31 January 2021

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (CBS, season 3)

in Bucharest, Romania
Star Trek: Discovery - Season 3

After successfully thwarting an AI menace to biological life, the USS Discovery traveled through time to the 32nd century following the Red Angel to protect the Sphere data from falling into the wrong hands. They now encounter a vastly different galaxy: a century prior to their arrival, a mysterious and sudden event called The Burn has wrecked immense devastation. Dilithium was temporarily rendered inert, causing uncontrolled reactions in active warp drives and many ships immediately exploded. With its fleet decimated, the Federation is much diminished, a couple dozen member worlds struggling to fight off aggressive rivals, such as the Emerald Chain, a criminal association between the Orions and Andorians.

Having followed online discussions about this season on its dedicated subreddit, I started watching it with low expectations – and despite the warnings finished it with a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. The great premise, a jump forward a couple of centuries in the future, to a period not explored previously in Star Trek material, was mostly squandered, with poor worldbuilding, weak characters and implausible storylines.

One of the things that bothered me during this season were the constant emotional outbursts from the Discovery crew. I do not remember them being this volatile in previous seasons, cheering their pilot after routine maneuvers, needlessly bickering over minor things. I have never watched Oprah, but this is the first association that came to my mind. Most of the crew, apart from Dr. Culber, behaves like a bunch of teenagers, or rookies on their first flight, not an experienced Federation crew. It does not help that we as viewers barely know any of their names after three seasons…

30 January 2021

The Atlantic: “How Orphans Helped Distribute the Smallpox Vaccine”

The real trouble started when doctors tried to vaccinate people who were far away. The lymph could lose its potency traveling even the 215 miles from London to Paris, let alone to the Americas, where it was desperately needed: Smallpox outbreaks there were verging on apocalyptic, killing up to 50 percent of people who got the virus. Every so often threads of dried lymph did survive an ocean journey—a batch reached Newfoundland in 1800—but the lymph was typically rendered impotent after months at sea. Spain especially struggled to reach its colonies in Central and South America, so in 1803, health officials in the country devised a radical new method for distributing the vaccine abroad: orphan boys.

The plan involved putting two dozen Spanish orphans on a ship. Right before they left for the colonies, a doctor would give two of them cowpox. After nine or 10 days at sea, the sores on their arms would be nice and ripe. A team of doctors onboard would lance the sores, and scratch the fluid into the arms of two more boys. Nine or 10 days later, once those boys developed sores, a third pair would receive fluid, and so on. (The boys were infected in pairs as backup, just in case one’s sore broke too soon.) Overall, with good management and a bit of luck, the ship would arrive in the Americas when the last pair of orphans still had sores to lance. The doctors could then hop off the ship and start vaccinating people.

Sam Kean

A nice piece of historical context for the people loudly and aggressively complaining that vaccine development and distribution is too slow. We fail to properly appreciate the many conveniences of modern life (refrigeration and fast worldwide travel to name those more relevant here), so easily forgetting how recently they became widespread. On the flip side, some aspects of modern life also facilitate the spreading of pathogens, travel first and foremost; before the 20th century, an obscure bat virus from China would have never reached the entire planet in a matter of months.

29 January 2021

Coronavirus in Romania: new year, new issues

Contrary to my concerns, the rate of infections in Romania has steadily dropped since my last update, except for a spike in the first week of January that may be a consequence of the Christmas celebrations. Indeed, a similar spike appears in the case evolution of several European countries I regularly check: Poland, Italy, Germany and the UK all reported increases on that week. The current weekly average of new cases is around 2500 here in Romania.

Some people speculate that this reduction is caused by people performing home tests – recently antigen tests have become available for individual purchase – and then not reporting positive results to the authorities to avoid isolation. A disturbing possibility, and a reason why rapid home testing is not a silver bullet against the pandemic – it does not matter if people know they are infected if they do not take proper measures to contain the spread. Nevertheless, daily deaths have also decreased these past two months, to a weekly average of about 80/day, half the average values recorded during November. The number of patients in critical condition has also declined from the November peak of nearly 1300, recently dipping below 1000, although for a single day on January 22.

28 January 2021

la Repubblica: “Pascal Soriot: There are a lot of emotions on vaccines in EU. But it’s complicated”

But it’s complicated, especially in the early phase where you have to really kind of sort out all sorts of issues. We believe we’ve sorted out those issues, but we are basically two months behind where we wanted to be. We’ve had also teething issues like this in the UK supply chain. But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced. As for Europe, we are three months behind in fixing those glitches. Would I like to do better? Of course. But, you know, if we deliver in February what we are planning to deliver, it’s not a small volume.

Anyway, we didn’t commit with the EU, by the way. It’s not a commitment we have to Europe: it’s a best effort, we said we are going to make our best effort. The reason why we said that is because Europe at the time wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the UK, even though the contract was signed three months later. So we said, ok, we’re going to do our best, we’re going to try, but we cannot commit contractually because we are three months behind UK. We knew it was a super stretch goal and we know it’s a big issue, this pandemic. But our contract is not a contractual commitment. It’s a best effort. Basically we said we’re going to try our best, but we can’t guarantee we’re going to succeed.

