28 March 2020
We’re about a month in to a one-in-a-lifetime happening. I want some kind of record of what I was thinking and doing. Most of my thinking is out loud on Twitter, so I’ll be dredging that for material.
“Plague Year” is probably a misnomer. I don’t expect this to be over in 2020.
It started for me in January. An epidemic in Wuhan wasn’t terribly interesting, but @MorlockP on Twitter posted that he saw it as likely to become a global pandemic, and was making preparations for a prolonged isolation. I followed his reasoning, and told the family after dinner that it looked like getting bad, and we should make sure we had long-term stocks in the house for food, water and cleaning equipment. Over the following couple of weeks we bought large plastic boxes and filled them with emergency supplies.
Several other people have said they were spurred into preparations by MorlockP’s tweets. Twitter locked him out of his account a week ago, ever careful to protect us from misinformation.
I remember when I was planning to go to London on January 31st, to celebrate Brexit, I contemplated whether it was safe to head into crowds and underground trains. I decided that it was still early and we could go without worrying, but it might be the last time. I haven’t been in London since.
Things moved slower than I expected through February. We built up our stocks, I mentioned it to friends and colleagues, who thought I was a bit silly. Curtis Yarvin’s American Mind piece asserting that globalism would be ended by pandemics like this one was 1st Feb.
On February 22nd I retweeted a UK government notification, that 9 positive cases of COVID19 had been found in Britain.
By the end of February it was still only a minor subject on Twitter: @thespandrell had already started calling it “boomerpox”, one or two others were saying they had stocked up, Nick Szabo was complaining that the FDA was preventing testing from happening in the US.
By March 2nd, I’d stopped going swimming. It seemed an unnecessarily easy way to catch a virus. I kept going to the gym for a few days more. I’m now back to my pre-gym self: not exercising and living on bread and biscuits. I’m going to put on 20lbs and lose a lot of strength before this is over 1.
The virus was still behind the US presidential primaries and Georgina Bloomberg’s horse novels in volume of discussion on my twitter timeline
I heard a friend of a friend story that the NHS was putting testing pods in every hospital, and were generally gearing up for a major crisis.
By March 9th, the argument had started about whether the British Government was doing enough, or whether it should be closing schools and stuff. “Flattening the curve” had appeared as a concept, illustrated with what I consistently refer to as the graph-with-no-scale.
Gregory Cochran posted his “nuke the curve” piece on the 10th, arguing that it was necessary to eliminate the virus, not just slow the spread. I expressed scepticism over the feasibility, given that if infection rates were kept very low, it would keep reappearing for a long time.
On March 11th, I saw a tweet by @vaughanbell. “If you want to make sense of why the UK government are making the decisions they are making with regard to coronavirus: they have prepared over the last decade for a pandemic (focusing on pandemic flu) and the strategy and evidence based is public”, with a link to the Pandemic Flu planning information document. I studied this. I noted that the plan anticipated a lot of deaths — it advised local authorities to be prepared for “210,000 to 315,000 additional deaths across the UK over a 15-week period”. I noted that the focus of the plan was on keeping government going, not on minimising deaths, and not at all on preventing infections. I tweeted, Most of the strategy document is explicitly ‘we’re all going to get it, so just carry on’. I noted that COVID19 was spreading faster and causing more hospitalisations than the government plan had anticipated, writing What I hope is that behind the summary strategy document, there’s a range of contingency plans that includes this fast-spreading high-hospitalisation extreme. But they’re not showing it. At time of writing, 28th March, these points are still the centre of the arguments.
The 12th of March was the last day I went to work. I find I work more effectively in an office with my colleagues, but I always was able to work from home on occasion, and I’ve been doing it now for two weeks.
The evening of 12th of March, before I left the office for (so far) the last time, I watched Boris Johnson’s press conference. This was where it really became clear that the government was expecting at the very least tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths, didn’t believe it could prevent the virus spreading through the entire population, and wasn’t going to try. I wrote a blog post on my understanding.
Though shocked, I believed, and still believe, that that was a sensible position. As I had suggested to Cochran, though some countries in Asia had reduced the size of the epidemic, nobody had proved that it could be eliminated, or that the measures taken to reduce it could be sustained for the duration that would be required.
I was in a minority, at least within my twitter community. I spent the next four days largely arguing with people who believed the UK strategy was insane or was being changed.
The strongest objection is Taleb’s. His central point is the one that made his name, that mathematical modelling of unknown situations will systematically underestimate the probability of extreme outcomes. He is right. His deduction from that is that governments should take extreme measures to combat the pandemic, because nobody knows how bad it could get. My objection to that is that the outcome of the extreme measured being taken is also an unknown situation, where we do not know how bad it could get. I don’t think it will lead to the collapse of states and a new dark age, but I don’t think the virus will kill two million people in Britain either. How to model the probability of either of these outcomes? Taleb’s whole argument is that you can’t.
Still, it is the best argument for trying to put the brakes on and at least buy some time to get better information. And it seems that my claims through the weekend of 14-15 March that the UK government was not changing course were wrong. Though they are being obfuscatory about it, the models from Imperial College they are using are now modelling “suppression” rather than “slowing”. Unlike under the previous, clear, strategy, there is now no long-term outcome described.
