. When these catastrophes really got out of hand they caused mayhem on a large-scale. But they were slow to develop and our understanding of disease was very limited. The situation we are facing is quite different and we have a much greater understanding of what we are really facing and how we find ourselves in this situation. There is little doubt that one of the drivers of the current crisis is globalisation. Our ease of access whereby we can travel to almost anywhere on the planet within 24 hours must surely be something which we should now re-evaluate. The great potential we have to spread disease all over the world, surely, should now be considered as a real downside to worldwide travel.

I have no idea as to how we can even begin to think about controlling our appetite for global travel. I think that the genie may be out of the bottle. Freedom to roam the world, if you have the resources to so do, is now so deeply embedded in our culture. But as one commentator recently said on television, “This may not be the last time we will see a pandemic like this sweeps the world”. And if we were to convince the world that travelling far and wide was not ideal what would we do about the tens of thousands of aircraft (which would have cost hundreds of billions of pounds) and the jobs of the millions of people employed by the travel industry?

We are indeed in a right mess!

[End of Dan’s article] – my response

Excellent analysis, Dan – do let me know if the local newspaper publishes your contribution. Looking at the Prime Questions Questions today, I have the feeling that we may not be very far off a Universal Basic Social Income as an ‘experiment’ which like Income Tax (Napoleonic wars expedient?) may become permanent. I feel that society may at a crossroads between (a) a more decentralized, more localized political economy with new lines of cleavage (not social class but a metropolitan elite vs. a more uneducated, localised and more unskilled populace (b) Calls for a ‘strong man’ who with the aid/behest of the military presides over an authoritarian regime prepared to shoot rioters (food stores, hospitals) when it occurs. Whatever – I have a strong suspicion that whatever measures we introduce in society as a strictly ‘temporary’ response will quickly become permanent. I am always keen to know your thoughts. Incidentally, whilst I share some of your doubts about modeling (or any other algorithm in which you do not know the underlying assumptions), are there any alternatives worth considering (lessons from history?) Keep in touch!