Reflections on The End of RBC, Part I: Mark Kleiman as Blogger

In preparing to say goodbye to RBC, I have been spending time digging through the archives. In the process I have come up with some closing reflections that I will share here in our final month of existence. The first part is dedicated to RBC Founder Mark Kleiman as a blogger (I have written about my friend more generally here, this post is just about him as an RBCer).

The oldest post in RBC’s archive is this one, written by Mark on August 30, 2002. Mark started in a place of political alienation: he positively loathed the George W. Bush Presidency. Some people want to write; other people have to. I think at that historical moment Mark had to. In a previous century, he might have stamped out hand bills protesting the actions of Parliament or The King, but in 2002, the Internet was here and blogging was exploding as a written form. Cometh the medium, cometh the man.

My main feeling in looking at the early years of RBC’s archive is admiration of Mark’s work ethic and bloody minded persistence. Day after day he turned out post after post for a tiny audience. RBC was not a group blog but Mark Kleiman’s blog, and he was 100% responsible to keep it going. He pushed that rock uphill and slowly built a loyal audience. Even when Steve Teles and Michael O’Hare signed on a few years in, Mark was still the workhouse content producer.

I feel good about the fact that I was a core writer here when the RBC reached its largest audience (At least 250,000 unique readers a month), but going from no audience to 10,000 regular readers is a way bigger lift that going from 150,000 to 250,000. There were a zillion blogs when Mark was starting out that never hit that initial threshold of a loyal readership base, but Mark got there and then some entirely on his own.

This also highlights what a generous person he was. Many people who had labored so hard to create a platform and a following would not have shared it. But Mark offered RBC slots to dozens of writers over the years, letting them start out with a much bigger audience for their work than they could have attained without years of effort.

Mark also deserves praise for the range of substantive areas about which he blogged about in a thoughtful fashion. He is of course most well known for leading the only widely read English language blog that did serious drug policy analysis, but he also wrote intelligently about crime, politics, poverty, education, and a variety of other topics. I eulogized Mark at the American Society of Criminology last year by noting that he was really a 19th century intellectual rather than a 21st century social scientist: he didn’t stay confined to a discipline and didn’t rely much on complex statistics. Instead he used his roving mind and keen observational skills to make his points, and, he had enough chutzpah to think (usually correctly) that he could say something intriguing on virtually any topic.

At the same time, Mark was sometimes too undisciplined in his blogging, and indulged himself in rants or political attacks that didn’t advance the argument (Not that that was his purpose in those posts, he was I think venting). I wonder if it might explain a mystery of Mark Kleiman as a blogger: Why was it that so many of his equally successful contemporaries were hired by magazines and newspapers to be an inhouse blogger but Mark never was? It may be that the only blog that could hold Mark’s eclectic intellect, temperament, and sensibilities, was the one that he himself founded and ran.

The Reality-Based Community will Close its Doors at the End of this Month

Not an April Fool’s Day joke, we have been discussing the future of RBC internally since Mark Kleiman’s passing and have decided it’s time to close shop. We will have some final reflections from RBCers here in the month to come. In that spirit, I am re-upping this piece from early 2011 that still rings true to me about the role of this blog.

A slow day off of work combined with a fast new lap top (Xmas gift) and no hangover (I followed Mark’s suggestion) makes this a good day to blog. I better understand this medium than I did when I started, and though I remain ambivalent about whether I should keep blogging, there is no denying that I learn from the blogosphere, including RBC.

One of the things I have observed is that many political/public policy blogs are comfort food for a pool of regular readers. If you create a site called “immigrantsaredestroyingourcountry.com” or “legalizecocainenow.com” or “Allrepublicansareevilmonsters.com” you will over time accrue a readership, potentially a large one. Your role as a blogger is to repeat, in a thousand different ways, the message captured in your blog title. Your amen corner will then comment enthusiastically, over and over, in post after post that you are oh so right about what you think.

If such a blog strays from its message, the tell will be readers commenting “Hey, this blog is supposed to be advocating X and this post of yours seems to indicate that Y may be true”. And then, the ultimate insult from a comfort food seeker “This is the kind of post I would expect to see on blog Y”. The accusation isn’t that the blogger is wrong, but that the blogger is a traitor to the cause.