Here of course we are into the realm of politics. “We do not really know what is going to happen, so we’re trying to keep the disease under control for now and we’ll make more decisions later” may be the most rational position, but it doesn’t sound good on TV.
The other news was that a revision of the Imperial College model had shown much more demand on hospitals than had been foreseen earlier, and that therefore different measures would have to be taken to ensure patients could continue to get care. I was and am mystified by this. Firstly, that was obvious from the start — I had tweeted on the 11th that the hospitalisation rate was going to be the really nasty bit, and my interpretation of the announcement on the 12th was that the government knew that hospitals were going to get much worse than even the horror stories we had already heard from Italy. At the same time, if they believed on the 12th that it was not possible to prevent the virus spreading through the population, how did that become possible on the 13th just because the hospitalisation rate was worse? My guess is that in reality there was an ongoing division in the cabinet and the cabinet office over whether to slow or suppress, and Boris Johnson gave in under pressure produced by the revised model.
This is all Britain-centric, but the same thing has been playing out throughout the West. The UK strategy was not an outlier, it was the standard pandemic response used by international organisations and governments, just presented a bit more transparently than in other countries. Most governments have backed away from it, and are in this no-mans-land of lockdowns and no long-term prognosis. Sweden seems to be the only place going ahead with it at this point. To this day, the government is only officially talking about slowing down the spread, but is happy for people to think it is trying to prevent it.
The critical question, from the 12th March, was whether the Asian countries that appeared to be “winning” against the virus could sustain that. As of 28th March, that still isn’t clear. South Korea and Taiwan still seem OK. Japan and Hong Kong are getting a bit of a resurgence of cases. Nowhere is fully back to normal except parts of mainland China away from Hubei province.
Anyway, it was the following week that the masks thing started to really come up with a vengance. From the beginning, we were told not to wear masks, that they didn’t help, and they were in short supply for hospitals so we shouldn’t disrupt supply. Most of my twitter timeline has settled on the theory that masks are the one vital difference between Asia and the West that has enabled the former to get numbers down, where they are still growing throughout the latter. This is pretty plausible, but I note it is a long way from proved.
I need to mention somewhere that there is an amazing split between twitter and the outside world. Both Trump and Boris are at all-time highs in popularity, while twitter is 90% screaming at them — even from their supporters — for being evil and incompetent.
20th of March was when @MorlockP got locked out of his twitter account. From reports, it was not an actual suspension, it was the same thing as happened to me — they demanded confirmation by SMS, but he no longer has the phone number.
I think I’m the only one making the case that half a million extra deaths in the UK would not be all that big a deal. It would be about double the normal rate for the year, mostly elderly. I mentioned that I think I’ve had one elderly relative die, generally of respiratory disease, every year for the last few, and if it were two or three one year that wouldn’t show up as a catastrophe. Yes, younger people die of it too, but rarely. It is unlikely that anyone you know under the age of 60 would die, though quite likely that you would know someone who knew someone who died.
Related, I’ve expressed scepticism about the “health system breakdown” stories. Not that it’s unlikely — it’s likely to happen. I just don’t think it’s happened yet, anywhere. We have detailed stories from one hospital in Lombardy and one in New York. Meanwhile both systems are publishing statistics that show they are not (yet) overloaded. See for instance this March 13 report from Lombardy. That was two weeks ago now, but the first “collapsed” stories I saw were from before that. The reporting I’ve seen saying there is a collapse has been Damien Day style TV, with no detail or authority comparable to that JAMA session.
The other part of this is that people are jumping to conclusions about things they don’t know about based in implications of media reporting, which is a very dangerous thing to do. As I have repeatedly observed, Triage is standard practice in the NHS, and hospitals frequently get overloaded and don’t have beds for everyone. Enormous emphasis has been put on supply of ventilators. From early on, we were told that was the critical factor, that there would not be nearly enough ventilators in intensive care units for every COVID19 patient that needed one.
My experience, that I mentioned above, of relatives dying is that elderly patients with respiratory problems are never put into intensive care. I don’t know if with an infection like this one they generally would be, but nobody has actually said that they would — it’s just been left as an unstated implication of news reports. It’s hard to find the answer, because it’s not something people talk about. Anyway, I don’t know.
However, the reality is, if you just find extra space and beds for patients until they die or get better, then my expectation is that the effect of this pandemic would be otherwise not noticeable to the general population. It would be a very distinct peak in any statistical treatment, but in concrete terms all it would mean that if you knew of twenty old people who died over a ten year period, three or four of them were in 2020. Stalin was exactly right: one million deaths is a statistic. If spread over months and a big country, it’s not a directly observable event.
(One other possibility is that for many, none of them would be in 2021. One reason why this pandemic is more deadly is because we are able to keep people alive for whom every breath is an effort. Were our lives less easy, there would be many fewer in that state).
Also for these reasons, I expect the pandemic to be a non-event in the third world.
This last week (from March 22nd), the conversation has mainly gone to the economic effects (“Money printer go Brrrrr”) and outrage over the still-continuing anti-mask propaganda from Western agencies, as well as the past anti-travel-restriction propaganda from media, governments and NGOs that was continuing well into February. The Lancet condemned travel restrictions on 13 February
There was a bit of a fuss on the 24th over a model published by an Oxford epidemiological group suggesting that possibly over 90% of infections are asymptomatic and that therefore we could be already halfway to herd immunity. This was quite useful as a reminder that we don’t really know how many people will suffer, but there’s no reason whatsoever to assume that it’s that low. The model used only early case data from Italy and the UK to calibrate. Inevitably, media reporting of the publication was absolutely execrable.
