The choice faced by American electors in November will not be between good and evil. It will be between normal and evil.
PS: not my parting thoughts, which will be much more obscure and have pretty pictures
The choice faced by American electors in November will not be between good and evil. It will be between normal and evil.
PS: not my parting thoughts, which will be much more obscure and have pretty pictures
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
Seven reasons for hope on our climate.
You all know the reasons to be depressed about the climate. The Davos élite listen respectfully to Greta’s hellfire sermon, but don’t sign up to the 12-step programme. Carbon emissions continue to rise (+ 1.3% in 2019), as does the CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa (415 ppm two days ago). China and India keep opening new coal power stations. 95% of new cars sold have polluting combustion engines. Australia is on fire. The Murdoch press and the Kochs keep spreading their poisonous disinformation. We are all doomed!
Maybe, and maybe not. You need to get into the weeds for signs of hope. But they are there if you look. My hope list falls into two groups: economics and technology, and politics and culture. For each factor, I add a completely subjective confidence factor for a significant impact in 2020. YMMV.
Update: building in engineered wood is taking off
Remember the satisfying thunk when you strike a nail squarely with a strong hammer blow and the nail sinks an inch into wood? Few metaphors are as sound and accurate as “hitting the nail on the head”. Forgive the boast, dear readers, for a post Mike O’Hare and I made here five years ago proposing more building in wood as a way of cutting carbon emissions. There is a nifty new technology (engineered wood beams and panels) that makes it much easier; trees fix carbon, and using the wood in structures extends the sequestration for decades.
Dave Roberts at Vox has a long new post up making essentially the same points. With more recent data, he has better and higher estimates than ours of the potential savings in carbon emissions. The other news is that things are beginning to move, as wood is transitioning from a handful of bespoke prestige projects to routine use in large buildings.
I thought the trendsetter would be New Zealand, which is heavily forested and has innovative wood structural engineers. But it’s small (4 million population), remote, and does not export much timber. No, it’s Canada; specifically British Columbia, the centre of the large Canadian forestry industry.
A mundane timber-framed 18-storey block of student rooms, Brock Commons, in Vancouver. The concrete stairwells are presumably required for fire safety.
BC has changed its building code to allow 12-storey wooden buildings routinely, and its code has been copied in the rest of Canada. Three are 500 mid-size wooden buildings under construction across the country. The new standards have spread to China and now much of the USA. US building codes are a local or state responsibility, but they often rely on common models, which now allow engineered wood.
The caveat to the RBC paean is that to get the full benefit, the forest management has to be based on forests that are (1) sustainably managed (2) second-growth. In BC, the timber building movement runs into nuanced criticism from defenders of the splendid old-growth forests. There is no inherent conflict here: engineered wood can perfectly well use fairly small pieces of lumber, such as those you get from smaller second-growth trees (in parts of Europe, eighth-growth), or 40-year thinnings, glued together in factories into panels and beams of the required size. But the lumber industry is what it is, and greater demand poses a threat to old growth worldwide unless its appetite is restrained by firm government and honest regulation. This will be a battle in the Pacific Northwest, and an even bigger one in tropical Africa and South America.
Endnote 1: the inventor of cross-laminated timber
Dave Roberts credits Austrian Gerhard Schickhofer, a professor at Graz Technical University. Alpine forestry is necessarily conservative; prevention of landslides and avalanches has priority over wood yield, and you don’t see clear cuts. Hillside trees tend to be small. This environment encourages a frugal approach to wood use, and lamination is a natural extension.
Endnote 2: Notre Dame
As you all know, the roof of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burnt down in a huge fire in April last year. The roof above the vaulting was supported by massive oak beams, so many that they were known as “the forest”. There were no firewalls or sprinklers in this huge drafty space, an ideal system to keep the flames supplied with oxygen. The rebuilding fund has money: but what to do about the roof?
A very French grand débat has started over this. Suggestions include the wacky (a rooftop open-air swimming pool, an all-glass roof). Nobody will listen to our views but it’s fun to join in anyway.
The baseline restoration scheme is “just as it was before”, including the 19th-century iron central spire. Taken literally, this requires replacing the Forest with new oak beams. Where do you find the trees? The oak forests of France have shrunk since the 12th century, or the 9th when the acorns that generated those beams fell. There are fine oaks like these planted by Colbert to replace those he cut to build warships for Louis XIV – trees that have preservation orders on them. Even in a good cause, felling a thousand of them is not on.
