Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: QAnon, avocado politics, the decline of Iran and pizza arbitrage

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many governments and organisations have had to make decisions act under a cloud of uncertainty. Cathleen O’Grady takes a critical look at some of the research emerging from the social sciences compounding already present concerns about the replication crisis:

So are the social sciences ready to help us navigate the pandemic? Evidently, experts disagree, and their scuffle is part of a broader debate about how much evidence we need before we act. The coronavirus crisis forces a tough, society-wide lesson on scientific uncertainty. And with such escalated stakes, how do we balance the potential harm of acting prematurely with the harm of not acting at all?

There have been quite a few countries where more decisive action would have made a huge difference in the health outcomes from the coronavirus pandemic. Tim Harford explores the different factors that people and organisations too slow to take action when faced with a crisis:

While I realise some people are paranoid about catching Covid-19, it’s egotistical optimism that I see in myself. Although I know that millions of people in the UK will catch this disease, my gut instinct, against all logic, is that I won’t be one of them. Meyer points out that such egotistical optimism is particularly pernicious in the case of an infectious disease. A world full of people with the same instinct is a world full of disease vectors. I take precautions partly because of social pressure and partly because, intellectually, I know they are necessary. But my survival instinct just isn’t doing the job, because I simply do not feel my survival is at stake.

The rise of the QAnon community in the US points to something even more concerning where there is willful blindness to facts and information. Adrienne LaFrance’s account is concerning particularly given the movement’s proximity to Donald Trump:

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

I can remember being involved in campaigning in 1990s New Zealand and being made aware of the different shades of environmentalism. Climate change has raised the profile of environmental causes and Nils Gilman look at potential synergies between far right groups and environmental causes with interest and trepidation:

Right-wing environmentalism and climate alarmism are coming, and as they do, the political battle lines over the environment are going to look very different from the ones we have experienced during the past few decades. No longer will the primary battle be between conservative climate change deniers or skeptics, on the one hand, and liberal climate realists on the other. Instead, the primary fight will be between those who treat the reality of climate change as an imperative for creating a more inclusive and egalitarian world, and those who see it as a justification for exclusion and hoarding, retreating into ever-smaller circles of empathy. Indeed, right-wing environmentalism may be how the post-Trump anti-globalist Right repositions itself for broader appeal by reclaiming the impulses that motivated American conservationism to begin with. After all, if globalized neoliberal capitalism is what is both driving climate change and preventing any effective response, then an alliance of green and nationalist anti-globalizers (albeit motivated primarily by different things) seems all too possible.

Dexter Filkins paints a tragic story of Iranian society under the leadership of Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has been one of the countries most heavily hit by coronavirus but this appears a symptom of wider problems:

Isolated and dysfunctional, the Islamic Republic had reached a dead end, she said: “The regime has lost all popular support, and yet it is incapable of change. The result is that the Iranian people have lost hope. We are hopeless now.”

As countries such as Iran look to block their citizens access to the unfiltered internet people and organisations look for ways to get around it. Reporters without Borders has created The Uncensored Library in Minecraft to help people access materials that are likely to be censored in their home countries.

Barton Gellman provides a first hand account of what it’s like to be a under the spotlight from different state apparatus. It’s enough to put my own complaints about IT problems and security in perspective:

Most hacking attempts are sent to thousands, or millions, of people at a time, as email attachments or links to infected websites. This one was customized for me. It was a class of malware known as a “remote access trojan,” or RAT, capable of monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, recording audio and video, and exfiltrating any file from my computer. “Piss off any Russians lately?” Marquis-Boire asked. The RAT was designed to link my computer to a command-and-control server hosted by Corbina Telecom, in Moscow. If I had triggered the RAT, a hacker could have watched and interacted with my computer in real time from there. Other IP addresses the malware communicated with were in Kazakhstan. And internal evidence suggested that the coder was a native speaker of Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. But the moment Marquis-Boire tried to probe the RAT for more information, the command-and-control server disappeared from the internet.

I understand many startups are racing to grow their audience to a point where they can take advantage of network effects. This has led to some puzzling situations with investors and venture capitalists throwing cash at startups where there’s little in the way of barriers to entry. Ranjan Roy’s account of pizza arbitrage makes for an interesting illustration of how some of this funding is missing the mark:

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though – just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation 🙂 He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an “actual business” while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters.

