Feeling uncertain? Certainly!

The latest news isn’t very promising.

About 40 universities report coronavirus casesBBC News
Health minister Helen Whately said “it must be really tough” for students, but they wanted outbreaks “under control”. Universities were working hard to be able to resume some face-to-face learning, the health minister said. But some students have questioned why they were told to leave home when most teaching is being done remotely.

Students ‘scared and confused’ as halls lock downBBC News
Up to 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University and hundreds at other institutions, including in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are self-isolating following Covid-19 outbreaks. In Manchester, students are being prevented from leaving by security.

It’s difficult dealing with all this uncertainty, but perhaps I just need to re-think things?

The value of uncertaintyAeon
Understanding our own relationship with uncertainty has never been more important, for we live in unusually challenging times. Climate change, COVID-19 and the new order of surveillance capitalism make it feel as if we are entering a new age of global volatility. Where once for many in the West there were just pockets of instability (deep unpredictability) in a sea of reliability – albeit sometimes in disagreeable structures and expectations – it lately seems as if there are just pockets of stability in a swirling sea of hard-to-master change.

Five rules for thinking about risk during the coronavirus pandemicWired UK
Navigating the constant risk assessment that life has now become is frustrating, but changing how we think about risk can make things easier. WIRED spoke to two experts in how humans perceive and respond to risk to figure out how adjusting our attitude to uncertainty can help us make better decisions

One certainty I’m still clinging to is that everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK yet, it just means we’re not yet at the end. I was happy to jump to the end of this roundup of expert opinion on how the next year may unravel unfurl.

The Road Ahead: Charting the coronavirus pandemic over the next 12 months — and beyondSTAT
Perhaps by the holidays in December 2021, life will feel safe enough that memories of the anxiety and fear of spring 2020 start to blur. After all, the typical final act of health emergencies is “global amnesia,” when people forget the lessons of what they just lived through.

But let’s return to the topic we started with.

“Online art school is not art school”: The future of creative higher education in the age of Covid-19It’s Nice That
Amid much controversy, institutions began digitising all interactions and creative output months ago as part of their emergency response to the global crisis. Aside from the exam results fiasco of last month, students and tutors alike have been told to embrace the “new normal” this coming term, even if their creative futures depend on it. We’ve seen an uproar from students around the world questioning how teachers are able to measure creativity through a screen. It begs the question: if online learning proves to be successful, what does that mean for the future of creative higher education?

Ed-tech mania is backThe Chronicle of Higher Education
[The] problem for today’s charismatic technologists is that the types of disruption they envisioned haven’t happened. MOOCs, adaptive tutors, chatbots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, learning analytics, and other recent innovations have played very minor roles in higher ed’s crisis pivot to online learning. Instead, the pandemic has seen us embrace two dominant technologies. The first is the learning-management system — a place to distribute and collect resources online. Learning-management systems were theorized in the ‘60s and ‘70s, commercialized in the ‘90s, and made open source in the ‘00s. The other major technology we’ve embraced is similarly old school: it was called “videotelephony” when it debuted in the 1930s, and it has gradually morphed into today’s videoconferencing. Faculty members have simply turned from the classroom lectern to their home-office webcam without the assistance of chatbots or AI tutors.

Tracking up-take

After a considerable false start, the long-awaited new NHS Covid-19 app is now available. Have you downloaded it yet? Even if take-up is as low as some are gloomily predicting, it could still be worthwhile.

Take-up of NHS contact-tracing app could be only 10%The Guardian
Officials at the test and trace programme, however, believe there will be benefits even if few people adopt it. A recent study by the same data team at Oxford University, looking at the experience of Washington state in the US, found that if 15% used an app that notified them of exposure to an infected person, infections were reduced by 8% and deaths by 6%.

But even the best only got up to 40% take-up.

Everything you need to know about the NHS Covid-19 tracking appWired UK
The country with the highest download rate is Singapore, which was the first nation to introduce a contact tracing app. The TraceTogether system has been downloaded 2.4 million times as of September 9. This accounts for around 40 per cent of Singapore’s population. The country has also moved beyond the contact tracing apps by trialling a Bluetooth ’token,’ a wearable device, that people can use for contact tracing purposes.

Update: 28/09/2020

So far, so good.

Happy new (academic) year!

Yes, there’s a global pandemic, but that doesn’t stop the university league table business.

Oxford University takes top spot in Guardian’s annual university guideThe Guardian
This year’s Guardian university guide sees Oxford moving up from third to first, while the University of St Andrews stays in second place and Oxford’s ancient rival Cambridge drops to third after occupying the top spot for nine years.

There were a number of significant worries about what the start of this academic year might look like for university recruitment. But perhaps things will be OK.

The results comes as British universities are becoming cautiously optimistic that most have avoided the worst scenarios anticipated following the worldwide coronavirus outbreak and the exam grading turmoil that engulfed UK schools. Several institutions have said that student recruitment has held up across the board, with few domestic students opting to defer their studies, while international students numbers appear not to have fallen as feared.

