Saturday 31 October, 2020

From our fen walk yesterday. Slightly over-cooked in post-processing, seeking a ‘Constable’ effect.

Quote of the Day

”Many of the greatest men who have ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived and he has beaten them all.”

  • Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing about Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Salieri : Piano Concerto in C major : II Larghetto


Poor Salieri has had a bad press ever since Peter Shafer’s play Amadeus (and Milos Forman’s subsequent film).

Attenborough’s testament

Last night we watched A Life On Our Planet and loved it. It’s quite moving, also, because it’s difficult not to think of it also as a kind of last will and testament. At any rate, he describes it at the outset as his ‘Witness Statement’.

The ingenuity of starting and ending with a visit to Chernobyl was very striking. In the opening sequence he portrayed it as a human mistake that made a whole locality uninhabitable. On a global level, we are embarked on a colossal mistake that will make our planet uninhabitable. And then at the end, he returned to Chernobyl to show how nature is reclaiming the place for itself, with mature trees growing round — and in some cases in — the abandoned buildings. The subliminal message was clear. The planet doesn’t need us. And it will survive us.

En passant I fell to thinking that Attenborough has become one of the most loved man in Britain and maybe in much of the West — a kind of international treasure. The only comparison I can think of at the moment is with the late Nelson Mandela.

Long read of the Day

Absolutely fascinating article by Karen Hao on how AI (well, machine-learning, actually) has cracked a key mathematical puzzle for understanding our world.

Perhaps it wasn’t for everyone but it was certainly fascinating for anyone (like me, anyway) who, once upon a time, had to grapple with partial differential equations (PDEs) — the mathematical constructs which offer powerful ways of realistically modelling important real-world phenomena (like air turbulence), but which are VERY difficult to solve using traditional methods.

So even if the article isn’t for everyone, it’s still a brilliant example of how to make arcane concepts intelligible to lay readers.

My only complaint is that the headline over the piece makes the usual mistake of conflating ‘Artificial Intelligence’ with machine-learning.

Positively the only thing today about the US election

A useful primer on US Election Law. Includes this interesting passage about the responsibilities of TV networks — whose too-early call of the 2000 election led to the subsequent chaos and the Supreme Court eventually handing the presidency to George W. Bush:

On Election Night, what we hear on the news are projections that the media is making about who will win, based upon evolving vote tallies and exit polls. When these projections give one candidate a majority in the Electoral College, media organizations call the election, and the other candidate may even publicly concede. But none of that is official.

Indeed, the “tradition” of knowing who wins on Election Night is a modern invention and a product of network television. It makes for a dramatic evening. George Washington waited two months to find out whether he had, in fact, been elected the nation’s first president. Thus, Trump’s idea that we must know the winner on election night is not grounded in law or history. And even the projections have not led to the declaration of a winner on Election Day in three of the last five presidential elections—in 2000, 2004, and 2016.

But the thing upending everything this year is COVID. Largely due to safety concerns, more people are voting early and/or remotely than in any prior election in American history, at the same time as we are experiencing unprecedented delays in mail delivery. This causes two different sets of complications: First, because of variances in when and how states count votes, early results on election night could easily be subject to what some have described as red or blue “mirages”—where the totals from particular states are quite skewed based upon whether the early reports are from particular counties, early voting, or some inscrutable combination of both. Second, it also means states will be receiving a far higher number of mail-in ballots than they are used to—many of which could well arrive after deadlines established by the legislature even if they are sent early enough so that, if it weren’t for this year’s postal delays, they would be arriving on time. None of that will matter, of course, if the winner’s margins are sufficiently large based upon undisputed ballots so that disputed ballots wouldn’t tip the scales. But if it’s a slim margin of victory, that’s where there’s the most potential for trouble—and for post-election litigation.

The moral: this could be a good time to be a lawyer in the US who specialises in electoral law. On the other hand, if Biden wins big…

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • How Bertrand Russell Turned The Beatles Against the Vietnam War. Link.

