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.

The part of the Internet nobody talks about

You may have noticed a kerfuffle about a site called OnlyFans deciding to ban porn from the site. Since I’d never heard of OnlyFans that was news to me. But Benedict Evans — one of the most perceptive observers of the industry — spotted it and made this neat comment in his weekly newsletter:

When I first looked at Comscore, 20 years ago, you could see a list of the top 50 websites by traffic, but there was also a switch, turned on by default, that hid the adult sites. If you turned that off, you saw a whole other internet. Mostly, people kept it hidden.

It’s the same today – Pornhub alone claims a third as many video views as YouTube, and if OnlyFans was really on track to double GMV to $5.9bn of GMV this year, that put it in striking distance of YouTube (close to $10bn in ‘content acquisition costs’) and Netflix ($15bn content budget). This really is as big as US Steel, and mostly, we don’t look.

Puzzled by ‘GMV’? Me too. It’s defined as “Gross merchandise value (GMV) is the total value of merchandise sold over a given period of time through a customer-to-customer (C2C) exchange site.”

Footnote A helpful explanation from Recode:

OnlyFans was once heralded as “chang[ing] sex work forever.” Now OnlyFans is changing, too. The platform is about to ban most of the pornographic content that made it what it is today: a company worth over $1 billion with an estimated 130 million registered users who pay for subscriptions and send tips to more than 2 million creators. It does more than just host porn, but porn has become one of its key paid offerings. The company’s popularity soared during the pandemic, as some people turned to it for income after losing their jobs, and others turned to it for adult entertainment while stuck inside their homes.

Last week, OnlyFans announced that it would no longer allow sexually explicit content as of October 1. The company later blamed the move, which seemed to run completely counter to its business strategy, on pressure from banks that were rejecting wire transfers from the company to creators and closing OnlyFans’ corporate accounts, apparently because they disapproved of the sex work (or OnlyFan’s reportedly lax moderation of it) that took place on the platform.

When power thrives on unspoken fear, bravery is in saying ‘I am afraid’

Really perceptive column by my Observer colleague, Nick Cohen.

There is a cosmetically appealing argument that going along with the lies of the powerful is better for the human spirit than acknowledging your cowardice. Writing in 1978, when communist control of eastern Europe appeared as if it might last forever, Václav Havel described a greengrocer who places the party’s slogan “workers of the world unite!” in his shop window. (You can put any gormless modern alternative in its place.) The greengrocer wants to show that he is an obedient citizen the police should leave alone. But he will not acknowledge the truth by pinning a notice in his window that says “I am afraid of being singled out for punishment”. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window. He preserves his dignity by pretending to believe what the powerful want him to believe. His sense of self-worth would be destroyed by the admission “I am afraid”.

Francis Fukuyama was so impressed with Havel’s passage he used it in The End of History to argue that the unfolding demand for human dignity was pushing humanity towards liberal democracy.

“The flaw in the argument”, says Cohen,

is that those who refuse to acknowledge their cowardice are not the only ones whose dignity is preserved. Surprisingly few of those who exercise power want their subordinates to admit that fear keeps them from speaking out. Maybe mafia leaders are happy to hear their followers say that they are too frightened to contradict them. But most people with hierarchical or ideological power are like abusive men who hit a woman one minute and expect her to act as if nothing happened the next. They want everyone around them to pretend that the fear of punishment does not explain their obedience.

Censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists.

Spot on. Great column.

This week’s election results

Mostly predictable, I’d say. The Tories got some kind of ‘vaccination boost’. The voters aren’t much interested — yet — in the corruption, sleaze and incompetence of the government. And anyone who owns assets — which mostly means houses — has done just fine out of the pandemic. (Coincidentally, Hartlepool — where Labour lost a seat they’d held for generations — has a lot of owner-occupiers.) And then there was the fact that a Tory government — a Tory government! — has been paying furlough wages and spending public money like drunken Marxists.

So one wonders what are the implications for Labour? The results reminded me of what happened to the Democrats in the US after the Obama ‘Hope’-boost ran out of steam. Keir Starmer’s frank admission — that “Labour has lost the confidence of working people” — made me think of Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank’s sobering book about how the Democrats lost their way in the US. Here we are, he wrote (in 2016),

“eight years post-Hope. Growth that doesn’t grow; prosperity that doesn’t prosper. The country, we now understand, is simply no longer arranged in such a way as to make its citizens economically secure.”

