Monday 8 February, 2021

Frozen stiff

On our walk this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

“If the war didn’t happen to kill you it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn’t go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up.”

  • George Orwell

I’m hoping the Covid mess has something of the same effect, especially on the people who think we’re going back to ‘normal’.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Alison Krauss – In my mind I’m going to Carolina


Sartorial functionalism

I had a zoom call this morning which meant that I needed to look reasonably respectable and so looked in the wardrobe for the one really good, handmade suit that I possess. But then I looked at it and wondered: will I ever get to wear this again? The answer, I hopefully guess, is yes. But it won’t be for a while yet.

The thing about being locked down is that the only appearances one really has to worry about are those on conferencing systems like Zoom, Teams, FaceTime or WebEx. In pre-pandemic times I had various roles (Vice President of a Cambridge College, for example, formal dinners, receptions, public lectures) where one was expected to be neat, tidy and, well, grown up. But since last March the only requirement has been to look superficially presentable. So all Summer long I wore shorts, boat shoes or sandals and short-sleeved, open-necks shirts or t-shirts. Throughout the Autumn and the winter so far I’ve mostly worn zipped sweaters or, occasionally, a wool cardigan.

And this morning? I looked at the suit, then out the window at the falling snow, and instead reached for a warm shirt, a pair of Land’s End flannel-lined jeans and a zipped sweater. And wound up feeling warm and almost presentable.

Corporate sociopathy contd.

Sunday’s Observer column and yesterday’s blog post clearly touched a nerve. For Robert Cosgrave it sparked a memory of where he “first ran across the concept of a corporation as an AI, or at least as an intelligence not human. It was in the blog of Scottish science fiction writers and futurist Charles Stross in 2010″.

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.

Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.

For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

Covid futures

Yesterday I wrote about “Long Covid” as a possible future scenario in which we have to learn to live with the virus over a long period. This morning I find two piece of relevant information in my incoming mail and messages.

1/ The first is that the AstraZeneca vaccine (the one I had) may not be effective against the South African variant of the virus. As the (paywalled) FT put it:

The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine does not appear to offer protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the viral variant first identified in South Africa, according to a study.

Although none of the more than 2,000 mainly healthy and young patients in the study died or was hospitalised, the findings, which have not yet been peer reviewed, could complicate the race to roll out vaccines as new strains emerge.

In both the human trials and tests on the blood of those vaccinated, the jab showed significantly reduced efficacy against the 501Y.V2 viral variant, which is dominant in South Africa, according to the randomised, double-blind study seen by the Financial Times. If confirmed, this is worrying but not a showstopper given the new vaccine-creation tools that have evolved in the last year. But it probably means that, for me, 2021 will be a three-jab year.

2/ The second info-byte came in a text from a good friend. It read:

One of the steering groups I’m on is full of scientists who are involved in the vaccine programmes etc and one of them said to me last week that he thought that we had to get used to at a least a Covid ‘shadow’ that would last 6-10 years, and that was the optimistic scenario…

Often when I cite stuff like this people respond by chiding me for being “pessimistic”. Actually I think of myself as a realistic optimist. Even the gloomy ‘Long Covid’ scenario is something we will learn to live with and manage. We’re an ingenious, adaptive species. What I dislike is idiotic boosterist talk (like the current Prime Minister’s) about how we will “beat” the virus and stride triumphant into the glorious future. This kind of nonsense is reminiscent of the cant in August 1914 about how the war would be “over by Christmas”. It wasn’t, and this one won’t be either.

Trollope and irrational exuberance

During the original Internet boom (1995-2000) I remember reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and being struck by how contemporary it seemed. Now, in the light of the GameStop frenzy, the same thought has occurred to Paul Tuckwell of Surrey, a reader of the Financial Times. Saturday’s edition published a nice letter from him:

In Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now there was a good understanding of the difference between company valuation driven by retail enthusiasm and actual value… Of a new company’s directors “there was not one other then present who had not after some fashion been given to understand that his fortune was to be made, not by the construction of the railway, but by the floating of the railway shares.” So the directors saw it was of no consequence whether the purpose of the company (to build a railway in the US) ever actually happened; the money was to be made creating a share frenzy which they “were to have the privilege of manufacturing”. The current retail hysteria hysteria and the resulting fantastical equity valuations, would have had Trollope reaching for his pen!

”We don’t recognise these figures”

Or how to spin bad news. Nice blast from Jonty Bloom

As a cynical old hack nothing raises my hackles more than the non-denial “We don’t recognise these figures….”. Because you can, without even crossing your fingers behind your back, say exactly that if the figure mentioned is 68.9% and you know the true amount is 70.1%. It sounds great but is utterly meaningless.

Its latest use, over whether trade to the EU has been slashed since Brexit is a reminder that the power of the Government to spin, delay, hide and smudge is almost limitless, so it is obvious how Brexit will play out. First there are the denials, nothing to see here. Then its, teething problems, nothing to see here it is already over. Then it will be throwing money and resources at the problem, nothing to see here we are fixing it. Then it will be, this has been going on for months, nothing to see here it isn’t new and anyway it is the EU’s fault.


100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is out as a Kindle book. You can get it here.

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