Antonello Guerrera, Stefanie Bolzen, Rafa de Miguel

The latest vaccination-related scandal in Europe involves AstraZeneca delaying deliveries of the Oxford vaccine to Europe, even though they are supplying the UK just fine. Difficult to judge the situation without access to the actual contract, but some of these explanations from AstraZeneca’s CEO don’t sound quite genuine. When he started invoking ‘bad luck’ in the interview, I started loosing faith is his sincerity.

The Guardian: “The Catholic rebels resisting the Philippines’ deadly war on drugs”

In the Philippines, where four in five citizens identify as Catholic, the church has emerged as the most prominent voice of dissent against the drug war. The church is also under perpetual assault from a president intent on contesting the very essence of Philippine Catholicism. Having framed his 2015 election campaign as a referendum on the legitimacy of the church, Duterte has forced religious leaders to choose between coveted political capital and their moral mandates. In particular, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the country’s most influential church authority, has been criticised by activists and clerics alike for his deferential approach to Duterte. Such a stance, they argue, seems blind to the country’s suffering and risks degrading the moral integrity of the church. Meanwhile, Jun and a small crop of the church opposition have reoriented their lives around a mission to document the drug war while helping to seek accountability for those carrying it out.

As antagonistic as his rhetoric was during the campaign, Duterte’s hostility toward the church has only intensified during his presidency. As if testing the limits of his own blasphemy, Duterte has aimed each curse at a Catholic dogma more sacred than the last. Addressing Filipinos during a 2016 speech in Laos, he predicted a future in which the Catholic church would be irrelevant and beckoned his countrymen into an “iglesia ni Duterte” (a “church of Duterte”). On All Saints’ day last year, he mocked Catholic saints as hypocrites and loons, and proposed himself as a proper object of worship: “Santo Rodrigo”. Last October, he aimed even higher than the pope, calling God himself a “son of a whore” and asking: “Who is this stupid God?”

Adam Willis

While Donald Trump has been voted out of office, other authoritarian leaders are very much still in power. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is even enjoying record levels of popularity while conducting a deadly campaign of extrajudicial killings under the pretext of the war on drugs. In this climate of constant fear, the church treads a narrow path between the moral responsibility of condemning the murders and refraining from provoking an unpredictable President who is openly hostile to the Catholic faith. His campaign of public oppressions and overt attacks against the most respected institution in the country serve a similar purpose to Trump’s constant lying: to establish himself as the single source of truth, authority and salvation.

27 January 2021

The New York Times: “Twitter acquires Revue, a Newsletter Company”

The purchase, for an undisclosed sum, is part of Twitter’s effort to compete with other social media companies that allow users to earn money from their followings, as the newsletter industry enjoys a spike in popularity.

Revue was founded in the Netherlands in 2015 and has six employees. For now, it will continue to operate as an independent service, but Twitter said it planned to integrate Revue to work seamlessly within Twitter.

Newsletter writers typically offer a mix of paid and free options and earn money primarily through subscriptions. Platforms like Revue and Substack take a cut of those subscription dollars. But while Substack’s cut is 10 percent, Revue’s is 6 percent. Twitter said it would lower Revue’s cut even further, to 5 percent in an attempt to attract new writers.

Kate Conger

Interesting acquisition by Twitter, likely one of the first steps towards building more subscription-based products. While some are skeptical that these plans will be executed quickly, I think this type of extra services targeted at power users could provide a good complement to the traditional Twitter experience – and in this case generate income for both the company and its most active users.

Wired: “A Fight over GameStop’s Soaring Stock turns Ugly”

Like other physical retailers, GameStop’s business has suffered in the past year. Few gamers would rather hit the mall than Amazon’s significantly safer Buy Now button. But GameStop was in dire straits even before the pandemic struck. Its thousands of store locations couldn’t compete with the digital marketplaces offered by the game consoles and PC titans Steam and Epic Games. GameStop laid off dozens of regional managers in mid-2019 after a precipitous, years-long decline in its stock price. To remedy the situation, GameStop announced it would pivot to a social-hub model, like a modern LAN cafe. Then the pandemic hit.

So-called retail investors—individuals rather than institutions—began sniffing around, especially those orbiting the hugely popular subreddit WallStreetBets, which has 2 million members and describes itself as “like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal”. As a collective, the subreddit has previously amassed enough bodies and enough funds to drive unlikely rallies in the stocks of companies like Lumber Liquidators and Plug Power. It was a meme stock that really blew up, said WallStreetBets moderator Bawse1. The massive short contributed more toward the meme stock. GameStop seemed so utterly doomed that the current situation was actually sort of funny to the subreddit’s denizens. Banded together, WallStreetBets members bought in big enough to move the stock.

Cecilia D'Anastasio

The result? GameStop’s stock price went up from $20 on January 11 to almost $150 as of today! A similar rally is probably behind Tesla’s record high valuation.

26 January 2021

Eudaimonia and Co: “Congrats America, You’re Not the Dumbest Country in The World Anymore. Britain Is.”

British people are shocked, suddenly — after voting for Brexit — to discover that ordering stuff from Europe, which used to be as simple as a click, now comes with massive taxes, customs, and suspicious “handling charges”, which they have to pay, or else. Charges that easily add 25% to 50% to the cost of basic things. And while we economists warned Brexit would make Brits poorer, even we underestimated the effect. We thought tariffs would rise, but we didn’t think that trade would come to a sudden stop, which means mass unemployment and shortages and higher prices are all exploding. That’s the worst case scenario, and it’s fast becoming real. What is it called when trade suddenly stops? Sanctions.

