Old News

Here’s an excerpt from a newspaper article relating to the pandemic, stating that the NSW Government…

“has decided to restrict passenger traffic from Victoria to this State, and to prevent further infection from Victoria. After to-day passengers by train or road will be precluded from entering New South Wales. To make the cordon effective police patrols have been constituted. People recognise where the tardy action of the Victorian health authorities has placed the people of the neighbouring State, and are fully justified in imposing strict quarantine on the border.”

But that story is not from today, but from 30 January 1919!

I will download the Australian Government COVIDSafe app

When it’s released soon on the smart phone app stores, I will be downloading and using the Australian Government COVIDSafe contact tracing app, and encouraging my friends and family to do likewise. Here’s why …

[Acknowledgement: Some of my thinking, and some of the points below, have been informed by Troy Hunt, an Australian IT Security professional. You can watch and listen to what Troy has to say about coronavirus tracking apps at the 09:45 mark of his weekly update video from last week.]

  1. In normal times it would be unthinkable to voluntarily download an app that allows the Federal Government to collect and use our private data. These are not normal times. I don’t think I need to convince anyone of this.
  2. The typical initial gut reaction to the idea of the Government collecting any sort of data from our personal devices is going to be “no thank you”. But by very definition, an initial reaction is going to be an uninformed, unresearched, and unconsidered reaction. Let’s not decide our behaviour impulsively on our gut reaction, but carefully based on facts.
  3. When thinking about data privacy concerns, it is easy (but unhelpful) to think in very absolute or black and white terms. Its simple to think that if we install the COVIDSafe app we’ve lost our privacy, and if don’t install the app we’ve kept our privacy. Reality is much more nuanced than that. The app will collect only a very limited set of details that will be shared with the government in very limited circumstances. (More on that later in this article.) The point here is that the personal data being shared is very limited in scope.
  4. Rather than thinking about this issue purely in terms of loss of privacy versus retention of privacy, it’s better to think about it in terms of risk versus reward.
  5. The risk is slight that this app might surreptitiously leak data to the government, but the rewards are substantial.
    1. Firstly, lives will be saved. How many or whose lives will be saved we can never know, but widespread use of this app will enable health authorities to efficiently contact people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, and thus help stop the spread.
    2. Secondly, if potential outbreaks of coronavirus are stopped early, then then we can avoid having prolonged and widespread restrictions on movement and gatherings. Life will return to normal sooner.
  6. When it comes to data privacy concerns, we engage in risk vs rewards decisions all the time, and mostly we do it unthinkingly and very badly. In 2019 millions of people on social media uploaded an image of their face (personal biometric data) to a web service in a foreign state in order to view a rendering of how they might look like in 30 years. This is a non-trivial risk in exchange for a very tenuous and limited reward. In contrast, the COVIDSafe app presents a minimal risk with great rewards.
  7. A very important consideration is that the app is “opt-in”, no-one is forcing you to use it.
  8. Because the app is “opt-in”, that also means the app is “opt-out“. If at any time you are uncomfortable about using the app, or some flaw is revealed, you can uninstall at any time. What’s more, opt-out is trivially easy – it takes just three touches on the screen to uninstall an app. (1-Touch and hold, 2-Delete app, 3-Confirm delete.)
  9. Unlike other countries with autocratic governments, we have a two party system with fair elections. If this current government stuffs up the implementation of this app, at the next election we can opt out of having this government.
  10. Some ill-informed scaremongering implies that this app will report your location and movements to the government. It does not. It is not a location tracking app, it is a contact tracking app. The app will only ask for your age range, name, postcode and phone number. If you are close contact with another person who has the app, this information will be exchanged between phones, encrypted and stored locally on the phone. Your information will only be passed to the government if the other person who has the app tests positive for coronavirus.
  11. For an app to collect location data, you have to give it permission on your smartphone to access the GPS location. That’s in your control, not the app. If you look in the Location Privacy settings of your phone, you will find most of the apps on your phone already have access to GPS location, and you granted them permission to do so. It’s hypocritical that people are losing their minds over a government app that doesn’t collect location data, while having dozens of apps installed from major companies or developers from other countries that do access your location data already.
  12. The app facilitates what you want to happen. If you had been in contact with someone who had coronavirus, would you want to know? I would. I have elderly relatives. Knowing that I had been exposed to coronavirus would be an essential piece of information in keeping them safe.
  13. The app facilitates actions that health professionals would do manually anyway. When a person tests positive, a standard procedure is that health professionals will interview the person and try to identify all the people they had close contact with, so that those people can be contacted and asked to isolate themselves, to prevent further spread. The app merely makes this process quicker and more complete.
  14. Because your information will only be passed to the government if a person you’ve been in contact with tests positive for coronavirus, Paradoxically this means that the more people who download and use the app, the less likely it is that the government will ever receive your data.
  15. Remember that the only information the app might share with the government is your age, name, postcode, and phone number. I’m willing to bet that the government already has that information, and what’s more you gave it to them willingly, multiple times. Just think about the number of government forms you have filled in over the years with that information.
  16. Yes there is a risk that the Government might use this app to obtain more private information than they openly admit to, but I think this risk is very small.
    1. The source code of the app has been independently assessed.
    2. There will be a lot of ongoing scrutiny of the operation of this app from professional security researchers.
    3. If the government got caught out doing something surreptitious with this app, it would mean political annihilation for them at the next election.
    4. In our hyper social media world, there will be lots of reports about this app doing ‘bad things’. But remember, accusations or insinuations of bad behaviour is not the same as evidence of bad behaviour.
  17. There are some who are skeptical of the Governments ability to successfully implement this app given past instances of failure, most notably the 2016 census debacle.
    1. But remember, governments successfully implement IT projects all the time, but it’s only the spectacular failures that make the front page news. Making a mistake in the past does not mean you are incapable of success in the future. (Thank God for that!)
    2. Implementing a small app that does a very specific and limited task is a very different project to the census, which had to provide infrastructure to cope with millions of simultaneous census submissions.