There’s no shortage of advice out there, for universities …

Higher education: reopening buildings and campusesGOV.UK
This guidance is designed to help HE providers in England to understand how to minimise risk during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to provide services to students to ensure they can have an enjoyable experience, while staying as safe as possible. We recognise that providers have been working to prepare for safe reopening and this update is designed to support finalisation of these preparations and provide clarity on some issues raised by providers.

… as well as students.

‘Don’t buy grated cheese’: student cooking tips by top chefsThe Guardian
Cooking as a student can be tough because you often have a small kitchen. In our kitchen in student halls there were four burners on the hub. Two didn’t work and the others timed out after an hour for safety. You’re also sharing a fridge. So the key is to start simple.

Quick link at September 02, 2020 at 09:46AM

The New York Times have compiled photos of students around the world returning to classrooms this week. Poignant attempts to get back to normal in a world where the virus has, in only eight months or so, infected over 25,000,000 people and killed more than 850,000.

Back to school #3

The start of a new term, one like no other.

Pupils return to school across England and Wales as Jeremy Hunt backs call for ‘rapid testing’ in classroomsLondon Evening Standard
[T]he former health secretary Jeremy Hunt backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson for “rapid testing” to be introduced in schools, using a similar model to that used in Germany … “I think he is right, and the reason he is right is because we know something now we didn’t know back in January, which is that about 70 per cent of the people who transmit coronavirus don’t have any symptoms at all and so that makes it much harder to get public consent for things like sending people back to school or going back to offices and so on because it is a silent transmitter and even a silent killer sometimes. The way you get round that is by having very quick, very effective large-scale testing.”

Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid coronavirusThe New York Times
Germany, like other countries that have managed the pandemic fairly well, was quick to deploy widespread testing, effective contact tracing and tests with rapid results. Crucially, that has helped keep the rate of community transmission low. So far, the lesson from Germany, Denmark and Norway, among the first countries to start the new school year, is that schools can reopen and remain open — if they build on that kind of foundation. But most countries, and most parts of the United States, simply can’t match those conditions.

This isn’t just a problem for schools, of course.

Fears over COVID-19 spread in universities as students set to make ‘UK’s biggest annual migration’Sky News
The start of a new university year is “the biggest migration of people on an annual basis in the UK,” Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, says. “That’s a million students, moving across country, cycling in and out of lockdown zones, of bubbles, of homes, into new cities, where we are not track and tracking those students, we are not testing those students,” she said. “We are seriously concerned that if the government and universities do not step in and discourage this… we could see universities becoming the care homes of the second wave of COVID-19.”

Fewer shots, more sanitiser: Manchester prepares for freshers week in the time of CovidThe Guardian
In university cities and towns across the country, students are set to encounter a transformed reality next month. The bustling student district of Fallowfield, which once had its raucous house parties debated in parliament, is one of many places that will have to trim its sails.

The area is home to Manchester University’s main accommodation block, and businesses are quietly gearing up for what is usually one of their busiest months, without quite knowing what the return of students will bring. Promoters would usually be dotted on street corners, attempting to lure twentysomethings with £1 shots. But now, when students arrive, they will be greeted by floor markings, hand sanitiser, and signs reminding them to keep socially distanced.

But maybe everything will be OK?

Why heading back to school isn’t as big a risk as it soundsWired UK
“What’s happened between June and now, is that we now know that young children, so those under ten, have negligible risk from the virus and don’t appear to be transmitting it much either,” says David Strain, clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant at University of Exeter Medical School. “In June, we knew that the children could catch the virus, and they had no disease. But we didn’t know, at that point, whether they could then take that virus home and spread it on to their parents and grandparents.” One worry is that children will spread the virus to vulnerable members of their household – an elderly relative or shielder. But, luckily, children aren’t as contagious as adults. […]

What is clear is that children staying out of school is hugely damaging – not just in regards to the loss of education, but whether the children come from vulnerable settings, are neglected at home, or at risk of domestic violence. Schools provide a refuge for these children. “We’ve seen an entire generation lose six months worth of education – for some this is their formative years,” says Strain. “This is further driving health and educational inequalities.”

Time for a ‘Nightingale moment’ for England’s children, says watchdogThe Guardian
Invoking the gargantuan effort taken to build Nightingale hospitals for thousands of Covid patients in a matter of weeks, and the £35bn furlough scheme to save jobs, Anne Longfield said children’s recovery from missing months of school would take up to a year and would have a profound psychological impact. […]

“The government needs to be bold, and on the sort of scale that saw hospitals built in weeks, and workers paid in furlough, to make sure no child is left behind. If not, they risk losing a generation for good. The stakes are simply that high,” she said.

Any lessons from history?

