Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

After England’s pandemic-related, algorithmically driven screwup of graduating students’ grades, no interview with Gavin Williamson, the human at least nominally in charge of the mess, was complete without the interviewer asking, “Are you going to resign?” 

Williamson would then blither on about whatever topic he could grab hold of as it flitted through his brain and the interviewer would repeat the question at least once, preferably twice.

Why didn’t he just say no? An algorithm told him that it would call attention to his mistakes. If he pretended not to hear the question, no one would notice.

Algorithms are the modern version of reading tea leaves, or chicken entrails. Someone claims a lot of expertise, interprets the tea leaves/chicken guts/computer reports, and isn’t to be held responsible if the prediction doesn’t match reality. 

Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

The prime minister announced, from his vacation hideout in Wherever, that he has complete confidence in Williamson. In normal political-speak, that means someone’s done for, but Johnson said the same thing about his official Toxic Advisor Dominic Cummings and he’s still firmly rooted.

Why are they keeping Williamson  on? 

  1. This isn’t a government that insists on competence. Take a minute to consider the prime minister.
  2. The schools are reopening soon, and if it follows the pattern the government has established, it’ll be a mess. So they’ll be able to sacrifice one minister to the gods of public outrage instead of two. This’s known in the trade as efficiency.
  3. Both of the above.

Your answers will be graded by an algorithm that takes your parents’ income and educational background into account. The results may be reversed as soon as a second algorithm determines that the moment of maximum chaos has arrived, but I can’t promise. 

The correct answer is C. Not that it matters. Your grade’s already been determined, your fate is fixed, and there is no such thing as free will.

Doesn’t it just make you happy to read Notes?

*

Speaking of blame, Public Health England is being folded into a new agency, along with the Covid track and trace system, and it will not, may the heavens forbid, be put in the hands of someone with a public health background but those of Dido Harding, whose background is in business and who’s proved her worth by organizing the complete mess that is track and trace. This is also efficient. The government gets to blame a now-defunct body, Public Health England, for screwing up its response to the pandemic while rewarding one of the Conservative Party’s inner circle. And we’ll all forget that the government was the outfit going for herd immunity when the pandemic started. You remember herd immunity, right? The theory that said, “It’s okay if someone else’s granny dies. We can’t shut down the economy.”

Somehow they never think it’ll be their own granny who dies. Or themselves.

*

I read about a new home coronavirus test that works like a pregnancy test. I don’t think you pee on it, but it reports back in the time (the article said) that it takes to  eat your cornflakes. I was starting to get excited about it when I noticed that the article was in an absolute rag–an unreliable source. I got mad, deleted, it and haven’t been able to find it again. I googled pregnancy-style covid tests and got information on what to do when you’re pregnant with covid, which sounds like someone out there is spending nine months incubating a virus.

And there I was, thinking Rosemary’s Baby was scary. Anyway, at that point I decided not to worry about the link.

According to the description of the test, you add whatever precious bodily fluid the test asks for, plug the kit into the wall, and wait an hour for your result. 

Well, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me an hour to eat a bowl of cornflakes.

Okay, full disclosure: I don’t eat cornflakes–they’re soggy and horrid–so I might not be eligible for the test. If I had to choose between knowing whether I had the virus and avoiding the cornflakes, I might well choose ignorance.

But never mind me. We’re trying to discuss public health, so stop fooling around, please. I’m sure I I could apply for an exemption anyway–maybe substitute an old sock or something else tasty to fill the time while I wait. 

The problem with the test is that it may or may not be legit. The Royal College of Pathologists (if you want to be impressive in Britain, find a way to get royal into your name)–

Can we stop wandering off the topic, please? The Royal College of Pathologists has called for the rules to be tightened on the home antibody testing kits that are being sold to consumers. And here I do have a link.

Why are they complaining? Well, to start with, no one knows whether having antibodies protects you from the disease. And if that doesn’t discourage you from buying a kit, the result might not be accurate. Or it might not be clear. The BBC tested 41 kits and found that a third were either inaccurate or gave incomplete information. 

Other than that, though, they’re great. And if you are pregnant, I’m sure your baby will be lovely. 

*

There’s good and bad news for singers worried about the pandemic. A study reports that, as a way of spreading the droplets and aerosols that are believed to carry the virus from person to person, singing quietly is only marginally more efficient than talking quietly. If you shout or sing loudly, though, and you’ll produce 24 times (shouting) or 36 times (singing) more of the suspect droplets and aerosols.

The study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, but a lot of studies are being released before they’re reviewed in the midst of the current crisis. 

The size of the space where you sing or yell, as well as its ventilation, also come into the equation. Singing in a cathedral is going to be safer than singing in a pub. Singing in the shower, no matter how small, is safe as long as you don’t pack twenty of your closest friends in there with you.