  • New Zealand struggles with plague of peacocks. Link. One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a peacock in all his finery confronted by a sceptical pea-hen. “What do you mean, no?” he is saying incredulously.

  • Texas Voters Line Up To Shoot Ballots At Local Election Range. “Texas voters lined up to begin shooting their 2020 ballots at local election ranges, sources confirmed Thursday. “It’s always nice to stare down the ol’ iron sights and make your voice heard by leaving a bullet hole on your favorite politicians,” said Cal Humphries, 54, who shouldered an AR-15 and fired multiple rounds into a sheet of paper that hung from a target retrieval system to indicate his choice in a series of down-ballot judicial races. “Being able to hit a bull’s-eye on your Senate pick is a hallowed right that our ancestors fought and died for. Just make sure you’re using the right caliber bullet, though, or your vote may be disqualified.” Link

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Friday 30 October, 2020

The fens in winter

Taken on a long walk in the fens today.

Quote of the Day

”Dear 338171 (May I call you 338?)”

  • Noel Coward, starting a letter to T.E. Lawrence, who had retired to public life to become Aircraftsman Brown, 338171

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | If Not for You


Long read of the Day

An interesting  New Yorker profile of cryptographer Maxie Marlinspike, founder of Signal, the encrypted messaging service that many of us use when we need to make sure that nobody’s eavesdropping.


History repeats itself

Nick Guyatt teaches North American History at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Jesus College.

The reason Isaac Newton was at his home in Woolsthorpe when the apple fell on his head was that he had fled Cambridge to escape the plague! I bet his college (Trinity) still has its bell from that period too.

Inside the Bizarre Publishing Ring That Linked 5G to Coronavirus

A truly weird story in Vice.

An international group of scientists, some seemingly well-credentialed, have been publishing prolifically in obscure scientific journals, accruing hundreds of co-authorships over the past several years.

The only problem: most of the studies they publish don’t make any sense.

One paper, titled “5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells,” was retracted in late July after it received widespread criticism from scientists on social media for being shoddy pseudoscience. The diagrams featured clipart, and one showed two vertical arrows labeled “Tower” casting what the authors label as “Milimeter waves sic” and “Radio waves” onto a cell. An arrow exits from the cell and points at a drawing of a virus, which has been labeled “COVID-19.”

After that paper was retracted, the journal posted a notice on its original landing page saying that the article “showed evidence of substantial manipulation of the peer review.”

Having read the piece, the only conclusion I can draw is that there are more than a few hyper-qualified scientists who suffer from a variant of logorrhoea (“an excessive and often uncontrollable flow of words”) and are accommodated by a scientific publishing ecosystem which has perverse incentives and has grown too bloated to be reliable.

Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

Art tells a story

Dave Winer had this lovely image on his blog yesterday. It’s an artwork from a Burning Man festival. (Which I think was cancelled this year.)

He quotes a commentary on the work by a documentary film-maker, Sharon Anderson Morris:

“A sculpture of two adults after a disagreement, sitting with their backs to each other. Yet, the inner child in both of them simply wants to connect. Age has many beautiful gifts but one we could live without is the pride and resentment we hold onto when we have conflicts with others. The forgiving, free spirit of children is our true nature. Remember this when you feel stubborn.”

Dave doesn’t agree:

  • Sometimes the right thing to do is to set pride to the side and renew the friendship. The child always wants to, but the adult also has a valid and important, not foolish, contribution to make — safety.

  • The child can have the impulse to connect unconditionally, because there is an adult to put the brakes on if there is real danger. The child can’t exist without the adult. When we are children, the adult must be external. Later in life we will be both the child and the adult.#

  • The child, as the sculpture illustrates, wants to connect, but the adult isn’t ready. It’s possible that they’ve reconciled many times, and every time the same thing happens. That’s also a pattern of humanity. So the adult is constrained by memory. The adult might narrate: “I remember this person hurt me the last time I trusted them. Every time I trusted them. So as much as the child wants to reconcile, I can’t. At some point it’s wrong to trust.”