Whether providing political comfort food is right or wrong, it’s human nature to seek it out at least some of the time and that’s not going to change. But I thought it was worth saying that it is a feature and not a bug of RBC that if you read us for long you will encounter viewpoints and analyses with which you disagree (perhaps quite strongly).

When Mark Kleiman asked me to start blogging here, he knew there were things we didn’t agree about. And he didn’t say “You must support position Y, political party A, candidate Q” or anything else of that sort. He just asked me, as he asked a diverse range of people over the years, if I wanted to blog here and I said yes. Quincy Adams (ahem), Jonathan Zasloff, Amy Zegart, Robert Frank, Kelly Kleiman, Matthew Kahn, Steve Teles, James Wimberley, Lesley Rosenthal, Michael O’Hare, Bob Jesse, Andy Sabl and Harold Pollack have different knowledge bases and different points of view, which I consider all to the good.

I can tell from our comments that most RBC readers understand that there is no loyalty oath required to be a blogger here, nor an understanding that the posters must agree with each other. There is a shared commitment to evidence over opinion, as well as to civil debate, but that’s different than being monolithic on substance.

Very occasionally I get a comment along the lines of “This blog is supposed to advocate Y and you aren’t doing your part”. This makes it worth repeating that this isn’t a comfort food blog; that’s not our comparative advantage. Does this cost us readers? I am sure it does, but that doesn’t bother me and I assume it doesn’t trouble Mark either. The readers we keep are smart and intellectually curious, and those are the kind of people I want to spend my time around.

Do I wish that more people were interested in data, dialogue and potentially having their opinions proved wrong than are interested in comfort food? Broadly speaking, yes. But I hope this blog comforts those who have a taste for something other than comfort food.

Anglo-Saxon thought for the day

From The Battle of Maldon.

Dedicated to the exhausted army of doctors, nurses, and ancillary workers who have woken up in many countries to another endless day of struggle against a faceless epidemic. And particularly to those who relax reading Anglo-Saxon poetry.

From The Battle of Maldon, ca. 1000 CE. The Saxon war-leader Byrhtnoth has been killed and his band is losing the battle to the Viking invaders; some Saxons have run away. His old retainer Byrhtwold speaks to the remnant standing fast. Try reading it aloud to catch the alliteration. The letter þ is a voiced “th”. [Update: sound file on YouTube.]

Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.

Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
Mood [mind, courage] the more, as our might lessens [lit: littles.].

Suitably, the text is incomplete, and breaks off before the battle ends. We don’t know who wins – then or now.

Warriors:

Then

 

Now

 

Newton self-isolates

Newton’s prism experiment retold.

As a way of putting enforced seclusion to good use, it’s hard to beat Newton’s optics.

You all know the story in outline. In 1665 the bubonic plague that devastated London reached Cambridge, where Newton was a freshly minted B.A. (Cantab.) He fled to his uncle’s farm in Lincolnshire. This is now called Woolsthorpe Manor, though it’s more the farmhouse of a prosperous yeoman. He took with him a pair of prisms, with which he destroyed the prevailing theory of colour with a devastating experiment. We all know that Newton discovered, or rediscovered, the colour spectrum using a glass prism placed in a beam of light. But the real breakthrough came from the second prism.

Brief flashback. This prevailing theory was a common-sense one. White sunlight passes through a stained-glass window. It becomes blue or red or yellow. It’s the medium, the stained glass, that gives the colour, right?  As Shelley wrote, 150 years later:

Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.

Wrong.

The usual story is that Newton hid out in a barn. His own sketch of the experiment disproves this.

Barns don’t have small, square, high windows. Bedrooms do – like those on the first floor of the house. Glazed windows were gradually adopted in England in the course of the 17th century. As like as not, the bedrooms in the Newton farmhouse still only had stout wooden shutters to keep out the cold Lincolnshire winds: shutters with cracks in them.

The sketch clearly shows what Newton did. He placed prism 1 in a beam of sunlight passing through a crack or hole in the shutter, producing the familiar spectrum. Where did these colours spring from? Perhaps it was the medium again, the prism glass, as Descartes had proposed. Newton constructed a screen with a ladder of more holes to allow him to isolate the different colours. He placed prism 2 in the red, blue, .. light – and it stayed put. Schematically:

It doesn’t make sense that prism 1 would create colours and identical prism 2 do nothing to them. (To be quite sure you would need to replicate with prisms made from different sources of glass, but that was quickly done.) So the colours were in the light to begin with.