The study is the first one to look systematically at singing, but it has its limits. It didn’t look at how much of the virus aerosols actually carry or how much of a risk they pose, and it didn’t look at the dynamics of choir singing.  

*

How much has Britain paid consultants for, um, whatever crucially important, world-beating work that it is they’ve done to help us out during the pandemic? That’ll be £56 million, please, and we don’t take checks. And most of their contracts have been given without competition. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. C’mon, studies are being published before they’re peer reviewed. Contracts are falling from the sky like candy from a pinata. 

Sorry about missing the tilda over the N in pinata. I’m sure Word Press has one somewhere, but I can’t find it and haven’t looked very hard.

Some of the contracts haven’t been made public yet but they have been leaked. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. Candy. Pinata. Want a sampling? PwC got a £1.4 million six-month contract to  to help run an emergency fund for small charities struggling to survive the pandemic. And McKinsey got £14,000 per day for six weeks to help create a replacement for Public Health England. I’m not sure if that includes any nitty-gritty work or if it’s just about defining its “vision, purpose and narrative.” I’m cynical enough by now to believe that the answer is behind door number two. And that the result will be some corporate gibberish that will mean nothing but will, I’m sure, look lovely when it’s printed in gold on the front of thousands of folders to hand out at conferences.

*

Speaking of contracts, a company called Public First, run by long-time associates of cabinet member Michael Gove and of the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, got a contract–again, with no competition–to work with Ofqual on its recent disaster, that algorithmically driven disaster I mentioned in the first paragraph. 

The association with Gove and Cummings goes back some twenty years, to the early days of the campaign to haul Britain out of the European Union. It was a long-shot investment that seems to have paid off.

How much were they paid for all their hard work? Dunno. It hasn’t been made public. It’s believed (remember, the contract hasn’t been made public) that the company was hired to help secure public confidence in what Ofqual did in downgrading 40% of graduating students’ grades. 

Stop laughing. It’s deeply disrespectful.

43 thoughts on “Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

  1. WordPress used to have tildas, but they jumped ship when the block editor came along. At least, I think they did, as I haven’t been able to find them. Sometimes I have to borrow one from Word. I say borrow, but I never give it back.

    Liked by 2 people

    • They multiply quickly, so I don’t think they’ll notice that you kept the ones you borrowed. As I understand it, they’re closely related to sourdough starter–it’s actually good to take some away.

      So far, I’ve managed to do an end run around the block editor by using a link to an old version. They tried to stop supporting it a few years back and faced a minor rebellion, so for the moment it still works. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out what the general link is (as opposed to my blog’s), otherwise I’d be happy to share it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • In theory I don’t mind the block editor, but everything takes just that little bit longer and wretched boxes pop up all over the text that I’m trying to correct so that I can’t see it. I’m sure it makes someone’s life easier, but that life isn’t mine.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Someone I know who had a tech-related job that I never did manage to understand has a slogan: If the user can’t use it, it doesn’t work. And I’d add, if it doesn’t make the user’s life easier, it isn’t an improvement.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I have yet to experience an IT improvement that has made my life easier. That might be an exaggeration, as I’m sure that some have eventually been OK, but I remember one at work that cost me and my colleagues many hours before we managed to convince anyone who could do something about it that the improvement was anything but.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I suspect improvements are sort of like consultants: You’ll never see one who comes in and says, “Yeah, everything’s fine just as it is.” Tech people have to “improve.”

              Early in the home computer revolution I discovered that any downloaded improvement had to be screamed at (or near) multiple times before it worked. (Yes, of course the screaming was essential.) My solution is not to upgrade unless forced. Yup, there’s me on the cutting edge

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, my niece (the one with the beautiful red hair) got a whole load of high numbered grades for her GCSEs and was delighted. I think its the least the government can do after they cancelled her prom! We’ll see how she gets on at 6th form college. I am sure she’ll be just fine!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m sure she will. But all this reminds me how arbitrary grading is, on some level. I mean, yes, some kids have a better grasp of a subject than others do. But all this standardized testing–what on earth does it measure? Especially in the less measurable subjects?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I used to be a History teacher, and those grades tell us something about what a person can do on the day under pressure. However, they dont tell us what someone can do given time. I suppose that was the point of course work but middle class parents ended doing for their kids. Believe me I have marked some excellent essays written by mums and dads in the past! You can tell the difference. The skills and knowldege required by GCSEs is quite phemonenal and even gettinng a C (is that a 6 nowadays in England?) is hard. What I hated was how anything less than a C was deemed worthless by colleges and employers and for some kids that was a big achievement. Dont forget these kids are doing exams in 9 subjects so that’s 9 sets of exam technique they have to learn. It’s a lot of jumping through hoops. I am not sure what happens in US high schools, whether its more content or skills based, but its still a rigourous system in the UK.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t really know what secondary education’s like in the US these days. The consensus is that it’s been dumbed down and kids don’t learn to write decently, but having worked on a cheesy magazine with a stable of bad writers all over the age of 50 (this was decades ago), I can testify that they didn’t learn to write decently either.