I think that’s broadly the case for large swathes of the UK. If so, it’s difficult just now to see what kind of party Labour needs to become if it’s to find new audiences and revived electoral support.

Last week the FT ran a feature about the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Labour seats that fell to Johnson in the last general election . The headline was: “Labour’s lost heartlands. Can it win them back?”

“No it can’t”, wrote an online commenter.

“Lovely people, but conservative (with a small c), despite traditionally voting Labour. I simply can’t see how Labour can be a modern, progressive party of the sort you find in most Northern European countries and serve the red wall at the same time.”

Me neither.

Later: Good piece in the Observer by Professor Robert Ford which reminded me that I had forgotten about the ‘Brexit effect’.

“Under Starmer”, Ford writes,

the party has sought to move on from Brexit. This, it seems, is not yet something English voters are willing to do. In seat after seat in Leave-voting parts of England, the Conservatives surged and Labour slumped. Leave voters, it seems, remain keen to reward the prime minister who “got Brexit done”.

Ford thinks that the results indicate significant changes under way in British politics. First of all,

traditional class-politics patterns are being turned upside down by a realignment around divides by age, education and – most of all – Brexit choices. On every available measure of socioeconomic conditions, the Conservatives prospered most in the most deprived places and Labour did best in the most prosperous areas. This inversion of class politics has already been evident for several years but it has continued, and perhaps intensified, in the first post-Brexit local elections.

Secondly, the post-Brexit education divide has intensified.

There were major swings to the Conservatives in the wards with the highest shares of voters with few or no formal qualifications, while there were modest swings to Labour in the wards with the largest concentrations of university graduates. There was less evidence of the generational divide seen in the last two general elections and Labour’s traditional advantage in more ethnically diverse areas was more muted than usual.

And here’s the sting in the tail that rang that bell about the US Democrats:

In 2021, as in 2019, Labour’s core electorate was graduates, well-off professionals and Remainers.

In other words, the people whose counterparts in the US voted for Hilary Clinton.


The backstory of an insurgent

Matt Stoller has a thought-provoking post about the Trump supporter who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Chamber in the Capitol building on January 6. Her name is Ashli Babbitt and she was the subject of a New York Times profile, on which Stoller drew.

According to the New York Times, Babbitt was a 35 year-old woman from California who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government sent Babbitt abroad eight times, and though not every time was in a combat zone, such repeated deployments into violent areas tend to cause brain damage.

After her time at war, Babbitt had a modest propensity for violence, threatening a rival love interest by rear ending her with a car in 2016. She married, and bought a small business with her husband, a pool supply company called Fowlers Pool Service and Supply. There she ran into commercial problems common to small businesses these days.

She borrowed money at an extortionate rate (169%), then defaulted, but sued on the grounds that her lender had cheated her with too high of an interest rate. She lost, as “courts have held that such arrangements don’t amount to loans and are not bound by usury laws.” At which point she became more into politics through social media, and then was sucked into the QAnon conspiracy-theory-cum-cult.

So, says Stoller,

here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.

It’s easy to mock this kind of thinking, to see rioters as losers or racists. And no doubt there’s a strain of deep-seated racial animus that is with us and always will be, but I think ascribing all of it to such an explanation is too simple. Racist or no, Babbitt really was at one point a patriotic American, serving in the military for over half her adult life. More broadly, she’s far from alone in expressing rage at the status quo. There have protests against the existing social order for almost a decade, starting with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter in 2014 and accelerating into protests and riots earlier this year. I’ve written about the relationship between unrest and corporate power in the context of those protests, a sense of alienation that normal political channels, that politics itself is not a realistic path for addressing social problems.

Babbitt, he argues,

was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.

As everyone and his dog has realised by now, the shambolic insurgency on January 6 has been a long-time building. It was the culmination of a decade-long process of alienation, inequality, white supremacy and right-wing and neo-fascist resurgence. But it leaves the US with an almost existential problem.

There are, Stoller thinks, only two paths in a representative democracy which has a large group of its citizens who live in a cult-like artificial world of misinformation, and many more who rightly or wrongly don’t trust any political institution.

One is to try to strip these people of representation and political power; that is the guiding idea behind removing Trump, as well as a whole host of conservatives, off of Silicon Valley platforms that have become essential to modern society.

The trouble is that “removing these people is a choice to not have a society, to pretend that we can put these people into a closet somewhere and ignore them.”

It’s not going to work.

