A desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of COVID-19 could boost authoritarianism in the wake of the pandemic

Interesting research findings from an international project conducted by psychologists in Cambridge and elsewhere. The Abstract reads:

What are the socio-political consequences of infectious diseases? Humans have evolved to avoid disease and infection, resulting in a set of psychological mechanisms that promote disease-avoidance, referred to as the behavioral immune system (BIS). One manifestation of the BIS is the cautious avoidance of unfamiliar, foreign, or potentially contaminating stimuli. Specifically, when disease infection risk is salient or prevalent, authoritarian attitudes can emerge that seek to avoid and reject foreign outgroups while favoring homogenous, familiar ingroups. In the largest study conducted on the topic to date (N > 240,000), elevated regional levels of infectious pathogens were related to more authoritarian attitudes on three geographical levels: across U.S. metropolitan regions, U.S. states, and cross-culturally across 47 countries. The link between pathogen prevalence and authoritarian psychological dispositions predicted conservative voting behavior in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and more authoritarian governance and state laws, in which one group of people imposes asymmetrical laws on others in a hierarchical structure. Furthermore, cross-cultural analysis illustrated that the relationship between infectious diseases and authoritarianism was pronounced for infectious diseases that can be acquired from other humans (nonzoonotic), and does not generalize to other infectious diseases that can only be acquired from non-human species (zoonotic diseases). At a time of heightened awareness of infectious diseases, the current findings are important reminders that public health and ecology can have ramifications for socio-political attitudes by shaping how citizens vote and are governed.

The study, claimed to be the largest yet to investigate links between pathogen prevalence and ideology, reveals a strong connection between infection rates and strains of authoritarianism in public attitudes, political leadership and lawmaking. The article is an open-access one but a useful TL;DR summary is available. Here’s an excerpt from it:

While data used for the study predates COVID-19, University of Cambridge psychologists say that greater public desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of the pandemic could ultimately see liberal politics suffer at the ballot box. The findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers used infectious disease data from the United States of America in the 1990s and 2000s and responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the USA during 2017 and 2018. They found that the more infectious US cities and states went on to have more authoritarian-leaning citizens.

The US findings were replicated at an international level using survey data from over 51,000 people across 47 different countries, comparing responses with national-level disease rates.

The most authoritarian US states had rates of infectious diseases – from HIV to measles – around four times higher than the least authoritarian states, while for the most authoritarian nations it was three times higher than the least.

This was after scientists accounted for a range of other socioeconomic factors that influence ideology, including religious beliefs and inequalities in wealth and education. They also found that higher regional infection rates in the USA corresponded to more votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Moreover, in both nations and US states, higher rates of infectious disease correlated with more ‘vertical’ laws – those that disproportionately affect certain groups, such as abortion control or extreme penalties for certain crimes. This was not the case with ‘horizontal’ laws that affect everyone equally.

It’s the authoritarian personality stuff all over again. Sigh.

Covid: the long haul

If you want a peek into the future, then Israel is the place to look. It was the first country to get mass vaccination done. And now the FT reports:

Having won early access to supplies of the BioNTech/Pfizer jab in exchange for sharing nationwide data on how mass vaccination drives affect the pandemic, Israel is a closely watched indicator for where well-inoculated developed economies are heading.

After months of euphoria, the data out of Israel is troubling. The Israeli ministry of health has twice revised downwards the long-term efficacy of the jabs — from the advertised 94 per cent protection from asymptomatic infections against the then-dominant Alpha variant, to as low as 64 per cent against the now-dominant Delta variant.

As new infections soared, so did the long tail of hospitalisations. Even though the unvaccinated were five to six times as likely to end up seriously ill, the vaccine’s protection was waning fastest for the oldest — the most vulnerable — who got their first jabs as early as December.

So far, 775,000 people have taken their third shots and doctors say they can see antibody counts rising measurably within days of the jab. From this weekend, people over 50 will be offered a third shot.

And then a fourth, and a fifth…

We’re in for a long haul.

Friday 11 December, 2020

This is what vaccines do

What the data shows is that during the first week after getting their shots, both groups of people kept getting covid-19 at about the same rate. But after that, the lines start to separate. And they just keep separating and separating.

That’s the result of the vaccine taking effect, which usually takes a few days and gets boosted by a second dose. After two weeks, hardly anyone with the vaccine was getting covid-19. But the disease kept striking those who got the placebo with clockwork regularity.

“No comment. This is what vaccines do,” said Florian Krammer, a prominent immunologist, who posted a version of the image to Twitter.


Quote of the Day

“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

  • Paul Ehrlich

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Planxty | Three reels | Jenny’s Wedding,The Virginia, Garett Barry’s.


Planxty is the best Irish folk group of my lifetime. And at the heart of the group was the piper Liam Ó Flynn. Despite the pace of the music, he always had a strange kind of impassive dignity.