If you are looking to launch a startup, Lenny Rachitsky’s review of how various high profile startups reached their first 1000 users is reviewing:

How startups acquired their first 1000 users

Navneet Alang explores explores how whilst are diets are becoming more diverse, all too often those people introducing them aren’t raising concerns about cultural appropriation among other issues:

The question that such representations present for the food world is a difficult one: Who gets to use the global pantry or introduce “new” international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable query: Can the aspiration that has become central to the culinary arts ever not be white?

I have been happily watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance with its celebration of his immense sporting prowess. I would also suggest what were getting is a sanitised version of the truth given that Jordan was given the opportunity to have the last word. Wesley Morris’ review in the New York Times provides a pretty even handed review but if you really want a clearer view on what shaped Jordan including racism of the Deep South, I’d suggest reading Wright Thompson’s profile.

Kendall Baker has pulled together a suggested list of the 50 greatest sports documentaries of all time. I certainly don’t object to the high placing of Hoop Dreams and OJ: Made in America where as much about society as they were about sports but do wish the list had included a Sunday in Hell which is a personal favourite.

One of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog with great work on Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God. You can get a further taste for his idiosyncratic personality in David Marchese’s interview in the New York Times:

I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.

Header image: Ministry of Highway Construction taken on a cycle tour around Georgia. More photos of the building here.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: impact of coronavirus, Trump’s failures and the grow of VR and blockchain

We are beginning to see countries emerge from lockdown typically as the spread of coronavirus begins to peter out. Sweden has been something of an outlier in Western Europe with a relatively approach to social distancing and its embracing of the process of herd immunity as Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern, and Daniel B. Klein recount:

As the pain of national lockdowns grows intolerable and countries realize that managing—rather than defeating—the pandemic is the only realistic option, more and more of them will begin to open up. Smart social distancing to keep health-care systems from being overwhelmed, improved therapies for the afflicted, and better protections for at-risk groups can help reduce the human toll. But at the end of the day, increased—and ultimately, herd—immunity may be the only viable defense against the disease, so long as vulnerable groups are protected along the way. Whatever marks Sweden deserves for managing the pandemic, other nations are beginning to see that it is ahead of the curve.

As we attempt to move back to something close to normal life, many of us are beginning to look at ways of mitigating the risks we face particularly in our workplace. It looks increasingly like it’s indoor spaces where we’re most vulnerable to infection. Dr Erin Bromage reviews case studies of where we have a clearer view on where coronavirus was spread, providing some helpful advice:

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

It’s proving hard to get a clear picture on the impact of coronavirus on countries health, complicated by difficulties in gathering statistics and attributing deaths to the virus. The Economist has pulled together figures on excess mortality for different countries which provide an indication of how big a mark the virus has left on different populations.

Excess mortality since region/country’s first 50 covid deaths

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic but Edward Luce’s account provides one of the better ones:

In hindsight, Trump’s claim to global leadership leaps out. History will mark Covid-19 as the first time that ceased to be true. US airlifts have been missing in action. America cannot even supply itself.

The coronavirus pandemic has made disparities between different parts of society more apparent with knowledge workers often able to work from home. Service and manufacturing workers on the other hand are more likely to face unemployment or working in environments where working with social distancing might not be possible. Sara Selevitch’s account of life as a restaurant worker in Los Angeles makes clear some of the challenges many people are facing:

What I am getting used to instead is the arrival of a future that tech companies have been priming us for: public spaces populated mostly by delivery drivers purchasing doomsday groceries and meals for those wealthy enough to stay home.

The reality ignored by every #StayAtHome PSA is that people’s ability to social distance relies on the labor of others. It’s not so much that the work we’re doing is itself essential. It’s our working, rather, that is essential to maintaining the status quo.

Amazon is one of the organisations that has strengthened its hold on society during the pandemic acting as online department store for the masses (or at least those who can afford Amazon Prime). Unfortunately some of Amazon’s workers are doing better than others, so it’s encouraging to see some of their more privileged workers such as Tim Bray making their voices known:

Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power. If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward.

The election of Barack Obama gave many of us hope that America would become a post racial society but the election of Donald Trump has brought on a retrogressive trajectory. Here Adam Serwer reflects on what he describes as America’s racial contract:

The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so it’s great to see him writing about the food industry again even if the words are not especially flattering:

The pandemic is, willy-nilly, making the case for deindustrializing and decentralizing the American food system, breaking up the meat oligopoly, ensuring that food workers have sick pay and access to health care, and pursuing policies that would sacrifice some degree of efficiency in favor of much greater resilience. Somewhat less obviously, the pandemic is making the case not only for a different food system but for a radically different diet as well.

