Notes

Burying the lede

This morning’s NYT email had this tidbit:

More than 700 children have died in a measles outbreak in Zimbabwe, driven by a decline in child immunization.

The implication is obvious, evil anti-vaxxers are killing children in Africa.

But once you read deeper into the article you get the full story:

Routine immunization dropped significantly in Zimbabwe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Anxious parents stayed away from health centers; health care workers were reassigned from routine vaccination programs to the Covid-19 pandemic response; and school closures and lengthy lockdowns scuppered the usual outreach campaigns.

In July, the World Health Organization and UNICEF warned that millions of children, most of them in the poorest countries, had missed some or all of their childhood vaccinations because of Covid lockdowns, armed conflicts and other obstacles. The U.N. agencies called the situation the largest backslide in routine immunization in 30 years and warned that, combined with rapidly rising rates of malnutrition, it created conditions that could threaten the lives of millions of children.

A more accurate headline would have been: Western anxiety over covid causes a massive drop in vaccination in Africa.

What’s so frustrating is this backlash was predicted and one of the main reasons why public health officials up to 2020 warned against strict lockdowns, even during far more dangerous ebola outbreaks.

Disinformation before it was disinformation

I remember the old school information days during the Maidan protests in 2013, and even before then, there was concerted disinformation campaigns directed at Ukrainians. This was long before the average person in the West even knew what disinformation was or casually flung the term gaslighting at every political opponent.

I had professors at my university in the US toe the party line that Russians were great cosmopolitans, apparently went to the opera, ballet, theater and art museum at every chance, the Soviet Union had abolished racism and that all problems in the region were from “nationalists” who were really just Nazis.

During the Maidan, I was a freelancer and worked with many Russian clients. They were genuinely concerned that I would be killed by Ukrainian nationalists because of my Polish heritage and that I primarily speak Russian. No amount of me explaining that I was frequently on the Maidan, spoke only Russian and that it was a movement against corruption and for a Ukrainian future integrated with the West, including values like rule of law, democracy, respect for minority rights — none of this had any effect. I was always told by Russians that they knew what was actually happening because they’d seen it on TV.

The Western press was little better. Coverage was obsessed with far right figures, who incidentally got about 1% of the vote right after Maidan. The most comical incident was the BBC reporting about “locals” fighting against “Kiev” then picturing a group of obviously imported Chechans.

The biggest story, the birth of a modern and tolerant civic nationalism was completely lost. My guess is that most Western journalists came to their knowledge of the region via Russia and Russian sources and could never quite step out of that paradigm. In Ukraine you had a massively tolerant society that was multi-lingual (if a Ukrainian speaker spoke to a Russian speaker, each carried on in their respective language with no need to force the other to switch), muti-ethnic (literally nobody cared about Ukrainian “blood” or such nonsense: ethnic Russians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Tatars were part of the Maidan movement from the start, modern Ukrainian nationalism is civic, not ethnically based).

I’ve never seen a self-critical reflection in the Western press about how they got everything about Ukraine so wrong. Even now, with it obvious looking at Bucha, Izium and other liberated territories that Russia has been engages in a genocidal war, many Russian claims are taken at face value. Still.

Quoting a tweet and responses:

A BBC investigation proves that those dark web posts “selling” US-donated weapons from Ukraine were fake.
What a surprise, wow, wow, shocking.

Link to the original story.

The response point out that Amnesty International pushed this story, the Financial Times ran with it as well as other “respected” Western outlets.

Die Linke, the German left-wing party, calls the Russian killings in Bucha probably faked. Meanwhile, the German Greens are shutting down safe and clean Nuclear power plants in Germany. I can’t think of a greater gift to Putin’s Russia. Belgium is also shutting down its last Nuclear power plant.