Other, possibly interesting, links

  •  New study links air pollution to 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths From Al Jazeera. Link
  • Are swordfish stabbing and killing sharks? New York Times story.
  • Nice experiment that shows how photographs shape the way we view history. Link

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Thursday 29 October, 2020

Where the rainbows end

Sutton Gault, Cambridgeshire.

Quote of the Day

”The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes”.

  • Stanley Kubrick

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Haydn: String Quartet In F Minor, Hob. III:35, Op.20 No.5 – 3. Adagio | Emerson String Quartet


US politics and psychic colonisation

I’m puzzled (and annoyed) by the extent to which the US election is preying on my mind. Every day I could write a dozen blog posts about some or other aspect of it. It’s sucking the oxygen out of everything. And it’s not as though things are particularly rosy in this jurisdiction, as the country lurches through a worsening pandemic into the full-blown catastrophe of crashing out of the EU without a deal on New Year’s Eve. There’s plenty to worry — and write — about on this side of the pond. Maybe it’s because there’s a possibility that on November 3 something might change in the US, whereas we in the UK are stuck with the worst government in living memory for another four years. So we’re like long-term prisoners serving time and looking enviously over the wall at our fellow-prisoners in the US who might just be paroled on November 4.

Long read of the Day

And just as I hit the final full stop on the previous entry when what should pop up in my inbox but “The World Is Trapped in America’s Culture War” by Helen Lewis in The Atlantic .

Sharing the internet with America is like sharing your living room with a rhinoceros. It’s huge, it’s right there, and whatever it’s doing now, you sure as hell know about it.

Every country using the English-language internet experiences a version of this angst—call it the American Rhino Problem. With so many dominant tech companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the rules of the web are set there—and by politicians in Washington. The West once sent missionaries to bring Christianity to Africa; in 2013, Mark Zuckerberg promised to “bring the world closer together” by providing internet access to millions in the developing world. (That particular project failed, but there are now more Facebook users in India than anywhere else.)

Britain, where I live, cohabits particularly closely with the American rhino, because of our shared language and history. Brits watch Friends. We read John Grisham novels. We know what a sidewalk is, even though it should be called a “pavement.” The website of the BBC, our national broadcaster, is always plastered with stories about the U.S., while Ireland, which was under British rule until a century ago and with whom we share a border, might as well be the moon. Ask 100 Britons to name the current Taoiseach, and you’ll see 99 blank faces (and one inevitable smart-ass). Ask 100 Britons to name the U.S. president, and—well, I envy anyone who draws a blank there. Please give me directions to the rock under which they’ve been living.

The British political elite loves the United States: Every political adviser here goes to sleep hugging a West Wing box set. Great stuff.

The phlegmatic British

An intriguing Covid diary entry by David Vincent.

Since late March, social scientists have been striving to measure the impact of the crisis on what in the second world war was called ‘morale’. I have discussed some of their findings in earlier posts.

The two most useful studies are managed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and a Nuffield-funded research group at University College London (UCL). For the sake of speed, the ONS re-deployed an established Opinions and Lifestyle Study, based on a statistically representative sample of 2,200 people. UCL went for scale, recruiting over 70,000 respondents through advertising and contacting ‘organisations representing vulnerable groups.’

The data in the two surveys are broadly similar, and oddly counter-intuitive. Whereas the drivers of physical change represent a fairground roller coaster during an event which is far from reaching its conclusion, the dominant shape of the graphs of emotion over the period is a gentle countryside, a landscape of gradual inclines and declivities. Why this should be so is difficult to understand.

It is.

There are, David says, “discernible changes tracking the surges in the pandemic, but not on the same scale. We appear to be a more phlegmatic society than we might suppose, as was also the conclusion of the wartime studies of ‘morale’. ”

Another, possibly interesting, link

  •  Apple Watch’s Sensory Overload. Om Malik on Apple’s latest version of its watch. Interesting because OM suffers from heart problems, so having a monitoring device as good as the iWatch on his wrist matters. Link.