On the 25th, in response to completely non-existent popular demand, I published my own pandemic modelling code on GitHub. While the actual model is of little relevance, some of the conclusions I drew from the process may be: “
Of course, nobody would really rely on such crude mathematical treatments when planning for unlikely events, would they?”
So that’s where we stand today. This isn’t a series, it’s a record. I will append to this piece as I go along. As such I don’t think it’s a useful focus for discussion, so comments should go on Twitter or under other posts with more focus.
I watched the British Government press conference this evening, and now I understand the government’s view of the epidemic, and where it differs from those who are accusing it of not taking the situation seriously enough.
In the view of the government, its critics have a significant misunderstanding of how bad the epidemic is.
It’s much worse than we think.
People are pointing at Italy, and saying “look at that — it could be like that here, don’t you understand?”
The government view is that that is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.
Conversely, when people point at South Korea, or Taiwan, the response is that they are only putting the problem off. Korea has had 8,000 confirmed cases. Maybe 80,000 actual infections (probably less given their heavy testing) out of a population of 50 million. The measures they have taken to prevent a rapid spread will have to stay in place basically indefinitely. Only one in a thousand of the population has had the disease, so there is nothing other than their protective measures stopping it. They can carry on having a hundred new cases a day for years. They can wipe it out with even stronger measures, but it will come back.
Italy has 12,000 confirmed cases, maybe 150,000 infections, out of a population of 60 million. Again, that’s only the start. 0.25% of the population. It’s going to get much worse than that. It’s going to get much worse than that everywhere.
The government’s view is that this isn’t going away until most of the people who are going to get it have got it. They don’t know how many that is — anywhere from 10% of the population to 80%. But they’re very clear that whatever that number is, it is not something they can affect. It’s going to spread until enough people have had it that it can’t spread any more. So the policy is not aimed at reducing the spread — only at slowing it over a longer time and protecting the vulnerable. In general, if you’re a young or middle aged healthy person, the government thinks you’re probably going to get it and that’s OK.
They also say the fatality rate is up to 1%. So if 80% get the virus and 1% of them die, we are looking at half a million dead this year in Britain. They spelled that out, explicitly stopping just short of doing the multiplication, because the 80% is just a worst-case estimate: it may be a quarter of that and half the death rate, and only 60,000 deaths.
If 60,000 are going to die, mostly over about 90 days at the peak of the epidemic, that means a minimum of hundreds of deaths a day, day after day after day. That’s what the government is telling us to expect. (On top of the thousand or so who die every day normally).
Are they right? How the hell should I know? If they’re wrong, there’s only a few ways they could be wrong.
Maybe the disease can just be wiped out. Nuke the curve, push the R0 below one, and hold it there until the virus doesn’t exist any more. That’s basically what happened to SARS. But even the places where they seem to be doing well are still getting a steady drip of new cases, and there are large regions where it is not under any control, so halting the spread would need a Moldbug-esque abolition of globalisation, which whatever its merits is not politically on the cards.
Maybe we could hold it off until there are better treatments, or a vaccine. The general view is that a vaccine is at least a year off, while treatments might improve over the next couple of months, but the government is already aiming to keep the peak a couple of months away.
Maybe most people just aren’t susceptible for some reason, so the total infections to expect is much lower, and snuffing the epidemic out is much more feasible.
Maybe the virus will just go away somehow. I’m not clear on how that would happen, but I’m no microbiologist.
Note that now it is the government that is taking the pessimistic view, and the critics that are clinging to the hope of a way out.
This is the most important question. If you want to know the future, the most important thing to look at is the places where the virus seems to be on the decline. Is it really finished, or is it just temporarily suppressed? If you can actually get rid of the disease with less than 1% of the population having suffered, then the government has got this completely wrong.
The other side of things is that, aside from protecting the weak and elderly, the government is expecting a big chunk of the population to get sick and doesn’t care whether you or I are in that chunk or not. But you and I can care. In this view, trying too hard to avoid catching it is antisocial: disrupting society and endangering the policy of having the virus burn out in a controlled way over a season, with well-timed interventions to smooth the worst of the peak. But a little selfishness is allowed. Frankly, I’m OK with being ill for a couple of weeks, but I have a close family member with respiratory issues, and I am prepared to go well beyond official advice to avoid introducing the disease to my home. That’s good policy for me even if it doesn’t help the government achieve its goals.
I went down to London last night to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union. I no longer see it as a vitally important thing — I neither voted in nor blogged about the referendum — but for many years, through the nineties and the oughts, leaving the EU was at the centre of my political position. That includes the early stages of blogging, with posts like this and this and this, and by joining in the celebrations I was, in a way, acknowledging my younger self.
I also wanted to be able to say I was there, to stand on Parliament Square and cheer and sing songs and generally larp at being part of a movement for a couple of hours. It was cheaper than going to a Luton Town game.
