Links: Extreme vaccine success, the change in stance towards nuclear power, modern censorship, and more!

* Israeli vaccination data shows the mRNA vaccines perform incredibly well. The end is in sight.

* “I Tracked Down The Girls Who Bullied Me As A Kid. Here’s What They Had To Say.” If I taught high school I’d assign this essay to students.

* “The Activists Who Embrace Nuclear Power,” in the New Yorker, and perhaps the canonical-but-accessible article on this subject for the skeptical. Michael Shellenberger is good on Twitter, too. This is perhaps indicative of modern culture and problems: “Nuclear power was associated with radiation, which, like pesticides, could threaten that web.” The phrase “associated with:” we’re thinking about metaphor, not about data.

* Description of parent pushing back against “critical race theory” (CRT) in their kid’s school.

* On how campus administrators push universities to act like corporations, among other things. Thefire.org has many interesting takes on culture and academia.

* “The cultural ‘myths’ that affect parenting:” not a great title and some flaws, but overall compatible with The Anthropology of Childhood.

* On the peculiarities of modern censorship culture, but also the history of censorship.

* “Story Time With Titania McGrath,” extremely amusing.

* The Guardian‘s middlebrow take on “sending nudes.”

* The Framework laptop: a truly modular and modern laptop, it would seem, although I’d think they should offer it pre-installed with Linux. Maybe their contract with Microsoft forbids that. Still, an admirable effort.

* “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State.” And yet widespread condemnation of Disney and others remains curiously absent, almost as if parochial concerns suck up much of the cultural air in the U.S.

* “The Republican Party Is Now in Its End Stages:” “one hopes,” I would add, but I’m not sure the argument is true.

Links: What I worked on, living an optimal life, Patricia Highsmith, and more!

* Paul Graham’s life story, under the header “What I worked on.”

* “California State Legislator Introduces Bill to Decriminalize Psychedelics.”

* “How We Did It: Two new books flesh out the history of smut, from Etsy-like handicrafts to the sexy swamp of Tumblr.” On The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America and Ana Valens’ Tumblr Porn. How do they compare to Thy Neighbor’s Wife, one wonders? Or at least I did, but then I read the second one and it feels more like an extended Tumblr riff mixed with an undergrad term paper than a book.

* Cancel the New York Times, on the seeming narrowing of permissible opinion online. Maybe pseudonyms are the way to go online now, in which case I’m making a mistake right now.

* “France Sees an Existential Threat From American Campuses: Prominent politicians and intellectuals say social theories from the United States on race, gender and post-colonialism are undermining their society.” The growth of this from fringe campus nonsense to hitting real workplaces still surprises me, although I wonder also if we’re going to see workplace norms change too.

* On Patricia Highsmith. I read the biography, which seems well done, and Highsmith seems to have led a life of sex, booze, and writing, probably in that order.

* “Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?” Not just the usual, and a statement of work as a paycheck versus work as changing the world.

* John McWhorter: “The Neoracists: A new religion is preached across America. It’s nonsense posing as wisdom.” Persuasion.community is also producing disproportionately good and interesting writing right now. Tablet Mag is also good but won’t let readers read articles unless Javascript is enabled, which is very annoying. NoScript is a great, and educational, extension.

* “Whatever the faults of overconfidence or contrarianism sometimes may be, it seems clear to me that spreading a society-wide message that the solution is to simply trust the existing outputs of society, whether those come in the form of academic institutions, media, governments or markets, is not the solution. All of these institutions can only work precisely because of the presence of individuals who think that they do not work, or who at least think that they can be wrong at least some of the time.” Things may be the way they are for reasons mostly good, but things can also be made better if enough people want them to be made better.

* “I helped build ByteDance’s censorship machine.” ByteDance is the parent company of TikTok.

* The admissions office versus standards?

* Effort. It’s usually underestimated and underappreciated. Relatedly, it’s far easier to “comment” or “critique” than it is to make things. I sometimes like to think of it as the distinction between consuming and producing; many people find the move from school to the real world challenging because that’s also a move from a consumption-based world to a production-based world.

Links: Apple & China, Clubhouse & podcasts, the bad article about Slate Star Codex, and more!

