Tinfoil-Adorned: On COVID-19 and Conspiracy

Being aware of your biases doesn’t make you immune to them. “You are the easiest person to fool”, as Richard Feynman once said.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed an interest in conspiracies. Most of them are nonsense, but I find their existence, and the people who create and propagate them, fascinating.

It was with that in mind that I tried to be rational when I found myself believing in two non-mainstream COVID-related theories. The conspiracist angle is so alluring. You feel you’ve uncovered a dark secret, one others aren’t aware enough or smart enough to recognise. You’re Bob Woodward discovering the president’s dark secrets, Morpheus opening eyes, Locke finding the hatch. Was I buying into these ideas because they made sense, or because they’re simply more interesting than the alternative?

Here are the two theories in question:

1) ‘Masks don’t work’ was an internationally-organised misinformation campaign

2) COVID may have originated in a lab

Let’s dig in.

Masks

Wearing a mask to prevent transmission/avoid infection is now mostly accepted. But, in the early days of lockdown, the messaging was quite different.

‘Masks don’t work. Leave them for the healthcare workers’. What logical sense does that make? Their use and mine would clearly differ, but how could the line be so distinct? How could a mask protect an NHS nurse examining a patient, but not me, flanked by passengers on a rush-hour train?

‘You won’t wear it properly’. We were fed the idea that coronavirus would get on my mask, then onto my fingers as I adjusted or removed it, then I’d put those manky digits all over my beautiful face. So what would happen if I didn’t wear one? Somehow COVID would just fly right past and leave me unscathed?

‘Wash your hands instead?’ Why couldn’t I do that and wear a mask? When we were told that we didn’t wash our hands properly, there was a huge public awareness campaign to show us the right method. So why couldn’t we have that for masks? Surely the right way to wear them isn’t so complicated that we couldn’t have a short, government-approved Youtube video showing us the correct method? It could even star Dec Donnelly or Matt Baker so we knew it was trustworthy.

‘A mask will give you a false sense of security’. Maybe some people would feel like Batman after putting on a mask and head out into coronavirus-filled areas to defeat it. For the sane majority, our behaviour either wouldn’t change at all or even improve. Covering your face is a useful reminder that you’re living in the middle of a fucking pandemic. Most would respond accordingly.

Now, the explanation for all this could be as simple as the data changed as the virus spread. I think it was all bullshit, created to stop us buying masks so they could be kept for healthcare workers. And, given that the messaging was so similar across Europe and elsewhere, it looks like a coordinated international campaign. I get the reasoning, trying to look after NHS staff makes complete sense. Yet I disagree with the approach, for three main reasons:

a) It didn’t work. There was a huge run on masks anyway

b) Lying is immoral. Is that a childish response? Probably. Do politicians lie to us all the time? Maybe. It’s still wrong.

c) It erodes trust. America already has a big problem with getting the public to trust experts and the media. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust scientists. Many Trump supporters claim as Fake any negative news about him. Some media organisations deserve at least some of the criticism sent their way. Lying only strengthens that distrust. If there ever is a vaccine for COVID, enjoy getting mass vaccinations organised when a quarter of Americans refuse to take it. And whatever happens in American eventually arrives here in some form or another.

(One problem with being such a slow writer is that, between me drafting this post and finishing it, Dr. Fauci copped to lying about this very thing. This story got surprisingly little media attention. The BBC website makes no mention of it. Which makes me reluctantly include them as part of the problem).

Lab-Leak

It’s important to clarify what I’m not saying here. I don’t think COVID is a genetically-engineered bioweapon, and I’m not saying this definitely happened. I have no scientific background whatsoever, but most of the following points are just based on logic. There are simply too many arrows pointing towards a leak to ignore this as at least a strong possibility.

Imagine, in the city you live in, that there are two labs which specialise in, say, Ebola research. One is considered among the finest in the world. If there’s an Ebola outbreak nearby, the initial explanation of its origin falls apart, and you’re given no alternative explanation, wouldn’t you be suspicious of its origin? Wuhan’s Institute of Virology and its CDCP were both heavily involved in coronavirus research.

The COVID-infected bats we’ve been told about lived 1,200 miles away from Wuhan. Perhaps they made their way there? In one respect they definitely did, as they were brought to Wuhan to be studied.

