Nature, Nurture, Noise

Jordana Cepelewicz | Quanta | 23rd March 2020

We think of the passage from genotype to phenotype as being determined by two rival forces, Nature and Nurture. But a third force, Noise (which is to say, randomisation), may be more influential than either. Embryos exhibit seemingly random variations from their earliest days. A study of armadillos — which reproduce in litters of genetically identical quadruplets, making them ideal for controlled tests — show that “arbitrary coin flips” start to occur when an embryo consists of a mere 25 cells (3,200 words)

What The Virus Said

Robert Hurley | Lundi Matin | 27th March 2020

A poem, of sorts. As if Nietzsche did the first draft with T.S. Eliot on rewrite. “Thank me: I place you in front of the bifurcation that was tacitly structuring your existences: the economy or life. It’s your move, your turn to play. Either you go with the truths that are coming to light, or you put your head on the chopping block. Either you use the time I’m giving you to envision the world of the aftermath in light of what you’ve learned from the collapse that’s underway, or the latter will go extreme” (1,720 words)

Transplant Organs Missing In Transit

JoNel Aleccia | Reveal | 8th February 2020

Surgeons will personally collect and transport hearts, which survive only four to six hours out of the body. But kidneys and pancreases – which have longer shelf lives – rely for shipment within the US on packing and dispatching by a network of non-profits. They often travel as cargo, with no special status. Some miss connecting flights or end up as lost luggage. “If an airline forgets to put a kidney on a plane or a courier misses a flight because he got lost or stuck in traffic, there is no consequence” (2,800 words)

Gem Fatale

Clancy Martin | Bookforum | 30th March 2020

Tales from the pawnbroking trade, spurred by watching the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. “You bought a used Rolex at a pawnshop for $1,000 from the kid who just paid $500 for it, hurried it over to your watch guy to hit it on the wheel and make it look new, replaced the old worn buckle with a $50 counterfeit, and resold it to your friend who owned the jewellery store a few blocks over for $2,200 — or $2,275 if she wanted a counterfeit leather box. She could retail it the same day for $3,500” (1,850 words)

The Next Steps

Benjamin Bidder et al | Spiegel | 27th March 2020

The crisis viewed from Germany; a plain-worded exploration of the trade-offs between public health and productivity. Governments have handed authority to scientists who understand the mathematics and biology of epidemics but not necessarily the social and political fundamentals. By locking down cities and countries we can reduce the spread of disease; but we also encourage “fear, isolation, depression and domestic violence”. Should one paper — from Imperial College — change a billion lives? (7,100 words)

Video: Concatenation | Donato Sansone. Heterogeneous images yoked together by violence (1m 01s)

Audio: What Flat Earthers Believe | Scientific American. Steve Mirsky and Michael Marshall discuss whether, and on what basis, a reasonable person can believe that the Earth is flat (33m 52s)

”All logical arguments can be defeated by the simple refusal to reason logically”
— Steven Weinberg

Crisis Research, Fast And Slow

Anne Scheel | 100% CI | 26th March 2020

The current crisis demands rapid action — and, therefore, rapid scientific research, rapidly analysed and rapidly reported. But research done in haste tends to be research done badly. Wrong answers are worse than no answers at all. They distract us from finding the right answers. “Our concern about this unusual and serious situation leads us to overlook the potential costs of conducting and consuming research in emergency mode. Let’s not let our guard down before we’ve considered the consequences” (1,970 words)

Evil Genius And Societal Risks

David Bernstein | Volokh Conspiracy | 26th March 2020

Thought experiment. Topical. The motor car does not yet exist; an Evil Genius comes to you and asks you to authorise its invention, on behalf of humanity; you must balance the benefits of mobility against the certainty that these new motor cars will kill 50,000 people each year in America alone. What do you decide? Then, suppose the Evil Genius expresses the math differently, saying that your incremental chance of dying in a car accident is a mere 1 in 6,000 per year — would that change your view? (960 words)