Britain is the only country in the world — the only one I can think of in modern history — amazingly, comically, painfully dumb enough to impose sanctions on itself. Almost overnight — it’s been less than a month — you can’t get basic things like European medicine, wine, cheese, beer, clothes, shoes. They’re just…gone. Poof. That might not sound like a big deal, until you consider that Europe supplies many of Britain’s goods, while Britain only supplies Europe with services. Services are easy to relocate — just pick up and hire people in Europe, which is exactly what many British businesses are doing. Goods are not easy to relocate — you have to move a whole factory. So Brits are now poorer forever, in a hard way — not just less money, but less stuff to spend it on, too — they suddenly have vastly less “consumer choice”. Imagine if entire sections of the supermarket — reflecting whole sectors of the economy — simply vanished overnight. You probably can’t, because it’s something that doesn’t tend to happen in the absence of, say, a bully like America sanctioning you, which is something that usually only happens to poor brown people. But nobody sanctions themselves, right? That’s just…idiotic! Well, not until now, anyways.

Umair Haque

The full economic costs of Brexit are just now starting to become apparent, and the reality is harsh: temporarily suspended shipments from the EU, new export rules and regulations where the recommended solution for small businesses is to register inside the EU, massively reduced share trading in London, increased card transaction fees from Mastercard, UK-owned .eu domains suspended, and the list could probably go on much longer.

25 January 2021

Virologist Christian Drosten: “I am Quite Apprehensive about What Might Otherwise Happen in Spring and Summer”

Drosten: Once the elderly and maybe part of the risk groups have been vaccinated, there will be immense economic, social, political and perhaps also legal pressure to end the corona measures. And then, huge numbers of people will become infected within just a short amount of time, more than we can even imagine at the moment. We won’t have 20,000 or 30,000 new cases a day, but up to 100,000 in a worst-case scenario. It will, of course, be primarily younger people who are less likely than older people to have severe symptoms, but when a huge number of younger people get infected, then the intensive care units will fill up anyway and a lot of people will die. Just that it will be younger people. We can cushion this terrible scenario somewhat by pushing the numbers way down now.

Der Spiegel: Can we be confident that case numbers will begin to drop in spring as temperatures rise?

Drosten: I don’t think so. The fact that we had such a relaxed summer in 2020 likely had to do with the fact that our case numbers remained below a critical threshold in the spring. But that’s not the case any longer. I am afraid that it will be more like in Spain, where case numbers climbed rapidly again after the lockdown was lifted, even though it was quite hot. In South Africa, too, where it is currently summer, case numbers are at a high level. (Sinks into thought, saying nothing) I’m sorry, unfortunately I’m extremely tired.

Rafaela von Bredow & Veronika Hackenbroch

A grim prediction, but I’m afraid quite realistic. I have been following the work of lead virologist Christian Drosten since the start of the pandemic and I have appreciated his impartial conclusions and warnings based on scientific data. In this interview, he again raises alarms about viral transmission through children in schools, a source of infection which unfortunately many authorities choose to ignore or downplay for political reasons, and advocates for stricter work from home measures. Anecdotally, I have noticed many of my German colleagues continued working at the office, even during the recent lockdown, despite having back-office tasks that could be easily performed at home.

23 January 2021

The Guardian: “Who killed the prime minister? The unsolved murder that still haunts Sweden”

Although more than 20 witnesses saw the gunman, these facts are still more or less everything that the public knows for certain about the killing of the most controversial leader in Sweden’s modern history.

To his fellow countrymen, Palme was more than a politician. For more than 16 years, he had led Sweden’s leftwing Social Democratic party, which was in power for much of the 20th century. The party was responsible for many of the policies that people typically associate with Sweden, including high taxes and a robust social welfare system. Palme had come to embody not only the party, but these values, too.

Following Palme’s death, the country was cast first into turmoil and then into confusion. Over the past three decades, one chief investigator after another has failed to solve the case, and today the official inquiry remains open. In 2010, Sweden removed the statute of limitations on murders, specifically so that investigators could continue their search for Palme’s killer for as long as it takes. More than 10,000 people have been questioned in the case, whose files now take up more than 250 metres of shelf space in Sweden’s national police headquarters. It is the largest active murder investigation archive in the world.

Imogen West-Knights

Fascinating story: to have a public figure shot to death in plain sight on a busy Friday night, and yet to not be able to identify the murderer for more that 30 years! As with any mystery left unsolved for this long, this one has sparked a number of wild theories.

22 January 2021

Bloomberg: “Who is MrBeast? Meet YouTube’s Top Creator of 2020”

Then, one day, he was struck with an idea for a video that he was sure would work. It was as simple as counting. Donaldson sat down in a chair and, for the the next 40-plus hours, murmured one number after the next, starting from zero and continuing all the way to 100,000. At the end of the exhausting stunt, he looked deliriously at the camera. What am I doing with my life? he said.

It was an oddly mesmerizing performance, the kind of thing every kid in elementary school thinks about but never tries. The resulting video — entitled “I Counted To 100,000!” — was a viral smash. Since its debut on Jan. 8, 2017, it has earned over 21 million views.