Also, while my opinion is that the exit doesn’t change anything fundamentally, it’s worth noting that I have claimed first that the referendum is a bad thing because the establishment media will so dominate that Remain is bound to win and they’ll just use it to shut up debate for another generation, and then that even though Leave won, they wouldn’t actually leave, they’d just hold it up and eventually drop it. With this track record of being consistently wrong, I have a slight lack of confidence in my current pessimistic projections.
My explanation for being wrong is that I have been overestimating the competence and power of the establishment. The atomisation of society is now degrading the strength of the political parties themselves, being media-driven and bioleninist is reducing the competence of establishment leaders, new media is making democracy more real and less fake in a very damaging way.
The central event of last night’s celebration, after the terrible singing and before the countdown to 23:00 GMT, was of course the appearance of Nigel Farage. People were calling his name from the time the lights went on, and every warm-up speaker remarked that none of this could have happened without him.
That is surely true. And that says something very interesting about the way democratic politics works. Because Farage does not really seem to be a “Great Man” of the kind who are supposed by some theories to be able to shift history by themselves. He can speak on television OK, but he is no great orator or demagogue, or even an entertainer like Boris or Trump. He is intelligent and competent but he is no master strategist, or prophet, or technical genius. Anyone who could successfully run a corporate department with thirty employees could have done what he did. But without him there could have been no sustained UKIP. UKIP caused the referendum by costing the Conservative Party seats. The referendum led to Brexit.
Why say UKIP could not have sustained itself without Farage? Because every time it tried, it failed. Other than him, all the leadership of the party after the Alan Sked pressure-group era were insane, stupid, or lazy. Farage was competent enough to run the party, worked very hard on it, and caused it to continue existing.
It is truly remarkable that there were over four million people1 willing to vote for UKIP, but there was only one capable person willing to run it.
Farage devoted most of his adult life to the cause, out of idealism. Many of the other four million would have been as capable as he was, but they had better things to do with their lives. None of the other few dozen people who were in the leadership of the party were of the two or three percent of people who have the abilities needed to do it successfully.
Many politicians are idealistic, but it is easier to be idealistic where there is a career path. There is no career path to being a fringe anti-establishment politician. Farage got an MEP’s salary for thirty years, but that was by no means guaranteed. Victorious, he will pick up some media bucks, but he will never be treated as an elder statesman. Nobody else with the “corporate department head” level of ability showed up to discard their career and do the work.
There are strong echoes here of the situation with academia. For every competent right-wing intellectual working full time with donor funding or their own money, there are hundreds of left-wing intellectuals with a stable academic career. Tens of thousands of people shouting Nigel Farage’s name on Parliament Square give a hint of how important that fact is.
Back in 2014 I wrote a short piece on the somewhat forgotten fact that when sexual liberation was being pushed in a big way in the 60s and 70s, sex with children was part of the movement, and was supported by mainstream liberal voices — the National Council for Civil Liberties, and so forth.
The question for historians to ask about the 1970s is not, “how could respectable people have supported paedophilia back then?”, rather, it is “how did they not succeed?” My original answer was that as the rebels became the establishment, they were forced to take some small measure of responsibility for keeping society together, and withdrew from a few of their most dangerous demands. That’s no more than a hypothesis really, since I have no particular evidence for it. The truth could possibly be even more interesting.
PARIS — The French writer Gabriel Matzneff never hid the fact that he engaged in sex with girls and boys in their early teens or even younger. He wrote countless books detailing his insatiable pursuits and appeared on television boasting about them. “Under 16 Years Old,” was the title of an early book that left no ambiguity.
Still, he never spent a day in jail for his actions or suffered any repercussion. Instead, he won acclaim again and again. Much of France’s literary and journalism elite celebrated him and his work for decades. Now 83, Mr. Matzneff was awarded a major literary prize in 2013 and, just two months ago, one of France’s most prestigious publishing houses published his latest work.
As I said in 2014, the question is not how the cultural revolutionaries who overthrew much of what society had previously thought right or moral could possibly have supported this, it’s how they failed, when they succeeded in so much else. Not only did they fail, but paedophilia inspires a level of opposition and revulsion today that to me always feels a little bit deranged. I’m perfectly happy to say that it’s harmful to young people to have sexual relations with adults and should be illegal. I’m also OK with saying that at least sex with younger children — say 13-year-olds and younger — is not just harmful but perverse (though I’m not clear why that counts for anything in 2020). But I struggle with the aura of evil — and that’s most often the word that’s used — when pretty much nothing else you can think of is today considered evil.
That attitude clearly wasn’t around in the 70s. I think it really dates from the late 80s onwards.
In discussion, though, I came up with a much more boring answer. I think the explanation is that a series of very heavily reported child murders created a strong association in the popular consciousness between paedophiles and murderers, and that’s what caused attitudes to harden so dramatically.
This theory is disproved if there was repeated heavy coverage of child sex murders before the 1970s. The biggest story, in the UK, is the Moors Murders, for which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were arrested in 1965. If that was the beginning, and I vaguely remember it being a repeating theme through the 70s and 80s, it works as an explanation. (It doesn’t matter if there actually were murders before Brady, only if they got the same kind of media treatment).
It can also be looked at internationally. The USA seems to have followed a similar pattern, of it being naughty stuff done by wild rock stars in the 60s and early 70s, and being the definition of evil from the 90s on. I don’t know the specific cases, but they have the “missing children on milk cartons” thing going, at least from the 80s.