My takeaways:

  • The obsession with labelling “misinformation” and “fact-checking” hasn’t helped, since it’s so obviously partisan.
  • Russian soft power is enormous, but instead of supporting any greater Russian values, for there truly are no Russian values, Russian soft power tends to be obsessively anti-nuclear energy, or fanatic about marginal energy sources like solar or wind.
  • The narratives of “nationalists” are so strong that mainstream Western journalists still report recycled Soviet propaganda (you can also see this with the radical anti-Polish reporting within the West).
  • I have no idea whether the far-right and far-left parties that are pushing policies so obviously beneficial to Russia are useful idiots or on the Kremlin payroll. On the other hand, screaming Kremlin agent, like the American left still does when it’s unlikely the case with Trump, hasn’t been a productive strategy.
  • I have no idea how to untangle this mess. And I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

The gift of fearlessnes

I’m doing a ground-up study of Buddhist ethics, which may seem strange since I’ve practice, with varying degrees of fervency, Buddhism for most of my adult life. But I’m trying to do a Buddhism as it is rather than the new-age filtered Buddhism that’s popular in the West. And it’s been worthwhile, but more on that later.

One thing that keeps coming up in the Buddhist ethical system is ‌abhaya dāna, the gift of fearlessness. By following the precepts, you give the people around fearlessness.

By not drinking, I allow my wife to never have to worry about me coming home from work drunk.

By not being a gossip, people never have to fear that I’m going to betray their confidence.

By not being aggressive, people around can relax.

Etc.

This is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

Not writing for…

Nice post about not wanting to write in order to end up on the front page of Hacker News. There’s even a script to redirect traffic from HN away from the site.

I do something similar by blocking search engines from indexing my notes with this snippet inside the <head> tag:

<meta name="robots" content="noindex" />

This lets me write for humans, albeit a much smaller audience than if my notes were to end up in search results. And this definitely changes how I write: a bit less polished, more willing to take risks by being “wrong” about something and simply able to explore.

My blog posts are still open to search engines, because my intention with them is evergreen content that could be useful to a wider range of readers.

To quote myself, I’m starting to see more SEO and content marketing style writing across the web, even in places it doesn’t belong: Why is the BBC using clickbait?

Studying the cold

I’ve been interested in cold exposure and cold showers for years. Subjectively, they feel great. But some of the more outlandish claims of people like Wim Hof can be red flags.

But, oh well, I figure cold exposure can’t be harmful. And it looks like there’s finally some research on the topic as explained by Scott Carney.

For something similar, but with far less grand claims, check out Dr. Mark Here — his appearance on the AoM podcast is a good start.

The Science™

My goodness, how times have changed. Even NPR is publishing that covid is a mild flu and the death count is highly exaggerated.

Had someone written this two years ago, they would have likely been banned from social media.

And then the powers that be wonder why trust in public institutions is so low.

Friends and monarchs

Here’s another perspective on monarchy from the brilliant Quaker blog, the Armchair Theologian:

The last few days, in their multiplicity of ceremonial displays, have brought to the surface some surprisingly deep reflections on the nature of power, nationhood, and cults of personality. For my part, they have reinforced a deep theological suspicion regarding the substance of such civic displays. All this for a single person, all because she wore a crown? The question is mostly rhetorical, but it is a helpful entry point into my deeply held anxieties, not just about kings and queens, but politics in general. One of the reasons I continue to oppose the institution of monarchy (and incidentally a fetishistic attitude towards representative democracy) is the secular appropriation of the Corpus Mysticum (the claim that One can stand in for the Many). This seems to be something opponents and advocates of the British monarchy have agreed upon over the last few days. Either Queen Elizabeth II personifies ‘the best of us’ (however ‘us’ is defined) or she is the representative of Imperial atrocity and systematic racism. But to treat the Queen in this totemic fashion is to render her into an Idol or a scapegoat. In either case, such judgements conform to the ideological script of monarchy, that there are indeed special people who are able to represent whole groups and histories.