Schools beat earlier plagues with outdoor classes. We should, tooThe New York Times
The subsequent New England winter was especially unforgiving, but children stayed warm in wearable blankets known as “Eskimo sitting bags” and with heated soapstones placed at their feet. The experiment was a success by nearly every measure — none of the children got sick. Within two years there were 65 open-air schools around the country either set up along the lines of the Providence model or simply held outside. In New York, the private school Horace Mann conducted classes on the roof; another school in the city took shape on an abandoned ferry.

Distressingly, little of this sort of ingenuity has greeted the effort to reopen schools amid the current public-health crisis.

A classroom on a ferry in New York City, circa 1915.

If schools do have to close again, we’ll be better prepared next time, right?

Coronavirus: how can teachers prepare better for remote learning?Tes
The principle of generative learning is that there are activities that we can ask pupils to do in which they create new learning for themselves. All these activities involve pupils taking new information from a source – such as teacher explanation, a written text, video clip etc – and then going through the process of: selecting relevant information; organising it; integrating it into their prior knowledge.

There’s a mountain to climb, even without any further closures.

Pupils three months behind as new term starts, study claimsSchools Week
The research has prompted warnings that catch-up must not be seen as a “quick-turnaround solution”, with schools facing a “range of barriers” as they reopen. The survey also found that almost half of pupils need “intensive catch-up support”, with those from the most deprived schools and institutions with the highest proportion of pupils from BAME backgrounds “in greatest need”.

Next year’s exam season will be rolling around before you know it.

GCSEs and A-levels: Decision on exam delay promised ‘very soon’BBC News
This is expected to be part of a wider strategy on how next summer’s exams will operate when so much school has been missed because of the pandemic.

3 ways to avoid repeating the exam grade fiascoTes
Teachers are calling for reduced exam content and a new national system for moderating grades to avoid a repeat of this year’s exam grade controversy.

Perhaps some people need to go back to school more than others.

Ofqual chief Sally Collier steps down after exams chaosBBC News
“This move follows the failure of the statistical model that led to this year’s grading fiasco, but the fault is not hers alone,” said the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton. “Ministers have questions to answer over the extent to which they scrutinised and challenged the methodology and reliability of the statistical model, particularly given the enormity of the task and the importance of getting it right.”

Everything that went wrong with the botched A-Levels algorithmWired UK
“This whole story has really highlighted the problems that there are around automated decision making, in particular when it’s deployed by the public sector,” says Tennison. “This has hit the headlines, because it affects so many people across the country, and it affects people who have a voice. There’s other automated decision making that goes on all the time, around benefits, for example, that affect lots of people who don’t have this strong voice.”

Can algorithms ever make the grade?Ada Lovelace Institute
Hindsight delivers 20:20 vision, as we know. But Ofqual should have been aware that it was deploying an algorithm against a backdrop of existing public scepticism towards algorithmic systems, and an environment of tenuous trust in Government data use. It needed not only to meet, but to exceed existing standards for transparency and accountability, to avoid doing indelible harm to public confidence in data-driven decision making. […]

It would be easy to blame Ofqual here, but the choice of goals – in algorithms as in policy more broadly – is a political question, not just a technical one. Professor Jo-Anne Baird, a member of Ofqual’s Standing Advisory Group, has publicly stated that Ofqual was specifically directed to deliver exam results that controlled grade inflation, and within those parameters, this algorithm is the best you can get. So why did the public have to wait until results day in August to find out that this was the goal?

The lessons we all must learn from the A-levels algorithm debacleWired UK
The statistical problems within the algorithm – such as the ability to only award a certain number of each grade per school – could have been spotted before it was deployed. But external expert advice was ignored months before results day. Members of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) offered to help Ofqual in April, but faced five-year non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to be involved in the project. The RSS experts said they believed some of the issues with the algorithm could have been avoided if independent expert advice was taken.

How might Ofqual have avoided this turmoil?HEPI
Ofqual were set a nearly impossible task: Provide students with the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they sat their exams, while maintaining overall national standards for prior years, and protecting groups from being systematically advantaged or disadvantaged. The methodology arguably failed on all three aims. The situation we’re left with is in many ways worse. But could this all have been avoided had the methodology been better designed and communicated?

Ironic really, the DfE’s failure to learn lessons

School exams and Covid: what could the UK have learned from EU?The Guardian
The French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced in April that the country’s 740,000 final-year students would be awarded an average grade for each subject based on coursework and tests during the first two terms. Local juries assessed and – if necessary – adjusted students’ grades according to national averages and on schools’ past examination records. The pass rate for the 2020 bac was over 95%, more than seven percentage points higher than the previous year, forcing the government last month to create about 10,000 extra university places for September in the most popular subject areas.

Update 17/08/2020

So it seems lessons can be learnt.

A-level and GCSE results in England to be based on teacher assessments in U-turnThe Guardian
The climbdown comes after days of turmoil triggered by the publication of A-level results last Thursday, when almost 40% of predicted results were downgraded, with some students marked down two or even three grades, which resulted in many losing university places.

Update 20/08/2020

What could possibly go wrong?