Franklin Foer points to the fragility of the American democratic system given the threat from the Russian state and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to address it:

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

Virtual reality has been one of those technologies that has seemed just around the corner for the last 10 years. While the consumer version of Oculus’s VR headsets have now been available for over 10 years now and there’s little sign of them making major in roads, even within the gaming community. Benedict Evans reflects on where to next:

To put this another way, it’s quite common to say that the iPhone, or PCs, or aircraft also looked primitive and useless once, but they got better, and the same will happen here. The problem with this is that the iPhone or the Wright Flier were indeed primitive and impractical, but they were breakthroughs of concept with clear paths for radical improvement. The iPhone had a bad camera, no apps and no 3G, but there was no reason why those couldn’t quickly be added. Blériot flew across the Channel just six years after the Wrights’ first powered flight. What’s the equivalent forward path here? There was an obvious roadmap for getting from a duct-taped mock-up to the Oculus Quest, and today for making the Quest even smaller and lighter, but what is the roadmap for breaking into a completely different model of consumer behaviour or consumer application? What specifically do you have to believe will change to take VR beyond games?

In a similar manner, Chris Dixon and Eddy Lazzarin explores the development of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, positing that we’ve seen three waves of innovation (with presumably more to come):

Crypto Price-Innovation Cycle

Andy Greenberg’s profile of Marcus Hutchins provides an engaging tale of redemption in the latters transition from black to white hat hacker:

Stadtmueller began, almost as if reminiscing to himself, by reminding Hutchins that he had been a judge for more than three decades. In that time, he said, he had sentenced 2,200 people. But none were quite like Hutchins. “We see all sides of the human existence, both young, old, career criminals, those like yourself,” Stadtmueller began. “And I appreciate the fact that one might view the ignoble conduct that underlies this case as against the backdrop of what some have described as the work of a hero, a true hero. And that is, at the end of the day, what gives this case in particular its incredible uniqueness.”

Header image: Clearing VII by Antony Gormley from his 2019 Royal Academy exhibition.

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Media diet

My media diet

Books read

I don’t spend as much time as I would like reading books as I find longform journalism often filling this space. That being said, books do provide a depth you can’t hope to get from a newspaper column or magazine article. You can find my incomplete reading list over on Goodreads.

Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored

by Jeffrey Boakye: A personal look at the language used by and about black people in the UK by a South London born teacher. Far from providing a definitive account but interesting to hear his take from the position as a first generation Ghanian in the city I now live in.

Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture

by Jace Clayton: I’ve been a long standing fan of Jace Clayton both as a DJ (his Solar Life Raft with Matt Shadetek being a particular favourite) as well as a writer. Uproot brings together a collection of his writings acting as something of a travelogue as he visits various music communities looking particularly where technology has re-shaped  music particularly from non Western creators. 

Nobber

by Oisín Fagan: I tend to favour fiction written in the present or the future so a book set in 14th century Ireland during the Black Death is something of an outlier. I appreciated the prose but didn’t find it a particularly easy read.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

by Gretchen McCulloch: inspired by an interview with Gretchen on the Ezra Klein Show. It’s great to hear how language has been shaped by communities on the internet and also provided the opportunity to brush up on my own digital etiquette.

Films

Find below films that I’ve seen relatively recently that I have appreciated even if it hasn’t necessarily left a smile on my face. You will find a more complete picture of what I have watched now and in the past on my Letterboxd profile.

Parasite

It seems almost another era when I was able to catch Parasite at the cinema but I would still describe it as a classic and something I am looking forward to revisiting. There’s some great explainer videos on YouTube which point to why the film makes such a great impact including ones from Thomas Flight and Nerdwriter.

Beanpole

I have had a growing fascination with the old Eastern Bloc helped along by occasional visits, the work of the Calvert 22 Foundation and representations on the silver screen (Leviathan,
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Tangerines spring to mind). Beanpole definitely fits at the bleaker end of the cinematic spectrum following the lives of a couple of women in Leningrad soon after the end of World War II.

Come and See

Another film that’s probably best not viewed if you’re on a downer. A Belarusian film set in World War II that is now considered something of a classic. Whilst the film definitely ticks some of the usual boxers associated with a war film, it also has an ethereal quality at times that definitely left a strong impression.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers are long standing favourites of mine with the wood chipper scene from Fargo remaining indelibly imprinted on my memory. A Serious Man isn’t as flashy as some of their other films but definitely has a healthy dose of black humour.

