31 January 2022

The New York Times: “A Lavish Tax Dodge for the Ultrawealthy is Easily Multiplied”

Mr. Baszucki and his relatives have been able to multiply the tax break at least 12 times. Among those poised to avoid millions of dollars in capital gains taxes are Mr. Baszucki’s wife, his four children, his mother-in-law and even his first cousin-in-law, according to securities filings and people with knowledge of the matter.

The tax break is known as the Qualified Small Business Stock, or Q.S.B.S., exemption. It allows early investors in companies in many industries to avoid taxes on at least $10 million in profits.

The goal, when it was established in the early 1990s, was to coax people to put money into small companies. But over the next three decades, it would be contorted into the latest tax dodge in Silicon Valley, where new billionaires seem to sprout each week.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the tax-avoidance industry, investors in hot tech companies are exponentially enlarging the tax break. The trick is to give shares in those companies to friends or relatives. Even though these recipients didn’t put their money into the companies, they nonetheless inherit the tax break, and a further $10 million or more in profits becomes tax-free.

Mr. Karachale, the San Francisco tax lawyer, said he jokes to clients that they should have more children so they can avoid more taxes. It’s so expensive to raise kids in the Bay Area, the only good justification to have another kid is to get another Q.S.B.S. exemption, he said.

Jesse Drucker & Maureen Farrell

This story about yet another loophole for American billionaires to evade taxes reminded me of a corruption scandal in the early 2000’s here in Romania, when the prime minister claimed that a large unexplained sum of money was not a bribe, but an inheritance from his aunt. Ironic to see the American wealthy class use the same tactics and excuses as corrupt people all over the world.

30 January 2022

Scientific American: “An Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculation Machine Reveals New Secrets”

The device is unique among discoveries from its time. It single-handedly rewrites our knowledge of the technology of the ancient Greeks. We knew they were highly capable—they built the Parthenon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria even earlier than the Antikythera mechanism. They had plumbing and used steam to operate equipment. But before the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, ancient Greek gears were thought to be restricted to crude wheels in windmills and water mills. Aside from this discovery, the first precision-geared mechanism known is a relatively simple—yet impressive for the time—geared sundial and calendar of Byzantine origin dating to about C.E. 600. It was not until the 14th century that scientists created the first sophisticated astronomical clocks. The Antikythera mechanism, with its precision gears bearing teeth about a millimeter long, is completely unlike anything else from the ancient world.

Why did it take centuries for scientists to reinvent anything as sophisticated as the Antikythera device, and why haven’t archaeologists uncovered more such mechanisms? We have strong reasons to believe this object can’t have been the only model of its kind—there must have been precursors to its development. But bronze was a very valuable metal, and when an object like this stopped working, it probably would have been melted down for its materials. Shipwrecks may be the best prospects for finding more of them. As for why the technology was seemingly lost for so long before being redeveloped, who knows? There are many gaps in the historical record, and future discoveries may well surprise us.

Tony Freeth

Fascinating device – and fascinating to wonder how it was developed, and then completely lost to the tides of history. I have to assume very few people had the knowledge and skills to build this mechanism, and that these were lost before the Romans took over Greece – otherwise the Romans would have probably found the means to produce more of them and they would have left a bigger footprint in archeological records. I would love to see someone recreating this mechanism with modern tools to see it in action and validate these findings, maybe even make it available for purchase as an advanced astronomical clock.

29 January 2022

MIT Technology Review: “The radical intervention that might save the ‘doomsday’ glacier”

More recently, they and researchers affiliated with the University of British Columbia have explored a more technical concept: constructing what they’ve dubbed “seabed anchored curtains”. These would be buoyant flexible sheets, made from geotextile material, that could hold back and redirect warm water.

The hope is that this proposal would be cheaper than the earlier ones, and that these curtains would stand up to iceberg collisions and could be removed if there were negative side effects. The researchers have modeled the use of these structures around three glaciers in Greenland, as well as the Thwaites and nearby Pine Island glaciers.