Students get ‘bizarre’ rises from moderated gradesTes
A headteacher of a West Yorkshire school said that, in one case, a pupil forecast a grade 1 in a subject had been given an 8 after the Ofqual moderating process. He also had 12 students in the same subject where final grades were four grades higher than the centre assessed grades produced by the school.

Laughing at him, not with him

It’s hard to understand the guy’s appeal.

British writer pens the best description of Trump I’ve readLondon Daily
Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

That’s not to say he’s not a rich source of humour. He is funny, in a if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry/I-can’t-believe-he-actually-said-that/thank-god-he’s-over-there-not-over-here kind of way.

Hilarious video edit poses Trump bickering with himself about the virusBoing Boing
Justin T. Brown’s Donald Trump is the Dumbest Man in America² cleverly edits Trump’s catastrophic interview with Jonathan Swan so that Trump is arguing with himself.

He would do well to read this succinct summary.

Coronavirus epidemiology in a nutshellTYWKIWDBI
The spread of Corona virus is based on two factors.

1. How dense the population is.
2. How dense the population is.

He can’t help himself

A new Will Self short storyWill Self
It’s usually a mistake for a fiction writer to rush into print with a story that takes flight, imaginatively, from events that are still underway, and which are affecting large numbers of people. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, this injunction to keep out would seem to be as strident as the black-and-yellow striped tape swagged about a crime scene.

Playing again?

Our concert halls might be re-opening in the summer, but in the meantime:

A cello concert in a swimming pool – this is classical music during COVID-19 distancingClassic FM
The concert took place south of Stuttgart, in the empty swimming lanes of the Entringen outdoor pool. We fancy the shape of the pool, with its steady slope and cellist against a wall, would have provided quite a fantastic acoustic.

Some people are staying indoors, though.

IndoorsScottish Ballet
With 28 doors and 36 dancers, Indoors is a playful new work by Sophie Laplane, set to Mozart’s ‘Papageno, Papagena’. Rehearsed via Zoom and recorded in lockdown, the short film explores ways we can open our doors to new possibilities, all in Laplane’s distinctly unique style.

A taste of things to come?

Around the world, we’re getting a glimpse of what live music looks like post-lockdownClassic FM
Theatres reopen in Europe and concert halls around the world have started to implement social distancing policies to stem the spread of coronavirus – here’s how music, of all genres, looks in a new era.

It’s a cover-up

Yes I know they might not be very comfortable, but are you wearing yours yet? No? Here’s a little encouragement.

Wear a mask, save livesMoss and Fog
[H]ere are some cleverly edited classic paintings, with the characters all wearing face coverings. The work of Genevieve Blais, her Instagram account is PlagueHistory, and uses black humor to get the point across.

I’ve found myself trying to hold my breath for the entire time I’m wearing mine, to stop them from fogging up my glasses. Perhaps I need a different mask.

Clever ramen face mask that makes the fogging up of glasses look like steam rising from the noodlesLaughing Squid
Artist Shibata Takahiro, an animator by trade, created a very clever protective face mask that looks like a yummy bowl of ramen for the bespectacled population. This design incorporates the inevitable fog of glasses that occurs while wearing a mask as steam rising from the hot noodles.

Perhaps you prefer doughnuts to noodles.

Make your own Krispy Kreme face shieldYouTube
Andy Clockwise shows you how you can make your very own Krispy Kreme face shield using just the lid from a 12 box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, some sticky tape and a pair of scissors.

I think I’ll pass on that. How about these instead?

Face masks hold fish tanks and overgrown patches of botanics in surreal illustrations by Kit LayfieldColossal
A long way from the packs of blue, disposable masks many of us bulk purchased at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the face coverings Philadelphia-based illustrator Kit Layfield envisions are a bit more complex and otherworldly. He draws intricate contraptions featuring the traditional nose-and-mouth covering that then are connected to larger collars adorned with luxuriant shrubs, miniature ecosystems, and tiny fish tanks. The individual subjects all are situated within the diverse environments, providing the necessary structure to keep the micro-systems flourishing.

Feeling well?

Insane after coronavirus?London Review of Books
My mind had moved a few inches to the left of its usual place, and I developed what I realised later were actual paranoid delusions. ‘Jason’s cough is fake,’ I secretly texted a friend from the bathtub, where I couldn’t be monitored. ‘I … don’t think his cough is fake,’ she responded, with the gentle tact of the healthy. ‘Oh it is very, very fake,’ I countered, and then further asserted the claim that he had something called Man Corona.

How to cope with the crisis

Some fascinating images from this New York Times article on how Thailand is dealing with its coronavirus crisis. Here are just a few of them.

No one knows what Thailand is doing right, but so far, it’s workingThe New York Times
Can the country’s low rate of coronavirus indfections be attributed to culture? Genetics? Face masks? Or a combination of all three?

Where’s the harm?

Lots of talk about masks and where we should be wearing them. David McCandless and the Information is Beautiful team have updated their set of coronavirus infographics (previously) with this presentation of the risks involved with certain activities.