The illusion is white light, really a bundle of different colours. More disturbingly to our intuition, a perceived colour is a negative property. The stained glass absorbs all the other colours than the blue we see. Leaves are green because that wavelength is not absorbed by chlorophyll, which is tuned to blue and red.

It took Newton five years to write this all up into a full theory of optics. It was his 1672 paper on this that made him deservedly famous. Gravity came later (1687), though he started on that in the farmhouse too.

Go on. Crack string theory.

Ambroise Paré’s COVID advice

Look at emergency home nursing.

The surgeon to François Ier of France, Ambroise Paré, gave this classic statement of the doctor’s mission:

Guérir parfois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours.

In his day, there were few hospitals. Most people were born, went to their beds when they fell sick, recovered a few times, and finally died, all in their own homes. It wasn’t much different in 50,000 BC. Hospitals were for the few mobile categories: soldiers, seamen, merchants, pilgrims. Paré would have done most of his surgery in tents in the rear of the battlefield.

Florence Nightingale at Scutari – Shutterstock

The hospital, as a temple of scientific medicine, is a 19th-century invention. The Dr. House TV series offers an exaggerated but basically fair image of its ethos. The model is badly adapted to a massive epidemic of nearly identical cases. In parts of Lombardy, hospitals have been overwhelmed, and resorted to triage. The older arrivals with preexisting conditions have reportedly sometimes been left in corridors to die with minimal palliative care. Ethically, this is not really problematic; in human terms, it is horrific. The same is very likely to happen in many other countries, including the UK and the USA (here, report 9).

I am 73 with asthma. I therefore have a personal stake in this problem, which has started to arise in Madrid. The army are setting up large improvised field hospitals. This fixes the bed shortage, and I trust that crash programmes are under way to make respirators and masks, but you can’t create qualified nurses in a few weeks.

So you enlist unqualified ones. Go back to the 18th century, and ask family members to care for the sick at home. Patients who fail the hospital triage would be sent home with a Happy Care package, including an army or airline-issue respirator, a bottle of oxygen, a box of antibiotics and opioids, a bedpan, a one-page guide, and a Skype helpline.

Every medical professional from Florence Nightingale to Geoffrey House will be shocked by this unprofessional atavism. But the objections are readily answered.

1. Half or more will die! Sure. The basis of comparison is not best or even average hospital practice, but the horrid reality of the triage corridor. At the very least, the sick will die with more dignity and human warmth.

2. The potential carers have to go out to work. Not just now they don’t.

3. The patients will infect the carers. They are already infected.

4. Not every patient has potential home carers physically and mentally fit enough to do the job. Absolutely. Home nursing is only part of the solution. That’s why we also need the army field hospitals. I can’t guess the relative numbers here.

An additional twist to this plan is that there is a rapidly expanding cohort of asymptomatic or recovered people with immunity, who are potentially available to support others, though home nursing assistance among other ways. In Veneto province in Italy, which has tested heavily, about 8% of the population tests positive, two-thirds without symptoms or nearly so.

If it comes to such a choice for me, I would take the home solution over the corridor. I don’t know what Lu thinks.

I really would like to know what the heirs of Florence and Ambroise make of this. If  anything on these lines is the way forward, or even a last-ditch fallback, it has to be planned for.

De Long is wrong on coronavirus

If you are going to quarantine, do it soon.

It’s not often one gets the chance and obligation to say this. Brad DeLong :

Note to Self: Is there anything wrong with this analysis? With 14 deaths in the U.S., a 1% death rate, and 4 weeks between infection and death, that means that as of Feb 8 there were 1400 coronavirus cases in the United States. If it is doubling every seven days, then now about 22,000 people have and in the next week about 44,000 people in the U.S. will catch coronavirus. These numbers could be five times too big. These numbers could be five times too small. But with only 1 in 10,000 currently affected, it seems 4 or 5 weeks early to start imposing serious geographical quarantines …

No, no, no. R is not a function of the number of cases. It is only a function of herd immunity and the individual chance of transmission.