Maybe France hasn’t had that kind of crime, or not the same kind of media treatment, and that explains the softer attitude there.
It also gives clues to the future. Over the years I’ve often seen suggestions that “they” are going to be making paedophilia mainstream next, and I’ve tended to pooh-pooh them on the grounds that “they tried that before and failed”. But if there aren’t murdered kids in the papers, maybe they have a chance. In the UK, the last big media circus was Soham, almost 10 years ago now. Maddie McCann who disappeared in 2007 is probably still higher in the public consciousness, because nobody knows what happened to her. A few more years might be enough.
This is another possible reactionary future for the United Kingdom; an alternative to “Kingdom 2037“. It’s less detailed, and less thought-through than that was, but in a way that is the point: Kingdom was a vision of a Royalist future, with only the thinnest of concept about how it might come about, while this is a projection starting from the present, but with only a vague idea of where things would end up.
It’s derived from a few tweets I made on Friday (the morning of Johnson’s election success). Rather than a partial collapse followed by restoration, it takes as its starting point today: the Labour party’s poor situation and internal conflicts — which are likely to dominate it for the next decade — and Boris Johnson’s extraordinary ability, ruthlessness and unscrupulousness. There are several more likely outcomes, but the possibility is there of his gradually cementing his premiership into a Singapore-style (or, less optimistically, Russia-style) one-party state. There’s no evidence he intends to do anything of the kind, but who really knows?
The year is 2044. Great Britain is celebrating Boris Johnson’s 25 years as leader of the country, and his 80th birthday. The celebrations will spill over into the 2044 General Election, but since the merger of the Green/Democrat Party into the People’s Conservatives in 2035, elections have been basically ceremonial. The People’s Conservatives got 94% of the vote in 2039.
Johnson moved out of Downing Street into a private estate in Surrey, where he normally works with his private office staff. The rest of central government remains in Whitehall, and he communicates mostly electronically, though senior officials frequently travel to his estate for personal meetings.
Britain’s economy has been exceptionally strong since the late 20s, and with the stagnation in Europe and the chaos in the USA, a significant proportion of the world’s technology and high-end manufacturing industry has moved to the country, including in the North-East, which was taken under direct government control after the 2026 riots.
There is always grumbling about the pro-government character of the British media, and the lack of a competitive multi-party democracy, but while available foreign media tries to stir up “pro-democracy” movement, the British mostly just joke about it. Troublemakers who say Boris shouldn’t be in charge of the country for life are treated as nutters and generally mocked.
I recently wrote “if [a thing] is not under some central control, then there is nobody who can make it other than what it is”, talking about Decentralised Monopolies.
I just remembered that three years earlier I wrote, “To change the action of a collective, some more significant force than an individual impulse normally has to act on it”, talking about Personal and Collective Power.
Around the same time, I described the collective of shareholders of a company as “a single non-human ‘virtual’ decision-maker, the shareholder-value maximiser“, in Checked Power.
It seems to be an important idea to me, that I haven’t previously isolated as something worth thinking about directly.
There is a slight connection to Asimov’s (fictional) “psycho-history” — the idea that while individual humans are hard to predict, collectives can in principle be predicted reliably. But while I wrote “In many cases, we can predict the action of the collective with virtual certainty”, I don’t think that is generally the case, and I never have. In 2012, I wrote “Predicting herd behaviour, contra Isaac Asimov, is probably the hardest thing there is.”, in The Unthinkable. Maybe, compared to individual behaviour, collective behaviour is subject to fairly simple rules. But even things subject to fairly simple rules are not always predictable, but can instead be chaotic.
On those lines, I wrote while considering voting in the 2010 election that “A butterfly’s wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it’s not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.”
Just to emphasize how correct that was: The result of that election gave enough seats to Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties together to form a government, but did not give Labour enough seats to form a government even with Lib Dem support. This produced a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, but one in which the Lib Dems had little influence, because they had no other choices of coalition partner. This produced a 2015 campaign in which the Conservatives felt safe to offer a referendum on membership of the EU, which they could later renege on by blaming the necessity of future coalition with the Lib Dems, but on unexpectedly winning an overall majority in 2015 — in part because the lack of influence that the LDs had over coalition policy meant they failed to satisfy their voters and lost votes — they had to go through with it, but Cameron, in his second term as PM and with an increased vote, was overconfident he could win it. How predictable was all that when I blogged about releasing butterflies in April 2010?
Anyway, this is supposed to be a “mini”, I’ve noticed the link between all these references I’ve made previously to “collective behaviour”, and it needs more focus.
Larry Sanger, the first “editor” of Wikipedia (speaking loosely), is launching a new project to define technical sharing and interopability standards for online encyclopedias.
The aim is to create an “encyclopshere” of online encylopedias, based on the example of the “blogosphere” of online comment, and thereby route around the fairly obvious flaws with Wikipedia today.
I wouldn’t exactly buy into this project, but of course I don’t need to. Even if it is not likely to succeed, there is still a chance of it producing something valuable, either in the form of a product, or in the form of a lesson about what makes collaborative projects and search for truth work.
I’m not going to dig into it all today. It’s a large question. This post is a collection of resources, some from Sanger’s project, some from elsewhere, that I think are relevant.