Donaldson now generates tens of millions of dollars in advertising sales from his social media feeds, which include his main channel, a gaming channel and pages on other social media sites. He invests almost every dollar back into his business. In recent years, his average cost of making a single video has climbed to $300,000 from $10,000. Money is a vehicle to do bigger videos and make better content, he said.

To date, his priciest video cost $1.2 million. In it, he promised to give $1 million to the contestant who could keep his hand on a stack of cash for the longest period of time. In the end, he felt bad for the three people who didn’t get the $1 million, so he gave them some money too.

Lucas Shaw & Mark Bergen

Interesting insight into the so-called ‘creator economy’, and how much effort is needed to become a YouTube hit and start earning serious money. Granted, this is an extreme example, but will increasing competition, each creator has to invest more and more time and resources to stand out from the rest. A similar dynamic is unfolding on Instagram, where engagement is apparently tied to specific goals and consistent posts across all their formats. For the average creator, these levels of efforts can quickly become unsustainable.

21 January 2021

The Atlantic: “Killer Robots and the New Era of Machine-Driven Warfare”

While Work was at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, in 2013, he and his colleagues were surprised by the outcome of some classified Pentagon simulations of theoretical conflicts with China or Russia. After the Cold War, these kinds of exercises typically ended with either the U.S. claiming a decisive victory, or a nuclear Armageddon. But the new simulations made it evident the U.S.’s technological edge was starting to evaporate, he and others say. New disruptive technologies had leveled the playing field, causing blue [to get]… its ass handed to it sometimes, in the colorful vernacular last March of an analyst from the RAND Corporation in Washington. The U.S. is dependent on big aircraft carriers to deliver military might to conflict areas, especially in the Pacific, but those carriers, and the expensive fighters and bombers that go with them, could be rendered useless by a hypersonic missile attack, swarms of inexpensive boats, or cyber weapons.

Work, like all the current and former officials who discussed the future of AI in weapons with me, said that he doesn’t know of anyone in the military now trying to remove human beings entirely from lethal decision making. No such offensive system has been put through the specialized review process created by an Obama-era Pentagon directive, although the procedures have gotten a lot of internal attention, according to current and former Defense Department officials.

Work also says that the concept of machines entirely picking their own targets or going horribly awry, like something out of the Terminator movies, is unlikely because the offensive technologies being developed have only narrow applications. They will only attack the things that we said they could, Work said.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs

I was reminded by this article by recent news that the U.S. Air Force flew an AI copilot on a U-2 spy plane – clearly this kind of military research is continuing and accelerating. With the recent tensions between the US and China, and Russia causing mischief at every opportunity, the coming years may see the escalation of a new arms race with cyber and AI weapons, hidden battles fought in digital spaces and remote areas by computer programs and AI-controlled drones. India could also join this arms race, given their recent skirmishes with Chinese forces. And with more participants, the danger of these AI weapons getting out of control increases considerably, despite the limited scope and best intentions expressed in the quotes above…

20 January 2021

The New York Times: “Underselling the Vaccine”

  • If anything, the 95 percent number understates the effectiveness, because it counts anyone who came down with a mild case of Covid-19 as a failure. But turning Covid into a typical flu — as the vaccines evidently did for most of the remaining 5 percent — is actually a success. Of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in a research trial, do you want to guess how many contracted a severe Covid case? One.

  • Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one! Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine. (And, no, exclamation points are not common in medical journals.) On Twitter, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco, argued: Please be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters — disease and spreading.

David Leonhardt

There are several examples of vaccines that to not provide “sterilizing immunity” – for example the two polio vaccines confer different types of immunity, OPV sterilizing and IPV non-sterilizing – but nevertheless vaccines can be very effective in substantially reducing disease spread and putting a stop to epidemics. In a vaccinated person, the immune system recognizes the pathogen from the moment it enters the body and starts actively fighting it, so the virus is much less likely to replicate and infect others. The lower the viral load, the lower the chance of forward transmission.

16 January 2021

PetaPixel: “Canon is Letting You Photograph Earth from its Camera Satellite”

As a showcase of its CE-SAT-1 Earth-imaging satellite, Canon is allowing anyone to take their own photos of Earth from space as part of a demonstration for CES.

The Canon CE-SAT-1 is a microsatellite – roughly the size of a wine barrel – that the company launched into space in June of 2017 and is equipped with a modified Canon EOS 5 Mark III camera. From its orbit, the camera is capable of photographing a ground area of around 3.7 miles by 2.5 miles. The satellite is also equipped with a 40cm Canon Cassegrain telescope with a 3720mm focal length and a Canon PowerShot S110 that is used for wide-angle images.

As part of a CES demonstration and showcase, Canon has set up an interactive website that allows you to hover over specific locations on Earth – such as New York, The Bahamas, Dubai, and Japan – from an altitude of about 310 miles. Unfortunately, the demonstration does not allow for free-roaming.

Jaron Schneider

Cool idea! I had no idea Canon launched an actual satellite in space, equipped with one of its dSLR cameras.

14 January 2021

The New York Times: “Millions flock to Telegram and Signal as Fears Grow over Big Tech”

Over the past week, tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram, making them the two hottest apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with “end-to-end encryption”, meaning no one but the sender and receiver can read its contents. Telegram offers some encrypted messaging options, but is largely popular for its group-based chat rooms where people can discuss a variety of subjects.