Henri, le Chat Noir, angst-ridden feline YouTube star est mort

From ArsTechnica

We are très désolé to report that YouTube cat-video sensation Henri, le Chat Noir has died at the ripe old age of 17. His collaborator Will Braden, aka the “thieving filmmaker,” announced Henry’s passing in a moving Facebook post. Apparently, Henri had a deteriorating spinal condition and had been rendered largely immobile as a result. Despite the pandemic, a local vet made a home visit to “help him pass peacefully, surrounded by those that loved him,” Braden wrote.

Henri (née Henry) was not actually Braden’s cat; the Facebook post identifies Braden’s mother as Henri’s real-life caretaker. Henri lived in an undisclosed location in Seattle’s North End, largely oblivious to his online celebrity. He was a rescue cat, adopted from a local animal shelter as a kitten, who shared his living space with a second white cat, known to his fans as ‘l’Imbecile Blanc,” who survives him. While a student at the Seattle Film Institute, Braden noted Henri’s “regal presence and distinguished personality,” and he featured the cat in a short film for class. The video hit YouTube on May 24, 2007, and Henri’s existential musings soon began winning enthusiastic fans.

Watch this and you’ll see why.


Long Read of the Day

Facebook Inc. New Employee Manual

Scott Galloway on Mark Zuckerberg, Sociopath.

There’s a firm that’s grown faster than any firm to date. Its founder also set the DNA of the firm, but without the benefit of the modulation and self-awareness that come with age. It’s in a sector where network effects created a handful of organisms of unprecedented scale. There has never been an organization of this scale and influence, that is more like its founder, than Facebook. I know, you’re thinking, “What about the Catholic Church?” Nope. Numerous acts of violence against children, coupled with institutionalized cover-ups, mean the acorn has fallen pretty far from the tree (Jesus).

Here’s the rub: Mark Zuckerberg is a sociopath, and Facebook has institutionalized sociopathy. To understand sociopaths, according to the quirky psychologist on my new favorite show, Fleabag, you need to take things away, not add them. There is no empathy, no emotion, nothing. According to a less entertaining, but likely more credible source, Psychology Today:

Sociopathy is an informal term that refers to a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), sociopathy is most closely represented by Antisocial Personality Disorder. Outwardly, those described as sociopaths may appear disturbed but can also show signs of caring, sincerity, and trustworthiness. In fact, they are manipulative, often lie, lack empathy, and have a weak conscience that allows them to act recklessly or aggressively, even when they know their behavior is wrong.

The above makes for a decent blurb for Zuck for his upcoming 20-year high school reunion. Maybe also something about him learning Mandarin or some such…

Magnificent stuff. Do read it all.

Seven things to consider when travelling to Europe from January 1, 2021

Helpful advice from Politico for hapless UK-resident Europhiles. Don’t forget your Green Card. Make sure you have health insurance. You may need to get an International Driving Licence (and only a third of UK post offices are able to supply those). Etc., etc.

Remember how Brexit was going to slash red tape.

What is it that Foreign Exchange dealers know that we don’t?

Nice blog post by Jonty Bloom:

My career started in the late 1970’s working in the foreign exchange department of the Bank of America in the City of London. Lovely people, well paid work and a bunch of dealers who would buy or sell their mother on a ten point spread and many of whom only ever read the sporting pages of The Sun.

It was also a very laissez faire and realistic place, currencies were worth what someone would pay for them, nothing more nothing less. Which is why the fall of sterling in the last 4 years should make you sit up and take notice; it has fallen from well over 1.30 against the Euro to 1.10. With the expectation that there may still be a deal included in that price, if there is no deal by Sunday the markets will open on Monday to yet another fall. Depending on where you start your calculations and where the pound ends up, that is a fall of between 15% and 20%.

Now ask yourself this: Why do thousands of hard nosed, free market loving dealers, from all over the world think the UK’s currency is worth so much less than 4 years ago and why will a no deal Brexit make that worse?

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Physicists solve 150-year-old mystery of equation governing sandcastle physics. It’s the Kelvin Equation. Link

  • Toyota claim to have made a big breakthrough in battery technology: solid state; 500km on a charge; charge time 10 minutes. A big deal if they can deliver on it. Link

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Sunday 6 December, 2020

The scene on our walk this morning.

Quote of the Day

“Now why did you name your baby ‘John’? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named John.”

  • Sam Goldwyn

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sibelius: Finlandia | BBC Proms 2017


I’ve always loved this. My two youngest children sang the choral part at their mother’s funeral in 2002. It was wonderfully poignant and moving.

Long Read of the Day

 A Tale Of Two Pandemics – NOEMA

How two Scandanavian countries took different approaches to the pandemic.


Companies are now writing reports tailored for AI readers – and it should worry us

My column in this morning’s Observer:

My eye was caught by the title of a working paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER): How to Talk When a Machine Is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the the Age of AI. So I clicked and downloaded, as one does. And then started to read…

Read on

Grounds for optimism?

Since March, the news — and the medium-term outlook — has been persistently depressing. Rupert Beale’s piece in the London Review of Books is the first essay I’ve read that holds out rational grounds for hope.