If the curtains redirected enough warm water, the eastern ice shelf of the Thwaites could begin to thicken again and firmly reattach itself to the underwater formations that have supported it for millennia, Moore says.

The idea is to return the system to its state around the early 20th century, when we know that warm water could not access the ice shelf as much as today, he wrote in an email.

They’ve explored the costs and effects of strategically placing these structures in key channels where most of the warm water flows in, and of establishing a wider curtain farther out in the bay. The latter approach would cost on the order of $50 billion. That’s a big number, but it’s not even half what one proposed seawall around New York City would cost.

James Temple

Hmm, how about we work harder on reducing carbon emissions faster, so that we won’t have to worry as much about the negative consequences? These kinds of radical engineering projects might sound exciting, but they don’t fix the root cause of glacier melting, global warming! At best they would provide a short-term reprisal (before the warming accelerates and more extreme interventions are required), at worst they are a distraction from the actual goal of creating a carbon-neutral (preferably carbon-negative) society.

27 January 2022

The Atlantic: “Is Old Music Killing New Music?”

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

Ted Gioia

Interesting observation, but I fear the author is drawing exaggerated conclusions in support of his own preconceived ideas, as he later launches into a tireless rant against the music industry. First of all, the definition of this supposedly ‘old’ music is tracks released more than 18 months ago – the standard delineation in the music business in fact. That can hardly be considered ancient music snuffing out rising talent. The original report also makes clear that this decline happened for the first time since MRC Data began tracking streaming music in 2008 – not exactly a long-standing trend that should be looked upon with fear and trembling.

26 January 2022

Foreign Policy: “Liberal Illusions caused the Ukraine Crisis”

After the Cold War, Western elites concluded that realism was no longer relevant and liberal ideals should guide foreign-policy conduct. As the Harvard University professor Stanley Hoffmann told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in 1993, realism is “utter nonsense today”. U.S. and European officials believed that liberal democracy, open markets, the rule of law, and other liberal values were spreading like wildfire and a global liberal order lay within reach. They assumed, as then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton put it in 1992, that the cynical calculus of pure power politics had no place in the modern world and an emerging liberal order would yield many decades of democratic peace. Instead of competing for power and security, the world’s nations would concentrate on getting rich in an increasingly open, harmonious, rules-based liberal order, one shaped and guarded by the benevolent power of the United States.

The next misstep was the Bush administration’s decision to nominate Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill recently revealed that the U.S. intelligence community opposed this step but then-U.S. President George W. Bush ignored its objections for reasons that have never been fully explained. The timing of the move was especially odd because neither Ukraine nor Georgia was close to meeting the criteria for membership in 2008 and other NATO members opposed including them. The result was an uneasy, British-brokered compromise where NATO declared that both states would eventually join but did not say when. As political scientist Samuel Charap correctly stated: [T]his declaration was the worst of all worlds. It provided no increased security to Ukraine and Georgia, but reinforced Moscow’s view that NATO was set on incorporating them. No wonder former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder described the 2008 decision as NATO’s “cardinal sin”.

Stephen M. Walt

The recent buildup of tensions on the Ukrainian border have served as a crash course on history and geopolitics. On one side a menacing Russia, massing up troops and threatening to stop the gas supply to Europe, on the other the NATO alliance and a couple of other aligned countries, standing up for Ukraine’s right of self-determination.

Well, that’s the official angle anyway. In a broader context, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been compromised in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and subsequent sanctions have done little to deter Putin from coming back for more. Since the country is not a NATO member, it’s highly unlikely that the US would intervene militarily to counter a new Russian aggression this time around. And the US’ moral standing for defending the international order has pretty much gone up in smoke when they preemptively invaded Afghanistan and Iraq 20 years ago. There are many complex factors in play and I will try to explore some of them below.