This post turned out to be much longer than I imagined when I started, so to sum up …

Yes I will download the COVIDSafe app. These are not normal times, and for a very small risk, the rewards of widespread use of this app are substantial in terms of lives saved and a speedier and sustained return to normal life.

Update 26 Apr 2020: The app, called COVIDSafe, has now been released and I’ve downloaded it.

Prescribed Doctor Who

I get some amusement by pondering that somewhere in the world, there is someone whose job is to come up with names for new prescription drugs. Of course there a few basic rules in naming a new drug …

  • it must be memorable
  • it must be easily pronounced
  • it must be sufficiently distinct from existing names
  • it cannot spell or sound like a rude word in any of the hundreds of languages in the world.

But the most important rule of all is …

  • the name must be able to be credibly used in the title of a Doctor Who episode.

To illustrate my point, click on the button below to show an actual Doctor Who episode title, with one word substituted for an actual prescription medication sold in Australia. Doctor Who fans can try to guess the real title.

Click button to begin …

Bile Beans Bull****

My September article for “The Local” is now out, this month on Lawson Crichton, manager of the Lambton Cooperative Society Store.

One interesting side discovery from researching this article came from Ralph Snowball’s 1898 photo of the Cooperative Store, where I noticed that one of the advertisements on the front wall of the store was for a product called “Bile Beans For Biliousness”.

Bile Beans was a completely fraudulent product created by Charles Edward Fulford and Ernest Albert Gilbert, and first sold in Australia in 1897. The product was a relatively harmless concoction of plant and vegetable matter, but was heavily marketed with pseudo-scientific attestations as a cure for all kinds of maladies, including constipation, indigestion, rheumatism, influenza, and anaemia.

By the 1930s the product was being marketed as a weight loss pill for women with advertisements proclaiming that …

“Slenderness can be yours without dieting or fatiguing exercise if you just take Bile Beans. Just a couple nightly and you’ll slim while you sleep.”

Thankfully the marketing of ineffective weight loss solutions using pseudo-scientific claims of efficacy, gushing about the natural origins of the ingredients, and targeting women with insecurities about their body image – that could never happen in our modern day and age, could it?

Martian Day

A blog post from the future

Newcastle, 26th January, 2219.

It’s Martian Day. But I don’t feel like celebrating. It was 200 years ago today that the Martians arrived. For decades humanity had been sending probes to Mars and speculating about the possibility of life there. But until they arrived here we had no inkling of their existence. For millennia they had lived underground out of human sight.

Then they arrived on earth. They explored all the continents, but preferred the aridity and expanse of this land, and so predominantly settled here. So while Europe, Africa, Asia and America got on with being Europe, Africa, Asia and America – Australia became Novomarsia – “New Mars”.