He goes on to the point I raised earlier, that even when monarchies are abolished, we start to treat other people and even objects with the Corpus Mysticum:

Any close examination of political systems will demonstrate that the mystical identification at the heart of monarchy is still capitalised upon, even where formal structures of kingship have been completely abolished. When a successful war is concluded or a treaty signed, there is a glamour around the inhabitant of an elected office, an aura which resembles a much older monarchical precedent: The success of the ruler is the success of a people and vice versa. This identification goes beyond any reasonable estimate of a leader’s responsibilities or real-world competences. The assumption is that his role is more than that of a transient administrator of shifting government departments. He is called upon to be a conduit for collective hopes and shared ambitions. He is summoned to the podium, not merely to offer an update on organizational progress (the relative strength of GDP, the state of unemployment, or foreign exchange rates), but to provide a story and a context for a people. Even in the bland modern state, the politician is encouraged to be a bard and a storyteller, even if he is discouraged from being a priest. When the most charismatic of politicians paints in primary colours ‘the destiny of a nation’, the narrative function is only effective because it is assumed that his individual identity has been fused into that of a general, national consciousness. If we consider this notion with a critical eye, we quickly realize that it is not possible for millions of people to be of the same mind, and that even banal words like ‘peace’, ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ mean many different things to different people.

And a sobering conclusion:

Mysticism in politics is the source of countless evils. We cannot and should not expect any earthly leader to save us, perfect us, validate or affirm us. It is not within the power of politics to make life meaningful. When ideology takes on this ultimate role, it becomes a false idol that diverts us from the one who is the true Corpus Mysticum (the body that does indeed encompass multitudes).

The entire piece Christianity and the Shadow of Monarchy is well worth the long read.

Superficial simplicity

Against superficial simplicity by Jorge Arango:

While looking less cluttered in screenshots, in practice, this approach doesn’t do such a good job of bringing actionable stuff to the user’s attention. It’s an example of superficial simplicity at the expense of actual simplicity and usefulness.

Superficial simplicity isn’t the goal of design. Some things are, by nature, complex. In such cases, you should aim for clarity rather than “simplicity.” Users will be better served if you strive to make complex systems more understandable and learnable than simply simple.

Alchemy

An interesting tweet:

1322: alchemy is useless, study theology
1522: alchemy is useless, study cartography
1722: alchemy is useless, study astronomy
2022: Why can’t we find a clean endlessly renewable energy source?

On monarchy

Taleb has an interesting take on monarchy in a recent Twitter thread:

I dislike the v. idea of monarchy & being a “subject”, even if cosmetic. But experience shows that, just as w/religion, when you remove kings, you tend to get something vastly worse (nature abhores a vacuum).

Removing the king is like bulldozing museums.

Pple don’t get Burke.

2) In the UK, the effective head of state is a regular citizen who works in what bankers would consider a shoddy townhouse, leaving the distractions of the pomp to the defanged nominal one. In France, the president is a monarch. Mitterrand was effectively a modern Louis XIV.

3) There is something vicious by “commoners” keeping aristocracy in nominal positions: nobody considers them intelligent, not even themselves.

Royals are therefore self-excluded from the elite: it makes them non-dangerous, relegated to a degrading form of human dog breeding.

And even ties it into his views on religion:

The main purpose of religion, I wrote in the Incerto, is not to affirm that there is a God, but to prevent humans from thinking they are Gods. Likewise the purpose of a modern king is not to rule, but to prevent politicians & office climbers from thinking that they are kings.

He has a point, and there’s definitely something to this. The most functional countries in Europe (Scandinavia plus the Netherlands) are constitutional monarchies. This gets even more curious when you consider that ostentatious displays of wealth and inequality are social faux pas.

Compare this with the United States or France, where there’s an obsession with the president’s family down to the “first dog”.

There’s more from an Unherd piece:

Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life…

Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.

With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified — restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence — are disappearing from the world…

She was an icon, but not an idol. An idol requires the vivid expression of virtues, personality, style. Diana was an idol — fusing a compelling and vulnerable temperament with Hollywood glamour. And Diana, of course, was in her time loved far more intensely than her mother-in-law; connected emotionally with ordinary people like a rockstar; only eventually to face the longterm consequences of that exposure and crumble under the murderous spotlight of it all.

Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private, as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.

There’s something wonderful about not being a drama queen.