* Detailed article about Apple in the Tim Cook era, with emphasis on Apple’s commitment to manufacturing in China. Apple doesn’t appear worried about China invading or attempting to invade Taiwan; it’s also notable that, as with Disney and China, there’s little public outcry or discussion. What should we draw from that, regarding many social/political controversies in the U.S.? What things should be prominent but aren’t? One comment on the great stagnation and the growth of bureaucracy in the U.S.:

“Jon Rubinstein, a senior vice president for hardware engineering during Jobs’s second tour at Apple, recalls almost having a heart attack in 2005 when he went with Gou to see a new factory in Shenzhen for the iPod Nano—a tiny device 80% smaller than Apple’s original MP3 player—only to find an empty field. Within months, though, a large structure and production line were in place. ‘In the U.S. you couldn’t even get the permits approved in that time frame,’ he says.”

In possibly related, and definitely good, news: “Samsung Foundry: New $17 Billion Fab in the USA by Late 2023.”

* On Clubhouse, the social media app focused on audio, but not a podcast app either.

* “The Mushrooms Will Survive Us,” on the popularity of mushroom cultivation as a hobby.

* Good interview with Zeynep Tüfekçi, who called the pandemic early and has done much on privacy, technology, and human interaction.

* Coinbase founder “Brian Armstrong on the Crypto Economy” and other topics, like the need to focus.

* “Extremely Online: The Novel.” A review I’m happy to have read for a novel I’m fine with not having read.

* “‘It’s Chaos’: Behind the Scenes of Donald McNeil’s New York Times Exit: Senior editors beamed in by video, staffers raged on Slack, and takes flowed on Twitter. Even with all the recent Times drama—Caliphate, Chillsgate—the McNeil mess, said one reporter, is ‘the most explosive scandal I’ve seen at the paper.'” It’s drama on the one hand, yes, but also emblematic of the times (the times of the Times, you might say) on the other.

* Thinking about how we perceive psychiatric conditions, with thoughts about evolution and such as well.

* “California Is Making Liberals Squirm:” the state is ruled almost entirely by democrats, but it’s not a state that anyone would call “well-governed.” Matt Yglesias had a similar essay in November, covering Massachusetts, another state that people are, on the net, leaving—for states that are both warmer and also politically redder.

* The NYT article on Slate Star Codex (SSC) came out and it’s terrible: here is an example of what more accurate quoting from Scott Alexander would look like, and here is a partial list of the ways the NYT attempts to mislead readers. I had some NYT complaints in 2015, and, while I still cite it frequently—I did in this links post—but don’t fully trust it. You can’t. SSC is also, to my mind, a strange choice for such a hit piece, because curious readers can go read SSC instantaneously and see that the author is being disingenuous, at best. There’s an implied threat in the NYT article: if you think for yourself, become popular, and don’t toe the line, you will become a target. The SSC comment on the article has ten times the integrity and thought than the article itself. How do we know what we know? We ought to be working harder to answer such questions.

* Another take about the above, this time on what “middlebrow” means.

Links: Charter schools, how not to cover books, healing divisions, and more!

* Are charter schools being punished for their successes? Too much mood affiliation in the given headline, but of interest nonetheless.

* “‘Their goal is to destroy everyone’: Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape,” from the BBC. A horrifying story.

* “A YouTuber Shoots to Literary Fame in France, Ruffling Feathers” is a terrible article because it manages to say nothing at all about the quality of the book in question. Its author seems terrified to take a stance, and so presents the scenario as one of interest groups, rather than of literary or artistic quality. How boring.

* “How to Talk to Millennials About Capitalism: Polls show that young people embrace socialism—but they also distrust government regulation and admire entrepreneurialism and small business.” Not a great title but an interesting article; for most people, “socialism” seems to be a mood or identity affiliation, not a policy preference or set of policy proposals.

* “The reshaped Mac experience,” and “reshaped for the worse” one might add. I’ve noticed some of these things, but they’re aren’t sufficiently irritating to make me leave altogether. Messages and iMessage are also key bits of infrastructure for me.

* “Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions.” Good, and a good article. We could and should spend more time slowing down, thinking, and recognizing common humanity—and less time on Facebook.

* “Students Punished for ‘Vulgar’ Social Media Posts Are Fighting Back.” Good. The administrative overreach should see a backlash.

* The relentless Jeff Bezos.

* “Luck, foresight and science: How an unheralded team developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.” A tremendously impressive story.