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Wednesday 28 October, 2020

Jesus on the mainline

Quote of the Day

”The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

  • Oscar Wilde

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman: Sail Away Link

Long read of the day: The undemocratic US Constitution

Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation is a sham, but it’s one the Constitution allows. There’s only one way out of this crisis: it must be amended, writes Julie C. Suk in the Boston Review.

But if Justice Barrett’s confirmation is an undemocratic sham, it is one that the Constitution allows. As COVID-19-infected, unmasked Senate Judiciary Committee member Mike Lee tweeted, “We are not a democracy.” With his pocket Constitution in tow, he noted that the word “democracy” never appears in the Constitution.

And he’s right. By design, the Constitution empowers the Senate, the president, and the judiciary to ignore the will of most of the American people. The Senate, unlike the House, is blatantly undemocratic, overrepresenting citizens who live in small states by allocating them the same number of Senators as those who live in larger states. The presidency can be unrepresentative of the majority because the Electoral College allows for presidents who lost the popular vote (such as Trump) to assume office and exercise tremendous power. One such power is appointing the judiciary. And the judiciary, too, threatens democracy in two ways: the Constitution entitles judges to lifetime tenure, giving them power to shape the law that governs generations of people. And, since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, federal judges have assumed the power to strike down laws enacted by democratically-elected legislatures. These aspects of the Constitution are not democratic and were not meant to be…

Worth reading in full. We’re back to my theory of incompetent systems — ones that can’t fix themselves.

How McConnell played Trump

Perceptive piece by John Gruber:

It’s almost comical how badly Trump misplayed this opening at Mitch McConnell’s behest. It serves McConnell’s interest to fill the seat while they can, before Trump seems likely to lose the election. It doesn’t serve Trump’s interest at all. There are voters who love Trump all the more for filling this seat now before the election, but they’re the sort of voters who were going to vote for Trump no matter what. But there are almost certainly an electorally significant number of conservative-leaning voters who care about the makeup of the Supreme Court who might have held their noses and voted (again) for Trump even though they dislike him – maybe really dislike him – just on this issue alone, who will now feel free to vote for Joe Biden because conservatives on the Court now hold a 6-3 majority. If a conservative Supreme Court majority is your top issue as a voter, you’ve already got it. You’re free to move on to your next issues, like, say, having someone you respect in the White House. Or someone who believes in science.

Dave Winer wrote the following a month ago, and I haven’t seen anything that puts McConnell’s place in this better:

McConnell is 78, an old man, and he’s got maybe one more term in him, maybe not even that. He’s playing a game for the sake of the game, the same way a compulsive crossword puzzler has to finish the Sunday NYT puzzle.

He set out to do one thing in his life, turn the court Republican.

Look at it this way. The Republicans had two ways to play this vacancy: ram a nominee through before the election just because they can, or use the vacancy as an issue to help win the election.

McConnell was guaranteed of his life’s goal if they rammed it through pre-election. If they’d waited, that turned into a maybe. It served McConnell’s interest to take the sure thing now, even if it hurt Trump personally and Republicans in general in the upcoming election.

I used to think that Trump was the most evil man in American politics. I was wrong: Mitch McConnell beats him hands down.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • North Pole ice cap too thin for testing Russia’s giant icebreaker. The Arktika icebreaker will have to undergo a second test-voyage to prove its capabilities to crush thick and hard sea-ice. Link
  • White House science office says Trump ended COVID-19 pandemic as US hits record cases. I know. You think I made that up. Well, see here.
  • New Parents Freaked Out Upon Learning That Babies Can Live Up To 100 Years. “Oh God, we got this baby thinking it would just be a few year commitment, tops,” said Conway, who grew increasingly distressed with her partner as she discovered that some infants can be expected to grow up to six feet long.” News from The Onion

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Tuesday 27 October, 2020

Soho, London.

Quote of the Day

“A family with the wrong members in control — that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”

  • George Orwell, 1941, in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bach | Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565 | Edson Lopes


Thanks to Ross Anderson for suggesting it.

Gatekeepers redux?

