Friday 24 December, 2021

The World Wide Cobweb

A present from Christmas past, when my kids were young.

Quote of the Day

”One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.

  • Salman Rushdie

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 / Part One | For The First Day Of Christmas – No. 4.


Long Read of the Day

Buy a coal mine, drive a gas guzzler, and other uses of reverse logic

Lovely essay by Tim Hartford:

Readers with long memories may recall the brief, inglorious UK fuel shortage of a few weeks ago, which was mostly caused by the rush to refuel for fear the pumps would run dry. Some petrol stations imposed a limit on how much you could buy — say, £25 of fuel and no more. It seems sensible enough, but a friend of mine (an economist) suggested this was the opposite of what was really needed. A maximum purchase encouraged more visits and more queues. Instead, petrol stations should’ve imposed a minimum purchase: nobody was allowed to buy fuel if their tank was more than a quarter full.

One can imagine snags and problems with implementing this rule, but the principle is delightfully elegant. Queues would disappear, as only people who actually needed fuel would be allowed to buy it. The self-fulfilling shortage would disappear. The solution is not to demand that drivers buy less fuel, but to insist they buy more.

All this set me wondering about other problems we could fix by reversing the usual logic and doing the exact opposite of what one might expect…

Is Omicron the beginning of the end, or merely the end of the beginning?

When Omicron arrived and its high transmissibility was realised I had a wicked thought: could this be the variant that gets societies to herd immunity? After all, if it spreads very quickly, but is relatively less severe for most ‘infectees’, might that not mean that — without anyone planning it — we might achieve a meaningful level of collective immunity. And having thought that, I immediately squashed the idea: after all, even if only a tiny proportion of those who catch Omicron has to be hospitalised, health services (already battered and exhausted by two years of non-stop crisis) might well be overwhelmed.

Yascha Mounk’s take on it seems to be heading in the same direction, though.

Muddy early data mean that, for now at least, the immediate epidemiological future is uncertain. We could be in for a few months of relatively mild inconvenience before Omicron goes out with a whimper. Or we could be about to experience yet another exponential rise in hospitalizations and deaths.

And yet I wager that, whatever course Omicron—or future strains of the disease—might take, we are about to experience the end of the pandemic as a social phenomenon…

His argument is that, whatever the dangers of the new variant, citizens of democracies have had enough.

The appetite for shutdowns or other large-scale social interventions simply isn’t there. This means that we have effectively given up on “slowing the spread” or “flattening the curve.” To a much greater degree than during previous waves, we have quietly decided to throw up our hands…serious restrictions like shutdowns are now thinkable only if we get into a situation in which the emergency is already plain for all to see.

Of course Mounk is only writing about the US, which has its own dysfunctional politics; but I wonder if lockdown exhaustion will be a big thing over here.

Christopher Locke, Rage in Peace

A remarkable firebrand of the early Web has passed away. Impossible to summarise his astonishingly varied career — except maybe by saying that he did to online marketing what Hunter S. Thompson did to journalism. Doc Searls (Whom God Preserve), knew him well and was one of his co-authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and has written a lovely obituary. And if you want an impression of what Locke was like, see his Mystic Bourgeoisie blog which he maintained from 2005 to 2014.

As we say in Irish, Ní bheidh a leithéad arís an. We shall not see his like again.

Trouble in SUVland

The IEA has an interesting paper on the environmental impact of SUVs. It says that these absurd vehicles are on course to account for more than 45% of current global car sales – setting a new record in terms of both volume and market share. Sales of the monsters “continues to be robust” in many countries, including the US, India and across Europe. The only good news seems to come from China, where the proliferation of SUVs is stagnating, mainly because of rising demand for small EVs.

The report has a nice payoff line:

If SUVs were an individual country, they would rank sixth in the world for absolute emissions in 2021, emitting over 900 million tonnes of CO2.

My commonplace book

 New submarine cable to link Japan, Europe, through famed Northwest Passage


More interesting than you think. Read 2034: A Novel of the Next World War to get the idea.