* “The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record.” An adaptation, essentially, of The Ends of the World (a great book worth reading). Few people incorporate the basic points made by such research analyses into their everyday lives: the gap between the “terrifying warning” and the sales of pickup trucks, for example, is vast, and perhaps widening.

* What is the value of restraint?

* “The Journalistic Tattletale and Censorship Industry Suffers Several Well-Deserved Blows.” Not the exact framing I’d prefer but a description of a real issue.

The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

Links: Patricia Highsmith the person, free speech, know your amphetamines, and more!

* A poisonous person, Patricia Highsmith was an enduring writer. Highsmith “abjured monogamy herself, believing it undermined her creativity.” That is a theory, I suppose.

* “China seized my sister. Biden must fight for her and all enslaved Uighurs.” A few of you have said that you’re tired of the China-related links, which is understandable, but, simultaneously, we have a massive genocidal regime that’s massively imprisoning, sterilizing, and sometimes murdering ethnic minorities within its own borders, while simultaneously threatening to invade democratic neighbors, and those things are really bad.

* “The Office of Free Speech: A Not-So-Modest Proposal for Academia.” Consistent with me in “Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

* “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try. A climate scientist spent years trying to get people to pay attention to the disaster ahead. His wife is exhausted. His older son thinks there’s no future. And nobody but him will use the outdoor toilet he built to shrink his carbon footprint.”

* Know your amphetamines, from the new Slate Star Codex, now called Astral Codex Ten, because why not?

* “The New Censors: Journalists celebrate the destruction of freedoms on which their profession depends.” A strange development, to my eye, but maybe the gatekeepers don’t like no longer being gatekeepers.

* “The US failure to authorize the AstraZeneca vaccine in the midst of a pandemic when thousands are dying daily and a factory in Baltimore is warmed up and ready to run is a tragedy and dereliction of duty of epic proportions.”

* “The ‘induced demand’ case against YIMBYism is wrong.” Fairly obvious, but one keeps seeing the point reappear.

* “Why Facebook and Apple are going to war over privacy.” There is an element here of “two giant monsters clashing.”

* “Bryan Fogel on Why Netflix and Streamers Were Scared of Releasing ‘The Dissident.’” Hollywood loves stories about plucky dissidents overcoming powerful empires, but in reality Hollywood is chasing the money.

* Beating Back Cancel Culture: A Case Study from the Field of Artificial Intelligence.

Why management consultants have jobs: Publishing edition

“Management consulting” seems to be a puzzle: firms spend huge amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, to get reports and opinions generated most often by recent college grads with no domain knowledge, let alone expertise. Why? Here’s one theory, which holds that “most intellectuals underestimate just how dysfunctional most firms are. Firms often have big obvious misallocations of resources, where lots of folks in the firm know about the problems and workable solutions” and “The CEO often understands what needs to be done, but does not have the resources to fight this blocking coalition. But if a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide.”

I’m thinking about management consulting because, for a project, I spent some time gathering data from book publishers about bulk book sales. No publishers appear to have information about bulk sale rates on their websites. I attempted to call Oxford University Press on January 11 and emailed them the same day with a bulk sales inquiry; I never found the right person to talk to on the phone and got a short email back today, January 26, containing 25 words and the bulk sales information that ought to be on their website—or at least emailed promptly.

If big publishers hired management consultants, one obvious thing a management consultant could say is: “Put the bulk order discount rates on the website. Also, reply to queries within 24 hours, not two weeks.” One publisher sent a four-page PDF form, full of sensitive information, that the publisher wants emailed back in order to place a bulk order (email is not an encrypted medium and that is a good way to lose sensitive information).

Publisher discovery itself is a challenge. A given book has the name of an imprint on it, and listed on Amazon, but the “imprint” often doesn’t correspond to the actual publisher I need to get ahold of. Some imprints have websites that don’t really exist any more (how am I supposed to know in advance that Bantam Spectra books is part of the Penguin-Randomhouse conglomerate? Seriously, type “Bantam Spectra books” into a search engine and see what you find: then repeat this for a bunch of other books, and make sure you keep them straight). I’m not sure what publishers’s websites are optimized for, or who they’re optimized for—bookstores, maybe—but they don’t seem optimized for readers or for buyers who aren’t already initiated into the secrets of the system.

In grad school, I gave a former student a ride to California and talked to him about how little management consulting made sense to me: why would a firm hire 22-year olds, or even 25-year olds, at hundreds of dollars an hour, to opine on the firm’s business? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Now I wonder if that was bad advice: here’s one reason why the smartest college grads might avoid typical corporations in favor of management consulting or startups.