Since I Became Symptomatic

Leslie Jamison | New York Review Of Books | 26th March 2020

One thing in relatively short supply since the start of this pandemic has been good first-hand writing about what it’s like to have the virus. Here, Leslie Jamison sets the bar high: “When I wake with my heart pounding in the middle of the night, my sheets are soaked with sweat that must be full of virus. The virus is my new partner, our third companion in the apartment, wetly draped across my body in the night. When I get up for water I have to sit on the floor, halfway to the sink, so I don’t faint” (1,475 words)

Wounds Heal, Scars Last

Morgan Housel | Collaborative Fund | 26th March 2020

Useful handle on how deeply the pandemic has marked us; it has changed not only our experiences, but also our expectations. “What we’ve been through this year is not the Great Depression. But this time we also have the lingering scars of 2008. The Great Recession shook people, but the prevailing idea was that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now that we’ve been smacked even harder a decade later, a generation may be left convinced that this is the normal path of economic life” (1,390 words)

Naming And Belonging

Maryam Sikander | India Forum | 12th March 2020

In which the author traces her family roots in India. Her surname suggests a kinship with ancient Mughal rulers. But was that merely a grandparent’s caprice? “Do I or do I not have Mughal roots? My grandfather loved regal names, so he named my father Sikander-e-Azam, literally ‘Alexander-the-Great’, and my uncle Babar-e-Azam, making my cousins, in all earnestness, Babar ki aulaad, the juicy pejorative used for Indian Muslims. I am only glad we don’t have an Aurangzeb or Taimur in our family” (2,750 words)

Video: Le Plombier Polonais | Frederic Doazan. Delightful brief history (in French) of the Polish Plumber, a symbol of globalisation when the European Union was opening its borders in the mid-2000s (3m 12s)

Audio: Where Do We Get Two Trillion Dollars? | Planet Money. Almost everybody gets a cheque or a tax-break in America’s latest bailout. Where does this unimaginable sum of money originate? (20m 33s)

”Hope is patience with the lamp lit”
— Tertullian

Virtual Wrongdoing

Eric Sheng | Practical Ethics | 25th March 2020

Should we feel uneasy when a player does something bad in a video game — for example, torturing a captive? Yes, we should be uneasy, but not necessarily because the bad action taking place in the video game has consequences in the real world. Whether it does or not is matter of debate. The thing that should worry us is what the bad action “presumptively reveals about the player”. We can reasonably assume that the player brings to the game preferences already formed in real life (2,080 words)

Toponymic Subjugation

Peter Trudgill | Standpoint | 25th March 2020

Should we call foreign cities by their foreign names? Or does it add to the richness of life that London, for example, should be Londino to Greeks, Londra to Italians, Londyn to Poles, Londer to Albanians, Lontoo to Finns, Londonas to Lithuanians, and Llundain to Welsh? It may seem respectful to use the local name. But cities with many names in many languages tend to be cities of global and historical importance. We do world-cities a greater honour by preserving their many names than by forgetting them (1,020 words)

The Roman Way Of Warfare

Rebecca Burgess | Strategy Bridge | 25th March 2020

Ancient Rome prevailed by first winning the hearts and minds of its own soldiers. “Any polity can field an army through compulsion or other violent means. What matters more is what makes the average person stay on the battlefield. The Roman Republic motivated its soldiers its by honouring the initiative, strength, discipline, courage and loyalty of individual citizens. This combination of public and private values culminated in the superiority of the Roman legion against the Macedonian phalanx” (2,090 words)

Covid-19, A Retrospective

Jacques Mattheij | 24th March 2020

Fiction. How we may look back on the current pandemic in a couple of years’ time, and what we may have learned. “Only 35% of the population caught the virus. It still springs up now and then when a closely connected group of individuals gets infected. Old people have become a rarity, especially in public. They suffered more than most. It’s hard to meet their eyes, knowing that we live because so many of them died. Triage at the admittance to the ICUs was based on life expectancy and recovery expectancy” (1,200 words)