The alternative Stoller sees is less dramatic.

We can take on the legal framework behind social media so these products aren’t addictive and radicalizing. As I’ve written, there are legal immunities and policy choices that allow Facebook to profit in especially toxic ways through compiling detailed user profiles and targeting them with ads. If we change how social media companies make money, we can change how these services operate to make them socially beneficial instead of engines of radicalization.

Yep. The business model is the key to this. If it’s not brought under control then the game’s up. So there is an urgent connection between antitrust and other forms of regulation and the future of the US as a functioning democracy. Trump may or may not be finished, but the line of elected Republican presidential-hopefuls who lined up in the Senate and House to try to overturn the election shows that the supply-line of prospective autocrats is flowing nicely.

Thursday 26 November, 2020

100 Not Out — my lockdown diary — is now out in a Kindle version!

You can get it here.


The World Wide Cobweb

In our garden, one frosty morning.


Quote of the Day

“If I could explain it to the average person I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

  • Physicist Richard Feynman

(Not entirely correct: remember his famous explication of the O-ring failure that caused the Challenger disaster.)


Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joan Baez & Mary Chapin Carpenter sing “Catch the Wind” Live in concert

Link


Thanksgiving

Dave Winer has a nice post on his blog:

I’m sure we’ve lost a lot in the last four years that we don’t yet know about, especially in 2020. But the United States is still the United States. Journalism tends to make it appear worse than it is. In day to day life, at least where I live, things are much the same as before. The store shelves are still full. You can still buy a wonderful meal. Want to buy a car? You can. The roads are clear. Gas stations have gas. Supply chains work. The health care system is a mess, as before, but much worse right now. The laws for the most part are enforced (except for you know who and his friends). Western civilization created and tested three highly effective vaccines in record time. We did this. To Americans who hate elites, if you understand these sentences, you might want to think again about living in a country that values education, science and math enough to get these things done, pronto, when needed, to save your life. Yours. You. Now we’re going to try to get our political system to work for us again. Maybe you can possibly not get in the way of that? I know that’s a lot to hope for. :-)

It is.


Long read of the Day

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

Very useful Guardianessay by Stephen Metcalf on an important concept that has become debased through casual usage and by being ‘weaponised’ by all and sundry.

In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity…


The dog that didn’t bark yesterday

From Jonty Bloom’s blog:

The dog that didn’t bark in yesterday’s statement from the Chancellor was the word Brexit. It didn’t get a mention yet it hangs over the economy like a dark cloud, at least according to the Office for Budget Responsibility; the Government’s own number crunchers.

I thought the figures sounded pretty good, a no deal Brexit will end up with the economy being 2% smaller than it would otherwise have been. Not too bad really, until I realised that was 2% on top of the 4% hit from Brexit with a Free Trade Agreement. So 6% in total if the talks which only have weeks to run end up without a deal.

To put that in context, 2% is about our annual average growth rate in the last ten years, or our entire annual defence budget or three times our foreign aid budget. 6% is three years growth, or three times what we spend on defence or a more than half what we spend on the NHS. That money will have to come from somewhere else, higher taxes or lower spending but will we notice?

Those losses don’t come as one hit but as slightly slower growth over many years. Will we still be blaming Brexit for slightly lower growth in, 1, 2 or 5 years time? I doubt it.


Why are we so obsessed with ‘saving Christmas’?

Great essay by Tim Harford.

We said our goodbyes to my mother on Christmas Eve 1996. She had died earlier in December after a long and painful illness, but when the end came it was sudden. It can’t have been straightforward to arrange a funeral service on Christmas Eve, the churches being put to other uses, but somehow my father managed it; the children’s stockings were filled as well.

I think I speak with some knowledge of what does or does not ruin Christmas.

It has been baffling, then, to watch the speculation in the British press about whether Boris Johnson will “save Christmas”, as though he were some over-promoted elf in a seasonal movie. (It is, admittedly, a role he is better qualified to play than that of prime minister.) Apparently, the thinking is that if the country is still in lockdown in late December, Christmas is ruined. If lockdown is lifted, as expected, in early December, Christmas is saved.

Given how desperate Boris Johnson is to be liked, my money is on the latter scenario. What makes this so absurd is that in the big scheme of things, Christmas doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas as much as the next man, even if the next man is a reformed Ebenezer Scrooge. But when it comes to catching up with my family, I’d rather not risk giving everyone the unintended gift of Covid-19, whether or not it is legal to do so.