Their sudden jump in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that stoked growing anxiety over some of the big tech companies and their communication apps, like WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. Tech companies including Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of far-right accounts — including President Trump’s — after the storming of the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google also cut off support for Parler, a social network popular with Mr. Trump’s fans. In response, conservatives sought out new apps where they could communicate.

At the same time, privacy worries rose over WhatsApp, which last week reminded users in a pop-up notification that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The notification set off a wave of anxiety, fueled by viral chain messages that falsely claimed that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.

Jack Nicas, Mike Isaac & Sheera Frenkel

Fascinating how quickly rumors and half-truths spread. The latest changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy are less substantial than some people fear, and they do not affect end-to-end messaging encryption in any way. But the constant association with Facebook and its regular privacy scandals is starting to wear off on WhatsApp public perception as well.

The Guardian: “The Anthropocene epoch: have we entered a new phase of planetary history?”

Next they looked at what had happened to animals and plants. Past shifts in geological time have often been accompanied by mass extinctions, as species struggle to adapt to new environments. In 2011, research by Anthony Barnosky, a member of the group, suggested something similar was underway once again. Others investigated the ways humans have scrambled the biosphere, removing species from their natural habitat and releasing them into new ones. As humans have multiplied, we have also made the natural world more homogenous. The world’s most common vertebrate, the broiler chicken, of which there are 23bn alive at any one time, was created by humans to be eaten by humans.

Then there was also the matter of all our stuff. Not only have humans modified the Earth’s surface by building mines, roads, towns and cities, we have created increasingly sophisticated materials and tools, from smartphones to ballpoint pens, fragments of which will become buried in sediment, forming part of the rocks of the future. One estimate puts the weight of everything humans have ever built and manufactured at 30tn tonnes. The working group argued that the remnants of our stuff, which they called “technofossils”, will survive in the rock record for millions of years, distinguishing our time from what came before.

Nicola Davison

Ah, the good old days of 2019, when scientists could afford these kinds of academic arguments – and I could find the time to read about them. There are certainly arguments for both sides of the debate: humans have done much to change ecosystems to better suit our needs (and plan to continue), and our discarded products may well survive for millennia. I personally lean towards the ‘against’ side, meaning any effects of human civilization will be quickly swept away by natural processes once we are gone.

13 January 2021

The New York Times: “Lost Passwords Lock Millionaires out of their Bitcoin Fortunes”

Of the existing 18.5 million Bitcoin, around 20 percent — currently worth around $140 billion — appear to be in lost or otherwise stranded wallets, according to the cryptocurrency data firm Chainalysis. Wallet Recovery Services, a business that helps find lost digital keys, said it had gotten 70 requests a day from people who wanted help recovering their riches, three times the number of a month ago.

Through the years I would say I have spent hundreds of hours trying to get back into these wallets, said Brad Yasar, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles who has a few desktop computers that contain thousands of Bitcoin he created, or mined, during the early days of the technology. While those Bitcoin are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he lost his passwords many years ago and has put the hard drives containing them in vacuum-sealed bags, out of sight.

I don’t want to be reminded every day that what I have now is a fraction of what I could have that I lost, he said.

Nathaniel Popper

The future of money, indeed… If you lose the password and with it access to your Bitcoin wallet, does the money still exist? If all your assets are invested in Bitcoin, but you cannot spend your fortune, are you actually wealthy?

The Guardian: “History as a giant data set: how analysing the past could help save the future”

In recent decades, the letter went on, a number of worrying social indicators – such as wealth inequality and public debt – had started to climb in western nations, indicating that these societies were approaching a period of upheaval. The letter-writer would go on to predict that the turmoil in the US in 2020 would be less severe than the American civil war, but worse than the violence of the late 1960s and early 70s, when the murder rate spiked, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests intensified and domestic terrorists carried out thousands of bombings across the country.

The author of this stark warning was not a historian, but a biologist. For the first few decades of his career, Peter Turchin had used sophisticated maths to show how the interactions of predators and prey produce oscillations in animal populations in the wild. He had published in the journals Nature and Science and become respected in his field, but by the late 1990s he had answered all the ecological questions that interested him. He found himself drawn to history instead: could the rise and fall of human societies also be captured by a handful of variables and some differential equations?

Laura Spinney

Fascinating approach! Reminds me almost exactly of Asimov’s concept of psychohistory in his Foundation series. Considering how accurate Peter Turchin’s predictions for 2020 have proven, I intend to follow his work more closely.

12 January 2021

The Guardian: “How the state runs business in China”

Xi’s shadow now looms increasingly large over private firms as well. In March 2012, a few months before taking over as general secretary, Xi delivered a speech in which he stressed the need to increase the number of party bodies inside private business. Around the same time, new details for “party building” in enterprises were released, calling for the party secretary to participate in and attend important executive-level meetings.

The party’s efforts to place itself inside private companies have been, according to its own figures, very successful. One recent survey by the Central Organisation Department, the party’s personnel body, found that 68% of China’s private companies had party bodies by 2016, and 70% of foreign enterprises. Although these figures sound high, they don’t match the targets the party has set for itself. In Xi’s old stamping ground of Zhejiang, for example, officials set a target in August 2018 to have cells inside 95% of private businesses. There was a need, the survey said, to retain the revolutionary spirit inside the companies as their ownership was handed on to the next generation.