The virus’s genetic code has been available since January. We knew precious little about the subtleties of coronaviruses, but we did already know that they rip their way into host cells using a protein complex known as Spike. Block Spike, with a vaccine that raises antibodies to it, and you block the virus. There are plenty of ways to do this. You might use a killed authentic Sars-CoV-2 virus; or a different, live but innocuous virus with Spike bolted on; or the Spike protein plus an adjuvant (something that promotes an aggressive immune response); or the messenger RNA that codes for a piece of Spike, so your own cells make the protein. Two vaccines of this last type have proven blessedly effective. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are about 95 per cent likely to prevent symptomatic infection. To put this in context, we are content if the annual and very well understood seasonal influenza vaccine is 60 per cent effective. The deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, compared it to your team scoring two consecutive goals in a penalty shootout. Penalties are too prosaic; in footballing terms these are goals only Maradona could have scored. But even that falls short of conveying quite how remarkable it is to have created a vaccine, using hitherto unproven technology, that’s 95 per cent effective against a novel virus – in less than a year.

The good news doesn’t stop there…. Beale is a clinician scientist group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, The UK’s leading institute for the relevant science. So his assessment of the potential of the vaccines is worth playing attention to. His article is long and detailed. And here’s the payoff:

The end is in sight. Effectively deployed testing may be able to ameliorate social distancing until the vaccines arrive. We were woefully prepared for a coronavirus pandemic in March, but were another similar virus to emerge in 2022 we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. We should be wary of learning the wrong lessons, however. To have several highly effective vaccines for this horrible virus after less than a year is a quite astonishing achievement, among the greatest things that we – by which I mean both humanity in general and molecular biologists in particular – have ever accomplished. We’ve been skilful, but we have also been lucky. A Sars-CoV-2 vaccine turns out to be relatively easy to develop. The virus that causes the next pandemic may not be so forgiving.

Other, hopefully interesting, Links

  • 24 high-quality Covid illustrations. Free for commercial and personal use. Link

  • How and when will life go back to normal? Answer from epidemiologists. Link

  • Faraday Cages for Wi-Fi Routers are the latest 5G conspiracy racket. Why do people believe pseudo-scientific nonsense? Link

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Friday 4 December, 2020

Brighton: i360

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is out on Kindle. Link

Quote of the Day

”It is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market … hares have no time to read.”

  • Anita Brookner

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Lang Lang: Franz Liszt | Liebestraum, S. 541 No. 3


Pure Schmaltz, but what the hell!

Also: Seb Schmoller tells me there’s an interesting livestream tomorrow evening from Upper Chapel in Sheffield.

Programme: Beethoven String Quartet No.5, Op.18 No.5 and Dvorak Piano Quartet No.2, Op.87 played by Ensemble 360.

Long Read of the Day

Scott Galloway: The Great Dispersion

Thoughtful and sobering essay.

Small data, big implications

Zeynep Tufecki is one of the smartest people I follow. In recent times she has written some of the most insightful stuff about the pandemic. Now she has a newsletter on Substack where today she writes about a striking, informative study just released from South Korea, examining a transmission chain in a restaurant. “It is”, she writes, “perhaps one of the finest examples of shoe-leather epidemiology I’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s worth a deeper dive.”

If you just want the results: one person (Case B) infected two other people (case A and C) from a distance away of 6.5 meters (about 21 feet) and 4.8m (about 15 feet). Case B and case A overlapped for just five minutes at quite a distance away. These people were well beyond the current 6 feet / 2 meter guidelines of CDC and much further than the current 3 feet / one meter distance advocated by the WHO. And they still transmitted the virus.

That’s the quick and dirty of it. But there’s a lot more detail here, and like many stories, it is best told through a picture:

First, just reading the study is an exercise in what it means to do a study really, really well, with the resources of a government that’s committed to generating useful information…

Great piece if you want to understand why some of us are not going to be dining indoors in restaurants for a while yet. And it raises one intriguing puzzle: why have there been no recorded cases of infections recorded from cinemas?

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Beavers build first Exmoor dam in 400 years. Awww. Link.

  • Steve Jobs pitching for planning permission for his company’s new HQ. Vintage Jobs. 20-odd riveting minutes. Unmissable. Link

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Friday 27 November, 2020

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is now a Kindle book. Link

The inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s ‘Players’.
Image Credit: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

From Sue Halpern’s NYOB essay “What the iPad Can’t Do”, June 8, 2010.

Quote of the Day

”Here indeed was his one really notable talent. He slept more than other other President, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.”

  • H.L. Mencken on Calvin Coolidge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

O Magnum Mysterium | Morten Lauridsen | King’s College choir | Cambridge 2009 | Link

Staggeringly beautiful. What a way to begin the day!

It was new to me: many thanks to the generous reader who suggested it.

