Sunday 11 April, 2021

Travelling ghost

Snapped in a train. Remember those?

Quote of the Day

”Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream.”

  • Malcolm Muggeridge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fleetwood Mac | Songbird | Christine McVie


The loveliest song on a classic album.

Long Read of the Day

What we failed (refused?) to learn from the Diamond Princess in February 2020

Stunning essay by Zeynep Tufecki. She’d been watching the HBO Documentary about the cruise ship with was the first Western case study in what the virus was like and what it could mean for the rest of us.

The first crucial piece of information needed to contain this disease has been the fact that it transmits from people without symptoms. In the HBO documentary, the ship’s doctor reiterates that by February 9th, he was sure that people without symptoms were infecting others. That fact had already been reported in scientific papers, urgently proclaimed by China’s minister of Health in January of 2020, apparent from multiple epidemiological reports already in the record. But many experts in the Western world found that difficult to believe (a topic I covered before for this newsletter), and we did not act upon this crucial piece of information until much later in the pandemic (I wrote about transmission from people who were not sick, and thus could not know they were infected, in March of 2020 in my first op-ed calling for masks—it was so clear even then that I had no problem convincing the fact-checkers at the New York Times).

Watching the documentary, it also becomes very clear that the disease is airborne. There really is no other reasonable explanation for how 567 passengers confined to their rooms, served food by heavily masked people, would get infected at that scale that quickly. In fact, this airborne transmission was quickly discerned by scientists around the world. One of the architects of Japan’s mitigation strategies, Dr. Oshitani, had told me that this was the case that convinced him that the pathogen was airborne (I had interviewed him for this article on aerosol transmission and ventilation for an article I wrote last July).

The cruise liner’s experience told us was most of what we needed to know — airborne transmission, clusters driving the epidemic, and presymptomatic transmission. And lots of scientists understood that message. But the strange thing is that the ‘official’ health authorities seemed to pay so little attention to them. It took ages for the aerosol-transmission view to overcome the obsession with surface cleaning and droplets. Ditto with official disdain for the idea that wearing a mask might be useful. And even today I see organisations obsessed with ‘disinfecting’ surfaces. In a car showroom the other day there were notices on every available surface saying that “This surface is disinfected after every consultation.”

This is just hygiene-theatre. But at least the staff were wearing masks.

With a new skipper at the helm, Intel heads for uncharted waters

This morning’s Observer column:

Watching the apparently relentless growth of Arm, and Intel’s flailing attempts to make progress (including in areas such as semiconductor lithography, the physical and chemical processes needed to etch circuits on silicon, which should have been a core competency), it was hard to see a future for it except one of inexorable decline.

All of which made the news that Intel had a new CEO who was not behaving like a traditional Intel boss such a surprise. His name is Pat Gelsinger and although he started his career at Intel, for the last 11 years he’s been working in smaller companies. But he’s back with a vengeance, as one began slowly to realise when watching the talk he gave after less than 40 days at the helm, outlining the most radical shift in strategy since Andy Grove and Gordon Moore switched the company from making memory chips and into making processors more than 35 years ago…

Read on

Northern Ireland: Troubles 2.0?

History repeats itself, maybe, but the second act is rarely an exact replica of the past. Like many people I’ve been watching the street rioting in Belfast with foreboding and wondering what it presages.

The obvious thought is that the more militant wing of Northern Unionism (the DUP and its followers) have only finally realised what the Brexit for which they voted might mean: not a border between Ulster and the southern Republic (which I always assumed the DUP rather liked — a hard border between them and the Papists) but one down the Irish Sea between the Six Counties and the beloved British mainland — which is what the Protocol of the UK’s withdrawal agreement effectively requires. So they want to tear up the Protocol. And then what?

The official interpretation of the trouble is Unionist anger at the failure of the authorities to prosecute certain Sinn Féin grandees who attended a funeral of one of their own in a flagrant breach of the Covid regulations. Well, I get that, and would share their indignation if I lived in Belfast.

But an email from Mick Fealty (Whom God Preserve) — he of the Slugger O’Toole blog — prompts reflection on the deeper roots of Unionist unease about what’s happening to them and their little statelet. First of all, they now see that Boris Johnson’s acceptance of the Protocol essentially threw them to the wolves. Unlike Theresa May, he no longer needed their votes, and so their interests were dispensable. So the ruler of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ didn’t seem unduly concerned about (or even interested in) what happened to their little bit of said Kingdom.

And, allied to that betrayal, Unionists are also deeply aware of a ticking demographic time-bomb. The forthcoming census is likely to reveal that the Protestant majority in the North of Ireland is no more — that the Catholics have, as it were, out-bred them. And, worse still, The Northern Ireland Act 1998, a statute passed by the Westminster Parliament, implements the Good Friday Agreement within UK law. It declares that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a referendum (the ‘principle of consent’). However, if a majority in such a vote favours a united Ireland, the UK Government must lay before Parliament any proposals to give effect to that outcome which it agrees with the Irish Government. And the Act also gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a general power to call a referendum on reunification at his discretion.

If you were a devout unionist, therefore, you’d have grounds for concern, especially — as Mick Fealty points out — Sinn Féin has been ramping up its triumphalist rhetoric about the ‘inevitability’ of a re-united Ireland. In which case, could we be heading back to the Ulster Covenant and Kipling’s poem?

Believe we dare not boast,
Believe we dare not fear:
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, One Land, One Throne!
If England drives us forth
We shall not fall alone.

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