23 January 2022

Motherboard: “SpiceDAO Roasted for Spending $3.8 Million on Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’ Book”

For months now, members of the SpiceDAO—a decentralized autonomous organization dedicated to buying and developing projects based on Jodorowsky’s vision—have been ecstatic about the possibility of buying the pitchbook and finally bringing Jodorowsky’s unfulfilled vision to the public. Jodorowsky, who directed surrealist films such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain, was at one time slated to direct the film adaptation of Dune, but the wildly over-budget project died and the creative work allegedly went on to inspire sci-fi film for decades to come. Jodorowsky’s struggles making Dune were rehashed in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Over the weekend, SpiceDAO reminded the internet that it won the auction in November and had plans to make the book public (to the extent permitted by law) as well as create an original animated limited series inspired by the book to sell to a streaming service and derivative projects from the community. It was quickly and widely ridiculed.

One such derivative project proposed on January 14th featured burning the book to enhance the value of NFTs made from images of its pages. In the group’s forum and DAO, this particular proposal has become a lightning rod for a host of arguments over whether this (and the rest of the project) are legal considering SpiceDAO doesn’t actually own the rights to the contents of the book, just the physical copy.

Edward Ongweso Jr

The initiatives arising from Bitcoin mania are becoming increasingly bizarre and dumb. It’s almost fascinating to watch this level of idiocy unfold – if not for its gigantic carbon footprint. ‘Jodorowsky’s Bible’ is in fact available online for a couple of years, so I’m not sure burning their copy would increase the value of digital scans – it will likely increase the value of the remaining physical copies though.

22 January 2022

The New York Times: “Epstein-Barr Virus may play Role in Multiple Sclerosis Development”

In their study, published Thursday in Science, the group examined data from 10 million people on active duty in the United States Armed Forces over two decades. The strength of their study, said its principal investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is that they were able to follow people for years and ask whether infections with Epstein-Barr preceded multiple sclerosis.

At the same time, the virus in question, Epstein-Barr, is common, infecting nearly everyone in the population at some point. Although few are aware that they were infected, some develop mononucleosis. The virus remains in the body for life.

Because so few who are infected with the virus get multiple sclerosis, it cannot be the sole cause of the disease. Other risk factors have been identified, including some, like low levels of vitamin D and smoking, that were seen previously by the Harvard group using the same data set. There also are genetic factors — 900 abnormal genes have been identified in patients with multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Anthony J. Reder, a multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study. Gender also plays a role; most patients are women.

But, Dr. Ascherio said, no risk factor stands out like Epstein-Barr infections.

Gina Kolata

Another example of an endemic virus likely triggering debilitating diseases over the long term – just as some HPV strains are responsible for nearly all cervical cancer cases. One has to wonder what sort of medical complications current coronavirus infections will cause 5 to 10 years from now. Already studies point to conditions varying from increased risk of diabetes in children, to neurological symptoms similar to those who’ve undergone treatment for cancer following even a mild SARS-CoV-2 infection, to worsening mobility and physical function in people older than 50, to increased vascular damage resulting in blood clots and strokes. How so many latched onto this narrative that the current Omicron variant is somehow ‘mild’ and it’s OK that everyone will get infected is truly irresponsible.

20 January 2022

The Washington Post: “Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with an exaggerated sense of entitlement”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Djokovic was looking to game the system at the risk of putting people’s lives in danger. What makes this spectacle even more distasteful is the way that Djokovic’s supporters insist on casting him as the victim. His father, Srdjan Djokovic, claims that his overprivileged, overpaid son, who is staying at a Melbourne hotel used to house refugees and asylum seekers, is the “Spartacus of the new world” — a “symbol” of “poor and oppressed countries and peoples”.

How absurd. If Djokovic is Spartacus, then I’m Rod Laver. In truth, Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with screwy ideas and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

I hope that Australia deports him — and that he will not be allowed to enter the United States to play the U.S. Open unless he presents proof of vaccination. Just because sports stars are showered with rewards unknown to ordinary mortals doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to evade the (sensible) covid rules imposed on everyone else.