Long read of the Day

Rainbow in the Dark

Characteristically thoughtful essay by Drew Austin. Here’s how it begins…

I just finished Jonathan Crary’s excellent book 24/7, which is ostensibly about contemporary sleep and 24/7 culture but really about how capitalism expands to fill every available crevice while overriding humans’ biological characteristics—with sleep being the final impenetrable frontier. Early in the book, Crary discusses the transformational role of electric light in 19th century cities: “The broad deployment of urban street lights by the 1880s had achieved two interrelated goals: it reduced long-standing anxieties about various dangers associated with nocturnal darkness, and it expanded the time frame and thus the profitability of many economic activities.” That passage rings particularly true this November, because the onset of daylight savings time—which always catches me off guard—felt especially suffocating this year, intensified by restrictions on indoor activity and New York’s soft curfew, both of which curtailed key sources of relief and made the month feel really dark. As I observed during the spring’s heavier lockdown, cities once again feel somewhat rural now: After night falls, there’s little to do, so everyone goes home. As Crary observes, modern technology enabled us to overcome our natural rhythms and limitations, and cities became focal points of that heightened activity—but this year has forced them to cool off somewhat…

Alastair Campbell on playing football with Maradona

A side of Tony Blair’s spin-doctor I never knew. Link

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Digital Tools I wish existed. Perceptive and interesting list by Jonathan Borichevskiy. As someone who teeters permanently on the brink of information overload, I feel his pain. Lots of nice ideas in his post. Clay Shirky once said that there’s no such thing as information overload; there’s just filter failure. That’s too glib. Link

  • Turning the Body Into a Wire. Sounds daft, but actually a very interesting essay on IEEE Spectrum (a serious professional publication) on how to make pacemakers and other kinds of healthcare electronics kit safer from hacking. Link.

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Saturday 7 November, 2020

Well, well, look who broke the news

Never thought I’d see this — especially on this channel.

Saturday 7 November

Quote of the Day

“Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous”

  • Pierre Boulez

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Boccherini: String Quintet in C, Op.30 No.6


From the soundtrack of Master and Commander

Long read of the Day

Fabulous essay by Ben Ehrenreich. He uses the pandemic as a jumping-off point for a dive into the work of Joseph Tainter, the pre-eminent scholar of civilisational collapse.

The ‘Social Dilemma’ and the Prodigal techbro

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) has been watching The Social Dilemma and is Not Impressed:

So we come to ‘The Social Dilemma’, which after telling us the same thing for ninety minutes (‘They want you to stay online! They’ve figured out how to do it! That’s how they make their money!’ Really? Well, blow me down…) follows recent convention in using the credits to revisit the various interviewees for an informal moment; in this case, asking them for their suggested solution.

And, with the slightly ironic exception of the fabulous Jaron Lanier, every single one of these highly educated, scarily motormouthed and clearly very concerned people, all of whom have evidently thought of little else ever since switching sides — every single one of them could think of no answer beyond, ‘Do less social media’. In various forms: ‘Turn off notifications’, ‘Don’t let your children have smartphones’, ‘Delete your accounts’ — but all with the same message of doing less — even less — than you do already.

I waited and waited for somebody to say: ‘Build something! Plant something! Teach, or learn something. Grow something, or demolish something. Bake, boil, or broil something, Start a movement, or join one somebody else has started. Better yet, find out what’s right under your nose that needs your attention. Read with schoolkids. Spend a day digging stones and stumps out of an abandoned building plot. Take a hot meal to an isolated older person — you never know, their eighty-five years may have taught them something you could learn from.’

But nobody did…

As I read this literary Exocet, what came to mind was Maria Farrell’s splendid blast about the current epidemic of what one might call Innovator’s Remorse, when guys (and, let’s face it, they’re always male) who obeyed the Zuckerberg call to “Move Fast and Break Things” (and in some cases made a tidy pile in the process) — but who then, one day, had their personal ephiphanies and became remorseful for all the damage they had inadvertently done.

Here’s a snippet from Maria’s “The Prodigal Techbro” that conveys the message succinctly:

The Prodigal Son is a New Testament parable about two sons. One stays home to work the farm. The other cashes in his inheritance and gambles it away. When the gambler comes home, his father slaughters the fattened calf to celebrate, leaving the virtuous, hard-working brother to complain that all these years he wasn’t even given a small goat to share with his friends. His father replies that the prodigal son ‘was dead, now he’s alive; lost, now he’s found’. Cue party streamers. It’s a touching story of redemption, with a massive payload of moral hazard. It’s about coming home, saying sorry, being joyfully forgiven and starting again. Most of us would love to star in it, but few of us will be given the chance.

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

I’m glad that Roger McNamee, the early Facebook investor, has testified to the U.S. Congress about Facebook’s wildly self-interested near-silence about its amplification of Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. I’m thrilled that Google’s ex-‘design ethicist’, Tristan Harris, “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,“(startlingly faint praise) now runs a Center for Humane Technology, exposing the mind-hacking tricks of his former employer. I even spoke — critically but, I hope, warmly — at the book launch of James Williams, another ex-Googler turned attention evangelist, who “co-founded the movement”of awareness of designed-in addiction. I wish all these guys well. I also wish that the many, exhausted activists who didn’t take money from Google or Facebook could have even a quarter of the attention, status and authority the Prodigal Techbro assumes is his birth-right.