Text of speech by Sanger announcing the project:
2-part post by Sanger on Slashdot in 2005 about the early history of Wikipedia:
David Chapman on subculture evolution, and Venkatesh Rao on identity
My own earliest memory of an online community becoming poisoned and dying is the Eternal September of 1993.
These are things that should be listed here but I can’t find
- Moldbug posted an idea for a site where you could basically attach commentary to articles? A sort of cross between Wikipedia and Gab’s Dissenter product (though it was long before Gab, of course). Someone actually implemented a first cut, and I used it.
- Stack Overflow set out to be an online reference of solutions to programming problems. Its founders thought quite deeply about what it would take to build the site and its community of contributors, and they were extremely successful in achieving their aims. I’m pretty sure i’ve seen a good longform account of this somewhere, probably by Atwood. This little piece gives a flavour of the way they think about things. https://stackoverflow.blog/2010/01/04/stack-overflow-where-we-hate-fun/
A few of my own pieces I think are relevant:
- Where constitutions come from and what makes them work. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2016/09/constitutions/ . I really think this one is the most relevant — if you’re going to have rules (and you probably are), those rules should be about balancing parties’ competing interests, and those parties should be motivated to maintain the effectiveness of the rules
- Twitter and neoreaction. I think the technical properties of Twitter produced a particular effect for neoreaction. In this context, that’s an example of the relationship between technical features and the behaviour of users. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2016/02/neoreaction-and-twitter/
- Party Leadership Elections. Odd one here, but the point is central. A group has to stand for something: if it stands only for its membership, then there’s no reason for it to be different from anything else. https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2019/05/party-leadership-elections-are-undemocratic/ . My first response to Sanger’s project also focused on this aspect: https://blog.anomalyuk.party/2019/10/decentralised-monopolies/
- Maybe relevant? “a bunch of people on the internet (1) is not an organisation and (2) is a terrible way to start an organisation. You have to _start_ with personal relationships and trust and actual resources. A real organisation can _use_ online for some purposes, but it can’t originate there” https://twitter.com/anomalyuk/status/1124333907883769862
Brief thoughts on culture & community
Each of these needs fleshing out. Some of them are discussed in the links above.
- A community has to stand for something, and have a way of making sure it will continue to stand for what it stands for. (Oh, that’s Goal-Content Integrity)
- If it’s too restrictive about what is allowed in, a few early adopters with a lot of energy will turn it into their own private club
- Conquest’s Laws
- If you let in trolls, you will end up with a community of that subset of people who are willing to put up with the trolls
- A system that works well when the real-world stakes are low will immediately fail catastrophically when the real-world stakes get high (Mtgox, arguably wikipedia)
- It would be ideal to just not have a community, just a project, but that’s not possible (one of the points from Sanger’s slashdot history)
- All the real value comes from the best contributions. But if you don’t have the mediocre contributions, you don’t have anything. Most of your project only exists in order to be the venue where the rare valuable stuff happens.
- Rules are meaningless independent of the people who follow and enforce them. Identical rules will succeed in one place and fail in another. But rules still matter.
Requirements for Encyclopedia Protocol
This isn’t remotely definitive, but I have actually tried to produce encyclopedia content, and run into obstacles I didn’t expect, so here’s some stuff to throw on the whiteboard. (“Requirements” in the technical sense of what needs the solution is trying to satisfy, not in the sense these are all definitely 100% necessary)
- Obvious stuff: rich text, embedded pictures and diagrams.
- Internal linkage. Each entry/article is a first-class sharable entity. It has a single title. It can be referenced by that title, plus source and version
- Rendering. Debatable, but personally I strongly want to be able easily to turn an encylopedia into a genuine printable format, as well as it being an easy-to-access web resource
- External links. You have to be able easily to reference external resources in a way that is compatible with standard bibiliography/citation techniques. I’ve found this frustratingly difficult.
- Revision control. You need to know who changed what, when.
I fell yesterday into the sad bitching about how big and slow software has become. This is a very old complaint — the EMACS editor used to be mocked as “eight megabytes and constantly swapping” back when eight megabytes was a huge amount of memory, but that rounds down to zero pixels on a graph of memory utilisation on a modern laptop.
I retailed the usual whines about electron and so on, but really any disagreements are at the margin: the real underlying reasons for software bloat are, unfortunately, good reasons.
Here’s a more interesting illustration: I recently watched this video. It’s a one-hour presentation by a Microsoft developer explaining MS’s implementation of the new C++ charconv header.
This is a library for converting numbers to and from decimal format. Computers internally work with fractions or large numbers in a binary floating-point format, so you have to be able to convert that format to and from a string of decimal digits.
All computers have to do that. My ZX81 did it 27 years ago (though its predecessor the ZX80 couldn’t — it worked only with whole numbers). It was part of the 8K of software built into the machine, along with the full floating-point mathematics support in software.
The new charconv library the Microsoft guy was presenting contains 5300 lines of C++, taking 221K of code and another 400K of data tables.
And — to make it clear — it’s awesome. I was glued to the one-hour video on what they’ve done. The clever bit is getting the right number of decimal digits.