What makes the problem more tractable is that the Forest was not generally open to visitors before the fire. It should be culturally possible to innovate. I’d go for a technically modern roofspace, using a steel space frame or engineered wood, and preserving some of the surviving blackened timbers as a memorial. The space could be made partly usable for religious or cultural purposes, assuming you could put in lifts.
A lot of things had to go wrong.
“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” (Adam Smith). The (pro tem) United Kingdom is bent on finding out how much, with Boris Johnson sweeping to a large election victory on a mendacious promise to “get Brexit done”.
In fact, all that’s certain is that the withdrawal agreement (text here) he negotiated will be signed and on January 31 the UK cease to be a EU member, and I an EU citizen .
But under this agreement (Articles 126 – 132) there will be a transition period in which all EU laws and rules still apply. For all practical purposes except decision-making the UK is still in, for a while. The period is set to end on 31 December 2020 (§126), but may be extended for up to two years by common agreement (§132) – but only before 1 July 2020. Johnson has promised not to ask for such an extension – but since neither the EU Commission nor independent experts believe a trade agreement can be finalised in 11 months, there are plenty of Perils-of-Pauline cliffhanger deadlines coming up. The risk of a No Deal crashout is still very much present.
Who’s to blame? There is a lot of it to share, in a corollary to Smith’s aphorism. Here is Inspector Wimberley’s short list of suspects, in rough chronological order.
1. Press barons: Murdoch, Dacre, etc. For decades, they have fed the British public a consistently biased diet of news on Europe, painting the Brussels institutions as a hostile foreign Them not the framework for a competitive common project like the World Cup. They have kept this up to the present day.
2. The BBC, failing out of cowardice and bothsideserism to act as a corrective to the biased press.
3. Farage and UKIP, who supercharged euroscepticism with nativist propaganda against refugees and immigrants.
4. David Cameron, who called a second referendum on EU membership in a bid to silence the UKIP threat to Tory heartland seats; worded it sloppily, as a vague unicorn aspiration not a concrete policy choice; and made no effort to extend the franchise to a million Britons abroad, excluding me and two of my children.
5. Putin’s FSB and its useful idiots who manipulated the referendum by exploiting social media for propaganda.
6. The British electorate, by falling for the con, three times.
7. Theresa May, for invoking Article 50 and triggering a withdrawal countdown without a negotiating strategy.
8. The DUP (hardline Ulster Protestant Unionists) for supporting May’s Article 50 invocation. You can’t blame them for not foreseeing the exact course the complex Irish border issue would take, but you can blame them for not realising that withdrawal inevitably sets up a clash with the Good Friday Agreement and creates grave risks to the Union – the main reason they are in Westminster.
9. Sinn Fein, for not taking up the seats in Westminster they regularly win, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty required of all new MPs; so the DUP’s folly went unchallenged.
10. Remainer backbenchers in the Commons, both Tories and Labour, and their ultimately ineffective leaders (Grieve, Soubry, Kyle, Umunna, etc). They had a clear majority, and managed to score one tactical victory in the Benn anti-No-Deal bill, but never got their act well enough together to secure a second referendum. Both Tory and Labour rebels were wiped out in Thursday’s election. Consolation prizes for principle and effort, but in politics, as Yoda said, “there is no try”.
11. Jeremy Corbyn, whose personal hostility to the EU prevented Labour from ever taking the clear Remain stance that large majorities of its members, MPs and voters wanted, and for pursuing the impossible dream of an electoral mandate for a hard left agenda at the expense of an entirely winnable second referendum. Also for being a sanctimonious North London 1970s lefty pacifist vegetarian stereotype and sucker for anti-semitic conspiracy theories.
12. Jo Swinson, leader of the LibDems, for not making an electoral pact with Labour at the start of the campaign out of a reasonable distrust of Corbyn and an unreasonable hope in an election triumph. She lost her Scottish seat to the SNP, and her party half its previous seats (though it increased its vote).
13. Boris Johnson, liar, womaniser, fat cat, and completely unprincipled demagogue. And his mad Svengali Dominic Cummings.
It strikes me that most of these are but-for causes. Leave out 2 (BBC), 9 (Sinn Fein) and 12 (LibDems), which are unlikely to have made a critical difference. The election wasn’t a close result. The Remainer backbenchers (10) at least tried and morally can’t be blamed. That leaves eight causes, for each of which you can make a strong but-for claim. If any one had gone very differently the UK would not be in this mess.
That’s a philosophically disturbing conclusion. Summing over the many possible timelines since 2000, most end up with the UK still a member of the EU. The train wreck was just bad luck.
There is another reading, though.
(Stand by for next episode)
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