As for the economy, the Christmas boom is smaller than you might think. Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, estimates that for every £100 we spend across a typical year in the UK, just over 50 pence is part of the December Christmas boom.

Of course, some retailers and restaurants will be badly hit if Christmas spending is prevented by lockdown rules. But we should be honest about the situation: large sections of the economy have already been devastated, and that would be true with or without legal restrictions. Few people want to attend pantomimes in a pandemic.

Lovely piece. Worth reading in full.


Why I use BBEdit

I’ve used a marvellous plain-text editor — BBEdit — for many years. (All my journalism is written with it.) Bare Bones Software, the outfit that created it, has just announced that it now runs natively on the new Apple M1 CPU. I’m not surprised: they’ve always been ahead of the game.

Turns out, I’m not the only fan. John Gruber is another; I just came across this story on his blog:

I was several hundred words into my iPhone 12 review last month, went to get another cup of coffee, came back, and boom, the MacBook Pro I was using had kernel panicked. This machine hadn’t kernel panicked in years. It hasn’t kernel panicked again since. Murphy’s Law was trying to screw me.

I hadn’t saved what I’d written yet. Now, it was only a few hundred words, but they were an important few hundred words, the ones that got me started. The words that got the wheels turning, that got momentum going.

Rebooted. Took a sip of coffee. Logged in.

Looked at BBEdit. There it was. Right where I left off.

That’s BBEdit.

Yep.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • The vintage beauty of Soviet control rooms. Just thinking: they’d make terrific Zoom backgrounds. Hmmm… Link

  • How to get good at chess. Lovely piece by Stephen Moss. Link (Thinks: I need to get to work: my 7yo grandson has taken it up and challenged his Grandpa to an online match.)

  • What the former Home Office Permanent Secretary & GCHQ Director Sir David Omand thinks of the Priti Patel scandal. Link. Marvellously forthright and spot on.


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Sunday 15 November, 2020

Metropolitan life


Quote of the Day

”A trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.”

  • Wilson Mezner, describing his time in Hollywood.

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Mark Knopfler | Going Home | Royal Albert Hall | 2019

Link


When it comes to Amazon, breaking up is hard to do

This morning’s Observer column

The European commission has opened an antitrust investigation of Amazon, on the grounds that the company has breached EU antitrust rules against distorting competition in online retail markets. Amazon, says the commission, has been using its privileged access to non-public data of independent sellers who sell on its marketplace to benefit the parts of its own retail business that directly compete with those third-party sellers. The commission has also opened a second investigation into the possible preferential treatment of Amazon’s own retail offers compared with those of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services.

The good news about this is not so much that the EU is taking action as that it is doing so in an intelligently targeted manner. Too much of the discourse about tech companies in the last two years has been about “breaking them up”. But “break ’em up” is a slogan, not a policy, and it has a kind of Trumpian ring to it. The commission is avoiding that.

It is also avoiding another trap – that of generally labelling Amazon as a “monopoly”…

Read on


Long Read of the Day

Welcome to Apple: A one-party state

The tech giants have as much money and influence as nations. So what if we reported on them like countries? What would Apple be? A liberal China…

Read on


The generational impact of Moore’s law

Lovely post by Venkatesh Rao about the mindset induced by living in a world governed by Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law was first proposed in 1965, then again in revised form in 1975. Assuming an 18-month average doubling period for transistor density (it was ~1 year early on, and lately has been ~3y) there have been about 40 doublings since the first IC in 1959. If you ever go to Intel headquarters in San Jose, you can visit the public museum there that showcases this evolution.

The future of Moore’s law seems uncertain, but it looks like we’ll at least get to 1-3 nanometer chips in the next decade (we were at 130nm at the beginning of the century, and the first new computer I bought had a 250nm Celeron processor). Beyond 1-3nm, perhaps we’ll get to different physics with different scaling properties, or quantum computing. Whatever happens, I think we can safely say Gen X (1965-80) will have had lives nearly exactly coincident with Moore’s Law (we’ll probably die off between 2045-85).

While there have been other technologies in history with spectacular price/performance curves (interchangeable parts technology for example), there is something special about Moore’s Law, since it applies to a universal computing substrate that competes with human brains.

GenXers are Moore’s Law people. We came of age during its heyday…

Original and interesting, like almost everything Rao writes. Worth reading in full.


Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Diane Coyle’s Longlist for the economics book of 2020. Link. Damn: I’ve only read one of them.And she’s missed out Zachary Carter’s fine biography of Keynes (and Keynesianism).

  • iFixit’s iPhone 12 mini teardown looks at how Apple fit so much into such a tiny device. iFixit does wonderful analyses of intricate devices. This ‘teardown’ of the new mini version of the iPhone 12 is a gem. Link

  • Hermione Lee on what it’s like writing a biography of a living subject. Link In her case it’s the playwright Tom Stoppard. The book is out — and on my list. My friend Gerard is enjoying it. And I loved her biography of Virginia Woolf.


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Friday 13 November, 2020

Sitting drakes

By the river Cam


Quote of the Day

“Yes, yes, Mr Burne-Jones, but what does one do with the Grail once one has found it?”

  • Benjamin Jowett, inspecting the artist’s newly completed Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan – Forever Young (Slow Version) Link


Cummings and goings

Vote Leave genius departing, with cardboard box.

And here’s how the Financial Times reported it:

Sometimes, a week really is a short time in politics.


Democracy dies in complacency

One of the things I remember about 2016 was the misplaced complacency of so many liberals about the absurdity of (a) the prospect of a Trump presidency and (b) the fact that he would pose any serious danger to the republic even if he were elected. I’m having the same feelings about the complacency surrounding the apparent absurdity of Trump’s railings against the rigged and fraudulent election that is supposedly denying him a second term.

On the one hand…

Can Trump Still Win? No. He’s Already Lost. – The New York Times 

The establishment view is that Biden’s succession is secure. All that remains is some tidying up, certification of votes by states, etc. And the then the Electoral College meets and Biden’s election is formally confirmed.

On the other hand…

Why is the Republican establishment apparently supporting Trump’s nonsense and funding legal challenges to the electoral results in several states?

Trump’s big election lie pushes America toward autocracy – The Boston Globe

and

Republicans aren’t conceding – and Democrats are bringing a knife to a gun fight – David Sirota – The Guardian

It seems unlikely that there’s something really sinister going on — if there were it would surely have been picked up. Or is there some stunt that’s being planned to delay the final results of the counts to the point where the decision on a state’s delegates to the electoral college is left to Republican governors of those states?


Long read of the Day

Kurt Vonnegut: the Paris Review interview

Unforgettable interview. He was a prisoner of war in Dresden the night the city was firebombed — which was the origin of his Slaughterhouse Five.


Vaccine hysteria: the stock market is crazy — as usual

A quote I picked up from a newsletter today — and I can’t remember which!

For the first time in forever, investors snapped up beaten down “value” stocks including airlines like American along with travel and leisure companies. The Covid-induced collapse in travel and non-homebound entertainment crushed these stocks the last nine months.

At the same time, investors dumped high-flying tech companies like Netflix, Zoom and Amazon on the theory that we will all soon evacuate our work-from-home caves and trudge to our offices, see movies in theatres and shop in real life stores.

Wait, really? Hang on. This all seems pretty nuts.

It is.


Other, hopefully, interesting links

  • Why We Sigh. Link.
  • One in five Covid-19 patients are diagnosed with a mental illness within three months. Which is why being blasé about younger people catching it is foolish. Link.
  • Matt Drudge abandons Trump.. Seems there’s no honour among sleazebags. Link

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Wednesday 11 November, 2020

Geometry in stone

The Gibbs Building, King’s College, Cambridge.


Quote of the Day

”Saints should always be presumed guilty until they are proved innocent.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Abide with me | Sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Link

Music for Armistice Day. I’m not a religious person, but I do think the Anglicans have terrific hymns. This is one of them.


Long read of the Day

 The cheap pen that changed writing forever

An irresistible essay if, like me, you’re fascinated by the tools we use to write.


A vaccine will provide an interesting test of the power (or lack thereof) of social media

Very thoughtful Covid Diary post by David Vincent:

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11). Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health. Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate. It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided. Traffic on social media was growing. Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter. Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make. Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery. The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance. It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour. There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them. That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows. For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority. The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose.

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

Typically astute post. I agree with him that the vaccine will be an interesting test case. People say all kinds of misleading and/or daft things to the poor wretches who work for polling companies. But I’m willing to bet that if proof of vaccination becomes the criterion deciding whether you can legally resume some semblance of ‘normal’ life, then there will be few refuseniks.