Lab-leaks happen. SARS-1 got out at least four times, including twice in China. US officials were concerned about the WIV’s safety protocols in 2018. The unusual furin site. China’s CCP has a reputation for secrecy. But still, it’s suspicious that they are covering up so much, destroying samples, clamping down on information. When Australia called for a WHO investigation (now underway) into the virus’ origin, they were threatened by China. Because of the bad optics? Or something else. Why is the WIV behaving in such an unscientific fashion? Why did it close for over two weeks in October?

None of these points represent a smoking gun. But, in combination, and given the lack of evidence for another explanation, this is a theory that deserves to be treated seriously, not waved off as conspiracy nonsense.

(Here’s a great podcast on the topic)

Films Thoughts: June 2020

Frozen 2

1.
The first Frozen film had a pleasantly-simple mythology, which the sequel unnecessarily muddies. When you need flashbacks with dead characters just to set up your main plotline, you’re probably off to a bad start.

A weird forest that won’t let people leave. An unexplained sound emanates from within it. A shipwreck that has no business being there. Sounds like…Lost. But not Frozen. There’s just something about muche of the sequel that doesn’t fit comfortably into the world established by the original. It’s particularly hard to ignore the sense that this film exists to profit from the first. Even the song Show Yourself feels like ticking a box for ’empowerment power ballad’. And what is the point of that lizard, if not to sell toys?

2.
So much of the film is about spirits, aesthetics, the past. There’s a lack of concreteness, something physical that can be rallied against. The enemy is long dead. The remaining earthly obstacle is a dam. Hard to get worked up about a dam. Perhaps that’s one reason the Earth Giants work well, because they’re a big, intimidating threat while everything else is too abstract.

3.
Imagine your parents died in a plane crash and their bodies were never recovered. You discover the wreckage in an unexpected place, allowing you to briefly entertain the idea that they survived. You then confirm that they are definitely dead, and also find a way to blame yourself for their demise. Then some dipshit chooses the worst possible time to make a cliched, utterly tasteless joke, like ‘If they made planes out of the same material they use for the black box, your parents would still be alive’. Swap plane for ‘boat’ and dipshit for ‘snowman’ to fully appreciate how badly-placed Olaf’s comment was.

4.
Olaf was funny is the first film. Here, every joke falls flat. The Anna of the original was feisty and funny. Here, she’s grown up, which apparently means being serious and annoying. She gives poor Kristoff enough criticism that I wondered why he ever wanted to marry her. Both Frozen films take an admirable pro-feminist approach. But here someone seems to be trying to sneak in a misogynist message: if you hook up with a fun girl, remember that she’ll eventually turn into a moaning woman.

5.
Every kid I’ve discussed this film with enjoys it. Almost as if it wasn’t made with me, the 40-year-old male, in mind. Cleverly, the sequel is aimed at its original audience, knowing that they’re six years older now. Anna and Elsa are more serious because the target demographic are too.

Attack of the Clones

I hadn’t seen Clones in ten years, so it was fun to revisit it now that the Skywalker saga is three films longer. Hayden Christensen’s performance isn’t as bad as I remembered. Bear in mind that George Lucas is famed for writing dialogue that’s hard to deliver. Christensen gets lumbered with much of it. I’ve currently got an interest in strategy and conspiracies, so I enjoyed watching Palpatine play both sides against each other in his bid for ultimate power(!!!!) It’s hard to ignore how pedestrian the action scenes are though; and the film’s aesthetic aims and millennium-era CGI give it a weird cartoon look. The lovey-dovey Annakin and Padme scenes are still just as cringeworthy. Yet, overall, I enjoyed it, for the first time ever, and I look forward, incredibly, to watching the next chapter.

Uncle Joe

1.
As a Scot with little interest in politics, I felt unqualified to comment on the upcoming 2020 US election. But then I realised that my unfamiliarity with the subject might make me, in some ways, similar to the politically-disinterested US voters. It’s incredible to think that, after almost four years of this President’s media circus, that anyone is still on the fence. But these people exist, and they stand between the nominees and the Oval Office.