The party’s overarching aim, though, has remained consistent: to ensure that the private sector, and individual entrepreneurs, do not become rival players in the political system. The party wants economic growth, but not at the expense of tolerating any organised alternative centres of power. During the 1990s, Chinese leaders watched in horror as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its assets were privatised. Having seen business threaten to take over the state in Russia, Beijing has been determined to make sure that the same disaster does not befall China.

Richard McGregor

Fast-forward a year and a half, the iron grip of the Chinese government on its business sector has only tightened. These past months alone, Chinese regulators regulators abruptly suspended the massive IPO of Ant Group, and issued new anti-monopoly rules seeking to restrain the growing influence of corporations like Alibaba and Tencent. Many of these actions seem targeted at billionaire Jack Ma, who regularly spoke against the government and centrally controlled economy. Recently, some publications noticed his sudden absence from the public sphere, and speculated that he is keeping his head down to avoid further crackdown.

Politico: “How Orbán broke the EU — and got away with it”

Countries like Germany at that moment still thought keeping him in the family… will bring him back to order, which didn’t happen, Reding said.

Over and over during the past decade, the Hungarian leader has introduced measures that pushed the limits of what his fellow EU leaders were willing to accept, only to row back under fire to secure a partial victory. It’s a strategy that some of his critics have called his “two steps forward, one step back” approach.

It’s a strategy Rui Tavares, a former Portuguese MEP who was appointed Parliament’s rapporteur on Hungary in 2012, described as Orbán’s “Frankenstein” approach.

Dr. Frankenstein built a monster, and the monster is made up of bits and pieces of other bodies that in themselves are not problematic, said Tavares. It’s the mix that is problematic.

For Tavares, the problem was that Fidesz officials would swamp EU officials and politicians with details and examples — but it was only once you looked at how the pieces fit together that the systemic problems became apparent.

Lili Bayer

A problem delayed only grows bigger, becoming harder and more complicated to solve. This is what happened to the erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary and Poland, an issue years in the making, that culminated late last year in the resistance from these two countries during negotiation for the next EU budget. Ultimately, a compromise has been reached regarding the EU budget, delaying the rule-of-law mechanism temporarily in order to lift Hungary’s and Poland’s veto.

11 January 2021

Techdirt: “Not Easy, Not Unreasonable, Not Censorship: The Decision to Ban Trump from Twitter”

But here’s the more important point – especially directed at the people who will falsely claim that this is somehow censorship: President Trump is not being censored. He is not being limited. At any moment of any day (certainly for the next two weeks, and likely beyond) he can walk out of his office and have every major TV news channel (and every internet streaming platform) broadcast whatever he wants to say, and people will see it.

And to those who think that Twitter should have done this earlier, or that it would have made a difference, recognize that your concern is not so much with Twitter, but with Trump himself. Remember that while Trump might not be able to send a tweet right now, he still (literally) has the power to launch nuclear missiles at Twitter’s headquarters. And, really, that’s the problem. Trump is obviously too toxic for Twitter. But he’s also too toxic for the White House. And the real complaint shouldn’t be about Twitter or Facebook acting too late, but about Congress failing to do their job and remove the mad man from power.

Mike Masnick

An excellent point, one that I made years ago when people were celebrating that a Twitter employee deactivated Donald Trump’s account for a short time. As President of the United States, he won’t simply go away if he’s denied access to Twitter. Instead, he had the full support of the Republican party in Congress and of businessmen eager to implement their fiscal agenda, while mainstream media provided a massive amplifier to his messages – and profited in the process. Expecting Twitter to act as the single point of defense for democracy and free speech (and then complaining that social media has too much power over public discourse) is nonsensical, but it reflects the low confidence of the American public in their institutions.

10 January 2021

Polygon: “Star Wars novelist Alan Dean Foster’s Disney royalties issue, explained”

Star Wars novelisation

This November, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a professional organization for genre authors, dropped a bombshell announcement that shook the science fiction community: For several years, author Alan Dean Foster had been trying, without success, to get paid for several major tie-in novels adapting movies from the Star Wars and Alien franchises. While Disney has kept the books in print with other publishers, with Titan handling Alien and Del Rey on Star Wars, Foster says he hasn’t received royalty payments for new editions. So, he had turned to SFWA for help, and the #DisneyMustPay hashtag was born.

Disney’s argument: it wasn’t obligated to pay royalties or provide royalty statements for the Alien novels because Foster had signed a contract with the publisher, Warner Books. And because Disney now owns the copyright to each of the novels, it can redirect them to whatever publisher it deems fit. Those involved with SFWA believe that Disney’s interpretation of copyright law isn’t accurate and that there are still obligations that carry over with Foster’s contracts.

A long trail of author royalties, however small, would be a logistical and bureaucratic commitment. If an author’s contract doesn’t specify that Disney is on the hook for royalties, but the publisher that they signed with, then the issue would seem straightforward. Furthermore, absent any specific prohibition about assigning rights under or to contracts with authors, a company may assign that contract to another without approval from said author. But SFWA says that it’s spoken with its own attorneys who uphold its interpretation of the situation. Kowal also notes, There are plenty of things that are perfectly legal, but which are completely immoral.

