Smashing the State

There won’t be any surprises in this one for anyone who knows me at all well, but I’ll try to at least make it entertaining.

My very first lasting memory of a news event with political content took place on the afternoon of Sunday 21 January 1968. A B-52 with four hydrogen bombs aboard took off from Thule AFB and crashed somewhere in the Arctic, location unknown.
Ten days later, the Tet Offensive began.
Nine weeks and one day after that, Dr King was assassinated.
Nine weeks less one day after that, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Twelve weeks to the day after that, I first saw real human blood shed live on television via cameras above the intersection of Michigan and Balbo as the Chicago police attacked demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention.

I was eight years old.

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Christmas 2020

Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

Gerard Manley Hopkins

A Christmas-appropriate poem from Rudyard Kipling

I was curious as to what the oldest Christmas carol might be:  this Billboard article suggests some possibilities.

The story of electric Christmas tree lights

Mona Charen, who is Jewish, wonders  what’s going on with the Christians?

The 2017 Christmas season, in combination with the Churchill movie Darkest Hour, reminded me something written by the French author Georges Bernanos:  A Tale for Children.

Here’s a passage I’ve always liked from Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Gravity’s Rainbow.  The setting: it is the grim winter of 1944, just before Christmas. The military situation in Europe is not good, and WWII seems as if it will never end. London is under attack by V-2 rockets and V-1 cruise missiles (as they would be called today.) Roger and Jessica, two of the main characters, are driving in a rural area in England and come upon a church where carols are being sung. They decide to go inside.

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Reopening — I (Practice)

For most Americans, the great day of realization of the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat—or more precisely, the seriousness of the official reaction to it—was Thursday, March 12th, when they woke to the news that the previous evening, the National Basketball Association had postponed an OKC Thunder-Utah Jazz game after a player’s test result came back positive, and then quickly canceled the remainder of the season. I was less concerned with the NBA, but coincidentally, also on Thursday the 12th, was informed that a certain institution of higher education that we all know and love was moving to remote learning for undergraduate and graduate classes for its entire Spring Quarter of 2020. Simultaneously, nearly all students were ordered to plan to vacate their on-campus housing by 5 PM CDT on Sunday, March 22nd.

I had also just returned home from a severely truncated trip to Italy which had gotten no farther than New York City. Had the Italy leg been undertaken, I would have been on one of the last flights out of that country before it was locked down entirely, and would have been a strong candidate for two weeks of quarantine upon arrival in the US. I was therefore necessarily concerned with pandemic response, and on the day after my return home, sent an e-mail to several leaders and volunteers in my church with a general offer of expertise and recommendations to pursue several of the items discussed below, especially a communications plan.

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In Medias Res

What I’ve got so far:

  1. Everything’s on the table. The likelihood that your preexisting ideology or priorities are an entirely adequate match to what this situation truly requires of us is close to nil. “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” ― Eric Hoffer
  2. That said, your life experience will give you insights. Privilege your experience over your ideology and nominal priorities.
  3. All disasters are local. Concentrate on your meaningfully immediate environment, which in this case will be the local market for medical resources. For most of the US, that will be our MSA. For those outside an MSA (metropolitan or micropolitan) that will be their county; and for some it will be the group of counties that feed into the one hospital in the region.
  4. Deprioritize pandemic news from outside your local area. There are people in the massive NY/NJ/MA outbreak that I worry about, but what happens there will only modestly resemble what happens in the KC MSA, not least because of the difference in population density, which can approach 20x.
  5. Mitigate or avoid your own risk (including the risk you pose to others) by both following the hygiene advice we’ve all heard and minimizing your physical interaction with anyone outside your immediate household. Internalize R₀ = b × k × d, where R₀ is the reproduction number of the virus, b is the probability of infection given contact with an infectious person, k is the contact rate, and d is the infectious duration. While the nominal R₀ of COVID-19 is ~3, your personal R₀ can be driven to < 1 by your own behavior.
  6. The general form of the challenge confronting us is abrupt wide variation in formerly relatively constant phenomena. In Talebian terms, we have migrated from “mediocristan” to “extremistan.” The multiplicative nature of a novel viral pandemic, especially by comparison to the relatively predictable seasonality of influenza viruses, has a thick-tailed (power law) probability structure and complex payoffs (notoriously ranging from large numbers of nearly asymptomatic cases to abruptly life-threatening “cytokine storm” reactions). For detail, see The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics.
  7. So we find ourselves at serious risk of running out of ventilators, ICU beds, and even hospital beds generally, to say nothing of supplies (but see “all disasters are local,” above), raising the prospect of significant second-order mortality among those unable to obtain adequate care for entirely unrelated illnesses and injuries.
  8. In this connection, many prior customs, techniques, tools, and materials are being revealed as highly dysfunctional and, if all goes sufficiently well, will be swept into the dustbin of history. The bad news for me is that my earlier fears about easily-bottlenecked processes have been realized. But we may look forward to significant adaptation, including deregulation of medical services.
  9. Similarly, a large number of purported fixes and remedies will fail. Folk remedies, in particular, seem likely to be disastrous, and this blog’s audience needs no persuasion that attempts at central planning will fail thanks to the Hayekian local knowledge problem. In that connection, and to quote something I wrote a few years back: “John Gilmore famously said that ‘the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.’ The future adaptation of representative democracies will depend on our capability, as individuals, to interpret endemic institutional dysfunctionality as damage and route around it.”
  10. The relatively vulnerable are closer to the center of the network: affluent, living in high-density major cities, well-traveled, extroverted, socially active, with large numbers of regular contacts (even if mostly in a “bubble” as per Murray’s notorious quiz). But some are the alienated and defiant who reject risk avoidance or even risk mitigation tactics (or attempt folk remedies instead), ordinarily associated with …
  11. The relatively invulnerable, who are at or near the edge of the network: impoverished, living in rural or low-density metro areas, untraveled, introverted, socially isolated, rarely in face-to-face contact with others. Many of these people have mental health issues and associated substance abuse problems. But the relatively invulnerable are also the intelligent and conscientious who promptly adopt appropriate risk management strategies.
  12. The post-pandemic preferences of the relatively invulnerable will have massive economic and cultural effects. I expect a reasonably quick partial recovery from the economic shutdown, but full recovery may take several years. Many of the “third places” which have done well over the last few decades will not regain their patronage, and as of early April 2020, we can only guess which ones. Fond hopes of some of my co-religionists aside for a sudden revival, I believe church attendance and involvement will be well down in the aftermath, and will not significantly grow until the next “Awakening,” which per Strauss and Howe should occur at mid-century. Until then, believers will be culturally marginalized and congregations will be smaller—but comprised of relatively fervent, active members.
  13. Geopolitical risks are heightened, especially US-China tensions, and if Xenakis’ “58-year hypothesis” holds, this very year will see an echo of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  14. The most important output of this process—and it is a process, with inputs, providers, outputs, recipients, etc—will be a collective lessons-learned database, comprised of both tacit and explicit knowledge, and somehow transmitted to future generations.

Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

It is unwise to let your dislike for certain individuals to run away with you to the point that you publish attacks that can be refuted with a few seconds of research.

Speaking of publishing dumb things…

Philosophers and philodoxers

Thoughts on personal productivity from Marc Andreessen

This 19th century French philosopher sounds worth reading.  From Tyler Cowen’s summary:

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

The 10 worst colleges for free expression…the 2020 edition.

Using albatrosses to track down illegal fishing boats.  A little advice for the captains of those boats: do not, under any circumstances, shoot an albatross.

France’s most beautiful stained-glass windows