COVID-19 CoronaVirus infographic datapackInformation is Beautiful
Created by David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Fabio Bergamaschi, Dr Stephanie Starling, Univers Labs, Tom Evans.

It doesn’t quite line up with this infographic from the Texas Medical Association, but I’d say it’s close enough, you get the point.

How risky is visiting a museum? This graphic about COVID-19 transmission provides come answersHyperallergic
TexMed characterizes things like getting restaurant takeout, getting gas, and even playing tennis as low-risk activities (two on a scale of one to 10). Grocery shopping, going on a walk with others, visiting a library or museum, and playing golf all fall in the moderate-low range (three to four) — that last is of course great news for the president! Highest-risk activities (eight or more) include, unsurprisingly, sports stadium events and concerts, going to a movie theater, attending religious services with 500+ worshippers, and going to a bar — which was a major cause of outbreak in Michigan last week. Texans shouldn’t despair, though! Based on this graphic, it is still safe to shoot guns in the air (at least with respect to COVID-19 complications), do outdoor line dances in rigid six-feet distance grids, and ride the open range.

Here are some other ways of looking at.

COVID Risk Chartxkcd
First prize is a free ticket to the kissing booth.

Handy chartThe New Yorker Cartoons on Instagram
A cartoon by @rozchast.

Lots of reasons to wear a mask. But then again…

Why You Don’t Need A Mask – COVID-19
You don’t need a mask because…

We’re all in this together #3

Here’s an interesting way of visualising the scale of all this. As in real life, it starts slowly then builds up. And up, and up.

A time-lapse map of every death from the Coronavirus pandemicYouTube
This is an audio-visual time-lapse of every death from the Coronavirus pandemic from January to June 2020. Inspired by Isao Hashimoto’s “A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945”; each country is represented by a tone and an expanding blip on the map when a death from Covid-19 is recorded. Each day is 4 seconds long, and at the top of the screen is the date and a counter showing the total numbers of deaths. Every country that has had a fatality is included. (via Kottke)

It’s very easy to criticise other countries’ responses to this global crisis. For instance:

Angry folks throw an anti-mask rally in Florida, the state that just broke a Covid-19 recordBoing Boing
Rather than give up their “freedom” by simply wearing a mask, they’d rather risk losing a bigger freedom by filling hospitals to full capacity (as they did in, er, Florida), shutting down international travel (because other countries are turning Americans away who try to enter), shutting down cities and states with a high coronavirus caseload, and obliterating our economy. With that kind of logic, Americans should be permitted the freedom to drive drunk or race cars on public streets.

Jimmy Fallon predicts Trump will say he was the first to wear a maskThe New York Times
After the president finally wore a face mask in public, the “Tonight Show” host called it “a really smart move — if today were March 13th.”

Sweden ‘literally gained nothing’ from staying open during COVID-19, including ‘no economic gains’The Week
Ironically, Bloomberg News reports, the social distancing requirements in Sweden are now more stringent than in Denmark, Norway, and Finland, all of which opted for strict lockdowns early on. Sweden’s 5,420 COVID-19 deaths may not seem like much compared with 130,000 in the U.S., but per capita that works out to 40 percent more fatalities than in the U.S. and 12 times more than Norway, seven times more than Finland, and six times more than Denmark, the Times notes.

But we’re far from getting everything right here. For instance:

UK among highest COVID-19 health worker deaths in the worldAmnesty International UK
The 61-page report – Exposed, Silenced, Attacked: Failures to protect health and essential workers during the pandemic – shows that, with at least 540 health and social workers having died from COVID-19 in England and Wales alone, the UK is second only to Russia, which has recorded 545 health worker deaths. […]

Healthcare professionals across the UK were also warned not to talk about shortages in protective equipment. Almost half of healthcare workers questioned as part of a major survey by the Doctors Association UK said they had effectively been gagged and prevented from raising concerns.

Revealed: 20 areas of England at most risk of coronavirus resurgenceThe Guardian
The government has drawn up a list of 20 councils facing the worst coronavirus outbreaks in England, with Bradford, Sheffield and Kirklees identified as areas needing “enhanced support”, according to a classified document leaked to the Observer and the Guardian.

Perhaps there’s not much to choose between them.

The pandemic is the world’s long overdue reality checkForeign Policy
Three of the four largest democracies run by illiberal populists—the United States, Brazil, and the U.K.—now rank one, two, and three in deaths from the coronavirus. (India currently lags behind but is moving up with frightening speed.) That is not a coincidence, for the leaders in each country have tried to minimize the gravity of the disease or—in Bolsonaro’s case—deny it altogether. Populist leaders deny COVID-19 for the same reasons they deny climate change: first, because acknowledging a force beyond their control might break the spell of omniscience in which they have bound their followers; and second, because deference to science and logic undermines the emotional sources of their appeal. If Anthony Fauci is right, Trump must be wrong.