Today, when the tide of public opinion on Big Tech is finally turning, the brothers (and sisters) who worked hard in the field all those years aren’t even invited to the party. No fattened calf for you, my all but unemployable tech activist. The moral hazard is clear; why would anyone do the right thing from the beginning when they can take the money, have their fun, and then, when the wind changes, convert their status and relative wealth into special pleading and a whole new career?

And, also, why would any of us take advice from these dudes about what should be done to bring the tech companies under democratic control?

More on ‘suppression’ vs elimination of Covid-19

One of our (Wolfson College’s) former Press Fellows, Nic Stuart, read Tim Harford’s blog post about the arguments in the UK about how to deal with the pandemic and sent me some interesting reflections on what’s happening in the Australian state of Victoria:

Poor procedure and a lack of infection control had seen the case load explode out of the hotels where people returning from overseas had been quarantined; Covid had escaped into the community and was reproducing exponentially. It seemed as if the genie was out of the bottle.

The state’s Labor Premier, Dan Andrews, attempted first to lock-down in nine large Housing Commission flats, later extending this ring to other nearby areas. Unsurprisingly this attempt failed because the restrictions were one step behind the escaping virus.

Then he bit the bullet and closed the state. Seriously. Cops on the beat; the army in the streets; telephoning people meant to be quarantining at random hours to check they were where they said they were; nobody other than those preforming vital services allowed to go to work.

As of yesterday Victoria had gone nine straight days without the disease spreading by community transmission.

New South Wales has, however, adopted suppression as a strategy. Along with detailed contact tracing this has served to dramatically slow the spread to (about) five a day, but there’s no end in sight to this.

As a result, people are warming, significantly, to elimination.

I’ve just checked the population of Victoria. It’s 6.28 million, i.e. roughly a tenth of the UK’s population. The problem (for Britain) is that a proper lockdown of the kind achieved in Victoria isn’t feasible in such a populous country.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Hockney On Photography. Lovely film. Wish I’d known about it years ago. Link
  • It Looks Like Nigel Farage Just Lost a £10,000 Bet On the US Election. I hope that’s true. He put £10k on Trump to win. Wonder what odds he got. Couldn’t happen to a nastier guy. Link

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Tuesday 3 November, 2020

A portent?

Photo by Quentin this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its advanced treaties, if I can write its economics textbooks.”

  • Paul Samuelson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel – Sarabande in D minor | Copernicus Chamber Orchestra conducted by Horst Sohm | 2011


Long read of the day

“Eat Butterfiles with Me”, Patricia Lockwood’s stunning essay on Vladimir Nabokov in the London Review of Books

More on Gordon Parks

The brief video on Gordon Parks’s photography in yesterday’s edition prompted a lovely email from Pete Ashton pointing me to Half Past Autumn, the HBO documentary on Parks, the full version of which is on Vimeo here. It’s an hour and a half and wonderful. Cancel Netflix for an evening and watch it instead. Parks was such an amazing and gifted individual.

What it was like to work in a Covid ICU

This is the most vivid, most moving thing I’ve read about what it’s like not to be able to save people who are dying from Covid.

My eye was caught first by this:

We leaned forward and bowed our heads in order to redirect the flow of tears. We couldn’t risk touching our faces and we need them to fall onto our scrubs. We couldn’t ruin our masks.

And then I started to read…

And now I can’t forget it.

Better cancel Christmas, btw

John Crace on Boris Johnson’s shambolic performance in the Commons yesterday:

The longer the session went on, the more confused Johnson’s answers became. He was adamant the country would return to regional lockdowns on 2 December, even though he could give no guarantees the rate of infection would have come down sufficiently over the course of the next month.

He guessed it would be down to parliament what happened next, he said unhappily. So that was a yes and a no.

“The country wants politicians to act together,” he shrugged sadly, apparently unaware of his own failure to act on scientific evidence and work with Labour a month ago – and of the fact that the MPs least inclined to work together were his own. Some wanted golf courses reopened, others were happy to compromise on pitch and putt. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said that he had come to hear Churchill but had only got Halifax-style appeasement instead.

What became more and more evident the longer the session went on was that Boris was out of ideas. Other than to do too little too late. He wasn’t even sure what he had and hadn’t promised Scotland by way of bailout. Starmer slumped back in his seat.

He knew what we all knew: that we would be back in the Commons on 2 December with little change in the nation’s health, to have the same arguments over lockdowns and the failure of test and trace all over again. You can cancel Christmas now.

We have four more years of this.

Other, maybe interesting, links

  • A selfie set in stone: hidden portrait by cheeky mason found in Spain 900 years on. Link
  • What it was like to work with Sean Connery. Lovely Twitter thread. Link.
  • A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus is spread through the air. Terrific animated explanation by El Pais. Link

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Friday 23 October, 2020

Gone Fishin’

Cley beach, Norfolk, 2018.