The technical problem is that a fractional decimal number usually doesn’t convert exactly to a binary number. Therefore when you convert from decimal to binary — to do any calculations with the number — you’re getting a slightly different number. That’s OK. But then when you convert back from binary to decimal, you can get an exact decimal representation of the binary approximation of the original decimal number, so it’s a bit different to what you started with. That’s quite annoying. It can even cause program bugs.
The current C++ language standard says the new functions to convert binary to decimal should be able to round to the shortest decimal representation that will exactly convert back to the same binary value. That’s difficult to work out, and really really difficult to work out quickly. In fact a new method of doing it was produced by a guy called Ulf Adams at Google just in 2018, and the Microsoft team have implemented that algorithm for their standard library.
This is all very cool. But the relevance to my point is that when I, in a C++ program, decide to output a floating point number in a decimal form, maybe to save into a database or communicate to another program, and I use this standard to_chars function, I’m invoking all this mass of ingenious code to do the conversion. I may or may not notice that the rounding is now perfect in a way it never was before from 1982 to 2018. I probably won’t notice the 600K of library code that’s being used by my program. If I hadn’t happened to see this video, I would never have had any idea about any of this.
That’s for printing a number! It seems close to the simplest thing a computer program can do. Everything else in my program, dealing with text, or graphics, or networking, or anything has gone through this kind of improvement, often many times. Sometimes your program is getting real benefit from the improvements. Sometimes it’s getting the effect of the improvement, but they don’t make any useful difference for you. Sometimes you aren’t using the new functionality at all, but it still gets included when your program runs. That’s slightly unfortunate, but simplicity is valuable, and grabbing big chunks of functionality is simpler than finely selecting them.
The bottom line is that everything has a cost, even slimming down software, and if you insist on using a low-end 6-year-old computer like I do then it’s not worth most developers’ time to cater to you. I do think there is too much bloat, but it’s about tradeoffs at the margin; there will always be bloat, and that’s OK.
I don’t understand Syria, and I’m not going to, and I’m OK with that. Trump’s pullout may be bad for America for all I know.
The concrete harmful impact of Russia having a lot of influence in Syria (as it did in the 1980s) isn’t spelled out, instead we just get innuendo.
I tweeted that Kurds will always be allies in destabilising, and always be enemies of peace, because of their situation as a stateless cross-border group. That’s simplistic, but if it’s not true someone needs to explain how. Peace in any of the countries in which they have large populations has to include either (a) they give up their claim to statehood, or (b) they achieve their own state, and I have never heard anyone suggest that (b) is a realistic possibility. There is a chance in any one country that you could get an autonomy-based settlement short of statehood which is beneficial for them, but while the other countries in which they have large populations are unstable, that can’t be a peaceful settlement, because they will still be fighting in the others. As I tweeted, none of this is their fault — it seems they were completely screwed in the 20th Century but this is the position today.
If there’s any coherent view coming from the US establishment, it’s anti-Iran. They may have a good reason for that, but I don’t know what it is. The reason probably has a lot to do with either Israel or Saudi or both, but I don’t expect to ever find an answer I can be sure is true.
Syria has been a bloodbath since the beginning of the Arab Spring attempt to depose Assad. Anyone suddenly upset about the humanitarian impact this week can be dismissed out of hand.
“Kurds were our allies”. How is that, exactly? I asked on twitter, sarcastically, for links to the announcements of and debates of this policy. It was made ad-hoc by the military and civil service. The president never talked to the electorate about it. Quite possibly the president (Obama) never even knew about it. Which is perfectly OK. But there is sleight of hand here. The line we are getting is: “We allied with the Kurds and relied on them, now we need to stand up for them”. The two “we” in there are two different groups. The opaque Washington foreign-policy establishment allied with the Kurds, without input from or notification of the general public. Now the voters are being asked by the media to stand by some implied commitment they played no part in making.
1) So much context has been lost and recent history revised in the coverage of this growing crisis between Turkey and Syria. US always assured Ankara that their support for the YPG was ‘temporary, tactical and transactional’ – a US diplomat quoted here in my new book on Erdogan@hannahluci https://twitter.com/hannahluci/status/1184012129562775552
From around 14th October, the Kurds have made some kind of arrangement with the Syrian Government, and the narrative has switched from “it’s terrible to abandon the Kurds” to “Now the Russians are winning”. This is utterly disgraceful. It entirely proves that the complaints about the fate of the Kurds the previous days were insincere. Had the concern really been for the Kurds, then Monday would have been a day of rejoicing at their safety. Instead, the opposition to the withdrawl policy stays the same but the reasons change.
It is because of this sort of thing that I automatically disregard all foreign policy arguments that are made on humanitarian grounds. I don’t even consider the possibility that they might be well-founded. The concept of intervening internationally to protect civilians is 100% discredited in my eyes.
Around 500,000 human beings were killed in Syria while Barack Obama was president and leading for a “political settlement” to that civil war Media has been more outraged in the last 72 hours over our Syria policy than they were at any point during 7 years of slaughter@BuckSexton https://twitter.com/BuckSexton/status/1183812563261382656
Kinda telling that the intensity of Online Outrage expressed by Smart People today over the Kingsman-meme isn’t any perceptibly different than the Online Outrage they were emoting yesterday or the day before over, like, The Kurds being slaughtered@soncharm https://twitter.com/soncharm/status/1183750875321438208
it’s all a video game
Trump, though I find him amusing, I consider no more trustworthy than the rest of them. I am not able to judge whether his policies are good or bad, but he is the only person who makes arguments for his Syria policy which make sense. The arguments against are always obviously dishonest (like the ABC gun show footage), insincere, or rest on vague unstated assumptions (such as that nothing that Russia wants can be allowed).
