Pandemic Dashboard: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Flattening the Curve

We’ve moved on from the innumeracy edition to the “spot the inflection” phase as bureaucrats everywhere try to solve for the flattening and claim success.

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Scorpio Season: A New Talk Show

My friend Lisa (@niftynei) and I decided to start a talk show. It’s called Scorpio Season, since we’re both scorpios. You can subscribe to it as a podcast, or watch/listen it on YouTube. At the moment the video version is just the two of us as talking heads, but we might throw in some graphics in future episodes.

Scorpio Season is a show about everything… in alphabetical order. Since we both have a lot of random little interests that are all over the place, we figured it would be a good, discordian disorganization scheme for our improv ramblings.

The first three episodes, A-C are up.

The first two episodes featured A for Astrology and Aesthetics, and B for beefs, bitcoin, and Biden/Bernie. If we get to 26 episodes, we’ll cycle back to A. As you might guess, in the most recent one, there’s a lot of C for Coronovirus here, but also C for Cartoons.

The next episode is D: for David Deutsch, Doja Cat, and Dark Age. That will be up soon.

Pandemic Dashboard: 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

I’m starting a new blogchain to track the COVID-19 pandemic, in a new, modular, block-based format. Each part will be a variable number of tweet-sized status assessments in titled blocks, coded red/green/yellow, like so:

Flattening the Curve

The innumeracy of the initial versions has given way to an appreciation of the actual level to which the healthcare system will be overwhelmed, but no actual solution.

I call this format a blocktrace dashboard: a dashboard in the form of a blogchain of blocktraces evolving across parts. For this first dashboard, I have 15 status blocks, most of which I think I’ll be tracking for a while. But most updates will probably be 3-4 blocks. If you want to make your own blocktrace dashboard to track the pandemic (or anything else), scroll to the bottom for the how-to. It’s really easy in WordPress.

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Domestic Cozy: 12

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Ever since the coronavirus crisis broke out, multiple people have been telling me I “called it” with this domestic cozy blogchain. I didn’t. What I did call out is a longer-term soft trend caused by unrelated forces — social, cultural, and economic — that happens to be eerily well-harmonized with the necessary hard response to a pandemic. We’re entering an enforced condition of what I call hard cozy, which is acting like a strong tailwind for the domestic cozy trend already underway. This picture popped into my head thinking about our current state (I’m also reminded of my 2014 post, Demons by Candlelight).

Enforced or voluntary, soft or hard, one way or another a vast fraction of humanity is suddenly being forced to discover The Great Indoors.

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Masks All The Way Down

This is a guest post by James Curcio, an excerpt from MASKS: Bowie & Artists of Artifice (Intellect Books), available now

Bowie appeared unusually prescient when it came to the Internet, and what its social significance would be, though he maintained an amount of pre-millenarian utopianism. Perhaps this prescience is more akin to an optical illusion; he was already well on his way, having spent most of his life plumbing the rewards and dangers of the mask before most people had even recognized the unmooring power of anonymity or the virtual. Although an ever-shifting world of masks may be navigable to aliens like Bowie, many have not found themselves so well equipped. This is surely the fraying future society he imagined when he penned the character/interlude ‘Algeria Touchshriek’:

I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr. Walloff Domburg
A reject from the world wide Internet
He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man
It would be nice to have company
We could have great conversations
Lookin’ through windows for demons
Watchin’ the young advance in all electric 

Digitization has yet to allow us to flee our material origins. If we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. Those who go permanently offline and return to the village of the future may find it is falling in on itself, the windows cracked and soot-stained. It is eerily silent, with not even the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.

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Plot Economics

For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
  2. 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
  3. Trump election (2016, I was 42)
  4. Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)

It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.

So what do we do in the meantime?

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Predictable Identities 26: Academic Identity

This entry is part 26 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Why do smart kids go to grad school, to be underpaid and overworked for the prime years of their youth in a setting that sextuples their chances of suffering from anxiety and depression?