Ben Smith (who writes about media for the New York Times) has an interesting piece about how Trump’s associates tried to plant a phoney scandal story about Joe Biden on the Wall Street Journal, and how the Journal didn’t take the bait. It’s an interesting story in itself, but it’s also about a larger shift in the American media ecosystem which suggests that maybe the editorial gatekeepers of the pre-Internet ecosystem still have some clout.

It has been a disorienting couple of decades, after all. It all began when The Drudge Report, Gawker and the blogs started telling you what stodgy old newspapers and television networks wouldn’t. Then social media brought floods of content pouring over the old barricades.

By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. Television networks all but let Donald Trump take over as executive producer that summer and fall. In October 2016, Julian Assange and James Comey seemed to drive the news cycle more than the major news organizations. Many figures in old media and new bought into the idea that in the new world, readers would find the information they wanted to read — and therefore, decisions by editors and producers, about whether to cover something and how much attention to give it, didn’t mean much.

But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it, even between an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggesting Joe Biden had done bad things, and a news article that didn’t reach that conclusion.

Interesting throughout.

College Application Essay Prompts For the 2020-2021 Cycle

By Eric Shan in McSweeney’s.

1 Write about a personal challenge you have recently faced and how it has shaped who you are today. While we would prefer you write about something other than the pandemic, we are resigned to the fact that you will probably write about the pandemic. Please just avoid using the word “unprecedented.”

2 Why do you want to attend our university? This is the only year we would actually believe you if you wrote, “I like your rural environment, secluded from the rest of humanity.”

and then all the way down to…

8 Which opportunities would you take advantage of while on campus (i.e., in your childhood bedroom)? Please visit our redesigned student website to browse extracurricular activities like tutoring local students but on Zoom, performing a capella but on Zoom, and playing intramural frisbee but on Zoom.

9 Who inspires you? Is it our university president, who instituted mass layoffs and a hiring freeze before increasing his own salary by 35%?

10 At the end of the day, what’s really the point of doing any of this anyway?

The App Store Debate: A Story of Ecosystems

Steven Sinofsky was at one time a very senior Microsoft executive — responsible for the development and marketing of Windows, Internet Explorer, and online services such as and SkyDrive. He left Microsoft in 2012 and is now a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the prominent venture capital firm. He writes a fascinating blog in which he occasionally picks up a topic that interests him and in the process reveals an astonishing depth of knowledge about the tech industry. (He also seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Japanese camera industry.)

He’s just published the latest of his deep dives, triggered by the analogies being drawn between the current DoJ antitrust suit against Google and the 1998 DoJ prosecution of Microsoft, about which Sinofsky probably knows more than almost anyone. This is a VERY long read, and not for anyone who isn’t interested in the history of the PC industry, but it’s also a startling reminder of how complicated this stuff can get. If you never used MS-DOS or don’t remember Sony Vaio laptops, then this isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you have experienced these products and that period in the tech industry’s evolution, it’s pure bliss.

Trump’s debts

Source: Financial Times today.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  •  470 West Vista Chino, Palm Springs, California. Yeah, but where do the humans live? Link

  • Canadian book makes shortlist for oddest book title of the year. A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path competes with 5 other contenders. You do wonder about people sometimes. Link

  • The longest-lived institutions in the world. From the Long Now Foundation, which tres to take the long view of everything. Link.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Monday 26 October, 2020


This is one of my favourite pictures. Absolutely no post-production artifice. This is exactly what I photographed early one morning on Nordeinde in The Hague.

Quote of the Day

“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”

  • Montaigne

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Randy Newman – Stay Away: His Covid song


Paul Day’s St Pancras ‘Meeting Place’ sculpture

My photograph yesterday captured only a fragment of what is by any standards an extraordinary work.

Euan Williamson has made a lovely video of the frieze which captures it in the round.


What can we learn from cats?

Answer: Don’t live in an imagined future.

Lovely interview by Tim Adams in yesterday’s Observer. It was triggered by publication of Gray’s new book, Cats and the Meaning of Life, which I’ve just ordered on the strength of this conversation.