Back to work, or hit the beach

We’re being encouraged to return to our offices, as everything’s fine now, apparently.

‘Stay at home’ message ditched as Gove urges more people to go back to workSky News
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mr Gove said: “We want to see more people back at work, on the shop floor, in the office, wherever they can be. Of course in some cases it is appropriate and convenient for people to work from home, but we want to make sure that where people can add value, where the economy can benefit from people being at work, that they are at work.

England to make masks mandatory in shopsFinancial Times
Government guidance on face coverings has been contradictory in recent days, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove saying on Sunday they should not become mandatory in English shops. There has also been confusion over advice to workplaces after ministers on Monday encouraged office staff to return to work where possible, although the official government guidance — which is for people to work from home if possible — has not changed.

So are you back in the office yet, or are you still dialling in from home? If the latter, this free e-book might help.

Take control of working from home temporarilyTake Control Books
We’re in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. In the middle of a global viral outbreak, you were told or asked to work from home—and you’ve never or rarely had to be productive where you live before. What to do? We’re here to take some stress out of your life with a new, free book that details how to set up a home office and balance work and home life for those not accustomed to it.

Perhaps you don’t intend to go back to the office full time.

Is the five-day office week over?The New York Times
“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-Covid half time in the office.”

According to a new survey by Morning Consult, 47 percent of those working remotely say that once it’s safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14 percent would return to the office every day.

Or even back to the office at all.

If you can work remotely, Barbados want you to come and stay for a yearBoing Boing
The Caribbean island nation of Barbados is issuing 12-month “Barbados Welcome Stamps” as an incentive for people to come and work remotely. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said people can “come and work from here overseas, digitally so, so that persons don’t need to remain in the countries in which they are.”

Sounds interesting.

Great interest in 12-month Welcome StampBarbados Government Information Service
Ms. Mottley said: “COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges to those countries that are tourism and travel dependent and we have reached a position where we recognize that part of the challenge relates to short term travel …. So, if we can have a mechanism that allows people who want to…take advantage of being in a different part of the world, of the sun, sea and sand, and … a stable society; one that functions well, then Barbados is a perfect place for you to come.

“Rather than coming for the usual week, or three weeks or a month, why not plan out your business, given the fact that all we have gotten from COVID-19 is uncertainty. So, we can give you certainty for the next 12 months … and you can work from here.”

Scene changed?

Some desperately needed good news at last.

Boris Johnson pledges £1.5bn lifeline to keep UK’s arts sector afloatThe Guardian
After weeks of desperate warnings that the UK was facing an irreversible cultural catastrophe without targeted support, ministers announced a package that it said would protect the future of the country’s museums, galleries, theatres and music venues.

The playwright James Graham, who has spoken passionately about the urgent need for investment, said the money appeared to be more than most people in the arts had dared dream of. … “If this package is as ambitious as it looks, then conversations within our sector will now need to turn to what our recovery might look like in terms of protecting any gains made in recent years over inclusion, representation and diversity, and how this support can reach who need it most, particularly outside of London.”

A welcome lifeline.

S C E N E / C H A N G E (@_scene_change_) Instagram
A community for stage designers taking action for theatre.

But as ENO’s John Berry says, the devil will be in the details.

‘At last a glimpse of hope’: UK arts leaders on the rescue packageThe Guardian
“£1.57bn is a lot of money, but there are a lot of institutions for this to go round. It has to be seen as a positive step from the government and for culture in general, but it will all now be in the detail, in the balance between grants, loans and help for major institutions and help for individual artists, who have been hit the hardest.

“What are the strings attached going to be? In Germany, they just came out and said we’re going to pay every freelance artist now just to get them through, on top of everything else. The reason that opera and classical music have a voice and a direct line as high up as the prime minister is that culture is spoken about on the same level as health and social issues. So it is very normal in the rest of Europe for artistic leaders to be in regular conversation with the government about public subsidy during an emergency.

“Classical music and opera are central to the arts in this country and publicly there hasn’t been enough support for them. Freelance musicians have been hit hardest. It’s just depressing to see so many artists lose their work in opera, classical music and theatre in general in the UK. The plight of opera houses has been almost invisible.”

Will it be enough?

Emergency money for culture ‘won’t save every job’BBC News
The culture secretary said institutions would have to apply through industry bodies and would be asked to prove how they contributed to wider economic growth. He said the government was confident the emergency package would protect the majority of jobs in the culture sector – but not all.

“Sadly, not everyone is going to be able to survive and not every job is going to be protected and sadly, I will have to be honest with you, of course we will see further redundancies.”

Need a change of scene?

Cheers! But not everything’s opening back up tomorrow, on Super Saturday.

#scenechange designers wrap theatres with pink tape in #MissingLiveTheatre campaignOfficial London Theatre
While much of the UK’s entertainment and hospitality industries will be open to customers from tomorrow, theatres sadly remain closed, unable to stage live performances.