The condition for the decline and fall of the epidemic is lowering R below 1. There are two paths to this. Call them the Trump policy and the Xi policy.

Under the Trump policy of malign neglect, the virus spreads until most of the potential transmittees of the virus have recovered from it and are immune. Meanwhile, the cemeteries have filled up with those who didn’t recover. 200,000? 480,000? 1.7 million, if the hospitals collapse and the treatment is back to Black Death standards? The epidemic expires from satiety.

Under the Xi policy (also now the Moon, Conte, Sanchez, and Merkel policy), the state cuts the opportunities for transmission, including quarantines as well as contact tracing and mass preventive screening. The cost of this, direct and indirect, is fixed and independent of the number of cases. Imagine a perfect lockdown in which everybody stays in their house or flat, living out of tins by candlelight, for a fortnight: end of epidemic. This can’t be done perfectly of course, so real outcomes are a risk distribution, but you can get pretty close, as Singapore and Taiwan have shown. The death toll is still 1% or 1.6% or whatever of those infected.

It is lower the earlier you start the policy. Starting when the diagnosed cases are in the thousands, as seems to be the political trigger, looks as if it might limit ultimate deaths also to the thousands or tens of thousands. QED.

Lego clone army

A more picturesque way of looking at this is from the point of view of the virus. It’s a clone army of dumb replicants with no leader and a single mission: reproduce. For the Virus Army as a whole, a pandemic is a death ride. At the end of it they will all be dead, apart from the small source population living quietly in non-fatal parasitism with its animal hosts. The fun part is how many non-standard hosts they can kill along the way.

No zoom in on the virus commando that has infiltrated a single human host, you. The commando is doomed. In 14 days, either you are dead (end of viruses) or your immune system has destroyed them all and you are recovered (end of viruses). Their only hope for reproduction is for some members of the commando to jump ship and invade another disarmed host. The jumping ship is nearly always fatal, as the viruses can only survive a few hours outside a host. They have no independent motility and are dependent on cooperation by the hosts: handshakes, kisses, cough aerosols, unwiped door handles. Reduce that cooperation, and the survival odds for SEAL Team Virus drop to almost nothing. That, in essence, is the Xi policy: and it works.

Hokusai’s solution for Covid-19

Row together or drown.

I posted this famous image six years ago, and you all know it, but like all good icons it bears endless repetition:

Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1830

Hokusai’s Great Wave has a moral. It’s to do with the almost invisible boats, and the faceless oarsmen in them. They are responding to a threat from nature in the only practical way: rowing together as hard as they can. Their survival is not guaranteed, but decisive cooperation raises the chances of each of them.

The lesson applies straightforwardly to epidemics such as the coronavirus one we are living through ( I hope). The public health experts may not always be right, but doing what they say is far and away your best chance. Most people in the street recognize this: the draconian quarantines in China and Italy have been well supported, in spite of initial screw-ups.

The odd man out is the United States. Clownish lack of leadership and media irresponsibility has left the field open to quarrelling individual opinions. Even the highly regarded CDC mismanaged the testing rollout. This was quite unnecessary. Chinese researchers released the sequenced genome on 11 February, and German ones at the great Charité in Berlin released a reliable test on January 13 (pdf) (using a partial sequence?).  The timing is confusing to me, and multiple teams are at work on both the genome and tests, but basically the enemy has been identified for a month now.  Countries like South Korea have been able to institute mass testing. The episode shows just how deep the Trumpian rot has gone in the public service.

Hokusai does not spell out the alternative, but it’s obvious. If the fishermen do not row together, the boats will be swamped and they are like to drown. A comparable  fate now looks inevitable for the United States.  Without effective and systematic federal leadership (targeted restrictions on movement, public education on social distancing, emergency paid leave and guaranteed care, food distribution, measures against hoarding …) the epidemic will spread out of control and swamp the available critical resources (isolation beds, respirators, nurses, antiviral drugs). Thousands will die, perhaps more than in China.