Each of the last two American presidents represented a movement. Simplified, Obama was change and a civil-rights victory. Trump somehow managed to frame himself as the populist candidate and the Silicon Valley ideal of disruption applied to politics. Biden? To someone like me, he’s synonymous with the old system, the last vestige of an Obama administration which already feels ancient, and nothing else. The one thing he is to me is also the one thing Trump can easily use against him. Trump highlighted and exaggerated the corruption and cronyism of the Washington political machine, and portrayed Hillary as the tip of that spear. He can do the same with Biden, classing him as a Clinton under another name*. After four years under President Trump, many will crave the return of the old system. But will that that be enough to swing the vote Uncle Joe’s way?

(*I’m surprised he hasn’t done much of that yet (as of mid-June. I expect to see it happen soon)

2.
Biden will get plenty of votes from the #NeverTrumpers, who would vote Thanos into power if it meant getting rid of Donald. I would do the same. Joe is clearly showing signs of either senility or an inability to think clearly after a long day. Both scary options for the man in charge of nuclear weapons. But the work of a president doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We can at least rely on Biden to appoint people smarter and more capable than those Trump brought with him (or didn’t bother bringing).

Trump is so uninformed that, last week, he didn’t even know what the ’19’ in COVID-19 stands for. A President Biden would turn 80 in the role and, at some point, probably forget why he’s in the White House. And these are the only two options to fill the role of leader of the world’s superpower. Terrifying.

Time to Come In: Thoughts on Homeland

(spoilers for the entire show)

1.
Because of their length, suspension of disbelief is harder to maintain with TV shows than films. Homeland ran for eight seasons. After four of them, it became clear that, despite her abilities, Carrie had no place in the CIA. A mentally-unstable woman with a history of insubordination and lying? Saul’s clout diminished, yet he was still able to keep her involved in top-secret activities, even while she continued her renegade ways for four more years.

And why was putting on a headscarf enough to allow a blonde, white woman to blend seamlessly into a Middle-Eastern town? I realise women wearing headgear is the custom in certain areas, but Carrie’s also doubled as a cloak of invisibility. Spies could rush through that same town with instructions to snatch up a Caucasian lady but, as long as Carrie had her scarf on, she’d be safe.

2.
I was unimpressed by much of the final season, and Carrie even faking a murder attempt on Saul was ludicrous. But at least the final scene hit emotionally. Carrie, the workaholic, now trapped in deep-cover, the family life she couldn’t handle no longer even a possibility. It was a nice touch to have her assume the role of the woman she sacrificed. Although she does has access to a lot of info for someone who was a CIA operative just two years earlier. And she would have never have betrayed the CIA and the US by writing that book.

3.
Homeland’s peak was around season three or four when it created a core group of Carrie, Saul, Quinn, and Darragh Dal. The chemistry was solid, the writing tight, the action dynamic. Once that group disbanded, the show lost much of its energy.

4.
I watched every episode of Homeland, but it was also Compromise TV, one of the few programmes my wife and I would watch together. Otherwise, I would have quit it years ago. It wasn’t a bad show, and I respect that it mostly aspired to be intelligent action, to give more time to the strategy and politics involved in spycraft, even while it occasionally threatened to delve into 24-esque nonsense. Still, I’d class Homeland as a disappointment. It had a good number of ‘Oh shit’ moments but, overall, the intrigue was never quite intriguing enough, the action rarely convincing, Carrie’s actions often unrealistic. Yet Mandy Patinkin convincingly delivered the frustration and dedication of Saul, and, no matter what Carrie was experiencing, Claire Danes gave it her all.

5.
Has any show pivoted the way Homeland did and then continued for so long? Even with Carrie there at the very start, Homeland was very much Brody’s story. When his tale expired, it simply, effortlessly switched focus. Imagine Willow replacing Buffy or Sil permanently filling Tony Soprano’s shoes, and those shows continuing for years, and you realise how unusual and impressive that is.

6.
Brody becoming a drug addict. Quinn escaping death, suffering the mental consequences, then dying. Alex Jones facsimile, Brett O’Keefe. A ridiculous high-speed chase to avoid a presidential assassination (on US soil, no less). It’s easy to forget that all these things happened in Homeland’s run

COVID Concerns: Anti-Vaxx

(I wrote the first draft of this post months ago. Now that I’ve finished it, it feels out of date. But I’m posting it anyway. Because I am a RENEGADE!)