See also David’s elegant riposte to Milord Sumption who, in his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture of October 27, denounced the political response to the pandemic as “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country.”

For some reason, I always think of Lord Sumption as Lord Sumptuous. He reminds me of a cat which has not only swallowed the cream, but has also obtained a controlling interest in United Dairies. As David observes, he is “a wearer of power braces, a man with a high regard for both his principles and his intellect.”


The technological is now geopolitical

Here’s Steve Blank on “The Chip Wars of the 21st Century” in the Texas National Security Review:

Controlling advanced chip manufacturing in the 21st century may well prove to be like controlling the oil supply in the 20th. The country that controls this manufacturing can throttle the military and economic power of others. The United States recently did this to China by limiting Huawei’s ability to outsource its in-house chip designs for manufacture by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a Taiwanese chip foundry. China may respond and escalate via one of its many agile strategic options short of war, perhaps succeeding in coercing the foundry to stop making chips for American companies. If negotiations fail, China might take drastic measures, turning the tables on the United States. On the more modest end of the spectrum, China might start some type of trade war with Taiwan to ensure access, following the playbook Beijing used to coerce Korea over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) or Australia over its recent decision to lead a call for investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus. On the more extreme end, these Taiwanese chip foundries might be subject to an aggressive campaign of sabotage. And even though observers of the region might downplay the risk, it is not impossible that this could be used as a part of a casus belli for China’s long-held desire to reunify by force. Such is the importance of chips in this era.

Either way, Washington should be worried. If the United States were to be deprived of access to these foundries, the U.S. defense and consumer electronics industries would be set back for at least five years. Moreover, because China is investing in its own chip foundries, it could become the world leader in technology for the next decade or more. That’s why it was encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate propose $25 billion to help America’s semiconductor industry. But this should only be the start…

Interesting essay. It would have been even more worrying if Trump had won. The big question is whether US pressure on the Chinese tech companies could eventually lead China to move on Taiwan. Unlikely, still, but…  


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Monday 9 November, 2020


Quote of the Day

”To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.”

  • George Orwell

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger – This Land is Your Land

Link

Just right for today. Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting it.


Long read of the Day

The town that went feral Wonderful review essay by Patrick Blanchfield on A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. Raises the question of how often it happens that a review is almost better than the book — thought in this case the book seems pretty good too. The resulting enjoyment is an emergent property of the book+review system.

Thanks to Alina Utrata for alerting me to it.


Joe Biden and me

Yesterday’s post about the fact that Joe Biden’s ancestors came from Ballina, the town where I was born, prompted a flow of satirical comments in the WhatsApp channel of my extended family across the Irish Sea. The one I enjoyed most was this:


Trump may be leaving the White House, but he will always be with us. Alas.

Anne Applebaum explains:

While you watch Donald Trump’s presidency stagger to its ugly end, always keep in mind how it began: Trump entered the political world on the back of the “birther” conspiracy theory, a movement whose importance was massively underestimated at the time. Aside from its racist undertones, think about what a belief in birtherism really implied. If you doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States—and about a third of Americans did, including 72 percent of registered Republicans—then that meant you also believed that Obama was an illegitimate president. That meant, in other words, you believed that everyone—the entire American political, judicial, and media establishment, including the White House and Congress, the federal courts and the FBI, all of them—was complicit in a gigantic plot to swindle the public into accepting this false commander in chief. A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud.

That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too?

Applebaum’s argument is that while Trump’s current behaviour may seem pathetic or oathologically erratic, it is in fact part of a longer-term strategy:

Even if Trump is forced to make a grudging concession speech, even if Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, even if the Trump family is forced to pack its Louis Vuitton suitcases and flee to Mar-a-Lago, it is in Trump’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Trump, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.

Certainly these voters can be used to discredit and demean Biden’s presidency. Just as Trump once helped convince millions of Americans that Obama was illegitimate, so he will now seek to convince Americans that Biden is illegitimate…

Sorry to make you choke on your muesli, but there might be something in this.


On the first news of a possible vaccine, what happens?

First, Pfizer makes the announcement. Then,

Zoom shares fall like a stone.


Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Zoom lied to users about end-to-end encryption for years, FTC says. Democrats blast FTC/Zoom settlement because users won’t get compensation.Link

  • Biden has a plan for tackling Covid-19. Link. Trouble is, he doesn’t yet have any authority to act.

  • Danny Kuo’s Staircase. How to build storage vertically. Clever and functional. Link


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