Long read of the day.

Trump’s army of angry white men

Charles Blow, writing in today’s New York Times:

The most optimistic among us see the Trump era as some sort of momentary insanity, half of the nation under the spell of a conjurer. They believe that the country can be reunited and this period forgotten.

I am not one of those people. I believe what political scientist Thomas Schaller told Bloomberg columnist Francis Wilkinson in 2018: “I think we’re at the beginning of a soft civil war.” If 2018 was the beginning of it, it is now well underway.

Trump is building an army of the aggrieved in plain sight.

It is an army with its own mercenaries, people Trump doesn’t have to personally direct, but ones he has absolutely refused to condemn.

Which is why his defeat in the election is likely to provoke serious disturbances in some places.

Girl in the mirror


Some of these Lincoln Project ads are really powerful. Thanks to CD for pointing me at it.

Why is everyone building an electric pickup truck?

This is a follow-up the the link I posted the other day about the Hummer electric SUV. It seems that lots of auto manufacturers are launching SUV EVs. Why? I thought the whole thing about SUVs is that people bought them because they were bad for the environment? So here’s an explanation from Ars Technica

Here’s the problem: no one knows who that American electric pickup buyer is. “It’s not like people have been asking for this,” says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at Edmunds. “I don’t think people have been sitting around and thinking, ‘You now what I need? A pickup with an electric motor.’”


The Hummer, which hasn’t been produced since 2010, has gained a cult status among a certain kind of driver. General Motors wants the car aficionados and gearheads to pay attention: convince them to go electric, and the whole world might follow. To wit, GM has stuffed plenty of nerdery into the electric pickup. It comes with a crab walk feature that lets the truck drive diagonally and in-vehicle graphics developed by video game maker Epic Games. The truck, the first to use GM’s new Ultium batteries, has a 350-mile range. It can do 0 to 60 in three seconds.

Economics for the people

A remarkable essay in. Aeon by Dirk Philipsen of Duke University.

A basic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for others, mutual aid networks empowering neighbourhoods, farmers delivering food to quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence: we’re in this life together. We – young and old, citizen and immigrant – do best when we collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safeguarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.

As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a species neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to create and cooperate. ‘All our thriving is mutual’ is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (2018). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders – sometimes entire cultures – have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

Worth reading in full.

Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • The magic of the tilt-and-turn window. Made in Germany, naturally. Link

  • I’m a Principled Republican Senator and I’m Suddenly Troubled By the Current State of Politics. Link

  • Chile restores democratic rule: Neoliberal’s first gunshot has stopped echoing. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Sunday 25 October, 2020

Textual intercourse

St Pancras Station, London.

Quote of the Day

In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more provocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities.

  • Langdon Winner, 1980.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Moonlight Sonata | Tiffany Poon


You don’t need a search engine to see why Google won’t lose this lawsuit

This morning’s Observer column

This sudden outbreak of regulatory zeal in the DoJ raises two questions. The first is: what took it so long? The second is: why now? Of these, the second is easiest to answer. There’s an election coming and Bill Barr wants to be seen as fulfilling his boss’s threat to “do something” about the tech companies that, Trump believes, have recently turned against him by suddenly refusing their traditional role as relay stations and amplifiers for his lies.

The first question – about why it took so long for US authorities to complain about corporate behaviour that had been obvious for years and, indeed, had provoked responses from the European commission – is interesting…

Read on

The DoJ’s lawsuit against Google

Was my column (above) too cynical? Close reading of a lot of other commentary suggests that it was. Here, for example, is Sarah Miller in the Guardian:

This is the most significant antitrust case filed since the government suit against Microsoft in 1998, and it also ranks with the most important antitrust suits of all time, including Standard Oil and AT&T. The move by a conservative Republican administration to take on one of the largest companies in the world is a repudiation of the libertarian ideology that has dominated American politics since the 1980s.