Andrew Liptak

A thorny legal situation, and a reflection of how convoluted copyright law can be. Disney certainly has the money to pay these royalties, and refusing them with questionable arguments makes it appear as a greedy and unprincipled corporation – which Disney likely is, just as any other company beyond a certain size. But in this case I can’t imagine that the legal expenses to sustain the argument in court would be smaller than actually paying the royalties to these authors.

Stanford News: “Stanford single-dose nanoparticle vaccine for COVID-19”

Our goal is to make a single-shot vaccine that does not require a cold-chain for storage or transport. If we’re successful at doing it well, it should be cheap too, said Kim, who is the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor of Biochemistry. The target population for our vaccine is low- and middle-income countries.

After a single dose, the two nanoparticle vaccine candidates both resulted in neutralizing antibody levels at least twice as high as those seen in people who have had COVID-19, and the shortened spike nanoparticle vaccine produced a significantly higher neutralizing response than the binding spike or the full spike (non-nanoparticle) vaccines. After a second dose, mice that had received the shortened spike nanoparticle vaccine had the highest levels of neutralizing antibodies.

Taylor Kubota

Can’t wait for the reactions of conspiracy theorists when they see the word ‘nanoparticle’… 😏

09 January 2021

Vox: “The technology that’s replacing the green screen”

As a compositor for venerable visual-effects house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Chan has worked on films like The Last Jedi, assembling various digital elements into a beautiful, seamless image. Her job changed while working on The Mandalorian, one of the first shows to use ILM’s upgrade for the green screen: LED panels that use the same technology as video game engines to place a realistic-looking world behind the actors.

The result was a huge improvement, as green screens actually have a lot of drawbacks. Removing the green screen is never as quick as VFX artists would hope, and it also casts green light over the set and the actors. Even green-screen substitutes, like projecting an image onto a screen behind the actor, fail to dynamically respond to camera movements the way they would in the real world.

Phil Edwards

This looks like an early prototype for Star Trek’s holodecks!

07 January 2021

Politico: “The EU’s coronavirus vaccine blame game. Why so slow?”

I don’t think that the issue is really the number of vaccines, it is the fact that we are at the beginning of a rollout, Commission chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said. We’re all judging this as if this campaign is over; in fact, the campaign is just starting.

It’s certainly been a slow start. EU countries have vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people collectively, but the numbers differ drastically between countries.

Even Germany, which has vaccinated 265,000 people — more than any other EU country — as of January 4, is still far off from the 1.3 million doses it has available.

Meanwhile, the U.K. has given jabs to around a million people and the U.S. more than 4 million. Both countries got a weeks-long head start and are facing their own issues (the U.S. has 13.2 million doses available, for example), but the EU’s slow rollout is down to delays in producing the vaccines, a more substantive but bureaucratic approval process, and poor planning in many EU countries.

Jillian Deutsch

The amount of criticism directed at the EU because of slow vaccination has been surprising, and the arguments misplaced to frankly absurd, for example complaints that the Commission hasn’t ordered more doses from Pfizer when nobody could have anticipated back in summer which vaccine would be approved first. But for many people, particularly in the English-speaking world, it has become almost a sport to blame the EU for everything – after all, that is how Brexit got started.

05 January 2021

Scientific American: “2020’s Top 10 Tech Innovations”

[00:09:46] Mariette DiChristina: [00:09:46] So first we’ve been talking about how do we understand the virus? You know, with the whole genome synthesis and how do we maybe track things with digital medicine? Uh, another item on the list is virtual patients. Um, you know, we’ve talked about digital medicine. So how about digital patients? The idea here, you know, and as we are all watching with baited breath around the globe, as they’ve been testing the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines, Is that if you could replace those real humans with virtual humans and by this, I mean really calculations and a computer, uh, at some stages of those trials, you could identify problems in vaccines, potentially faster and more safely, and also cut the cost of development because it’s very expensive to work, you know, with these precious humans that we need to protect. This is from a field called in silico medicine, the testing of drugs and treatments on virtual or computer models of organs, like the organs in our body, the way they do that, uh, is you know, that you start by feeding data from real human organs and they take those readings and feed them into complex mathematical models of how these mechanisms govern the organs that we have in our bodies and these algorithms running on powerful computers do equations that help us understand what’s going on.

[00:11:14] Robin Pomeroy: [00:11:14] So that’s our third innovation virtual patients on whom we can test medicines or other procedures.

Mariette DiChristina, Bernard S. Meyerson, Jeffery DelViscio, Robin Pomeroy

Interesting podcast about the emerging technologies of 2020 – focused on health and medicine, naturally. If you’re genuinely concerned about the speed of vaccine development, testing candidates on digital patients should be a superior approach. Just as Waymo is simulating millions of road miles to virtually train self-driving cars, medical labs would be able to simulate millions of virtual patients to test their reactions to potential vaccines or medicines, and quickly adjust the substances according to the results.