Max Boot

Speaking of accountability, I too am glad that this peculiar tennis-meets-coronavirus drama concluded with Djoković having his visa revoked and deported out of Australia. Exemptions from general rules for the rich and famous are never justified. In this situation it would be all the more unfair to the people who respected heavy travel restrictions for the past two years, some of them separated from family and friends for extensive periods.

19 January 2022

Reuters: “Tesla recalls almost half a million electric cars over safety issues”

The model years affected in the recall range from 2014 to 2021, and the total number of recalled vehicles is almost equivalent to the half a million vehicles Tesla delivered last year.

Around 200,000 Tesla vehicles will be recalled in China, the country’s market regulator said on Friday.

The U.S. electric vehicle manufacturer is recalling 356,309 2017-2020 Model 3 vehicles to address rearview camera issues and 119,009 Model S vehicles due to front hood problems, the federal regulator said.

Hyunjoo Jin

Turns out having a chaotic manufacturing process and an unpredictable boss do eventually have negative consequences. Evidently it’s not the first time Tesla issued recalls, struggled with glaring faults, or rolled back software upgrades, but to recall a year’s worth of deliveries is remarkable. The stock market though has blissfully ignored the signal, as it has done in the past, and Tesla’s stock barely moved on the news. Ironically, just days before this was announced, Elon Musk sold another $1 billion in Tesla shares (overtly to pay a massive anticipated tax bill) – almost as if he expected significant negative news around the company…

17 January 2022

Bloomberg: “Slaying the Blood Unicorn”

And so when Holmes was charged with wire fraud, it was for a mix of investor fraud and patient fraud. Jurors heard Theranos patients testify their blood-test results falsely led them to believe they had unhealthy conditions, but found Holmes not guilty on those counts. I don’t know why — I was not at the trial, and I certainly wasn’t in the jury room — but it seems plausible that Holmes was less personally culpable for those tests than she was for her own pitches to investors. But never mind that.

Instead, my point here is that if you do a fake blood test on a patient, you have arguably defrauded him (though Holmes was acquitted of that), but how much have you defrauded him really? Arguably the answer is quite a lot; arguably he is quite badly harmed by thinking he had a deadly disease and taking drastic steps to fight it, or thinking he did not have a deadly disease and missing the chance to fight it. But arguably the answer is $14.95, or whatever he paid for the blood test (I made that number up3): You were doing fraud for money, and the money you got from any one patient is fairly small. Whereas the money you got from Betsy DeVos was $100 million.

Matt Levine

Good to finally see some accountability in the Theranos case – although this reasoning for acquitting Holmes of defrauding the patients by strictly measuring how much each person paid for tests feels completely backwards to me. While investors lost millions of dollars in absolute terms by investing in Theranos, in relative terms this loss was barely a blip on their cash flow, whereas for individual people the anguish of a false positive or the damage of a false negative result may have impacted their lives heavily, regardless of the test cost. This way of thinking, estimating damages solely based on monetary loss, is a deep perversion of justice, putting the interests of the rich always above those of the rest of the citizens.

15 January 2022

Not Even Wrong: “Witten Goes Anthropic”

I ended up adding an additional chapter to the book about this, and covering developments closely here on the blog. For many years I found it impossible to believe that this pseudo-scientific point of view would get any traction among most leaders of the particle theory community. How could some of the smartest scientists in the world decide that this was anything other than an obviously empty idea? After a while though, it became clear that this was getting traction and that there was a very real danger that particle theory would come to an end as a science, with most influential theorists giving up, justifying doing so by claiming they now had a solid argument for why there was no point in trying to go further. String theory is the answer, but the answer is inherently unpredictive and untestable.

