by Jeffrey Ladish1 min read20th Feb 202018 comments
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COVID-19 Contact tracing efforts

US Efforts:

Covid Watch

Private Kit, Safe Paths

South Korea’s Tracking Effort

Their app

SMS messages about cases locations, etc.

Other Articles

Wired’s reporting on S Korea and China’s use of apps]

Open letter asking tech companies to implement opt-in contact tracing:

Israeli intelligence efforts to track people and use that data for epidemiological purposes

Here's some contact tracing discussion on reddit, you might want to post there/contact individuals there:

Government and tech companies / tracking

Palintir already helping government track cases -- Article notes that government can get location data from telecoms, but that google has even more precise data from maps and android, which the government can also ask for in an emergency

Singaporean government released their own Trace Together app last week and they're now working to open-source it.


  • uses Bluetooth to track proximity between the user's phones and notifies anyone who has been in vicinity of someone who tested positive (there is an interesting story here on how they had to first overcome the issue of varying Bluetooth strength based on phone models)
  • does not collect personal information (a consent is needed upfront)
  • does not capture GPS data
  • installed by 620,000 users (as of 23 March) which is roughly 11% of Singapore's population in 3 days (if we assume constant growth, it should be around 30% today, March 28th)


  • Depends on universal adoption (this will be true for any consent-based app)
  • I have anecdotal evidence that in the first 1-2 days after launch, the button on the consent page did not actually work, making it impossible to install. I believe this would have been solved now.
  • Battery drainage (will depend on the phone & user's usage of Bluetooth)
  • Some reviews in the App Store indicate that it might disrupt the working of other connected devices (e.g. Bluetooth headphones) which might discourage usage
  • a big problem might be that it does not work in the background, but I believe this is already being solved following public requests.

Our mixed-motive conflict with social media apps

Modern computers are trash. I'm ready for better interfaces and better AI capabilities that are more aligned with our interests.

I'm going to talk about my phone as a "computer" rather than a collection of (mostly social media) apps, because the thing I want to interface is the computer, not just the apps.

Because that's exactly part of the problem. I don't have enough control over how I interact with the apps. The apps attempt to exert control over my attention. In some ways this is okay -- I do want apps to be high quality and useful, and I want my attention to be drawn to high quality useful things. However, the apps try to draw my attention using short term reward cycles that I often do not endorse upon reflection. This is a kind of superstimulus that we didn't evolve to handle. I want my phone's software to help me with this. I want this to be an Operating System feature and not an app feature, because I don't trust the apps. I have a mixed-motive conflict with the apps, and I want more leverage.

A mixed-motive conflict is one where many interests align but some do not. The name comes from Thomas Schelling's work, The Strategy of Conflict, and can be applied in many domains: Nuclear game theory, advertising, and of course social media apps.

Now, in an ideal world I shouldn't have to turn to an OS to give me greater control over the content apps provide me with. Ideally, the incentives would be aligned between me, the customer, and the app's designers and maintainers. If this were the case, I posit Facebook would look very different. There would be far more controls that would allow me to select the things I want to see that I endorse as good, rather than just the ones that keep me maximally engaged. (I know Facebook has changed their algorithms to optimize factors other than screen time, but I'm including this in the sense of 'engaged').

There really should be a data layer which Facebook presents via an API that my OS can control, allowing me to tweak things like the feed, events I see, etc. Facebook would prefer to control the interface, both because it's easier for them to develop and because it's more effective at keeping me engaged. Except, it may not be.

I pledge to look for social media platforms that allow me greater control over my own data. Initially, this may be limited to in-app control over my feed. But in the long term, I want an OS that will interface with my social data feeds and give me options for control. I am aware that browser plugins exist to assist with this, but they rely on hacks that prevent a smooth experience, and Facebook deliberately prevents them from providing many features. I pledge to look for social media companies whose incentives align closer with my own.

I'm not inherently anti-Facebook. If Facebook decides to give me far more control over my social data and interactions, I would consider paying for this service. However, I'm not optimistic about these prospects.

I'm not pledging to abandon Facebook in favor of Mastodon or equivalent, or even to become an active Mastodon user. My commitment is of a longer term nature. The social media apps are social. They require network effects to be useful. They're about building communities. I want to let my community know that I'm unhappy with the equilibrium we find ourselves and want something better. Not just with Facebook, but the whole ecosystem of OSes and phones. The future of AI should be an enriching and enabling one, and that requires navigating the myriad challenges of mixed-motive conflicts and organizing together with our social networks to use the bargaining power we possess.

A couple years back I looked into one of those "designed from the ground up to be decentralized" facebook alternatives... and it was god-awful. And it wouldn't have been all that hard for it to be at least "reasonable." 