Shtetl-Optimized: “My vaccine crackpottery: a confession”

I think that, in a well-run civilization, the first covid vaccines would’ve been tested and approved by around March or April 2020, while mass-manufacturing simultaneously ramped up with trillions of dollars’ investment. I think almost everyone on earth could have, and should have, already been vaccinated by now. I think a faster, “WWII-style” approach would’ve saved millions of lives, prevented economic destruction, and carried negligible risks compared to its benefits. I think this will be clear to future generations, who’ll write PhD theses exploring how it was possible that we invented multiple effective covid vaccines in mere days or weeks, but then simply sat on those vaccines for a year, ticking off boxes called “Phase I”, “Phase II”, etc. while civilization hung in the balance.

What could’ve been done faster? For starters, as I said back in March, we could’ve had human challenge trials with willing volunteers, of whom there were tens of thousands. We could’ve started mass-manufacturing months earlier, with funding commensurate with the problem’s scale (think trillions, not billions). Today, we could give as many people as possible the first doses (which apparently already provide something like ~80% protection) before circling back to give the second doses (which boost the protection as high as ~95%). We could distribute the vaccines that are now sitting in warehouses, spoiling, while people in the distribution chain take off for the holidays—but that’s such low-hanging fruit that it feels unsporting even to mention it.

Scott Aaronson

An argument that has been circulating online from the beginning of the pandemic, repeated again and again by people who understand next to nothing about vaccination and why this particular system is in place. It’s almost like the first reaction of tech people encountering regulations is to think: ‘I don’t know why this rule is in place, therefore I will ignore it’. Basically Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ mantra applied to public health – and we already know how much damage this approach has caused in society. A medicine or a vaccine is not software, where you can roll out products with bugs and fix them on the fly; you cannot release a patch if a poorly tested vaccine distributed to millions of people starts showing side-effects.

04 January 2021

Schneier on Security: “Russia’s SolarWinds Attack”

While this is a security failure of enormous proportions, it is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States. While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware”. The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations — such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks — because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.

We need to adopt a defense-dominant strategy. As computers and the internet become increasingly essential to society, cyberattacks are likely to be the precursor to actual war. We are simply too vulnerable when we prioritize offense, even if we have to give up the advantage of using those insecurities to spy on others.

Our vulnerability is magnified as eavesdropping may bleed into a direct attack. The SVR’s access allows them not only to eavesdrop, but also to modify data, degrade network performance, or erase entire networks. The first might be normal spying, but the second certainly could be considered an act of war. Russia is almost certainly laying the groundwork for future attack.

Bruce Schneier

Interesting perspective on this recent hack; I have heard something similar on the Deep State Radio podcast, specifically that this is akin to an espionage operation and as such hard to retaliate against, as the US itself regularly spies on adversaries. What is more remarkable is the scale of the operation, which is still being uncovered, and this it was first detected by a private security company, FireEye. This reflects very poorly on the US government’s own security protections.

03 January 2021

‘His dark materials’ (HBO, season 2)

in Bucharest, Romania
His Dark Materials season 2 poster

After Lord Asriel sacrifices Roger to open a permanent portal to another world, the grieving Lyra follows her father through the opening, determined to uncover the mysteries of Dust. She arrives in the city of Cittàgazze, where she meets Will Parry, who fled his home world to hide from Boreal and his men. The city is deserted, save for a group of children who tell tales of menacing Specters attacking grown-ups. These attacks have grown more frequent since the portal was opened, so the surviving adults have vacated the city, apart from a lonely silhouette in the tower. Together with Will and guided by the alethiometer, Lyra ventures back into his world, the analog of our Earth, to find a scientist who can answer her questions about Dust.

The second season keeps up the fast pace and fun sense of adventure, as we now have a new city to explore, with a striking Italian influence (it reminded me instantly of Cinque Terre). Soon, the entire multiverse opens for the duo when Will obtains his own magical device: The Subtle Knife that can cut windows to any other world.

To a greater degree than in the previous season, Mrs. Coulter feels like the actual star of the show. Her cunning and ruthlessness is unparalleled, and she deftly takes control of every situation in pursuit of her ultimate goal: to reunite with her daughter and convince Lyra to join her side. Despite her usual composure, she experiences a wide range of emotions. On one end of the spectrum her rage and frustration when she realizes the freedom women enjoy on Earth as opposed to their submissive role under the Magisterium. Her erudition and perseverance would have easily awarded her a doctorate here, on par with Dr. Malone. She is equally capable of reluctant empathy when she encounters Lee Scoresby in a prison and recognizes her own childhood suffering in his words.

02 January 2021

‘His dark materials’ (HBO, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
His Dark Materials season 1 poster

Growing up an orphan in Jordan College at Oxford, young Lyra is excited to receive a visit from her uncle, the famous explorer Lord Asriel. Fascinated with the far north, she implores him to take her along in his journeys. But, after presenting the findings from his previous expedition to the college scholars and securing funding for the next, he leaves in a hurry on an airship. Soon, the disappointed Lyra gets another chance to see the world when Mrs. Coulter suddenly visits the College and offers to take Lyra as her assistant in London.

Based on the trilogy of novels with the same name by Philip Pullman, His dark materials is the second attempt at adapting this story to television, after the 2007 movie The Golden Compass, which was poorly received. I was not particularly impressed with it as well, because the story felt incomplete, a patchwork of ideas poorly put-together.

Knowing the general outline of the plot of the first season from this movie, I postponed watching it until the second season finished airing to watch them together. This new adaptation does a much better job of telling a complete and cohesive narrative and I found it so gripping that I finished the first season in just two days, quite unusual by my habits.