I hope I’m wrong. The silver lining, if it’s as bad I as I think, is that Trump cannot escape responsibility for the disaster, any more than Bush could for the botched aftermath of Katrina.  The virus could have been designed as a WMD against his supporters: older, poorly educated, individualistic, careless, and trusting in his dangerous lies. You can’t spin gravestones. Some of the mourners will wake up.

 

Nicotine, Tobacco, and Illicit Markets

China police solve counterfeit cigarette case. Nearly two in three cigarettes sold in Malaysia are now smuggled.

Dark side of Canada contraband tobacco is a danger-filled docudrama. Calgary man charged after over million illegal smokes seized.

UK pair jailed for killing man who stole cigarettes.

One in four Greek cigarettes is contraband.

Three states join New York City suit against USPS over foreign cigarette shipments. Appeals court upholds ruling against UPS for shipping illegal untaxed cigarettes. Governor Cuomo aims to crack down on illegal cigarette retailers. Brooklyn Zombieland bodega shut down by sheriff. Notorious Brooklyn deli closed by sheriff for non-payment of tobacco fines.

Virginia cigarette smuggler fined $20,000.

Interest in Illicit Purchase of Cigarettes Under a VLNC (Very Low Nicotine Content) Product Standard.  Tobacco Industry Data on Illicit Tobacco Trade: A Systematic Review of Existing Assessments. Single Cigarette Purchasers among Adult US Smokers. Cigarette taxes and cigarette smuggling by state, 2017.

A nice surprise

The IEA says CO2 emissions went flat in 2019.

I found a press release from the IEA in my mailbox:

Despite widespread expectations of another increase, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing in 2019, according to IEA data released today.

After two years of growth, global emissions were unchanged at 33 gigatonnes in 2019 even as the world economy expanded by 2.9%. This was primarily due to declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power generation. Other factors included milder weather in several countries, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets.

As late as last December, the central expert prediction  was for 0.6% growth. That’s a difference of 200 million tonnes of CO2 (or 54 million tonnes of carbon, or in my proposed unit, 27 cheopses. (1 cheops = the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza = 2.5 million m3).

Now OF COURSE the figure is provisional, and the IEA don’t venture past the decimal point, so they are still technically right if it’s 33.1 or 32.9. We need confirmation from the full data in March, and from other teams of analysts like Grantham. Still, for now it’s the best figure available. Industrial emissions are not rising but flat.

To the rational Benthamite policymaker, the correction makes no difference. Flat emissions are still a path to collective suicide; postponing the date of final collapse by a year or whatever is not significant. We need to cut emissions, hard. To keep under 1.5 degrees C of warming, emissions would have to fall by 15% a year, starting in 2020. The IEA’s small correction does not change our policy problem materially, nor soothe our collective failure.

In human psychology, it’s very different. “Going up a little” and “not going up at all” are interpreted in different ways. The latter may be a turning point; the former is not. Perhaps we are primed by evolution to watch out for these: an exhausted prey animal giving up, or an adversary in some contest. Or ourselves. At all events, that’s how we choose to write plays, novels and histories.

In 2020, emissions may go higher again, or stay flat, or decline. Which one it is will determine our retrospective labelling of the 2019 result. If they decline – and in contrast to the 2015-2016 false start, keep declining – we will retrospectively call 2018 the peak and 2019 the turning point: the most important one in history.

The evidence is not quite neutral on this. There is a small clue in the timing. Until very late in the year, the 2019 data pointed to an increase. The drop came in the last quarter. An economic slowdown in China and India? Possibly. But it was not big enough to cut world growth from a normal 2.9% for the year. Perhaps the coal collapse in Europe and the USA sped up, and/or electricity demand in developing countries slowed as they converge with the OECD norm of stasis. If the structural factors outweighed the cyclical ones, we are on track to a modest decline in 2020. It is not silly to hope (and if you are so inclined, to pray) for this.

Footnote: the “higher nuclear power generation” highlighted by the IEA was mainly down to Japan finally restarting some of the nuclear reactors closed after Fukushima. This was a once-off and can’t be repeated. 2020 will be back to normal, with a few reactor openings in China almost balanced by closures of old ones elsewhere (pdf, Figures 6 and 7). To a first approximation, nuclear power is irrelevant to resolving the climate crisis. What we have is a useful addition to the low-carbon side of the ledger, that’s about it.