Quote of the Day

”There are two things which I am confident I can do well: one is an introduction to literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself and to the public.”

  • Samuel Johnson, 1755.

Rings any bells with you? Does with me.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Für Elise” | Lang Lang


When I lived and worked in Holland in the late 1970s I often went to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Sunday mornings where there would be a recital in the Spiegelzaal. You paid a small fee, got a coffee and found a place to sit. I think these treats were actually branded as Für Elise, but it’s so long ago that I can’t be sure. Still, this wonderful performance by Lang Lang brings it all back.

The false promise of herd immunity for COVID-19

Why proposals to largely let the virus run its course — embraced by Donald Trump’s administration and others — could bring “untold death and suffering”.

Useful briefing from Nature which explains the concept and the difficulty of estimating what percentage of a population have it.

It’s complicated, as you might expect. The bottom line, though, is that “never before have we reached herd immunity via natural infection with a novel virus, and SARS-CoV-2 is unfortunately no different.”

Vaccination is the only ethical path to herd immunity. Letting it rip is neither ethical nor likely to be effective.

We kind-of knew that, didn’t we? Except for Trump, of course, who called it “herd mentality”.

Writing to Simone

Terrific review essay by Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review on Simone de Beauvoir and the letters readers wrote to her. The book she’s writing about is Judith Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir — a work that came out of the author’s discovery of the enormous trove of letters to Beauvoir from her readers in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

It was not only, or even mainly, The Second Sex that bound readers to Beauvoir for decades. More than anything it was the memoirs, following one upon another, that accounted for the remarkable loyalty thousands of women, and some men too, showered upon the gradual unfolding of a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, at the same time that its inner existence was continually laid bare and minutely reported upon. Fearless was the word most commonly associated with these books as, in every one of them, Beauvoir, good Existentialist that she was, wrote with astonishing frankness about sex, politics, and relationships. She recorded in remarkable detail, and with remarkable authenticity, everything she had thought or felt at any given moment. Well, kind of. She recorded everything that she was not ashamed of. Years later, after she and Sartre were both dead, appalling behavior came to light that she had either omitted from the memoirs or put a positive spin on.

Sex, Love, and Letters is a richly researched study based on Judith Coffin’s encounter with a batch of these letters that a sympathetic curator put into her hands one day while she was working on The Second Sex in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. As she writes in her introduction, “Nothing prepared me for the drama I found the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . What I found was an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.” Correspondents “asked for advice on marriage, love, and birth control; they confessed secrets and sent sections of their diaries for her to read. The letter writers’ tone was unexpected as well, alternately deferential and defiant, seductive, and wry.”

I know a bit about this because I was once married to a woman whose life was changed by reading the Second Sex and the successive volumes of Beauvoir’s remarkable autobiography. Carol (who died in 2008) was deeply influenced by these texts and for her (and to some extent for me) this amazing French intellectual became a kind of heroine — so much so that Carol later did a Masters thesis on the autobiography. I’m looking at it now as I write. She even wrote to Beauvoir asking for an interview — and went to Paris to see her in her apartment. So I guess her letters are also in the BN’s trove.

As Gornick implies, the passage of time, and posthumous revelations, has taken the shine off the image of Beauvoir and her accomplice in literary celebrity, Jean-Paul Sartre. Subsequent biographies have revealed that they both sometimes behaved abominably towards other people. I guess it leaves those of us who, as impressionable students, were dazzled by them, looking naive. So what? Everybody was young and foolish once. And whatever one thinks about its author with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, The Second Sex was a genuinely pathbreaking book.

There’s a word for why we wear masks, and Liberals should say it

Michael Tomasky has a fine OpEd piece in the New York Times about the way the word “freedom” has been hijacked by the alt-right and their accomplices in the Republican party.

Donald Trump is now back on the road, holding rallies in battleground states. These events, with people behind the president wearing masks but most others not, look awfully irresponsible to most of us — some polls show that as many as 92 percent of Americans typically wear masks when they go out.

Trumpworld sees these things differently. Mike Pence articulated the view in the vice-presidential debate. “We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people,” Mr. Pence said. The topic at hand was the Sept. 26 super-spreader event in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court and how the administration can expect Americans to follow safety guidelines that it has often ignored.

Tomasky goes back to John Stuart Mill (whom many right-wingers apparently revere). In On Liberty he wrote that liberty (or freedom) means “doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow creatures, as long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.” This is a standard definition of freedom, more succinctly expressed in the adage: “Your freedom to do as you please with your fist ends where my jaw begins.”

Most of the nonsense about mask-wearing in the US is expressed in the language of “my freedom”. It’s ludicrously oxymoronic, though. I saw a fanatical anti-mask woman on TV recently saying “it’s my body and I’m not going to have anyone telling me what to wear on my face” while it was pretty clear that she doesn’t agree with pro-abortion campaigners who maintain “It’s my body and I’m going to decide what happens to it.” Par for the course: fanatics don’t do consistency.