Dark Waters

The film brought to mind Michael Mann’s The Insider with a David versus Goliath battle (in this case with DuPont rather than the tobacco industry). Mark Ruffalo puts in a strong performance as a lawyer who switches sides from corporate defender to consumer plaintiff.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I’m not the greatest fan of French cinema or period drama but I read enough recommendations to persevere and the film impressed with its beauty.

Dheepan

Another French film that like La Haine, focuses on the experience of some of the marginalised that inhabit Paris’ banlieue. Dheepan focuses on a trio of Sri Lankan refugees thrown together in an environment that appears almost as toxic as the country they fled.

Queen & Slim

It’s interesting contrasting this film with Green Book. Both are road movies looking at racism in Southern America but Green Book is set in 1962 whereas Queen & Slim suggests there’s still plenty of need for #blacklivesmatter.

Memories of Murder

Watching Parasite inspired me to take a closer look at one of director Bong Joon-ho’s earlier works. You definitely a sense of Bong’s feel for the absurd but Parasite feels like a more accomplished work.

The Assistant

Drama following the experiences of a young graduate in a film production company with strong echoes of accounts from The Weinstein Company. Julia Garner cements her position as one of my favourite actresses with scene stealing role in Ozark.

Television

If there was one thing I’d like to see changed with Letterboxd, it would be the inclusion of television as well as film. Whilst I understand purists arguments for the uniqueness of film, in the age of streaming media I would argue the delineation between between the two mediums is tenuous at best.

Babylon Berlin

I have a something of a crush on Berlin which I put down to growing up there for a period with a particular fascination with the city’s Cold War history. Babylon Berlin is actually set in the earlier Weimar Germany and provides a much more fraught environment than you associate with many British period dramas. The production is stunning and the rising tide of fascism definitely provides something to reflect on as we see the growth of the far right around the world.

Ozark

For those of you looking to fill the slot left by Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, this series follows a family involved in laundering drug money in the American Ozarks. Series three recently went live on Netflix and reflects a return to the earlier form with some great acting and character journeys.

The Plot Against America

HBO series based on an adaption of a Philip Roth novel in an alternative reality where Charles Lindbergh is elected president and tilts USA towards fascism and antisemitism. The series doesn’t match up to creator David Simons’ strongest work (The Wire, Treme, Show me a Hero), but it provides another warning of how easily politics can be derailed in the wrong circumstances.

Homeland

I haven’t always got on with Homeland sometimes coming across as islamophobic and at times preposterous. That being said said the series often quickly responded to issues of the day. Series eight represents a return to form for the series centring on a potential peace process in Afghanistan with the usual mix of spycraft and international politics.

Normal People

I’ve seen too many fawning reviews of this BBC adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel with Jessa Crispin’s takedown echoing many of my own thoughts. That being said, it makes for easy escapist viewing with half hour episodes making for bite sized morsels.

Podcasts

I’m struggling to keep up with my podcast feed now that I’m no longer commuting to work. That being said, I find podcasts provide an important respite from the here and now of more traditional online news sources.

regular shows
Anthropocene Reviewed

A look at the world with John Green’s idiosyncratic view of the world.

Worldly

A regular review of international relations from Vox.

Guardian Audio Long Reads

A chance to catch up with The Guardian’s more cerebral journalism.

Reset

A look at the impact of technology on society.

Flash Forward

Part science fiction, part sociology looking at where our world is heading as well as reflecting on the present.

Stephanomics

A look at the world through the lens of economics from Stephanie Flanders.

Planet Money

Long running series from NPR taking a deep dive on economic issues through a consumer lens (US).

The Indicator from Planet Money

Bite sized spin off from Planet Money looking at different economic indicators through the week (US).

More or Less: behind the statistics

BBC show taking a critical look at statistics reported by the news media.

interview podcasts
The Ezra Klein Show

Interviews led by Vox founder Ezra Klein

Conversations with Tyler

Interviews led by Marginal Revolution author Tyler Cowen.

Longform Podcast

Interviews with high profile journalists from the team at Longform.

limited run series
Floodlines: the story of an unnatural disaster

A series looking at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans from the team at The Atlantic.

1619

A look at the lasting impact of slavery on contemporary American society from the New York Times.

Nice Try!

Avery Trufelman looks at different attempts to create utopian societies from around the world and across history.

Dolly Parton’s America

This series uses Dolly Parton as a filter to look at American culture wars.