Pre-COVID, there appeared to be a rise in the numbers of anti-vaxxers in the US, as evidenced by New York’s measles outbreak. I’m cynical about the possibility of there ever being a widely-distributed COVID vaccine. But, if there is one, what percentage of Americans will refuse to take it?

For simplicity, let’s put anti-vaxxers into three categories:

a) Universal

These are the people who will refuse to take a vaccine regardless, for any of a whole spectrum of reasons (health dangers, vaccines containing microchips, etc)

b) COVID-specific

Those who think COVID is fake, caused by 5G (making a vaccine pointless), just the flu, etc

c) Gates-specific

Here we have those who believe there are issues specific to Bull Gates. Like

I hope that the population of each group is small, and that they overlap as much as possible (all that matters is whether you take the vaccine or not. Whether you have one or fifty reasons for refusing it is mostly irrelevant). It’s scary to think that there must be some people who would normally accept a vaccine, but have reasoned themselves out of it because they think a mobile phone signal is the real culprit, or that old Bill can choose to inject millions of people with whatever he wants with no oversight.

So, how many COVID anti-vaxxers would there be? Based on intuition and nothing else, I’d say 25%. [since drafting this post, a poll shows that number at 23%]. Imagine if the US is in such dire predicament in the future that they need to rapidly roll-out a vaccine, and one out of every four people refuse to take it. Not a good situation to be in. And how similar would the results be here in the UK? On a scale of 1-10, how doomed are we?

Friday Links: 12th June 2020

Books

Reading:

Bought and interested in:

Podcasts

  • Bret Weinstein on The Portal. 30 minutes of host Eric telling his brother that he’s a professional failure (uncomfortable but fun), 10 minutes of impenetrable scientific jargon, then a fascinating story about erroneous cancer studies and backstabbing in science
  • Naval Ravikant on After-On. Once I got used to the host’s voice, I found this episode an interesting if bleak discussion of existential risk. Naval is great at explaining his thoughts on many subjects, and this is no exception. Autonomous drones hunting people via their pheromones, home-made apocalypse, all fun and games

Lockdown Diary: 10th June 2020

Lockdown/Slowdown

At first, I struggled mentally with becoming a full-time home-schooler. Some days, my daughter and I would begin our morning and I would feel ill, knowing that this was me until dinner time, with the same the next day and the next. She would take 30 minutes to write two sentences and my brain would scream ‘Find something more interesting to do’. I didn’t want to play with Barbies, I wanted intellectual stimulation (or sleep). I should have felt privileged that I was getting some degree of salary while educating my daughter. Instead, it felt like a sentence. Then a few things made it easier:

Getting healthier.

What should have been an obvious help, wasn’t. Because I’d been fooling myself. Pre-furlough, I had a simple office job. You get into your chair, stay in it, and click a mouse a lot. You aren’t significantly better at it when you’re calm or energetic, so I could get through most days by being partially healthy. All I needed was to have a baseline–lift some weights, eat some salad–that would allow my body to handle the physical horrors of spending all day in a chair. But home-school is very different. There’s a direct correlation between how healthy I feel and how focused and enthusiastic I am as a ‘teacher’. A reduction in sugar and caffeine, and an increase in cardio, sleep and walks have made the days better for both me and my daughter.

Pace Adjustment

I had no idea how much rushing around I was doing until I stopped. In my pre-COVID life, I’d avoid haste where possible. But, as a full-time worker with a young kid, some amount of it was unavoidable. Rushing for the train to work, to after-school before it closed, to some class or another. As a family, even our free time was filled with socialising, trips to shopping centres, the endless rotation of kids’ birthday parties. We would rarely head home before 4pm because we saw that as boring. In hindsight, I’ve realised our philosophy about weekends was that they’re only fun to the degree you can fill them up, pleasant depending on the utility you can derive from them. Then the lockdown hit and everything…just…stopped. But I’d conditioned my brain to go from one thing to the next, and now there was no next to go to. Days felt endless (in the bad way); all was dull and grey.