It has become clear recently that we’ve now reached that end-point. From the new video of his discussion with Rovelli, it’s clear that David Gross has given up. No more complaints about the multiverse from him, and his vision of the future has string theory solving QCD 80 years from now, nothing about it ever telling us anything about where the Standard Model comes from. Today brought an extremely depressing piece of news in the form of a CERN Courier interview with Witten. Witten has also given up, dropping his complaints about the string theory landscape:

Reluctantly, I think we have to take seriously the anthropic alternative, according to which we live in a universe that has a “landscape” of possibilities, which are realised in different regions of space or maybe in different portions of the quantum mechanical wavefunction, and we inevitably live where we can. I have no idea if this interpretation is correct, but it provides a yardstick against which to measure other proposals. Twenty years ago, I used to find the anthropic interpretation of the universe upsetting, in part because of the difficulty it might present in understanding physics. Over the years I have mellowed. I suppose I reluctantly came to accept that the universe was not created for our convenience in understanding it.

Peter Woit

Quite extraordinary for a scientist to openly state that the universe is beyond our understanding, embracing agnosticism and abandoning the scientific method, along with any hope for future developments and novel ideas. The poor state of fundamental physics seems to reflect wider trends in society towards nihilism, ignorance, and rationalizing predominant narratives instead of striving for better solutions.

13 January 2022

Bloomberg: “Podcasting hasn’t produced A New Hit in Years”

None of the 10 most popular podcasts in the U.S. last year debuted in the last couple years, according to Edison Research. They are an average of more than 7 years old, and three of the top five are more than a decade old (“The Joe Rogan Experience”, “This American Life” and “Stuff You Should Know”). Only a few podcasts in the top 50 (“SmartLess”, “The Michelle Obama Podcast”, “Frenemies”) are less than two years old. And none of them are in the top 25.

This trend vexes executives and producers across the podcasting industry, who worry they are wasting a lot of money on new shows. Spotify, Amazon, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia and outside investors have plowed billions of dollars into production companies. Spotify has spent more than anyone, paying about $500 million for three studios. Where is all this money going if these companies aren’t producing new hits?

Pretty much everyone agrees on the reason. There are more podcasts than ever before. Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago. While the vast majority of those new shows are either defunct or have minuscule audiences, there are still way more podcasts than there were just a few years ago.

The number of new podcasts has grown more quickly than the podcast audience, and so the number of listeners per show is going down. The list of shows competing to be that program you try on your weekend walk is longer than the backlog of TV shows you want to watch.

Lucas Shaw

It seems to me that this last paragraph mainly sums up the answer to this dilemma: podcasts were perceived by many as a new opportunity for content creators, a medium unencumbered by Big Tech platform dynamics such as poor and inconsistent revenue sharing, opaque rankings and rapidly changing moderation policies, and the reliance on algorithmic ads. This led to a large influx of new podcasts, but the audience hasn't followed suit, because people’s attention is more easily captured by short-form videos on TikTok. These figures show that podcasting isn’t immune to the underlying forces of digital content creation, where top performers capture an overwhelming share of the audience – and of revenues.

11 January 2022

MSNBC: “Our Afghanistan exit won’t shatter U.S. credibility the way ditching the Iran deal has”

Where credibility matters most is in diplomacy, but Washington rarely exhibits the same level of concern when U.S. leaders diminish the value of America’s word. As American diplomat par excellence, William Burns, explains in The Atlantic, credibility in diplomacy is vital since America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial in a world where the U.S. no longer can get its way through diktats. He asks, If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.?

In a democracy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted, there is no way to tie the hands of a future president. Essentially, he argued that America is inherently untrustworthy because it is a democracy, and that, contrary to what Mattis asserted, the U.S. does not have to honor its word. One would expect an authoritarian to make such a charge against a democracy and not the democracy to freely admit to it.

Blinken’s statement not only serves as perhaps the worst argument made for democracy, but it also contradicts liberal theories about the superiority of democratic governance in international relations. Democracies are considered more stable and pursue a more consistent foreign policy, whereas the abrupt leadership changes in autocracies also give rise to massive swings in policy. Moreover, because of the many domestic constraints leaders face, making promises that they do not intend to keep is more politically costly and thus less common, scholars of international relations conclude. This makes democracies more credible.