The Missing Crypto Queen

BBC series where focus is more on greed and deceit rather than cryptography.

The Chernobyl Podcast

Series best consumed as a companion to HBO’s much loved Chernobyl programme.

Running from Cops

Series that pulls apart the Cops television series providing a valuable antidote to this pioneer in reality television.

Header image: Akumulator by Marcin Dudek at Edel Assanti gallery.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: coronavirus, the Republican Party, sensory deprivation and other matters

The following is a collection of articles and commentary that has caught my eye over the last week. Coronavirus still dominates news although fortunately there’s more to what I’ve read than talk of social distancing and estimates on fatalities. I hope you enjoy…

While Britain wasted the opportunity to get ahead of the coronavirus outbreak, it is America that really dropped the ball as Jay Rosen aptly makes clear :

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence. 

Getting a clear understanding on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is complicated by the fact that it is associated with particularly affecting those with pre-existing health conditions. Despite this, research reported in The Economist estimates that many of those people whose deaths has been attributed to coronavirus would have been otherwise had many more years of life:

Estimated years of life lost from covid-19 deaths by age group and long-term conditions

The coronavirus pandemic presents challenges in many cases where the business as usual approach simply doesn’t work. Susan Athey, Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder and Alex Tabarrok point to the need for the right incentives to ensure that vaccines aren’t simply invented but also get produced in quantities needed:

Usually, to avoid the risk of investing in capacity that eventually proves worthless, firms invest in large-scale capacity only after the vaccine has proved effective. But in the middle of a pandemic, there are huge social and economic advantages to having vaccines ready to use as soon as they have been approved. If we leave it entirely to the market, we will get too little vaccine too late.

The coronavirus pandemic is a health problem that can readily be mitigated or compounded by the distribution of the right information in a timely manner. Anne Helen Petersen reports on Montana based Dr. Annie Bukacek’s questioning of the severity of the coronavirus nd how it has exacerbated political divisions:

Bukacek and others like her frame their opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, now and in the future, as part of a larger spiritual, political, and ideological battle. Their resistance is local, and, even here in Montana, still very much in the minority. Which perhaps explains the feeling of discombobulation, watching and hearing about the protests in the news or in your feeds: They’re such a small percentage of an otherwise largely compliant whole. But in a state of emergency, it only takes a handful, speaking to people’s deepest and darkest fears, to destabilize an entire society.

China adopted a rather different approach as the crisis became more apparent. Chinese state took a tight grasp on what information could be shared by the press and social media as reported by Shawn Yuan:

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

Coronavirus and the associated social distancing has brought forward all sorts of experiments which might otherwise have taken years to come forward. One of these is Universal Studios’ decision to release Trolls World Tour directly into homes at the 48-hour rental price of $19.99, earning a healthy $77m in revenues before marketing expenses. It will be interesting to see if this represents an outlier based on an unprecedented circumstances or a sign of the declining importance of the cinematic experience.

Taking a more far reaching approach, author Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that the coronavirus pandemic may be enough to wake us from complacency and the status quo:

We’re now confronting a miniature version of the tragedy of the time horizon. We’ve decided to sacrifice over these months so that, in the future, people won’t suffer as much as they would otherwise. In this case, the time horizon is so short that we are the future people. It’s harder to come to grips with the fact that we’re living in a long-term crisis that will not end in our lifetimes. But it’s meaningful to notice that, all together, we are capable of learning to extend our care further along the time horizon. Amid the tragedy and death, this is one source of pleasure. Even though our economic system ignores reality, we can act when we have to. At the very least, we are all freaking out together. To my mind, this new sense of solidarity is one of the few reassuring things to have happened in this century. If we can find it in this crisis, to save ourselves, then maybe we can find it in the big crisis, to save our children and theirs.

Donald Trump is often perceived as something of a roughneck that rubbed more traditional elements of the Republican Party the wrong way. Given this, it’s interesting to read Evan Osnos’ detailed read on how Trump furnished support from the wealthy enclave of Greenwich Connecticut.

On the ground where I grew up, some of America’s powerful people have championed a version of capitalism that liberates wealth from responsibility. They embraced a fable of self-reliance (except when the fable is untenable), a philosophy of business that leaches more wealth from the real economy than it creates, and a vision of politics that forgives cruelty as the price of profit. In the long battle between the self and service, we have, for the moment, settled firmly on the self. To borrow a phrase from a neighbor in disgrace, we stopped worrying about “the moral issue here.”