“Freedom,” Tomasky observes,

emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom. emphatically does not include the freedom to get someone else sick. It does not include the freedom to refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, sneeze on someone in the produce section and give him the virus. That’s not freedom for the person who is sneezed upon. For that person, the first person’s “freedom” means chains — potential illness and even perhaps a death sentence. No society can function on that definition of freedom.

He’s right about how strange it is that “freedom” belongs almost wholly to the right. They talk about it incessantly and insist on a link between economic freedom and political freedom, positing that the latter is impossible without the former. (This is a legacy of Hayek and what Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective”.) And yet, as Tomasky says,

the broad left in America has let all this go unchallenged for decades, to the point that today’s right wing can defend spreading disease, potentially killing other people, as freedom. It is madness.

It is.

Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account

From the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.

Last week a Dutch security researcher succeeded in logging into the Twitter account of the American President Donald Trump. Trump, an active Twitterer with 87 million followers, had an extremely weak and easy to guess password and had according to the researcher, not applied two-step verification.

The researcher, Victor Gevers, had access to Trump’s personal messages, could post tweets in his name and change his profile. Gevers took screenshots when he had access to Trump’s account. These screenshots were shared with de Volkskrant by the monthly opinion magazine Vrij Nederland. Dutch security experts find Gevers’ claim credible.

The Dutchman alerted Trump and American government services to the security leak. After a few days, he was contacted by the American Secret Service in the Netherlands. This agency is also responsible for the security of the American President and took the report seriously, as evidenced by correspondence seen by de Volkskrant. Meanwhile Trump’s account has been made more secure.

So what was Trump’s password? Yes — you guessed it! — it was “maga2020!”

Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Doomsday preppersLink
  • The new Hummer. Beyond parody, really but interesting technically. Link
  • The Criminal Case Against Donald Trump Is in the Works. Link. No wonder he doesn’t want to lose the Presidency.

Thursday 22 October, 2020

Glenteenassig Lake, Co Kerry, on a November morning.

Quote of the Day

“What demons are at work here? You don’t know. But at least you know you don’t know. That’s a start. That’s where doctors begin when trying to diagnose patients with bizarre symptoms that may indicate a fatal disease. They distrust theories and try to see what they see. They go slow and keep their wits about them. That is your most precious possession right now: your wits. Try not to lose them.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Paddy Keenan | Uileann pipes | Three tunes, including the Cork Hornpipe | 2011


I love Uileann piping but hadn’t known of Keenan until Ross Anderson (also a piper), told me about him.

There’s a nice comment by Liz Moran under the video:

He is not playing that fast in the the first few minutes and you’ll notice he “swings” the tune, he plays slightly behind the beat like a good jazz musician. He takes his time and he does not rush the melody. The last, which I know as the “Cork Hornpipe,” is a pretty simple tune with lots of nice jumps where you can fly the notes, add fills and make it nice and showy. I had the good fortune of meeting his father and listening to his chanter playing, in the family caravan, Ballyfermot, 1975.

If you’re pinning your hopes on a Covid vaccine, here’s a dose of realism

David Salisbury writing in the Guardian.

TL;DR summary: A targeted immunisation programme may offer some protection, but it will not deliver ‘life as normal’.

Even if countries do decide to switch from a personal-protection policy to a transmission-interruption strategy, obstacles remain. Much will depend on the successful vaccination (probably with two doses) of people who have not previously seen themselves to be at elevated risk. The challenge will be persuading the young, for example, to be vaccinated, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

Adherence to recommendations for any Covid-19 interventions – social distancing, lockdowns, home working, cancelled holidays or vaccinations – depend on trust. If politicians are telling us that the present impositions on our lives are only going to last until we have vaccines, then the reality is that a false hope is being promulgated.

Vaccines are probably the most powerful public health intervention available to us. But unless their benefits are communicated with realism, confidence in all recommendations will be put at risk.

David Salisbury used to be Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health.

It’s going to take quite a while until the penny finally drops: Covid-19 represents a radical break with the past.

How long before UK prisons explode?

Sobering Covid-diary post by David Vincent:

As it dawns on the rest of us that this nightmare has no end-point in sight…

There seems little prospect of any of the Government’s semi-privatised schemes ever working, nor is it likely that a vaccine will get on top of the pandemic until well into the New Year. As Christmas is imperilled, prolonged anxiety and unending isolation are wearing away at the spirits.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prisons, which, as I have argued in earlier posts, have been exposed to destructive solitude on a scale not seen anywhere in civilian life. Time has been the currency of the penal system in Britain since it began to move away from physical punishment in the early nineteenth century. The gravity of a crime is measured in the years that must be served.

It was apparent from the beginning that locking prisoners up for twenty-three hours a day to protect them from infection was likely to cause serious harm to inmates who were rarely in good psychological condition at the outset.