Publishing might also be unusual in that it faces fewer competitive pressures, or different competitive pressures, than other industries; publishing is still a glamor industry that succeeds by getting liberal arts grads from wealthy families to put in a bunch of time at low wages, so maybe publishers don’t care. But come on, two weeks to get a quote? If Seliger + Associates ran that way, we’d not have a business. Alternately, maybe bulk sales to random outsiders aren’t important to publishers, and I’m such a small part of their business that they can’t bother. As long as Amazon and bookstores are happy, nothing else matters. Still, it might be worth a/b testing what putting true rates directly on the site reveals. Maybe there’s a universe of potential buyers who are dissuaded by poor website design. Overall, I’d take the two-week mark to respond to a pricing query as a sign that other parts of the business must be equally poorly managed.

Links: Some books, some culture, some incentives

* Book review of Louie Simmons’ Iron Samurai. Not at all like most of the books discussed around here.

* “David Fincher’s Impossible Eye,” on obsession and excellence.

* It would be useful for liberal states to showcase excellence, in order for national liberals to follow their example. Instead, attempts to move towards single-payer basically failed in Massachusetts and Vermont; those attempts have proven far too expensive in California; more people are leaving California and New York than moving to them, due to self-inflicted high housing costs; and obscene infrastructure costs prevent the development or expansion of real transit systems. Where are the local examples?

* Jimmy Wales on Systems and Incentives, a conversation with Tyler.

* Hilariously imperious essay on Agatha Christie.

* Are Americans reluctant to express themselves honestly? What is social media callout culture doing to the discourse?

* The return of Slate Star Codex, with some unflattering and possibly true things about the New York Times along the way.

* “Slouching Toward Post-Journalism: The New York Times and other elite media outlets have openly embraced advocacy over reporting.” By Martin Gurri.

* “Facebook Disabled My Account After I Criticized Them.” Get a blog. Get on the open web. No one does, though, and what should we infer from that?

* The Devilish Life and Art of Lucian Freud, in Full Detail, an admirable review that’s neither overly skeptical nor fawning.

* “The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone:” on efforts to build places that are good for humans to live.

* “Is This Law Professor Really a Homicidal Threat? The punitive overreactions of university administrators grow ever more demented.”

* “In China’s New Age Communes, Burned-Out Millennials Go Back to Nature.” Probably not a good sign for Chinese society, as the same tendencies are probably not good signs for American societies.

* Why iPhone is today’s Kodak Brownie Camera. A networked Brownie.

* “As birth rates fall, animals prowl in our abandoned ‘ghost villages.’” Urbanization is environmentalism; San Francisco is full of faux environmentalist, who prevent the building of urban housing and thus force people to the periphery of the city, or to the hot Sunbelt cities. In other words, consider the third link in this list, too, because these links are linked.

Links: To house or not to house, Dostoevsky in Love, everything is not broken, and more!

* Should I buy a house? Maybe not: most people don’t consider that the alternative to a housing unit is investing in the stock market, which may produce superior returns—and has, over the last century. Almost no one thinks on the margin.

* “Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi review – unpredictable, dangerous and thrilling: His marriages were disastrous but his words were so rousing they made strangers embrace … a superb study of the Russian novelist.” Pre-ordered.

* “Atomic Heat in Small Packages Gives Big Industry a Climate Option.” On fission small modular reactors (SMRs).

* Stop reading books like a critic. I’m not sure most people do, but I agree, in part, though I find reading like a critic pleasurable.

* Companies working on direct air capture (DAC) of CO2. The article’s framing is poor—what’s the alternative to working on this problem? The status quo?—but the basic idea is good, and progress is good. You, reader, can also sign up for a Climeworks CO2 removal subscription. Relatedly, humans aren’t going to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 celsius, so now what? The article attempts to answer the “now what?” question, and carbon capture and storage are a big part of “now what.”

* “A Cupertino elementary school forces third-graders to deconstruct their racial identities, then rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege.'” One hopes this is an isolated example; there are around 3.5 million teachers in the U.S., so on any given day something outrageous is probably happening somewhere, and that given thing shouldn’t be given too much prominence. So is this a trend, or a one-off?

* Ross Douthat on “The Case for One More Child: Why Large Families Will Save Humanity.” Maybe.

