Last Week on My Mac: Night terrors

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Nightmare (1781), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

We all have dark thoughts and fears when we awake in the small hours. Just a while later, with the sun rising, they’ve dispelled and we’re bright and chirpy again, unless that is you’ve woken to another day confined in lockdown. Then we struggle to escape our fears, and what should have vanished with the return of reason just festers.

These are perfect conditions for jumping to conclusions, something that’s been happening a lot in past weeks. Perhaps the best example of this has been with the UK’s iOS app for tackling Covid-19, one of many such efforts to use smartphones to control infection.

Wisely, Apple and Google joined forces for once to propose a novel system which would allow non-centralised tracing of contacts, in an effort to protect the privacy of users. When it was announced that the UK’s app wouldn’t use that support, there was outcry that, in going it alone, the UK government was at best foolish, and at worst sacrificing a unique opportunity because it wanted to track its citizens. I lost count of the number of times that I was told by experienced iOS users and normally well-informed sources how the UK was wrong, and why the app would fail. Yet not one of those authoritative individuals had seen the app, let alone used it.

Astonishingly, despite the source code of the UK’s app being released and detailed analysis by independent security experts, the BBC’s story on the app’s trial on the Isle of Wight opens with the demonstrably false statement that “millions in the UK will soon be asked to monitor their movements, to limit the spread of coronavirus.” It’s not hard to show that the app doesn’t, in its current form, monitor anyone’s location or movements.

News last week that a new version of MacKeeper had been notarized by Apple brought similar calls of derision, some seeing it as an opportunity to claim how it demonstrated that macOS security was mere ‘theatre’. Again, not one of those people had examined the app, or even verified that it had been notarized. I tried to be meticulously careful in my own report here to present facts rather than speculation, reminding us of the historical record of MacKeeper as a product, and what the normal process of notarization does and does not assess.

We’re no better when it comes to following progress of the pandemic itself. Although I’m sure that by now we’re all fully aware that different countries count the number of cases and deaths differently, and that several have changed their methods since the onset of the pandemic, we just can’t resist cherry-picking figures from another country and blaming others for why ours aren’t similar.

Uganda has a population of a little more than 40 million, among whom, according to WHO figures, there have been just over 100 cases of Covid-19, with no deaths at all. So why haven’t the US/UK/Italy/France/Spain achieved similar? Whilst I hope we all recognise the absurdity of that comparison, we seem happy to pick countries such as New Zealand or Germany without even thinking that comparison is just as ridiculous. We moan about how slow our governments were to lock down, then extol the figures from Iceland or Singapore, which still haven’t locked down as completely as ours have.

We have also lost context. This is the third major pandemic during my lifetime, after the “Asian Flu” of 1957-58, when I was a toddler, and the “Hong Kong Flu” of 1968-72, when I was undertaking three sets of critical exams to enable me to go to the University of Oxford. Although ‘only’ influenza, the first killed around two million, and the second a mere one million. In the UK alone, the latter is now believed to have resulted in about 60,000 deaths.

In the clear light of morning, when we’ve literally got out a bit more, we’ll surely realise how distorted our cognition has become. I think I can see the sun starting to rise at last.