The Medical Detective

Sandra Hempel | Granta | 24th March 2020

How doctors in Sunderland treated a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. “Betty Short was subjected to a very varied treatment including brandy, laudanum, calomel, cajeput oil, rhubarb, jalap, turpentine, bleeding to eight ounces, a mustard poultice and a turpentine enema. Robert Jordan was also dosed with brandy, laudanum, calomel and turpentine, but in addition he had to endure ammonia, sulphuric ether, scalding bricks on his feet, hands and stomach, and bladders of boiling water on his head” (6,100 words)

Video: Critical Mass | Aujik. A technical exercise in computer simulation of granular movement; which is also a reminder that we can no longer distinguish visually between the real and the artificial (2m 54s)

Audio: Why Toilet Paper? | The Journal. Demand is consistent; the average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day. Supply is plentiful; we hoard only because we think others might do so (18m 58s)

“You shall know the truth, and it will make you odd”
— Flannery O'Connor

Bigger Brother

Tim Wu | New York Review Of Books | 19th March 2020

Discussion of Shoshanna Zuboff’s Age Of Surveillance Capitalism, which argues that the priorities of capitalism have shifted from the provision of privacy to the destruction of it. “In a capitalist system, the expected level of privacy can be captured by one single equation: Is there more money to be made through surveillance or through the building of walls? For a long time, the answer was ‘walls’, because walls made up houses and other forms of private property. Today, the balance has shifted” (3,318 words)

Corporate Persons

Bran Emrys | Siri | 18th March 2020

On the legal identity and moral capacity of corporations. “Some are tempted to argue that a corporate person, whether a firm, a church, or a club, cannot be anything other than the members it has at a time; but this does not fit the actual phenomena as we find them. In some cases, like a church, remaining the same while gaining new members is entirely the point. A corporate person can continue to exist even though it has no members, as in the case of a vacant crown or see” (2,080 words)

The Banality Of Vova

Craig Pirrong | Streetwise Professor | 18th March 2020

Short, pithy note evaluating Russia’s recent constitutional amendments which, in effect, make Vladimir Putin president for life. “In so far as the US is concerned, this is probably the best outcome. A succession struggle in a hostile nuclear power is not a happy prospect. And it’s not a bad thing when a self-proclaimed rival is in the hands of an ageing man, in a country where men do not age well, whose mental powers will diminish and who will become more risk-averse with age” (420 words)

The Soldier’s Last Taboo

Jonathan Heaf | GQ | 22nd May 2018

Surgeons and soldiers talk about the spike in injuries to men’s genitals from landmines and IEDs. “Before pelvic protection was widely deployed, the signature injury in the first half of the conflict in Afghanistan was bilateral high-leg amputation with severe injury to the anorectum, necessitating a colostomy, and severe genito-urethral injury. In short, genital trauma started becoming a real concern. It is still an issue and an injury that is hardly ever talked about. It is the injured serviceman’s last taboo” (5,300 words)

The Greatest Catastrophe Ever

Ole Benedictow | History Today | 3rd March 2005

Lessons from the Black Death. “The Black Death swept away around 60 per cent of Europe’s population. It is generally assumed that the size of Europe’s population at the time was around 80 million. This implies that around 50 million people died in the Black Death. This is a truly mind-boggling statistic. It overshadows the horrors of the Second World War, and is twice the number murdered by Stalin’s regime. As a proportion of the population, the Black Death caused unrivalled mortality” (4,200 words)

Video: Flavio With Spaniels | Tilda Swinton. Spaniels have fun on a beach, to the sound of Anthony Roth Costanzo’s performance of Rompo i Lacci from Handel’s Flavio (5m 59s)

Video: The Coronavirus Explained | Kurzgesagt. I hesitate to recommend more on the pandemic, because it probably occupies a large part of your reading and viewing already; but for a factual briefing on how the virus spreads, and what it does, this is time well spent (8m 34s)

Audio: Period Positivity | TED. Ananya Grover talks about menstruation, a manageable inconvenience except where social taboos restrict access to advice and supplies (9m 09s)

”Anything can happen, but it usually doesn’t”
— Robert Benchley

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