* “Was novel born [in,] and died with[,] the bourgeois society?” Plausible, but also ignores the desire for storytelling in other formats: radio, then film, then TV, and now on the smartphone.

* Beating up baby boomers, which is mostly fine with me.

* Everything is Broken, a journalistic screed—journalism has seen something like half of its jobs and revenue disappear over twenty years, which may contribute to the tone of a lot of journalism. Some of the essay advances the myth of the golden age (when was it, exactly?). It also doesn’t mention housing or zoning policies, or the growth of the medical insurance industry (which destroyed price signals). Lots of blame for Silicon Valley, but not nearly enough for housing restrictions. Blaming Silicon Valley is easy, but there’s very little looking in the mirror. The author and her husband are journalists; if most people demanded rigorously reported and important stories, they’d be produced. But most don’t. There are dubious causal claims, like, “Most consumers don’t know that by using internet-based (or -generated) platforms—by buying from Amazon, by staying in an Airbnb, by ordering on Grubhub, by friending people on Facebook—that they are subscribing to a life of flatness, one that can lead directly into certain politics.” Ordering from Grubhub doesn’t causally create “flatness,” whatever that means, and “flatness” doesn’t causally lead “into certain politics.” Not everything is political; sometimes you just want some pad thai.

Despite everything “being broken,” we’ve seen the fastest vaccination project, ever, succeed in a quarter of the time of the next-fastest example. That alone is a sign of resilience, isn’t it, despite the political process preventing new housing and transit construction? “CorNeat Vision’s First Patient Regains Sight Following Artificial Cornea Implantation at Rabin Medical Center, Ending a Decade of Blindness.” Is everything broken? Maybe national politics, journalism as a profession, and fair housing markets are broken—but some things aren’t.

It could have been (much) worse

It could have been (much) worse: in 2016, I did something I’d not done prior, and hope not to need to do in the future: I put up a naked political endorsement: “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president,” and, while that obviously didn’t work, shortly after the 2016 election I wrote “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” which says: “In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war.” While I had the specific disease vector wrong, this basic worry proved correct: “We haven’t even discussed the possibility of a flu pandemic or some other kind of pandemic. The Ebola crisis was much closer to a worldwide catastrophe than is commonly assumed now. At the start of a flu pandemic the United States may have to lead world in a decisive, intelligent way that seems unlikely to happen under Trump.”

To understate things, we didn’t lead the world, let alone do so in a decisive, intelligent way. We bungled, except for the scientific and technical establishment, and parts of the healthcare establishment. Still, from 2016 – 2020, we had three years that mostly consisted of bumbling and theater, then a fourth year of pandemic, along with attacks on the foundations of democracy. But Trump left office today; a president who has basic respect for democracy is in office; and the pandemic, while horrible, is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In the first SARS-CoV viral outbreak in 2003, “about 9% of patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-1 infection died.” In the 2012 Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, the fatality rate of those infected appears to have been 34 – 37%. To my knowledge, no law of nature prevents a coronavirus from having a 40% or higher fatality rate, along with much higher transmissibility than SARS-CoV-2: the fatality rate of around 1% (assuming developed-world hospital care) is a matter of what appears to be luck. The virus’s transmission is also blocked, relatively easily, via the use of simple face masks: another lucky break. SARS-CoV-2 is highly transmissible, but it’s nothing like measles. Besides coronaviruses, the threat of a flu pandemic remains—although we may be better prepared for a future flu pandemic because of work on mRNA vaccines.

In many ways, the United States hasn’t made important progress in the last four years, but the worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass either. Nuclear war didn’t happen. Democracy still stands, and works. The big question is whether Trump is an aberration we’ll look back on and go, “What a strange time in history,” with explainers on the unique confluence of factors that led to a con man achieving the presidency—or whether he’s the start of the trend. If you think the “explainer,” path is impossible, try learning about the start of World War I; while there have been many stupid wars throughout history, World War I might be the stupidest, and the least comprehensible to a contemporary audience.

I’ve sought to make The Story’s Story minimally political (a surfeit of political material is available online, most of it about reifying identity and little of it about learning or growing), but extraordinary threats to the basis of democracy itself deserve unusual responses. I hope for much more boring politics that lend themselves to being (mostly) ignored. There is too much written about politics and too little written about art, ecstasy, beauty, and ideas.

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