At first the Martians were an inconsequential curiosity. But they kept coming. Bringing their diseases that we succumbed to. They kept coming, and took our best land and our favourite beaches. They kept coming, and told us what was best for us. Some were kind, some were ignorant, some were prejudiced, and some were just misguided. Opinions vary as to the motives of the Martians, but the facts are clear – their arrival was bad for us Australians.

Today, Australians earn less money, die earlier, and are imprisoned more often than the Martians. People are divided as to why that is, and what the fix is, but the facts are clear. The gap between Australians and Martians is indisputable.

Its not all bad though. The Martian did bring good things like the cyber-empathic drug “Thoughtfuline”. They put it into the water supply and it makes people think and consider before posting to social media. Amazing stuff.

Yes, there are lots of good things about Novomarsia, even things that are worth celebrating together. But just not on this day. Not on the day the Martians arrived and changed everything for the Australians.

Newcastle Herald Butchery

Letter writers to the Newcastle Herald beware – they will without notice or care, edit and butcher your words when they publish your correspondence.

I’ve had four letters to the Herald published recently. Each time they have altered my words in some way, and in no case told me beforehand they were doing so. Up to now the changes they made ranged from inconsequential to mildly annoying, but this last time really got up my nose. On 6 June 2018 Brad Hill wrote:

FOOD for thought: a wind turbine will never produce as much energy in its lifetime as was used in building it. The mind boggles doesn’t it.

Now this might be true for a little wind turbine you buy from a hobbyist store to put up in your garden to power your electric gnomes, but for industrial scale electricity generation this is just mythical nonsense. (See for example a 2014 US life cycle study that shows that for a 2MW generator, the payback period is just 5 to 7 months.) Not wanting to just let this error go unchallenged, I wrote a carefully crafted, short 36 word letter to the Herald in which I wanted to make three points:

  1. The claim was outlandish.
  2. The claim was unsubstantiated.
  3. The Herald bore some responsibility for allowing this untruth to be published.

I submitted the following letter …

Brad Hill is right. My mind definitely boggles when I see published in the newspaper outlandish and unsubstantiated claims such as a wind turbine consumes more energy in its manufacture than it generates in its lifetime.

… but in spite of my brevity, the Herald saw fit to strip out two of my main points and on 8 June 2018 print this instead …

BRAD Hill is right. My mind definitely boggles when I see outlandish claims on the letters page, such as that a wind turbine consumes more energy in its manufacture than it generates in its lifetime.

I wrote to the Herald expressing my disappointment in how they had edited my letter and significantly altered my meaning, but they haven’t even bothered to reply.  It seems patently clear that the letters’ editor has no interest in truth, only in controversy.

Fake views

Facebook and Donald Trump brought fake news to the world, but I’m increasingly seeing fake views in the the newspapers, particularly in the letters to the editor.

I quite understand and support the idea that the letters page is a place where readers can express their opinions and argue their case, and that often those opinions will vary from my own views. But I find it quite depressing how regularly these views veer from opinion, to the expression of demonstrable factual errors and untruths.

Take for example a letter to the Newcastle Herald this week entering into the debate about cyclists on roads. I won’t name the writer, for my beef is not with them in particular but with the practice in general, which the Newcastle Herald editors tolerate if not encourage.

“The intersection at Ridge and Mitchell St Merewether has a four-way intersection with four stop signs, close proximity to a school bus stop and shops”.

FACT

The cyclists appear to think these signs are only for cars, but not for them. Red lights are also a special, blatant disrespect for the law.

OPINION

If an accident were to occur, I bet it wouldn’t be their fault.

FACTUAL ERROR

Note the progression from fact, to opinion, to absurd nonsense. If a road user (motorist or cyclist) breaks the road rules and causes an accident, they are clearly at fault, and the law clearly states so. Is the writer seriously suggesting that if a cyclist ignores the road rules and causes an accident the police or the courts will just let them off because they are a cyclist?

It’s not only the letters where fake views appear but the opinion articles also, where the writers seem to think that ‘opinion’ means a licence to state untruths. A particularly egregious example is Robert Montheath’s article on electricity and renewable energy on 29 September 2017 where he says that because …

” … we average only 12 hours of sunshine a day …”

… we will never be able to rely on renewables to generate the thousand of megawatts we need every hour of every day”

This would only be true if there was no such thing as stored energy. But battery storage or pumped hydro schemes means that it is absolutely possible for solar energy to provide all our electricity needs. It is a matter of opinion whether it is desirable, or how cost effective it would be, or how soon it could be achieved, but it is a matter of fact that it is possible.

People, please don’t poison your opinions by mixing them with untruths.