Scott Alexander posits that academia is like a drug gang: the suffering is worth the 5-10% chance of becoming a kingpin tenured professor. Tenure is pretty great. You get paid six figures to converse with intellectual peers, do research, and have your ideas read by an admiring public. But wait: I get paid six figures, chat with the best shitposters on Twitter during work hours, do research, and you’re reading my blogchain instead of an academic paper. Most people smart enough for a PhD can follow a similar path to corporate sinecure with a much more certain success rate than the academic lottery.

What I’m missing is the identity of an academic. An academic is an intellectual, a truth-seeker and truth-teller, a lifelong learner. Whereas I only do those things, if I feel like it.

An identity gives you permission to do all the above. External permission, such as being allowed in a laboratory if that’s where your interests are pursued. But it’s also about allowing yourself to engage in intellectual pursuits. Or even: being afraid that without the external pressure of people expecting (predicting) novel intellectual output from you, you would not create any.

Consider this tweet:

Who would stay in a job that drives them to anxiety attacks and tearful breakdowns? Only someone who literally put “Scientist” in their name, who made that epithet more painful to lose than their mental health.

The dark irony of this all is: since your identity is in the hands of academic institutions, they exert vast control over you. It could be benign, but it could include demanding that someone betray their actual truth-seeking and truth-telling work if it goes against the institutions interests. The identity is not the thing; sometimes you must choose one over the other.

The New Uncanny Valley

This is a guest post by Jakub Stachurski

Every advancement in communication has overcome distance through the reduction of identity. The mail summarizes us, the phone condenses us into a voice, and the Internet flattens us into profiles. We become the necessary abstractions of our technology, reduced for the sake of ingestion. Increasingly we spend more time in this reduced identity state of incorporeal flatness than we do in the face-to-face dimension.

“He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” — Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

In contrast to Stephenson’s vision of the avatar, our online interactions occur without our bodies in view, lacking gesture, nuance, inflection and all the unconscious bells and whistles that corporeality adds to a conversation. As the propensity for face-to-face conversation decreases, our average interactions are degraded to the primarily text-based messaging and posting that happens through social media platforms. The Internet has become our primary venue for communication but we lack the technology to project our bodies and voices in the manner of Stephenson’s “Metaverse.” 

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A Text Renaissance

There is a renaissance underway in online text as a medium. The Four Horsemen of this emerging Textopia are:

  1. Roam, a hypertext publishing platform best understood as a medium for composing conspiracy theories and extended universes.
  2. Substack, a careful and thorough ground-up neoclassical reconstruction of the age-old email newsletter.
  3. Static websites, built out of frameworks like Jekyll or Gatsby (full disclosure: a consulting client).
  4. And finally, Threaded Twitter, a user-pioneered hack-turned-supported feature that has wonderfully revitalized the platform.

I want to take a stab at lightly theorizing this renaissance. And also speculating, in light of this renaissance, about what might be the eighth and penultimate death of blogging. And the future of books. So it’s going to be a sprawling, messy hot take on the State of Textual Media. Or at least a simmering take, since I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a year on the backburner.

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Weirding Diary: 11

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

We’re barely seven weeks into 2020, and it’s already the weirdest year in my living memory. We’ve been through: Australia on fire, a near-war between the US and Iran, a sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing impeachment theater, a primary election mess in the US caused by a Bad App, Actual Brexit,™ and now we have the snowballing Covid-19/SARS-CoV-2/coronovirus crisis (revealing that officials can’t even agree on a name) driving an entire empire into some sort of lockdown, and slowly starting to freeze up global supply chains. All these stories were decades in the making, and none of them is even close to over yet.

Danielle Baskin wins the Q12020 Weirding Way award for coming up with these N95 masks with your lower face printed on them, to allow facial recognition based phone unlocking to work in a world full of coronoviruses and smoke from Australia burning. A whole new meaning to “put on your happy face.”

View image on Twitter

Lenin reportedly said, “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.” Every week in 2020 so far has been one of those decade-weeks. All you can do is put on your happy-smile N95 mask.

I haven’t updated this blogchain since last September, so let’s do a quick reorientation. In fact, let’s step back a bit beyond that, and talk about strategies for mapping and sense-making the weirding.

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