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that has appeared just around the corner for quite some time. An indication of the still limited uptake can be found in Steam’s release of figures that point to just 1.9% of their users owning VR headsets…still very niche.

Many of us are on the lookout for the next big thing in digital media which is likely to unseat Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tik Tok…Nathan Baschez gives a pretty detailed look at Clubhouse which he describes as “halfway between a podcast and a party” in what is being described as an emerging wave of spontaneous social apps.

It’s sometimes hard to visualise the income inequalities we face not only between nations but also within them. Matt Korostoff’s data visualisation of the average median US household income in comparison to the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos makes a good start.

Comparison median US household income with wealth of Jeff Bezos

In a rather different world to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon is Sirin Kale’s exploration of the world of dropshipping which begins to sound more and more like a Ponzi scheme:

This year, his Shopify records show he’ll clear about $90,000 (£69,000) in personal profit. He describes dropshipping as a “real-life video game”, albeit one he doesn’t seem to enjoy an awful lot. “When you do dropshipping and Facebook ads, it’s like going to the casino and pressing the slot machine, and based off what happens, that’s how your emotions are going to be,” he says.

Tom Lamont uses Sam Winstons experiment with sensory deprivation in his exploration of how we are all responding to a world of over stimulation and information overload:

Winston went into the dark for a month in a bid to escape the digital bell-chimes, the bouncing icons, the bulletins and info-blasts – our exhausting daily scroll. “But when you go into the dark for a long time,” Winston admitted to me, recently, “you’re not going into a void. You’re going into yourself. And good luck finding blissful empty quiet there.” There was nothing to compete with the loud, incessant inner monologue or drown it out. I wondered, then, whether we’d created and refined all our sparkly informational distractions because on some level we knew the relentlessness of the subconscious had the real power to overload.

Kevin Kelly pulled together 68 pieces of unsolicited advice on his birthday. You will probably have heard a number of them before but it’s hard to fault them for providing advice for life.

Header image: Home by Gordon Cheung from the Tears of Paradise exhibition at Edel Assanti gallery.

Categories
Thought Starters

Thought starters: coronavirus special

Find below recent reports and commentary on coronavirus and its impacts that have helped me get a better grasp of what is going on in the world around us.

Many of us are scrabbling for answers when it comes to coronavirus. Ed Young looks at what we do know about the virus and also why their remains considerable uncertainty and in some cases confusion despite the considerable efforts of the scientific community. Definitely worth your time:

The coronavirus not only co-opts our cells, but exploits our cognitive biases. Humans construct stories to wrangle meaning from uncertainty and purpose from chaos. We crave simple narratives, but the pandemic offers none.

David Conn, Felicity Lawrence, Paul Lewis, Severin Carrell, David Pegg, Harry Davies and Rob Evans have written an extensive report for the Guardian on Britain’s response (or lack thereof) to the coronavirus pandemic. This provides a valuable companion piece to Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake’s report detailed previously.

Nature has produced an illustrated guide to the different avenues being pursued for a coronavirus vaccine:

The spread of coronavirus epidemic provides a indicator of the increasingly global world we now live in. The data visualisation from Nextstrain shows how the virus has spread but also the regions at the periphery that have so far been comparatively unaffected.

Coronavirus has led some commentators to question the dominant role of cars in our urban spaces and the often marginalised position of pedestrians and other active travellers. Here’s Tom Vanderbilt writing for The Atlantic:

The message is clear: The storage of empty vehicles is more important than the neighborhood’s fundamental mode of transport. Which is why some of the tensions that have flared during the coronavirus crisis—over runners using the sidewalk, or pedestrians using the bike lane—are particularly tragic. These confrontations are often ascribed to some personality flaw of the runner or pedestrian herself—she’s rude or entitled—rather than seen as an indictment of the misguided system that pits two people on a narrow sidewalk against each other in the first place. No one yells at a parked car, and the driver who scuttles by in the road gets a free pass, even as his driving imposes noise, pollution, and elevated climate risk upon those around him.

Similarly as coronavirus forces many of us to work from home, Catherine Nixey takes a closer look at the office and its inevitable ups and downs:

It’s too early to say whether the office is done for. As with any sudden loss, many of us find our judgment blurred by conflicting emotions. Relief at freedom from the daily commute and pleasure at turning one’s back on what Philip Larkin called “the toad work” are tinged with regret and nostalgia, as we prepare for another shapeless day of WFH in jogging bottoms.

Header image: Artist and His Model, 1926 by Pablo Picasso from the Picasso and Paper exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.