Trita Parsi

One might debate which event harmed US credibility more in recent years: unilaterally leaving the nuclear Iran deal, the January 6th events, or the retreat from Afghanistan, but that’s a somewhat irrelevant distinction, as the damage is cumulative over time. If the US may come and go from international treaties as they please depending on its president’s shifting views, then what value does NATO have going forward? What value do the current negotiations with Russia over tensions in Ukraine have? Or efforts to combat the pandemic and climate change?

10 January 2022

World Politics Review: “America’s TV News ‘Desert’ is a Problem with Global Implications”

The ins and outs of television news programming in the U.S. might seem on the surface to be a strange topic for a column that focuses by design on international affairs. But the case will be made here that the ongoing and worsening crisis in American democracy is, to some serious extent, a crisis of its journalism, too, and none more than television news, which is where most of the country’s citizens get their information.

The area of the TV news business that has declined most dramatically during my life in journalism, though, has not been domestic coverage, as truly awful as it can be. What has almost entirely disappeared from the airwaves is any kind of purposeful or energetic coverage of the world. Regular world news segments have long ago disappeared from most programs, and viewers of primetime news in the U.S. can go days on end without learning a single interesting thing about what is happening elsewhere on the planet.

Because of habits like these, Americans, who are already somewhat isolated from the rest of the world geographically, tend more and more to see their problems as being sui generis and self-contained, and this impedes clear thinking on many fronts. Understanding that most problems are in fact broad, human problems, rather than peculiar to oneself or one’s country, helps relieve a great deal of fruitless and sometime dangerous moral panic. Opening one’s mind to the methods adopted and solutions attempted by others offers the best hope of managing these challenges in more productive, and often more cooperative ways.

Howard W. French

Interesting points; I obviously don’t know enough about American TV media to have an opinion, but from the chatter on Twitter, the article feels entirely on point. And it helps explain American society’s self-obsession: you can’t worry or care about the outside world if you know so little about it. And a less informed population is more susceptible to manipulation by politicians and corporations… This decay of journalism is another aspect brilliantly depicted in the movie Don’t Look Up.

09 January 2022

Ars Technica: “How Final Fantasy VII radicalized a generation of climate warriors”

Bobby Pembleton, now an enterprise executive at a top European university (and a member of my international Mario Kart online group) is among those who found that FFVII’s environmental message stuck with him. And he’s got the tattoo to prove it.

Me and both of my siblings were totally radicalized by the game, Bobby told me. When we first finished it back in the day, our takeaway was, Oh, civilization ended, and this is a good thing.

We hadn’t seen an uncertain ending (in any media); that level of complexity was new to us, he added. It took a few days to sink in, but we concluded all humans were dead, and this was a good ending.

Dylan, the middle Pembleton child who now works in the film industry, recalled that the ending made them all feel that we need to be stewards of the land, like these ancient talking coyotes. Our takeaways were that major industrialization is bad, and understanding how the lifestream and the planet works is much more important—because look how cute those coyote puppies are!

Stephen K. Hirst

This story feels like a perfect exemplification of a pervasive, but rarely acknowledged ‘first-world problem’ plaguing our modern society: after living in comfort and relative security for decades, people (mostly young people, but the problem is in no way limited to them) no longer realize how bad life used to be without this civilization they’re so casually vilifying. I mean, do the people quoted here even realize that they wouldn’t have videogames without industrial civilization?! That instead they would have been ‘enjoying’ themselves through childhood working alongside their parents on a farm (or be dead at an early age from a perfectly curable disease)?! It’s quite easy to idealize a situation that you’ve never experienced – and thus end up chasing an impossible chimera.

07 January 2022

Coronavirus in Romania: brace for the Big, Bad O.

As expected in my last update, infections soared in Romania over the month of October, reaching as high as around 19.000 a day in the middle of the month, and a total of almost 415.000 for the entire month. Following a similar pattern with other Delta waves around the globe, new cases started decreasing afterwards almost as fast as they were rising before, despite few extra restrictions – you may attribute this pattern to some inherent property of Delta or to the complicated transmission dynamics in a networked population. Personally, I continue to think that school closures contributed significantly to reducing transmission.