The FSA leader who John McCain took a picture with is now part of the invasion of Northern Syria, which the hawks are insisting we must oppose.@j_arthur_bloom https://twitter.com/j_arthur_bloom/status/1183364011708080128
There’s another related point, more subtle but much more general. Modern thought does not admit of a distinction between crimes of commission and crimes of omission. To a naive rationalist, causing harm and allowing harm to happen are equivalent. But like so many arguments you hear today, the equivalence rests on an entirely unrealistic level of certainty towards the assumptions that are being made about the results of action or inaction. The potential for very large unexpected harmful effects is very much greater in military action than it is in inaction, and the expected benefits of action have to be large enough to outweigh that category of risk. That is equally true whether the harms and benefits in question are political, financial or humanitarian.
A few years back, some American sportsmen made a big deal about pushing their politics — basically BLM — during events and interviews and things.
On the right, this was quite widely seen as unpleasant. For example, “Lion of the Blogosphere” wrote two years ago on his blog:
The average NFL player is paid $1.9 million/year to entertain prole whites who love the American flag, and part of the show is that they are supposed act patriotic when the National Anthem is playing.
If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired, and I get paid a lot less than $1.9 million/year.https://lionoftheblogosphere.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/boycottnfl-part-2/
I happen to have picked @LionBlogosphere — I follow a whole lot of weirdos on twitter, but he is much closer to a mainstream American Conservative.
Anyway, not that it’s really any of my business, I agree with him entirely; I think that’s a totally reasonable position for him to take. And, while the whole issue has dragged on, not 100% resolved, his side has at any rate not definitively lost. I think it has come out slightly ahead, and the leagues and teams have mostly taken the view that their players should not insult their spectators.
But now, of course, we have the China thing. NBA basketball is huge in China, and there’s some kind of protest movement in Hong Kong that I don’t know much about, and some basketball people made sympathetic noises about the HK protesters, and the Chinese government was very upset.
I’m trying hard to remain ignorant of the Hong Kong thing. A new extradition law was brought in, or something, and that’s maybe against what the Chinese government had previously promised in terms of HK’s autonomy, and there have been protests going on for a month or three, which have been getting the whole unquestioning popular support in the West that I hate so much. So my reflex view is on the side of the CPC, but of course they may really be doing something bad for all I know.
Either way, right or wrong, the Chinese government are not going to be friendly to foreigners who take sides against them. They are not going to allow them a public platform in their country, any more than they allow their enemies within the country a public platform. And if you are a basketball team that’s going to do tours and broadcast games in China, the Chinese government is your customer. And, as @LionBlogosphere said, “If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired”.
So I think we’re all agreed.
Except, of course, that @LionBlogosphere today retweeted Ted Cruz saying,
It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States:https://www.tedcruz.org/news/the-hill-ocasio-cortez-ted-cruz-join-colleagues-blasting-nba-for-outrageous-response-to-china/
Again, I’m not especially objecting to Lion, I just follow him and not, say, Ted Cruz, who in September 2016 said
Here’s a peaceful protest: never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey of rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag. https://t.co/GrGPYX8HCh
If you are putting economic pressure on sports teams, and you expect them to respond, well, so can their other customers, and maybe it’s reasonable for the teams and leagues to respond to that too.
Surely, you can draw a distinction between #BLM and “Free Hong Kong”. The teams in question are all American, and you can demand of them a loyalty to America while they have no equivalent duty of loyalty to China. But they would no doubt claim they were being loyal to America by seeking to change it in the way they sought — the real objection is they were offending their customers. Another distinction is that it wasn’t the US government putting pressure on the teams to censor themselves, but the Chinese government is doing so. Well, the relationship between citizens and government is different in China than it is in the US. International sport has long depended on not bringing one country’s politics into another. Most Americans probably think that China should be a democracy with free speech. But it isn’t. If Ted Cruz thinks that means the NBA shouldn’t do business with China, that’s a coherent position. But if he doesn’t think that, then obviously the NBA will take steps to make their product marketable there, if there is commercial reason to. And if he thinks that this is a matter of the principle of free speech, which should outweigh that commercial reason — then why did he think the opposite in 2016?
Now, you can point to a contradiction between the relative willingness of the entertainment industry to allow opposition to the US government, and their very rapid arse-covering with respect to the Chinese government. That reflects both their own political biases, and the relative power of the US and Chinese governments over their ability to do business. But if the other side is contradicting itself, it doesn’t help to contradict yourself, even worse, in the opposite direction. Ted Cruz was right in 2016, he (and @LionBlogosphere) could very justifiably spend these weeks banging on about the inconsistency in sportsmen demanding the right to insult symbols of the American nation while being careful to avoid insulting the Chinese nation. Instead they just destroy their own previous arguments.
Finally, the 2016 argument was the more important of the two. By flipping now, they are putting themselves in the wrong for next time. You said that political protests at sporting events was a matter of free speech.