          A tale about parents doing their kids’ homework. When my partner was in school, girls all had to take home economics. (Oh, yes, the good old days.) One night, she hadn’t finished an assignment, which was to darn a sock, and her parents wanted to go out somewhere–with her–so her mother did something she never did, which was to do the homework for her.

          She got a D and her mother was so angry she marched into the school and, with no sense of shame, announced that she’d darned that sock, thank you very much, and no one was giving her a D, and she pulled Ida out of home ec.

          Like

  3. Now if you had gooogled gooey soggy cereal covid infecting walls things might have gone better or not. Originally marketed by a cereal company they are thinking of combining the covid test with a pregnancy test because why have soggy cereal while waiting for your covid test results… sadly all they ended up with were a bunch of covid infected walls. Meanwhile here instead of making Mexico pay for the wall we have Steve Bannon swindling rich Republican donors to build the wall and just taking the money. Which finally describes why the ultra rich needs those tax breaks. It almost makes sense. And it sounds so good to hear someone say I hardly know the man.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thankfully, John Hric did an excellent job of explaining the current goings-on over here, as I was at a loss what to say…except that Barnum was right. Ans it’s hard not to snicker about who they swindled.

    Over here, the pro sports teams are being tested and getting results daily. Many resent that. I don’t begrudge them at all – I just wonder why the hell the rest of us can’t get a test, much less timely results. And every school that opens seems to have an almost immediate outbreak.

    But the National Zoo’s panda did successfully birth a cub.

    Let’s hope Larry-the-Cat has a good lawyer who has never been a government employee.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m sure Larry will only work with the best. If push comes to shove, he could represent himself well. They should put him in charge of school openings. Or closings. Or whatever the hell they’re going to do.

      Like

    • Thank you. You’re wonderful.

      Wait a minute. I didn’t understand a word of that. It’s started. It’s running. I hit that little windowy thing in the corner (that’s start, right?). I look at what comes up. I recognize nothing useful. I run.

      I’m not doing this right, am I?

      Liked by 1 person

      • We’re miscommunicating superbly! I saw your previous comment (that you’re on a chromebook) after I hit ‘return’ on my comment. So if you’re not on a Windows PC my comment may not be very useful to you. I don’t know whether a chromebook has ‘charmap’. Maybe it doesn’t?

        Liked by 1 person

        • No idea. I also use a Windows PC (the Chromebook is basically a toy typewriter, but I can sit on the couch with it and still work, so I spend more time on it than on the real computer, and I was on the real one when I read your comment. I had no idea a PC had a charmap. For all I know, there’s one growing inside my abdomen, ready to burst out and take over the world.

          You’re right. We’re not communicating well, are we? Think of me as a techno-idiot. It will clarify everything.

          Liked by 1 person

          • OK, so… if you have charmap running, you select the font you want from the drop-down at the top. Mine opens with ‘verdana’ by default, and looking one row up from the bottom row, over to the right, I can see an ‘n’ with a tilde over it. I cilck on that and it makes it big. Then I hit the ‘select’ button, then ‘copy’, and I come over here and paste it (with CTRL-V): ñ. Voilà!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. There must be an algorithm for choosing criminals as your campaign managers and disciples for running the guv’mint. Clearly, someone shared it with the American president whose major adviser in the early days of his administration, Steve Bannon, is out on a $5 million bond after being arrested by the Postal Service Police for fraud and other criminal offenses. Let’s see.
    Is this now 7 or 8 of his advisers that have been criminally charged, indicted, confessed, convicted, pardoned, or whatever else you can think of.
    Talk about draining a swamp.
    As my daddy used to tell me, It’s hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp when you are up to your ass in alligators.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good question. The answer at the moment is, Not easily enough. If a party has a small majority, then a small shift of a few votes can allow a vote of no confidence to pass, at which point (and take this with a grain of salt, because I’m working from an unreliable memory) the PM is supposed to resign–but I don’t think is required to. Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, so exactly what’s required is often anyone’s guess and it all could end up in the courts if someone starts defying tradition. A majority party can also turn on its leader and depose him or her, which is what happened in the end to Margaret Thatcher. There are rumblings of unhappiness with Johnson right now, but they’re nothing but rumblings.

      Every 5 years an election has to be held. At that point the new majority party, if there is one, installs its leader as PM. The PM can also call an election before 5 years are up, as Theresa May did, thinking her small majority would get bigger. Instead, her party lost a lot of seats.

      Liked by 1 person

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