Or here’s Matt Stoller on his (excellent) blog:

the Google suit is a stunning change in the consensus underpinning American politics. The complaint itself a tight, well-reasoned, and nicely framed case, and the scope will likely broaden over the next few months. What the DOJ is arguing is basically a carbon copy of the Microsoft case of the late 1990s, where the government accused Microsoft of illegally tying Internet Explorer to Microsoft Windows. Today, the DOJ is accusing Google of illegally tying Search to its mobile phone operating system Android and its browser Chrome. And the government is seeking to break up Google.

The Financial Times claims that “there’s rare bipartisan support“ (eh?) for the suit and that it “reflects a careful legal strategy designed to maximise the odds of success, while also acting as the first part of a broader legal campaign against Google and the Rest of Big Tech.” The DoJ has “opted for a more limited anti-trust action that many lawyers believe has a better change of winning.” By limiting the case to contracts then the DOJ stands a chance of a quick win.

Hmmm… First of all, that idea of a ‘quick win’ seems implausible. My guess that that the case won’t get to court until late 2021 or early 2022, with possible appeals after that.

The most insightful commentary I’ve read came from Ben Thompson in his (subscription) daily newsletter which I get every day. He’s famous for his ‘Aggregator Theory’ which he thinks provides the best explanation for the monopolistic success of the big tech companies. And he doesn’t think that the US can do much about them so long as they continue to provide high-quality ‘free’ services that users clearly value. For regulators to try to undo an Aggregator by changing consumer preferences is, he says, “like pushing on a string”.

What regulators can do though, Thompson thinks, is prevent Aggregators from artificially enhancing their natural advantages. And that’s what he sees the DoJ suit as trying to do. That’s why he says he’s “pleased to see how narrowly focused the Justice Department’s lawsuit it: instead of trying to argue that Google should not make search results better, the Justice Department is arguing that Google, given its inherent advantages as a monopoly, should have to win on the merits of its product, not the inevitably larger size of its revenue share agreements. In other words, Google can enjoy the natural fruits of being an Aggregator, it just can’t use artificial means — in this case contracts — to extend that inherent advantage.”

Two thoughts from all this.

  1. The best comparison is with the DoJ case against Microsoft in 1998. And if that is indeed true, the the chances of a radical outcome are small. When the Microsoft case launched people thought the odds that the company would be broken up were high. But in the end and election intervened and it ended with a whimper (relatively minor behavioural changes imposed on Microsoft). (Though it’s also plausible that the stress of the case distracted Bill Gates & Co from strategic issues like mobile and search). And while the charge against Google may be limited and focussed in the way that delights the anti-monopoly optimists, I’ll be surprised if the DoJ can make it stick. The Google line is that paying Apple huge sums to make Google the default search engine on iOS is like a cereal firm paying a supermarket chain for preferential treatment for its brands.

  2. Most of the commentary ignores the political context and the timing of the case — a couple of weeks before the most contentious presidential election in modern history. And no commentator seems to address the role of the Attorney General as Trump’s enforcer-in-chief. Yet Barr is — as Fintan O’Toole puts it,

the single most important figure on Trump’s transition team, but the transition in question is not the democratic transfer of power. It is the transition from republican democracy to authoritarianism. Because of his suave, courteous, even jovial demeanor and intellectual acumen, and his long record as a member of the pre-Trump Republican establishment, it seems superficially plausible to look to Barr as the one who might ultimately seek to restrain Trump and protect the basic institutional and constitutional order. All evidence—including ProPublica’s report on October 7 that the Department of Justice has now weakened its long-standing prohibition against interfering in elections by allowing federal investigators “to take public investigative steps before the polls close, even if those actions risk affecting the outcome of the election”—points in the opposite direction.

I’m with Fintan on this. `

No going back to the status quo ante

Just in case anyone thinks that a Biden victory will end the nightmare…

From an editorial in Noema magazine…

Let’s not forget that Trump and his populist comrades are a symptom, not a cause, of the decay of democratic institutions that, captured by the organized special interests of an insider establishment, failed to address the dislocations of globalization and the disruptions of rapid technological change. Those challenges remain unresolved. Indeed, they have only intensified since populist sentiment has transmuted the revolt against a moribund political class into a revolt against governance itself.

Above all, what has not disappeared is the quest for a sense of belonging that accords dignity to otherwise liquidized identities in a world in which individuals and communities alike feel that they are drowning in the swell of seemingly anonymous forces beyond their control.

Those who rightly believe that Trumpism and its fellow travelers are destroying the possibility of a civil society should not be consoled by a victory at the polls. Simply returning “our” partisans to the halls of power will only reproduce the problem. Neither a turn toward autocracy nor lame attachment to forms of democratic government and wealth distribution that have become dysfunctional will answer the question of how to govern open societies in the 21st century. That requires a clean slate for building a different future, not a relapse to what was already broken before populism made it worse.

Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Dreams of a Red Emperor. Profile of Xi Jinping by Alice Su in the Los Angeles Times. He’s a powerful now as Mao once way, but he’s no revolutionary. Contains no mention of Winnie the Pooh, so may not be blocked in China. Link

  • Lovely 3-D Animation of How Medieval Bridges Were Built Link. HT Jason Kottke.

  • Does Palantir See Too Much? Terrific long read by Michael Steinberger on one of the world’s most enigmatic companies. Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

Saturday 24 October, 2020

Waiting for… who?

Venice, 2017.

Quote of the Day

”Calamities are of two kinds. Misfortunes to ourselves and good fortune to others”

  • Ambrose Bierce

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

David Lindley & Ry Cooder – Old Coot From Tennessee


Well, I did warn you about these two.

Fukuyama: Liberalism and its discontents

Long read of the day. From American Purpose.

Characteristically lucid and informative essay by Francis Fukuyama on the historical background to some of our current problems.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions…

He goes on to argue that the contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, and that they would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies.

To understand this, he says, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

And therein lies a master-class… Worth reading all the way through.

I’ve always admired Fukuyama’s writing. I was a bit puzzled by his book on Identity which came out a couple of years ago. But in this essay he seems back on form.

(Another thing I like about him is that he’s a keen photographer!

When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece

This is an enjoyable essay by Alvaro de Menard about an enduring puzzle: how did a vain, shallow, lecherous nobody called James Boswell come to write the greatest biography in the English language?

de Menard begins by painting a succinct pen-portrait of the biographer:

He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.

Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.

Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he “entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.”

By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: “of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you.”

As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn’t get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn’t even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.

His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.

He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.

Having read the first volume of Boswell’s own diary, which covers his arrival in London and his first years in the capital, that seems plausible. And yet, such an undoubted creep produces this single great work.

de Menard quotes the opinions of Macaulay — who thought that the ‘Life’ succeeded because of Boswell’s vices (he never hears a confidence that he would not betray) — and Thomas Carlyle (who thought the biography the greatest work of the 18th century) en route to an interesting conclusion. “The story of Boswell,” he writes,

is basically the plot of Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by Macaulay, by Carlyle, by me, and—perhaps even by yourself, dear reader. The line between admiration, envy, and resentment is thin, and crossing it is easier when the subject is a scoundrel. But if Bozzy could set aside resentment for genuine reverence, perhaps there is hope for us all. And yet…it would be an error to see in Boswell the Platonic Form of Mankind.

Shaffer and Forman’s film portrays Mozart as vulgar, arrogant, a womanizer, bad with money—but, like Bozzy, still somehow quite likable. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Mozart transform the screeches of his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night Aria; thus Boswell transformed his embarrassments into literary gold. He may be vulgar, but his productions are not. He may be vulgar, but he is not ordinary.

Lovely stuff.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Obituary of publisher Tom Maschler “No stranger to self-doubt,” but a great publisher also. Maybe the two were connected. Link
  •  Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting Apparently research into what they’re doing violates their terms and conditions. Link
  •  Why this presidential election is special — democracy is on the ballot — not just Trump and Biden – Vox Link
  • Mask-wearing and ‘freedom’ (contd.) Paul Krugman weighs in: “Liberty doesn’t mean freedom to infect other people.”

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!

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

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!