A community of designers named #scenechange have been struck by the negative visual imagery of theatre closures and the sadness that comes with seeing venues that were once bubbling with energy, now feeling stark and bleak.

Today, in collaboration with theatres across the UK, the #scenechange community will launch #MissingLiveTheatre, wrapping theatre buildings in a positive message of hope and visibility to the industry.

It’s not just a West End issue. Far from it.

Designers will wrap theatres in #MissingLiveTheatre tapeTheatre Weekly
Beginning with the National Theatre, #scenechange will, in conjunction with theatre staff, wrap theatres with pink barrier tape reading ‘Missing Live Theatre’. The baton will then be passed from the National Theatre to Royal Exchange Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Lyric Belfast and Sherman Theatre across the day on Friday, and throughout the West End on the Saturday. The week beginning 6 July will see further theatres nationwide joining #MissingLiveTheatre, with over 50 venues already committed including the RSC, Sadler’s Wells, Theatr Clwyd, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres, Ambassador Theatre Group, amongst many others.

It’s a larger industry than you’d think, and a difficult one to be in at the moment.

Designers unite to support freelance theater creatives with #SceneChange platformVariety
Freelance creative artists make up the major part of the theater ecology — of the 290,000 jobs in the U.K. theater industry, for example, more than two-thirds are freelance or self-employed.

As visual artists, designers bring a unique skill set that can help reimagine theater spaces as the industry navigates its way back to live performance. #SceneChange aims to positively engage with buildings, directors and producers nationwide, to support and inform the process back to production.

Back to school #2

Schools are going to look very different this September.

Exclusive: What schools will be told to do in September so all pupils can returnHuffPost UK
Education secretary Gavin Williamson is set to announce the full plans to parliament on Thursday, but HuffPost UK has been told the detailed guidance for headteachers will include: […]

Some subjects for some or all pupils may have to be suspended for two terms to allow catch-up on core subjects such as English and maths, with a full spread of subjects returning in the summer term of of 2021

Some pupils may have to drop some GSCEs altogether in Year 11 to allow them to catch up and achieve better grades in English and maths. GCSEs and A-levels to take place as planned next summer but with some “adaptations”

Amongst the many school activities being cancelled this year are the tours and transition events for new secondary school students over the summer. But here’s an interesting way of welcoming them and showing them around.

Take on the Co-op Manchester Minecraft Challenge!Co-op Academy Manchester
Welcome to our academy in the wonderful world of Minecraft! Here are some things that you might like to do. You might just want to explore for fun – but you could use it to start to find your way around the academy.

Preview: Co-op Academy Manchester on Minecraft – CoopManchester

Update 03/07/2020

For info, here’s the government’s press release about the new measures.

Schools and colleges to reopen in full in SeptemberGOV.UK
Detailed plans have been unveiled for all children and young people to return to full-time education from September.

Over-promising, under-delivering

We’re expecting news of more lockdown restrictions being eased today; restaurants, cinemas, museums, 2 metre rule etc. But the virus hasn’t gone anywhere, and we’re still without a vaccine, so we’re relying on a rigorous track and trace system, I guess. That works very well in other countries, scarily so sometimes.

The detectives racing to contain the virus in SingaporeBBC News
“It was surreal,” she says, describing the moment an unknown number flashed up on her phone. “They asked ‘were you in a taxi at 18:47 on Wednesday?’ It was very precise. I guess I panicked a bit, I couldn’t think straight.” Melissa eventually remembered that she was in that taxi – and later when she looked at her taxi app realised it was a trip that took just six minutes. To date, she doesn’t know whether it was the driver or another passenger who was infected. All she knows is that it was an officer at Singapore’s health ministry that made the phone call, and told her that she needed to stay at home and be quarantined.

The next day Melissa found out just how serious the officials were. Three people turned up at her door, wearing jackets and surgical masks. “It was a bit like out of a film,” she says. “They gave me a contract – the quarantine order – it says you cannot go outside your home otherwise it’s a fine and jail time. It is a legal document. They make it very clear that you cannot leave the house. And I knew I wouldn’t break it. I know that I live in a place where you do what you’re told.”

It’s a different picture here, however.

England’s ‘world beating’ system to track the virus is anything butThe New York Times
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain unveiled last month a “world beating” operation to track down people who had been exposed to the coronavirus, giving the country a chance to climb out of lockdown without losing sight of where infections were spreading. As with much of the government’s response to the pandemic, however, the results have fallen short of the promises, jeopardizing the reopening of Britain’s hobbled economy and risking a second wave of death in one of the countries most debilitated by the virus.

Can technology come to the rescue?

What Big Tech wants out of the pandemicThe Atlantic
The government has flailed in its response to the pandemic, and Big Tech has presented itself as a beneficent friend, willing to lend a competent hand. As Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, wrote in April, “The challenges we face demand an unprecedented alliance between business and government.”