The decline continued until the week between Christmas and New Year, when cases started rising again, almost explosively: we went from a weekly average of 650 before Christmas to 1.220 after, an almost 90% increase, and this week the trend accelerated, surpassing 6.000 cases yesterday. This could be an effect of winter holidays, combining less testing with more social mingling, but I fear that it’s in fact the start of our Omicron wave. At this growth rate, we may well reach and surpass the previous record by the end of January – or sooner… Officially, the number of confirmed Omicron infections in Romania remains low, with 91 cases confirmed on January 5th (for a total of 183 so far), but worryingly over half of these 91 cases (51) are in vaccinated people.

04 January 2022

GlobalEcoGuy: “7 Reasons Why Artificial Carbon Removal is Overhyped”

While many people think this is a new technology, it’s not. In fact, the US Department of Energy spent at least $6 billion over two decades on it. Not to mention the tax credits oil and gas companies have received for pilot projects.

And we have very little to show for it. The machines are still insignificantly small when it comes to addressing climate change. In fact, they are still far from even being noticed by the atmosphere.

Even the biggest projects stretch to absorb a few thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, we emit over 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. That’s a million-fold gap. So, even if artificial carbon removal scaled 1,000x — which is still years and billions of dollars away at best — it would need to grow by another 1,000-fold even to be a small percentage of the solutions we need.

Dr. Jonathan Foley

If Don’t Look Up is a satire about climate change, then artificial carbon removal would be the BART drones: an unproven, technological ‘fix’ that distracts us from the common goal and from pursuing more reliable solutions. Reducing carbon emissions sooner rather than later would have a much larger impact, with less negative side effects on the environment, than waiting for this magic bullet to finally scale enough to handle the issue – and there’s no guarantee it ever will. And even if it would eventually become viable, atmospheric carbon extraction runs into the same conundrum as electric vehicles: they require large power sources, and if that power comes from burning fossil fuels, we’re back at square one…

02 January 2022

‘Don’t Look Up’ (Netflix)

in Bucharest, Romania
Don't Look Up on Netflix poster

If a movie is to be judged by how much it can stir up emotions in its audience, Don’t Look Up has unquestionably succeeded for me. They were not good, warm-and-fuzzy feelings, but rather a chilling dread as I watched the scene where two astronomers tried in vain to convey the urgency of the situation to the President of the United States, and were met with… barely a shrug, because it was politically inconvenient to act at the time. The contrast between science and perception becomes more striking as they go public on national television and they are dismissed in similar fashion, because this news clashes with the gossipy, lighthearted tone the audience has come to expect.

The Earth system is breaking down now with breathtaking speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more insurmountable public communication task than the astronomers in Don’t Look Up, since climate destruction unfolds over decades – lightning fast as far as the planet is concerned, but glacially slow as far as the news cycle is concerned – and isn’t as immediate and visible as a comet in the sky.

Given all this, dismissing Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film. It’s funny and terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day. I hope that this movie, which comically depicts how hard it is to break through prevailing norms, actually helps break through those norms in real life.

Peter Kalmus

The movie spares no punches in satirizing the entire American society through its individual characters. We have a couple of scientists not well equipped to speak in public and effectively deliver a grave message. Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky breaks down in anger at her first live appearance, while Dr. Randall Mindy is seduced by the sudden celebrity into becoming a collaborator, before having his own moment of rage and despair on air. We have a female version of Trump as President Janie Orlean, who installed her son as chief of staff and nominated her Texas-sheriff/porn-actor lover to the Supreme Court – although Kate stresses how she didn’t vote for the President because she despised her, so there may be a subtle allusion to Hilary Clinton as well. We have the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, swooping in to save the day with his experimental technology and promising stellar returns for the economy, at the slight risk of planetary extinction – complete with a backup plan to flee the planet on a rocket if things go sideways. And between them, an utterly corrupted government, captured by the economic interests of big corporate donors and impervious to the needs of the broader public.