David has been reading the just-published Report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, of Peter Clarke, who is about to retire. In it, Clarke draws attention to the consequences of the lockdown in prisons:

“Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor. Nineteen per cent of adult male prisoners told us that they were out of their cells for less than two hours on weekdays, including 32% in men’s local prisons. Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year?”

Clarke was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The question is: is it intended to keep people locked up for 23 hours a day ad infinitum? Or until the virus is eliminated? That simply can’t be right.”

It can’t. One obvious thing to do is to release categories of prisoner who pose little danger either to themselves or to the public to ease the pressure on the system. David Vincent says that at the onset of the pandemic, France released 10,000 prisoners precisely for this reason. It’s just common sense, really.

But Johnson & Co don’t do common sense. And even if they did decide to take radical steps like the French, the reflective howls from Britain’s tabloids would return them cringing to their bunker.

It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong

America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem.

Great piece by Zeynep Tufecki (who now has a Substack newsletter, btw).

On January 29, about a week after China’s government shifted from a deny-and-censor strategy to massive action and communication, Chinese scientists published a significant paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. The paper estimated the R0 (the basic reproduction number of an infectious disease) from the first known case of coronavirus in early December through January 4 to be little more than 2. That means that, left somewhat unchecked, each infected person infected two more people. Crucially, the paper pointed out evidence of mild and even asymptomatic cases, unlike SARS, which almost always came with a high fever. It also confirmed the reports that the disease was most dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions. The paper came out just after China made the unprecedented move to shut down all of Wuhan, a metropolis of 10 million people, and also Hubei, a province of 50 million people.

For people stuck in asystemic thinking, all this may well have seemed like a small, faraway threat. If one merely looked at the R0, the virus wasn’t outrageously contagious. The number was similar to seasonal flu, but nothing explosive like measles, which has an R0 of 12 to 18—one ill person can infect another 12 to 18 people. For an asystemic thinker, it probably didn’t look that deadly, either. The mortal threat was disproportionately to the elderly, who already succumb to colds and influenza at much higher rates than younger, healthier people. The case-fatality rate (CFR), or the percent of infected people who die, for younger people seemed fairly low, perhaps comparable to seasonal influenza, which kills about 0.1 percent of its victims, exacting a toll in the tens of thousands in the United States alone. On January 29, the known global death total for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was still under 200, less than a weekend’s worth of traffic accidents in the United States, let alone the flu. And to an asystemic thinker, the threat seemed remote, unfolding as it was in Wuhan, a place that many people outside China may not have heard of.

Thus from the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction…

This essay isn’t just the product of 20/20 vision btw. Tufecki has been ahead of this from the beginning. Her argument is an analytical one. Our difficulties with the virus, she says, stem from the fact that we don’t — as individuals or societies — think systemically.

Here’s my paraphrase of her analysis:

  • We’re used to thinking in linear terms, but we live in a complex system — and in such systems everything is nonlinear — tipping points, phase transitions (water boiling or freezing), and cascades and avalanches (when a few small changes end up triggering massive shifts) are all examples of nonlinear dynamics in which the event doesn’t follow simple addition in its impacts. Which is why the coronavirus was never just about its R0 or CFR.
  • In complex systems, efficiency, redundancy, and resiliency pull in different directions: Efficient systems, are cheaper because they eliminate redundancies, which provide resilience but cost more. Over the last 40 years capitalism has been building efficient but fragile systems — just think of medical supply chains, or those that stock our supermarkets.
  • Health systems are prone to nonlinear dynamics because hospitals don’t have resilience; they are resource-limited and necessarily strive for efficiency. They can treat only so many people at once, and they have particular bottlenecks with their most expensive parts, such as ventilators and ICUs. The flu season may be tragic for its victims; but an additional, unexpected viral illness in the same season isn’t merely twice as tragic as the flu, even if it has a similar R0 or CFR: It is potentially catastrophic.
  • Worse, COVID-19 isn’t even just another flu-like illness. By January 29, it was clear that it caused severe primary pneumonia in its victims. That’s like the difference between a disease that drops you in the dangerous part of town late at night and one that does the mugging itself. COVID-19’s characteristics made it clear that some patients would need a lot of intensive, expensive resources: ICU beds, ventilators, negative-pressure rooms, critical-care nurses, etc.
  • Nonlinear dynamics and complex-system failures can also happen because of tight coupling between the components. This means that every part of the system moves together so even small things can cause a crisis. For example, COVID-19 testing requires slender swabs that can reach the nasopharynx. We still have a shortage of swabs because we didn’t ramp up their production when we had time

Our survival as a species will require us to learn to think systemically. Which is worrying because we’ve never been good at that.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Donald Trump is getting desperate — and his mental pathology is getting worse every day. Not really news, but this piece in Salon (Link) is written by two mental health professionals.

  • On Tuesday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on an asteroid called Bennu for about six seconds to collect a mineral sample to bring back to Earth. Watch it land on the asteroid Link

  • Trailer for the documentary about the former White House photographer Pete Souza. Link

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