I do think it's legitimately hard to keep up with Facebook because it keeps improving, and then it's legitimately hard to solve the coordination problem to switch. But it seems like at least one eccentric billionaire should be funding this sort of thing. (I guess they 

But this seems like something you should be able to get an eccentric billionaire to fund to the point that it's at least, like, Google Plus levels of good. (Okay, I guess we have one now maybe?)

Perhaps worth noting: a few years back, the hip intellectuals I know "knew" that blue screens were bad for you and invented/downloaded Flux, and it was discouraging that that was a weird hack you had to get for yourself. But, a few years later, that's been rolled into official Apple Products, and iPhones now have some built in screen-time managing tools. 

So I'm actually fairly optimistic about this working out, just... slowly enough that you'll continuously be somewhat frustrated that the "obvious" things haven't been implemented yet.

Perhaps worth noting: a few years back, the hip intellectuals I know "knew" that blue screens were bad for you and invented/downloaded Flux, and it was discouraging that that was a weird hack you had to get for yourself. But, a few years later, that's been rolled into official Apple Products, and iPhones now have some built in screen-time managing tools. 

Off topic:

Apparently, like most else, this hasn't replicated; .

Hmm. I... think I roll to disbelieve on this?

Like, I believe that most of the problem is from the screen, and I never really had a strong opinion about eye-strain-in-particular. But... I find myself much more alert with blue light. I thought the mechanism was supposed to be circadian-rhythm based rather than fatigue based, which that article doesn't discuss.

(The author also comes across as having a bit of a axe to grind about technology before bed, which is, like, a fair ax to want to grind, but makes me suspicious of the broader claim)

I recently did a quick Google scholar search which convinced me of this, but was lazybwhen finding source for you :).

Google scholar search convinced me but totally ok to disbelieve. After all who is to say non-replications will replicate :).

Fair. Did the google scholar stuff include circadian rhythm stuff?

Wellll, I just signed up for and so far the interface and experience look terrible. It seems designed around sharing news articles, and that's not very interesting or useful or better than Reddit. I would not call it at least google plus level of good.

I agree that it might take a large amount of funding to get something off the ground that has a chance of competing.

Honestly, I'd be pretty happy to see lesswrong shortform evolve more features rival facebook's discussion space in some way. I'm not sure that's actually the right direction, but I am saying I'm interesting in that direction.

I've definitely spent a bunch time about how to evolve LW shortform in this direction. One of the key things is that a lot of how FB works is to make things feel very low effort, and casual and fun. I don't know that that would mix well with LessWrong, especially if it were trying to fill the void of "everyone and their grandmother are joining."

There's a bunch of obvious features to build to cover the basics (i.e. making it easier to subscribe to people's shortform), that still fit easily within the LW aesthetic. 

My guess is it'd be pretty reasonable to fork LessWrong for purposes of building a more explicitly social website, and that a lot of the infrastructure would be a good starting place.

I don't want everyone and their grandmother to join, but I would like to see a lot more of the rationalist facebook content on LessWrong. Basically low-medium effort posts that abide by the spirit of truth-seeking norms. If I'm sharing memes I'll do it somewhere else, but if I'm brainstorming about a nuclear winter hypothesis it would be cool to do it here.

One thing that felt a bit sad to me was that the schelling place (in my circles) to have smart conversations about covid-19 was a FB group. It seems like an achievable goal (but perhaps requires a few more features than we can easily develop quickly) for LW to be the best place on the internet to consolidated good discussion on that.

(we have a tag feature that isn't quite ready for LW primetime, but has been partially rolled out to admins. You can actually check out a 2019-nCov tag page here. It's still somewhat janky but I think could be workable without too much extra dev effort)

It seems weird to expect that OS vendors are particularly more aligned with your preferences than app vendors are. You actually have more control over apps - it's possible to use different ones without building your own hardware and writing your own drivers. Don't like the bundle of behaviors that an app presents? don't use it. There are fewer OSes to choose from, and they tend to group together harder-to-replicate functionality in a way that you can't really pick and choose very well.

I'm totally with you that I don't much care for the way current social media platforms (including apps and data-handling outside of apps) work, but I'm not sure what the alternative is, for things where almost everyone I want to interact with is captured by them, and there's no coordination point to change it. Compare with limited choice in options on a political ballot - I hate it, but I don't think the equilibrium has a good leverage point to improve.

I don't expect OS vendors are more aligned, but it might be a more achievable political goal to get them aligned, since there's a smaller number of them. (I'm not sure if this is true, just a hypothesis)

The limited choices is not good, but they're at least competing on the overall experience rather than just engagement inside of a browser. In my experience, OSes seem to have more usability features than social apps do. (night mode, do not disturb, etc.)

This is a temporary short form, so I can link people to Scott Alexander's book review post. I'm putting it here because Substack is down, and I'll take it down / replace it with a Substack link once it's back up. (also it hasn't been archived by Waybackmachine yet, I checked)

The spice must flow.

Edit: It's back up, link:

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