Also in April, Google and Apple announced that they would suspend their rivalry to work with nations of the world to create a new alert system. They would reconfigure their mobile operating systems, incompatible by design, to notify users if they have stepped within the radius of a device held by a COVID‑19 patient.

Is this the approach others are taking?

Japan rolls out Microsoft-developed COVID-19 contact tracing appThe Verge
Japan’s government today released its coronavirus contact tracing app for iOS and Android. The apps rely on Apple and Google’s co-developed exposure notification platform, using Bluetooth to help determine whether users have come into close contact with others who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Germany says coronavirus tracing app ready to goReuters
After delays to ensure the bluetooth technology would work at the correct distance, the government says the app will be a vital tool to help avoid a second wave of infections.

But we don’t need their help, right?

Britain didn’t want Silicon Valley’s help on a tracing app. Now it does.The New York Times
For months, British authorities have pursued an app that they promised would help ease the country’s coronavirus lockdown, despite growing criticism that it posed privacy risks and would not work well. On Thursday, officials abruptly reversed course, saying Britain will join other countries and design a new contact-tracing app based on software provided by Apple and Google.

So what happened?

Why the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app failedWired UK
Matt Hancock has had another app catastrophe. England’s planned contact tracing app, which has been trialled on the Isle of Wight and downloaded by tens of thousands of people, has been ditched in favour of a system developed by Google and Apple.

The reversal, first reported by the BBC and later confirmed by the government, follows months of delays for the home-brewed app and difficulties surrounding its implementation. It also makes England the latest in a string of countries to ditch a centralised system in favour of a decentralised one supported by two Silicon Valley giants. That club also includes Germany, Italy and Denmark.

UK abandons contact-tracing app for Apple and Google modelThe Guardian
Work started in March as the pandemic unfolded, but despite weeks of work, officials admitted on Thursday that the NHS app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices during testing on the Isle of Wight. That was because the design of Apple’s iPhone operating system is such that apps quickly go to sleep when they are not being used and cannot be activated by Bluetooth – a point raised by experts and reported by the Guardian in early May.

What went wrong with the UK’s contact tracing app?BBC News
Two days later, with quite a fanfare, Health Secretary Matt Hancock unveiled the plans for the Covid-19 app, promising “all data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research”.

But immediately privacy campaigners, politicians and technology experts raised concerns. “I recognise the overwhelming force of the public health arguments for a centralised system, but I also have 25 years’ experience of the NHS being incompetent at developing systems and repeatedly breaking their privacy promises,” said Cambridge University’s Prof Ross Anderson.[…]

The blame game has already begun. Mr Hancock and some of the scientists working with the NHS believe Apple should have been more cooperative. Technology experts and privacy campaigners say they warned months ago how this story would end.

Now what?

UK virus-tracing app switches to Apple-Google modelBBC News
Baroness Dido Harding – who heads up the wider Test and Trace programme – will only give the green light to actually deploying the Apple-Google technology if she judges it to be fit for purpose, which she does not believe is the case at present. It is possible this may never happen. […]

The NHS has been testing both systems against each other, over the course of the past month. The centralised version trialled on the Isle of Wight worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising Apple’s iPhones. Specifically, the software registered about 75% of nearby Android handsets but only 4% of iPhones. By contrast, the Apple-Google model logged 99% of both Android mobiles and iPhones. But its distance calculations were weaker.

The Apple-Google model faired better, so that’s the option to take further, in this embarrassing reversal turnaround backtrack ‘next phase’.

Next phase of NHS coronavirus (COVID-19) app announcedGOV.UK
This next phase will bring together the work done so far on the NHS COVID-19 app and the new Google/Apple framework. Following rigorous field testing and a trial on the Isle of Wight, we have identified challenges with both our app and the Google/Apple framework. This is a problem that many countries around the world, like Singapore, are facing and in many cases only discovering them after whole population roll-out. As a result of our work, we will now be taking forward a solution that brings together the work on our app and the Google/Apple solution.

That seemed to take Apple by surprise.

Apple ‘not told’ about UK’s latest app plansBBC News
During the briefing, Mr Hancock said: “Measuring distance is clearly mission critical to any contact-tracing app.” However, speaking to the Times, Apple said: “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.” The firm also pointed out that the tech was already either in use or intended for use in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The tech giant also expressed surprise that the UK was working on a new version of the contact-tracing app which incorporated the Apple-Google software tool. “We’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple, to bring the best bits of both systems together,” Mr Hancock said. However, Apple said: “We don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model. They haven’t spoken to us about it.”

<sigh>

Should we be more pessimistic?New York Times
“[The virus] challenges our presumptions about being able to fully control things, and it raises existential issues about our very ability to relate to the world outside of a human-centric point of view,” said Eugene Thacker, a professor of media studies at the New School and the author of books on pessimism, including “In The Dust of This Planet” and “Infinite Resignation.” “It’s at once awe-inspiring and scary. You have a sense of wonder at something bigger than the human, but also a sense of the ground giving way beneath your feet.”