So I started Naval Ravikant’s 60-day meditation exercise, which certainly helped. The rest of the adjustment has seemed natural, my mind eventually adjusting to a new stage. Sure, there are times where things feel slow and unproductive, but mostly my routine and brain are now in sync. It’s nice this way. I’ve flipped (Flipmode!). It’s the old life, the faster life, that I now fear. I know we’ll settle into a New Normal at some point, getting back to some of the old ways. But not yet. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Lockdown Diary: 25th May 2020

World Gone Binary

One thing I harp on a lot about nowadays is binary thinking, that there are only two sides to any discussion. If you’re not completely on-board with an idea, you’re completely against it. Trump’s decisions are all terrible or all brilliant, four-dimensional chess moves. You’re either pro-immigration or racist.

The effects of Coronavirus infection are being discussed in the same way–you either recover completely, or you die. All or nothing, no in-between. Framing this way ignores reported symptoms in the ‘recovered’ of respiratory and neural issues, chronic fatigue, higher rates of strokes. We now have a new disease, MIS-C (aka PIMS), similar to Kawasaki disease, occurring in children. In summary:

– There are more complicated health consequences than whether someone lives or dies

– There’s still a lot we don’t know about how this disease affects us

There are sound reasons for wanting to end the lockdown and restart the economy. But if your argument for doing so is based on the small fraction of cases that result in death and ignores the above factors, then that’s an argument you should really stop making.

Lockdown Diary: 20th May 2020

(It seems ridiculous to post anything about being in Coronavirus lockdown because so much of the world is in the same position. What novel (sorry) ideas do I have to add? None, but what else am I going to write about?)

Build-Up

Many epidemiologists and some preppers saw this coming. The signs were there–an infection crippling Wuhan, rapidly working its way across their country towards everyone else’s. It was clearly just a matter of time before it hit England, Scotland, Glasgow. Still we were surprised.

Nassim Taleb talks about the Turkey Problem–the farmer feeds the turkey for long enough that it comes to believe he has its best interest at heart. Then along comes Thanksgiving and the turkey ends up on the kitchen table. That was us at scale. Most of us, almost all of us. It couldn’t happen here, to us. Until it did.

Our brains don’t deal well with doubling. An R-number of 2, once we found out what that meant, didn’t sound too bad. Well, play a round of golf. Bet £1 on the first hole, then double the wager until the end. How much is the 18th worth? £131,000. That’s not something we instinctually process.

Corona came and it hit. I’m writing this on the 20th May. Today, the total confirmed infected in the UK is almost 250K, with 35k deaths. Thankfully, oh so thankfully, I don’t know anyone who has even been confirmed as infected. So far. Maybe, as a nation, we’re close to getting out of the woods. Maybe we’re due a second wave sometime soon. Maybe there will be some semblance of normal come 2021. Or maybe there never will.

Current status

On the 23rd March, I began to work from home, breaking working time into chunks to fit it around home-schooling my daughter. On April Fool’s Day (!), I, along with so many others across the country, was put on the government’s furlough scheme. So I’m a full-time home-teacher now.

There is a spectrum of responses to being put onto such a scheme. At one end are the optimists (the over-confident). They see this as a few months of paid leave (on between 80% and 100% of full salary), then back to business as usual. At the other end, the pessimists see this as a temporary reprieve before becoming one of the millions of new applicants for Jobseeker’s Allowance. Join that group and there’s a reasonable chance you stay on it, unemployed for years while the economy recovers (if it does).

I’m usually an optimist. There’s rarely much point in focusing on the downside. Not this time. Now I’m expecting the worst possible professional outcome, and I’ll see anything better than that as a bonus.

Lockdown Links: 10/5/20

Books

I used to be a linear reader. I’d start a book, finish it, then move onto the next. Like a normie. During the lockdown, I’ve been listening to a lot of interviews with Naval Ravikant. He skims, starts reading at any chapter he wants, quits before the end. Like a mutant. I’ve been trying out this method recently. It had an effect I didn’t initially anticipate. No book is intimidating if you’re happy to only read parts and give up at any time. It doesn’t feel like a bad investment to buy one and leave parts of it unread. If no book is off limits and you want to read widely, then why not buy lots of them? So here are some of my recent purchases:

Online

Podcasts

Naval Ravikant on:

%d bloggers like this: