Quotes & Commentary #73: Keynes

Quotes & Commentary #73: Keynes

It is a great fault of symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalizing a system of economic analysis . . . that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed.

—John Maynard Keynes

I ended my last commentary by swearing to leave off thinking about the coronavirus. Alas, I am weak. The situation is bleak and depressing; it has affected nearly every aspect of my life, from my free-time to my work, my exercise routines and my relationships; but it is also, if one can be excused for saying so, quite morbidly absorbing.

What especially occupies me is how those in charge will weigh the costs and benefits of their policies. Because the threat posed by coronavirus is so novel, because these decisions involve human life, and because it is difficult not to feel afraid, I think there is a certain moral repugnance that many feel toward this kind of thinking. However, as I argued in my previous post, I think truly moral action will require a thorough appraisal of all of the many potential consequences of action and inaction. This will make any choice that much more difficult, and I do not envy those who will have to make it. 

As anyone familiar with the famous trolley problem knows, moral dilemmas often involve numbers. If the actor has to choose between a lower and a higher number of victims, one must choose the lower number. However, there are several refinements of the problem which show the limitations of our moral intuition. For example, respondents are willing to divert a runaway trolley onto a track where it will kill one person rather than five; but respondents are unwilling to push an enormously fat bystander onto the tracks to save five people. We seem to be willing to think in purely numerical terms only about those involved ‘in the situation’ and unwilling to do so with those we perceive as ‘outside the situation.’

Well, in case we are facing, virtually everyone is ‘inside the situation’; so this leads us to a numerical treatment. But of course this is not so simple. What should we be measuring and comparing, exactly? I raised the question in my last post about this calculus of harm, and how it seems impossible to compare different types and levels of harm. As hospitals get overwhelmed, however, and care begins to be rationed, doctors are forced to make difficult choices along these lines, giving treatment to patients with the highest chances of recovery. Politicians are now faced with a kind of society-level triage.

One obvious basis of comparison is the number of lives lost. This is how we think of the trolley problem. But I think there is a case for also considering the number of lived years lost. What is ethically preferable: allowing the death of one person, or allowing the lifespans of 10 people to be reduced by 20 years each? I cannot answer this question, but I do think that the answer is not easy or self-evident. Reducing somebody’s lifespan may not be ethically on a par with letting someone die, but it is still quite a heavy consideration.

Further down the line, ethically speaking, is quality of life. Though it seems egregious to weigh death against quality of life issues, in practice we do it all the time. Smoking, drinking, and driving carry a risk, and a certain number of people will die per year by engaging in these activities; but we accept the cost because, as a society, we apparently have decided that it is “worth it” in terms of our quality of life. But of course, this comparison is not exactly appropriate for the case of coronavirus, since we ourselves make the decision to smoke or drive, whereas the risk of coronavirus is not voluntary. Thus, to save lives we should be willing to accept a greater loss in quality of life in this case, since we cannot control our exposure to the risk.

How exactly we choose to weigh or balance these three levels of damage—lives lost, lives shortened, and lives made worse—is not something I am prepared to put into numbers. (I suppose some economist is already doing so.) But I think we are obligated to try to at least take all of them into account.

Now, the other set of variables we must consider are empirical. On the medical side, these are: the lethality of the virus and the percentage of the population likely to get infected. On the economic side there are obvious factors like unemployment and loss in GDP and so forth. There are also factors such as loss in standard of living, homelessness, and the poverty rate; and still more difficult to calculate variables like the rate of suicide and drug addiction likely to result.

One major problem is that we know all of these variables imperfectly, and in some cases very imperfectly. To take an obvious datum, there is the virus’s lethality rate. From the available numbers, in Italy the fatality rate appears as high as 8%, while in Germany it is as low as 0.5%. This huge range contains a great deal of uncertainty. On the one hand, there is a good case that Germany gives a more accurate picture of the virus’s lethality, since they have done the most testing, about 120,000 a day; and logically more testing gives a more accurate result. However, we should remember that the virus’s lethality rate is not a single, static number. It affects different demographics differently, and it also depends on the availability of treatment. All of these factors need to be taken into account to establish the virus’s risk.

Complicating the uncertainty is the fact that the virus can create mild or even no symptoms, thus leaving open the question of the total number of cases—a number that must be known to determine the lethality rate. Asked to offer an estimate of the total number of infected people in Spain (the registered number is about 45,000 as of now), mathematicians offered estimates ranging from 150,000 to 900,000—and, of course, these are little more than educated guesses. If the former figure is correct, it would put the lethality at around 2%, while if the latter is correct the lethality is about 0.4%: another big range. 

Now that Spain is receiving a massive shipment of tests from China, our picture of the virus will likely become much more accurate in the coming days and weeks. (Actually, many of these tests are apparently worthless, so nevermind.*) However, one crucial datum is still missing from our knowledge: the total number who have already had the virus. To ascertain this, we will need to test for antibodies. It appears we will begin to have information on this front soon, as well, since the UK has purchased a great deal of at-home antibody tests. I believe other countries are following suit. Not only is this data crucial to accurately estimating the virus’s threat, but it is also of practical value, since those with antibodies will be in far less danger either of catching or of spreading the disease. (In the movie Contagion, those with antibodies are given little bracelets and allowed to travel freely.)

The New York Times has created an interesting tool for roughly estimating the potential toll of the virus. By adjusting the infection and fatality rate, we can examine the likely death toll. Of course, these rough calculations are limited in that they make the mistake Keynes highlights above—they assume an independence of variables. For example, the calculator shows how the coronavirus would match up with expected cancer and heart disease deaths. But of course more coronavirus deaths would likely mean fewer deaths from other causes, since many who would have died from other causes would succumb to coronavirus. (Other causes of death like traffic accidents may also go down because of the lockdown.) The proper way to make a final estimate, I believe, would be to see how many total deaths we have had in a year, and then compare that total with what we would reasonably expect to have had without the coronavirus.

As you can see, the problem of coming up with a grand calculation is difficult in the extreme. Even if we can ultimately ascertain all of the information we need—medical, economic, sociological—we will still have only an imperfect grasp of the situation. Indeed, Keynes’s warning is quite pertinent here, since every factor will be influencing every other. Unemployment affects access to health care, an overwhelmed health care system will be less effective across the board, and the fear of the virus alone has economic consequences. This makes the ‘trolley problem’ model misleading, since there are no entirely independent tracks that the trolley can be moving on. Any decision will affect virtually everyone in many different ways; and this makes the arithmetical approach limited. 

Trump has said that the cure cannot be worse than the disease. Obviously, however, the decision is not a simple choice between economic and bodily well-being. This is what makes the decision so very subtle and complicated. Not only must we weigh sorts of damage in our ethical scales, but we also must be able to think synthetically about the whole society—the many ways in which its health and wealth are bound up together—in order to act appropriately.

Once again, I do not envy those who will have to make these choices.

Quotes & Commentary #72: Mill

Quotes & Commentary #72: Mill

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

—John Stuart Mill

Like so many people on this fragile green globe, I have been thinking about this novel crisis. I find myself quite constantly frustrated, largely because we suddenly find ourselves in the position of reacting to a threat of unknown potency using uncertain means. I argued in my last post that our shift from total indifference to all-consuming concern cannot constitute a rational response. In this post I hope to explore what a rational, and ethical, response must comprise.

Governments around the world are in the tragic position of having to choose between saving a relatively small (but ever-growing) portion of the population from severe damage, and inflicting less acute damage on a much larger portion of the population.

In making decisions like this, I believe the only ethical principle that we turn to is the principle of utility. However, I do not think John Stuart Mill’s strong version—our duty is to promote happiness as much as possible—is feasible, at least not for individuals. My main criticism of such a formulation is that it would lead to basically unlimited duties on a person. Can a thoroughgoing utilitarian really enjoy a quiet tennis match when she could be, say, working in a soup kitchen? I do not think we can embrace an ethic that would demand a population of saints; and, besides, such an ethic would be self-defeating if actually put into practice, since each person who is trying to create the most happiness would, themselves, potentially be miserable. 

Thus, when it comes to individual behavior, I think that a negative version of utilitarianism applies: that we ought to try to refrain from activities that cause pain, harm, or unhappiness. Playing a tennis match, then, is alright; but breaking someone’s arm is not. This, I believe, is the standard that should be applied to individuals.

A government, however, is different; and different standards apply. A government has the obligation not only to avoid doing harm, but to actively reduce misery as much as possible. Unlike an individual—who could not live with an unlimited obligation to reduce unhappiness—a government, as an institution, does not have to balance its own happiness against others’, and so has a greater ethical obligation.

With this principle in view, the requirement for an ethical action on the government’s part would be to reduce suffering as much as possible. Of course, creating an exact calculus of harm is difficult at best. How can you compare, say, one death and a hundred million headaches? Yet since we must act, and since we ought to act as ethically as possible, we have little choice but to make do with a certain amount of imprecision.

Another source of imprecision is, of course, that we cannot know the future, and we know even the present only imperfectly. Because of this ignorance, every act can have unforeseen consequences. This is why we cannot evaluate an action on the ends it achieves alone, but must consider what could be reasonably known about the probable consequences of an action at the time it was taken. This means we have to have a certain ethical lenience for actions taken at a low state of knowledge, especially if the best available knowledge was consulted at the time. 

Aside from the test of morality, there is also a related test of rationality. To be rational means to be consistent. This means the same standard is applied to all of our actions, and that there are no special categories. An irrational ethic is necessarily an imperfect ethic, since it means at least some of its actions are less ethical than others. Many of our society’s injustices are cases of irrational ethics: holding people to different standards, giving out different rewards or punishments for the same actions, and so on.

I am trying to define what a rational, ethical response means, exactly, because I think very soon we will have to make more nuanced decisions about this crisis. So far the primary approach has been to institute lockdowns, with the idea of slowing the virus’s spread. Even though I think there is a strong argument that Western governments were culpably unprepared, locking things down now may be a rational response given the potential threat of the virus. But if we find that even thirty or forty days in confinement is not enough to put the virus on the defensive, then we will have to begin to weigh the social costs more carefully. Just as the real effectiveness of a lockdown remains to be seen, so is the social price still undetermined.

At the moment we are just coming to grips with the virus, and we are belatedly adopting a “better safe than sorry” policy. We are tracking the rising death tolls of the virus and focusing our attention quite exclusively on this crisis. This may be rational, considering the novelty of the virus and the currently unknown threat that it may pose. But as the crisis wears on, we will be forced to consider other factors. There is, after all, no guarantee that forty, fifty, or even sixty days of lockdown will make it safe for people to return to their daily lives. Michael Osterholm (an expert on infectious diseases) expects that the virus will be around until there is a vaccine, and that a vaccine will take 18 months at minimum.

Now, perhaps extraordinary measures and unlimited resources can reduce the time until we arrive at an effective vaccine. That is unknown. My worry is that a lockdown will begin to have very real negative effects on quite a huge number of people; and this will almost certainly happen before the vaccine is available. We in Madrid are one week into our lockdown so far. At the moment, the streets are mostly empty, and they are constantly patrolled by police who can give enormous fines for breaking curfew. Today I heard a loud and violent argument down the street as one person harassed another person for doing something outside (they were out of view). I can hear neighbors occasionally quarrelling through my window.

Arguments and tantrums are the least of our worry. A protracted lockdown will exacerbate mental health problems (some of which are quite serious) and put pressure on marriages, as the spike in Chinese divorces shows. In Spain, open air sport, like going on a walk or a run is forbidden. (Meanwhile, tobacco stores remain open, even though smoking is known as one of the risk factors of the disease.) How will this ban affect children if it is protracted? And how long are we prepared to keep children out of schools? Not only will they be learning less, but social interaction is crucial to childhood development. (Osterholm is skeptical of the school closures, since he thinks that there is little evidence that children are significant vectors of the disease, and many health personnel with children might be forced to stay home. The demographic data from Spain—which doubtless overestimates the fatality rate across the board, since testing has been limited—seems to bear him out.)

In Spain, the government has, at yet, not waived rental payments. For people living from paycheck to paycheck, and who have been laid off, what will they do on April 1st when rent is due? Even if we are released on April 12, how many people will be completely out of work at that time? How many people risk losing their jobs and their homes? If and when coronavirus has disappeared completely, it may take a damaged economy years to return to normal. How will people get by if thousands of businesses go bankrupt and unemployment remains high for the long term?

Economic damage may sound fanciful compared with a health crisis, but it translates into a reduced—sometimes a drastically reduced—quality of life for millions. In the scale of human suffering, poverty is not negligible. Yet if such considerations seem petty, we must also consider something that Nicholas Kristoff (among others) has written about extensively: the rise of “deaths of despair” among America’s working class. These deaths can result from drug overdose or suicide, and they have been on the rise because of the worsening plight of working class America. We must consider, then, that economic damage does not only reduce the quality of life for millions, but it can translate directly into fatalities.

More generally, economic failure has a pronounced effect on life expectancy, even if you try to control for other factors. To quote from Bryson’s book on the body: “Someone who is otherwise identical to you but poor—exercises as devotedly, sleeps as many hours, eats a similarly healthy diet, but just as less money in the bank—can expect to die between ten and fifteen years sooner.” So economics indeed translates into years of life. 

Now, I am not advocating against the lockdown. As I said before, given our available information, it may be a good and rational response. I am saying that, in the long run, an ethical evaluation requires that we consider the complete social costs of these measures. Just as importantly, if the coronavirus is, indeed, here to stay, then a rational response requires that we act consistently towards this risk.

This is what I mean. At the moment, coronavirus deaths are treated as a special category. This may be rational if we can eliminate the threat in a reasonable amount of time. But if we cannot eliminate this threat, and it is, indeed, here to stay for a year or more, then I am not sure that this attitude can be rationally sustained. A rational ethic will require us to see the coronavirus as one of many potential causes of death—more dangerous, perhaps, but no more or less acceptable than any other cause of death. 

After this long and perhaps silly post—which I hope will be the last thing I devote to the virus for a time—I will end on a more practical note. 

From what I observe, I fear that we may not be learning quite the right lessons from China’s success. Donald McNeil (a science reporter for the New York Times) explains that the lockdown in China was only the necessary and not the sufficient reason for the country’s recovery. The lockdown was complemented by widespread testing and the government’s ability to isolate people from one another. A small town in Italy, , was similarly able to halt the virus by testing all of its residents and isolating the infected. Mike Ryan, an expert at the World Health Organization, has recently offered the same advice—that a lockdown without other measures is not enough. Here in Spain, the testing resources are severely limited, and only available for serious cases (although this will change soon). People with mild symptoms are not isolated but are being told to stay in their homes, which could potentially mean infecting their whole family. I hope, then, that we can not only learn from China’s strictest measures, but also their most intelligent. 

The Cathedral of Chartres

The Cathedral of Chartres

Europe is full of cathedrals. Some people weary of them quickly. After all, you get the basic idea after a couple visits: In front there is an impressive façade, with several magnificent doors; then the inside is composed of a nave and the two aisles that lead to the main altar; and of course you have the choir, the transept, and all the little chapels on the periphery. It is the same layout every time, with only minor exceptions and variations. And, of course, the artistic styles are fairly uniform, too. There are the Romanesque and the Gothic styles, and all of the standard tropes of Christianity: Jesus, Mary, the prophets, the evangelists, and all the various angels and saints. 

But there are those, such as myself, who only grow more fascinated the more cathedrals they see. In fact, I think that it is only possible to appreciate a cathedral once you have acquired a certain background. Even if styles are fairly uniform across Europe, the level of execution certainly is not; and it takes some experience to tell the difference. But cathedrals are more than mere exercises in art, of course. They represent the greatest monuments of Europe’s most deeply spiritual age. Each one is suffused with a sensibility that is almost entirely foreign to the modern world: a pervading sense of the nothingness of this life in comparison with the life to come. Unlike the palace of Versailles—a building devoted to earthly power and splendor—a cathedral uses earthly art to evoke something otherworldly. Thus, while I find the effect of most palaces to be rather deadening, I always find a visit to a cathedral uplifting. Nowhere is this more the case than at Chartres.

Chartres is a fair-sized town in the vicinity of Paris. Trains leave several times a day from the the capital’s Montparnasse station, and the ride takes a little over an hour. For whatever reason, I had to struggle with the ticket machine, which did not seem to wish to give me a ticket. My uncle told me that he also needed help buying a ticket to Chartres, but none of the French people could understand him when he said “Chartres.” (I had the exact same situation with my Airbnb host. French people can be very particular when it comes to pronunciation. And “Chartres” is not easy to say correctly.) In any case, all of us ended up getting to the city in time.

Though doubtless once a beautiful medieval town, most of Chartres was sadly destroyed during the Second World War. The cathedral’s survival and preservation is little short of miraculous, considering the circumstances. Even if most of Chartres’s medieval architecture was burned or blown away, the town still has a robust memory of their heritage. When I arrived the people were having their annual medieval festival. There were archery contests, parades of drummers and flag-twirlers, a concert of period music, and even obstacle courses for the children. All the vendors were dressed in the appropriate medieval rags and caps. It was a lovely time.

But unfortunately my train tickets did not leave me with much time to appreciate the life of the town. I wanted to spend as much time in the cathedral as possible. My hope was to get a tour from the great Malcolm Miller, a famous scholar of the cathedral who has been giving tours since the late 50s, but that was not to be. When I walked in the cathedral, I had just missed an assembling tour group (not with him), and I decided to settle on the standard audioguide.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. First I should describe the cathedral’s distinctive profile. Chartres is immediately recognizable for its two non-matching towers. The north tower (on the left, facing the building) is quite notably taller than the south tower; and its style is also quite different. This is because a fire necessitated the rebuilding of the north tower, which was completed in the early 1500s. Stylistically, then, it is more recent, partaking of the flamboyant gothic. While superficially more resplendent, it is actually the less interesting of the two towers, as it is rather like that of many other cathedrals. The right tower, on the other hand, is an architectural marvel in its own right. It features a sloping octagonal stone spire, constructed without any interior framework to hold it up. This is quite an amazing feat, when you consider that it was completed in 1150. Even now, there is not a bigger stone spire anywhere.

The first impression, upon walking into the cathedral, is rather stark. Compared with the great Spanish cathedrals—Toledo, Seville, or Santiago—the cathedral of Chartres can seem, at first glance, disappointingly empty. Toledo’s cathedral, for example, is stuffed to the brim with every sort of artwork. The cathedral also lacks the ostentatious splendor of so many Italian churches—shimmering with color and gold. Chartres’ appeal is quite different. It is the beauty of form, line, and light. It is the architecture of purity. The walls, arches, and vaults are arranged with such exactitude that the final effect is like that of a brilliant mathematical proof: the manifestation of divine logic.

Admittedly, this sensation of purity is partly a result of a thorough cleaning that the cathedral underwent about ten years ago. Centuries of soot had accumulated on its walls, turning them a dusky gray. During the restoration, the walls and even the statues were cleaned, making everything appear an ethereal white. This cleaning was not without its controversy. Part of the romance of visiting old buildings, after all, is the overpowering sensation of age, the palpable weight of time. Making the buildings look as good as new does radically alter the effect. However, the decision was defended as being necessary to the building’s preservation. For my part, the restoration did bring out the extreme lightness of the structure.

The audio guide first asks you to step back outside to examine the front portal. As with so many cathedrals, it consists of three doorways—one large one in the center, flanked by two smaller ones—lushly decorated with biblical figures. Appropriately enough, Christ sits enthroned in the center of the affair, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists. The most charming sculptures are not in the tympanums above the doors, however, but in the jambs separating the doorways. These elongated men and women are some of the sculptural masterpieces of the gothic age: they possess a certain majesty, mixed with a naive charm that I find difficult to describe. Even the decorative carvings between the human figures are varied and beautiful.

It is worth taking a closer look at these sculptures to spot the tiny personifications of the seven liberal arts (the trivium with the quadrivium). This marks the epoch when Chartres was at the forefront of European intellectual life. Before the time of universities, cathedrals were major intellectual centers; and the School of Chartres played a major role in shaping the scholastic thought that would dominate the European mind for centuries. The School of Chartres was distinct for its great emphasis on natural science, which was not always highly valued at the time. Indeed, you can see the scholars’ interest in both science and antiquity in one tiny figure, believed to represent the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. As Lawrence M. Principe said in his history of science, the middle ages are unfairly maligned as benighted. 

Notice the personification of the liberal arts in the lower corners.

As soon as you walk inside, you must turn your attention to the windows. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply extraordinary. The quality of craftsmanship and art is excellent; and there is just so much of it. Normally, only a few windows receive the lavish treatment of elaborate pictorial representations, the rest being taken up with basic patterns. Not in Chartres: every window is bursting with detail. Describing even a fraction of these windows would be an enormous task. The audio guide had me walk around the entire length of the building, pausing before each set of windows, pointing out the most distinctive features. Each one merited close examination; but there are so many that you must budget your time and energy.

Some windows deserve special mention. The three rose windows—enormous circular panels above the three entrances—are magnificent, if difficult to see in detail from the ground. Indeed, many of the panels contain so many scenes—such as the Life of Christ, or the entire genealogy of Mary—that they overwhelm the viewer with information. One exception to this is the so-called Blue Virgin, a large representation of the Virgin with the Christ child. It is a wonderful piece of work, with Mary enshrouded in a glowing blue robe, while angels fly all about her. Though a difficult and expensive medium, Chartres shows that stained glass is quite the equal of painting or sculpture in its power.

My favorite windows were those around the aisles. These features several different panels, typically with a Biblical story occupying the main panel, with secondary scenes in the periphery. Curiously, many of these windows show craftsmen and laborers of different professions in the lower panel, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths. This is unusual in gothic art, and the guide explained that it was because the local guilds financed the windows. Recent research has thrown doubt upon this explanation, however, since it is unlikely that the guilds had nearly enough money. These scenes were perhaps included more as a gesture on behalf of the church, as a way of symbolizing its universal nature. Either way, it does give the cathedral a curiously democratic aspect.

Notice the craftsman on the bottom.

The windows deserve far more attention than this. But I will let the images do the talking. Let us move on. 

Chartres’s main altar would be glorious in another setting, but it seems somewhat out of place in the heavily gothic atmosphere of Chartres. It is an ornate, neoclassical sculpture in white marble of the assumption of Mary. It is clearly the work of a different age: the figures are carefully realistic and engaged in a dramatic action. The choir stall is another product of a later age (having been made in the 16th to 18th century), but it fits the aesthetic of the church rather better. It is beautifully carved with an endless number of details, providing a sculptural counterpoint to the complex windows above.

One of Chartres’s most recognizable features is the labyrinth. This takes the form of a circle, with one single path running from the beginning to the end point. It is meant as a symbol of the Christian’s path from sin to salvation, one long, winding road from the periphery to the center, a kind of miniature pilgrimage. (And the cathedral is, of course, part of the network of pilgrimage paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.) Simply as a design the labyrinth is quite lovely; and the more one examines it, the longer it seems. I wonder how long it would take to walk the entire distance.

The last stops on my visit were the north and south portals. The first is dedicated to the Virgin and the second to Christ’s crucifiction. In another context, virtually all of the sculptures in both doorways would be considered masterful by itself; in Chartres they are further extensions of the cathedral’s majesty. I was particularly taken with a group of Christian martyrs in the south portal, each of them holding a symbol of their identity. (I could not hope to identify the vast majority.) Though rather stiff by the standards of Renaissance sculpture, the bodies have a certain tension and dynamism, as if they are all on the lookout, that I found very appealing.

Thus concluded my audioguide’s visit to Chartres. Aware of the cathedral’s reputation, I was fully prepared to be awed; and I was not disappointed. But there were still a few delights in store for me. Right as I was about to walk out of the cathedral for the last time, a man began to give a lecture on organ music. He was seated high up above, in front of the keyboard, and speaking to an audience via a microphone; his image was projected onto a screen. I could not understand anything he said, since it was French, but it was obvious that he was giving some sort of a lecture on organ music, since every now and then he would demonstrate his point by playing the organ. It sounded fantastic. There are few more powerful feelings than hearing the ancient pipes of an organ resounding through the cavernous cathedral.

As I emerged onto the street, I was treated to another kind of music. Set up right in front of the cathedral, a group of four men were performing medieval songs on period instruments—simple jigs, mostly, with bouncing rhythms. It was quite a contrast to the somber and magnificent sound of the organ from a moment ago; yet it was a charming way to leave the atmosphere of the cathedral. Cathedrals exist to touch us in special moments, when we are able to see our own lives as very small in relation to something enormous that is above and all around us. This feeling engenders a sense of calm and even of detachment. Yet we cannot live our lives this way. We need rhythm, emotion, passion, too, if we want the full range of the human experience. The fullest life of all will contain moments of both passion and calm. And this is just what I experienced during my visit to Chartres

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Quotes & Commentary #71: Kahneman

Quotes & Commentary #71: Kahneman

Those who know more forecast very slightly better than those who know less. But those with the most knowledge are often less reliable. The reason is that the person who acquires more knowledge develops an enhanced illusion of her skill and becomes unrealistically overconfident.

—Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman’s book—Thinking, Fast and Slow—is one long demonstration of the severe limitations of our human brain. He catalogues a variety of cognitive illusions and shows how they lead to persistently irrational behavior—so pervasive that we usually do not even notice it.

One of Kahneman’s best sections is on the limitations of expert judgment. He is devastating on the subject of political pundits—whose predictions Kahneman describes as worse than random—as well as on certain professions such as stock brokers. There are, in fact, many areas of human endeavor in which the final outcome is determined largely by chance, but which our brain insists on seeing as a contest of skill or produced by predictable causes. In reality, the world is far more unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unknowable than we all like to believe.

Now, Kahneman does not discount the possibility of real expertise. This would be an absurd position, as anyone who has played an expert chess player knows. In a great many situations experience and knowledge lead to increased effectiveness. But there are also many situations in which this is not the case. The key difference is whether the environment is regular or not. In a regular environment—one showing predictable patterns, such as when playing chess—then expertise is a major advantage. But in situations that are not regular, and which do not follow any predictable pattern (such as the stock market), the predictions of experts can be worse than random.

This seems like a particularly timely reminder during this coronavirus crisis. Suddenly we find ourselves in a novel situation, without historical precedent, and we naturally and logically turn to experts. But the experts that I have heard seem to sharply disagree on many important things.

A simple example is school closures. While some consider it wise, since children can serve as vectors for diseases, others consider it unwise, since the danger posed to children by the coronavirus is small and many healthcare workers have children (and so might be able to work less if schools were closed). Something else to consider is whether it might benefit the community as a whole if children developed immunity to the virus, thus negating their ability to serve as vectors. If they are at extremely low risk, then this could save many lives. Michael Osterholm seems to think that it is a bad idea, while most governments are coming to the opposite conclusion.

To give you two highly divergent cases of expert disagreement, consider Neil M. Ferguson and John P. A. Ioannidis. Ferguson is one of the world’s foremost experts on epidemics, whose titles are so extensive that I will not even repeat them here. His speciality is in mathematical models of infectious diseases; and his models predict quite bleak outcomes. He predicts one to over two million deaths in the United States, depending on the policies adopted. He recommends a policy of suppression—basically, a maximum of social distancing, locking down the population—in order to prevent the worst case-scenario. If we want to save as many lives as possible, then we will have to seriously disrupt society until a vaccine is developed, which may take quite a long time. (Ferguson himself recently seems to have come down with the disease.)

Ioannidis—the director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center—has a very different message. He emphasizes how much we still do not know about the virus, and how potentially foolish our methods of dealing with it may turn out to be. To take a basic datum, we are still quite in the dark regarding the lethality rate of the virus. It is tempting to take the total number of cases and then divide it by the total number of deaths, and get an answer. But there is reason to suspect that this would severely distort the results. For one, many countries have limitations on tests, and so the total number of infected will seem artificially low. And even if tests are widely available, we still cannot know how many people may be asymptomatic or have such mild symptoms that they never register.

To determine this we would need to conduct large-scale, randomized tests of the population, to see whether subjects have either the active virus or antibodies against it. To my knowledge, no such test has been done. Without such data, we really have no hopes of establishing the lethality of this novel coronavirus, because we cannot know how many people get mild or asymptomatic cases. In Italy and Spain, the virus appears to be extremely deadly. However, this is almost undoubtedly a result of several factors: for example, both countries have elderly populations; and testing is limited to those with serious cases. (Another interesting factor is that many younger people live with their parents in these two countries.)

If you look at South Korea or Germany—where testing is more widely available—the evidence seems much more reassuring. The Spanish newspaper El País calls the low mortality rate in Germany a “medical enigma,” partly because Germany’s population is roughly as old as Spain’s. But it is entirely possible that it is a more accurate picture of the virus than other countries. In Spain there are 625 tests per million people; in Germany they have 4,000 and in South Korea over 5,000 per million. Logically, the greater the testing capacity, the more accurate the mortality rate. Furthermore, it is worth noting that even the best testing capacity might lead to misleadingly high mortality rates, since again tests are usually given to people with symptoms; thus the number of asymptomatic cases remains largely a guess. 

The only situation in which an entire population was tested, to my knowledge, was the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Of the roughly 700 infections aboard, there were 7 deaths, giving a lethality rate of about 1%, and about 20% of the roughly 3,700 people aboard tested positive. (About 50% of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.) If 20% of, say, the United States got ill, and 1% of that 20% died, this would translate to 700,000 deaths. This is obviously bad. However, the case of the cruise ship has several factors that would make it seem a worst case-scenario. For example, cruise ships are more densely populated than even the biggest cities, more time is spent in common areas, and air is commonly recycled; thus, the total infection rate of the virus would be unusually high. Further, the population of cruise ships is significantly skewed towards the elderly, which would make the death rate unusually high as well.

Ioannidis argues that if we adjust our numbers to account for these significant differences, then the total number of deaths in the United States will be 10,000. In his words: “This sounds like a huge number, but it is buried within the noise of the estimate of deaths from ‘influenza-like illness.’” And it is worth remembering that in a bad flu season 70-80,000 people die in a year. 

One can point to the dire situation in Italy as a counterargument, of course. But it is worth noting that a virus does not have to be particularly lethal to overwhelm the medical system; it just has to be quite infectious. This is what is known as the R0 number: the average number of viral transmissions per person. We believe the seasonal flu to have an R0 number of around 1, meaning that each sick person gets an average of one other person sick. But if the seasonal flu had a much higher R0 number, it could be enough to flood emergency rooms like we are seeing. This is because more total people would be infected in a much smaller window of time. Thus, the evidence still appears quite inconclusive as to the real lethality rate. 

A great many other things are currently uncertain. Can we get infected more than once? How will changing weather affect the virus? And how infectious is the novel coronavirus, exactly? Without essential data such as these, we are all essentially flying blind.

Another problem is that the intense focus on the virus may only exacerbate our ignorance, not remedy it. Naturally, headlines focus on the growing numbers of cases and the growing number of the dead. Yet if the news suddenly began to track deaths from heart attacks or traffic accidents, the results would also seem catastrophic. Even on a normal day in America, the news can make it seem as if we are living in a war zone. The ugly reality—which we normally prefer not to think of—is that tens of thousands of people die every day, for all sorts of reasons. The question cannot be resolved by simply measuring the cases that come to our attention. We need to measure vulnerability and lethality against the relevant total, and not as simply a number that keeps rising.

We are thus faced with a difficult choice. If we underestimate the virus, and Ferguson is correct, we will condemn many people to die. But if the numbers used in Ferguson’s models are wrong—and we have no way of knowing this yet—then the measures intended to counteract the virus may inflict more harm than benefit, maybe much more. The virus is an unknown quantity, but so is the damage that could result from government lockdowns. Are we locking unhappy wives in with their abusive husbands? Are we inflicting severe psychological harm on vulnerable people? And if the economy cannot bounce back from this disruption, what will happen to those whose situation was already precarious? And these are just the immediate effects—not the economic or social fallout. The scale of such potential negative results is currently unforeseeable.

The major refrain of our reaction has been to “flatten the curve.” The basic idea is simple. The healthcare system can only attend to a very limited number of severe cases at any one time. So if we get an onslaught of cases in one sharp peak, then there will be no hope of using our limited resources to save what lives we can. This seems simple enough, but I think it leaves out some important considerations. First, the graphic that is normally represented is completely out of scale. The potential peak is not just twice as high as the dotted line, but many times as high (we do not know exactly how high yet). To spread out the curve to below the dotted line, we will require not just eight weeks of intervention, but many months. Can we impose a lockdown for half a year or more?

Another consideration is one brought up by Ioannidis. If our health care systems are, indeed, overwhelmed regardless of our interventions, then our interventions may only succeed in extending the time that our healthcare systems are overwhelmed. To speak in terms of the curves, “flattening the curve” is only a good idea if we can get it below the dotted line. If we cannot get the curve under the dotted line—as is already the case in Italy and in some parts of Spain—then we will only protract the period during which hospitals are over capacity. This means that there will be more time that victims of trauma, heart attacks, strokes, and so on will be unable to get treatment, which can result in more total lives lost. After all, we must deal with all of our usual health problems on top of this. People will still need to give birth.

Here is a piece of pure speculation—from somebody who is in no way an expert. In the 1918 flu pandemic, one reason the disease became so deadly is because of a natural selection process. Normally, mild strains of viruses are preferentially spread, since those with milder symptoms are out and about, spreading the virus, and those who are infectious stay put. But if a lockdown creates a similar situation as the First World War—wherein mild cases stay put (since we are in lockdown and they were in the trenches), while severe cases are the ones which spread via hospitals—then we may be preferentially selecting for more severe forms of the virus. Admittedly, I have not heard anyone respectable express this worry.

I have, however, heard experts express the worry that, by locking people in their homes, we are potentially shooting ourselves in the foot. This would be because it prevents the least vulnerable from developing immunity, which would go a long way in making the entire population less susceptible. This is called “herd immunity,” and it is the strategy urged by David L. Katz (another expert, the founding director of the Yale-Griffiths Prevention Center). His main point is that it is not sensible to shut down all of society if only certain members of society are seriously vulnerable, or in his words that a more “surgical” approach is needed. (Also, certain interventions, such as sending college kids to live with their older parents, do not seem sensible from any perspective.)

My worry is that governments are incentivized to badly underreact and then badly overcorrect. They underreact because each government wants calm, happy, and prosperous citizens, and disrupting life for a seemingly small threat is not politically advantageous. They will overreact because, in the face of a threat that can no longer be ignored, governments must be seen as maximally responsible. What is more, with heavy government intervention, any successful diminution in cases can be claimed as government success. Thus, governments are incentivized to take the most extreme measures available. Anything short of that will appear cavalier in retrospect if the disease is as bad as it may indeed be; and even if it is not as bad, any success will go to the credit of the government.

But everything in life is a tradeoff. Morally speaking, the government must weigh the damage inflicted by the virus against the damage inflicted on the suppression measures. And if both of these are totally unknown quantities—which seems to be the case—what then? We are past the point where we can say “better safe than sorry.” We risk being both sorry and unsafe. 

My own feeling at the moment is one of intense frustration. The governments of Europe and the United States have given conflicting messages to its citizens and have been content to react rather than prepare. Given the sharp shift from blasé indifference to emergency measures, I can only conclude that we are not in a situation like that of an expert chess player, but more like that of a stock broker—trying our best to predict the unpredictable. As Bill Bryson goes at lengths to show, we are still quite astonishingly ignorant about a great many things in our own bodies, including disease. And as Ioannidis explains, we are still quite in the dark even when it comes to something as humble as the seasonal flu or common cold. We only have rough estimates of flu related deaths, because we cannot filter out other common diseases such as colds; and it is also possible to have multiple infections at once.

In any case, to me it seems quite clear that the government’s wild pivot from indifference to emergency cannot constitute a rational response. To act as if the virus is unimportant one moment and the only important thing on earth the next is not evidence of clear thinking. We are in a hurry to embrace policies whose effectiveness, sustainability, and collateral damage are unknown to combat a virus whose danger is undetermined. While we are all collectively obsessing over the coronavirus (since lately it is impossible to think of much else), perhaps it is wise to remember another of Kahneman’s findings: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

—David Graeber

Humans are strange creatures: we can twist any event to reinforce the beliefs that we already hold. One would hope that this were not the case; after all, the entire premise of science is that experiences can correct beliefs. But it seems that this is not always the case. The coronavirus crisis is showcasing this tendency in all its irrational glory. Everyone—from progressives to conservatives—is convinced that this crisis reveals why the other side was wrong. Yet this mental phenomenon does not even have to take a political form. Exercise fanatics, for example, will use the crisis to reinforce their obsession, while doomsday preppers must feel awfully vindicated right about now.

I suppose I should join this crowd and offer my own little pet theory. A few months ago I read the book Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, and was entranced. It describes a widespread phenomenon: that many people harbor the secret conviction that their job is absolutely pointless. Reading this was an immense emotional vindication for me, since I myself had worked a job that I found to be pointless, and I experienced many of the harmful psychological effects that Graeber describes. But the problem is more than psychological. I think all of us have run into people whose jobs seem to serve little to no socially beneficial function. This can take many forms. A secretary whose only job is to answer the phone three times a day; an administrator whose job is to get college professors to upload their syllabuses into a central database; or the many hundreds of thousands of people employed in the United States processing health insurance claims.

Now that so many sectors of the economy are essentially shut down, perhaps this will give us an opportunity to reflect on which jobs are bullshit and which are not. I am not suggesting, of course, that everyone who has been sent home has a useless job. To the contrary, I think that most parents with kids at home would agree (I hope) that teachers have quite a challenging and important job. Likewise, now that we are sorely missing the pleasures of bars and restaurants, we must be grateful to all the people who made that possible. During this dark time, the humble cashiers in our grocery stores have become heroes. And this is not to mention the garbage collectors, police officers, and above all the doctors and nurses.

My point is that so many jobs which are commonly seen as low-skill and which are thus badly paid are now the ones we are relying on, or missing, most of all. Meanwhile, the sorts of jobs that are lampooned in Graeber’s book—the corporate lawyers, the college administrators, the creative vice presidents—I suspect are not sorely missed. Perhaps, then, this will motivate us in the future to better compensate those in these normally overlooked professions. Of course, I must pause and remind myself of the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The market is not a moral machine (fortunately or unfortunately); and rewards are not given away for merit.

Still, we have the means to make people’s lives easier. One way—popularized most recently by Andrew Yang—is Universal Basic Income: simply giving every citizen a certain amount of money each month that would be enough to cover basic expenses. In attenuated form, this is what the government is already proposing to do during the crisis: mailing every American a check for $1,000 dollars to help the many people who are out of work. David Graeber is also in favor of the idea, partly because it would allow so many people to escape the world of bullshit work. That is, having a financial cushion would give people the freedom to leave their work when they feel they are not doing anything productive or valuable. And this freedom would make a big difference in the job market in general, since it would give employees far more negotiating power. Jobs would have to be reasonably appealing if they wished to attract people who already had enough money to live on. Thus, this could benefit those with highly-paid but useless work, as well as those with badly-paid but useful work.

Maybe it is inappropriate to think of utopian schemes while we are in the midst of a crisis. And of course I am guilty of the same sin of seeing the situation through my own ideology. I ended my review of Graeber’s book by calling for a movement dedicated towards the expansion of leisure time. Ironically, nowadays I greatly miss the freedom to go to work. When you actually believe that you are contributing to society, working becomes a great source of meaning in your life. A world without work is not one I want to live in. But if we can dream for a few moments, I would ask you to imagine a world where work is more flexible, more negociable, and more meaningful. Will this crisis edge us in that direction? Perhaps I can be indulged for a moment of optimism at a time when all the news is bad news.

Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

Quotes & Commentary #69: Keynes

It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone, particularly in economics (along with the other moral sciences), where it is often impossible to bring one’s ideas to a conclusive test either formal or experimental.

—John Maynard Keynes

I have been thinking a lot about Keynes lately, and not only because I am reading a massive biography of his life. Keynes is one of those perennial thinkers whom we can never seem to escape. He exerted enormous influence during his lifetime and dominated economic thought and policy for thirty years after his death. Then, as inevitably happened, the Keynesian orthodoxy became too successful for its own good. His ideas came to be taken for granted, and his innovations became the conventional wisdom that the cleverest economists of the next generation came to reject. This ushered in the age of Neoliberalism—with Margeret Thatcher, Ronald Reagen, and Milton Friedman as the great standard-bearers—and the decline in Keynesian thought.

And yet, whenever there is a serious problem with the economy, everyone instinctively returns to Keynes. It was he who most convincingly analyzed the sources of economic recession and depression, and then plotted a way out of it. He was writing, after all, in the wake of the Great Depression.

To oversimplify the basic idea of Keynes’s analysis, it is this: High unemployment leads to a lack of demand, and a lack of demand can push financial systems beyond the breaking point. Put another way, the economy can be envisioned as an enormously complex machine that is composed of millions of cogs. Some cogs are small, some are large, and all are connected—either proximally or distantly. If one small cog stops working, then it may cause some local disturbances, but the whole machine can continue to chug along. But if too many cogs fail at the same time, the machine can come to a grinding halt.

As the coronavirus shuts down huge sections of the economy, this is exactly the scenario we are facing. Waiters, bartenders, actors, musicians, taxi drivers, factory workers—so many people face lay-offs and unemployment as businesses prepare to shut down. Besides this, if we are locked into our homes, then there are now far fewer places where people can spend their money, even if they have money to spend. It is inevitable that some people will not be able to afford rent, that some businesses will go under, and that much of the money that is available to circulate will remain unused in bank accounts. People are not going to be buying houses, or cars, or dogs, or much of anything in the coming weeks (besides toilet paper, of course).

Now, in a capitalist economy, anyone’s problem is also my problem, since buying and spending are so intimately related. The money you spend eventually becomes the money I receive, and vice versa. Thus, if there is a increase in unemployment (limiting the money you receive), an increase in bankruptcies (limiting the money the banks receive), and a decrease in spending (limiting the money I receive), then we have a recipe for serious economic contraction. A wave of bankruptcies inevitably puts pressure on banks; and if banks begin to collapse, then we are in grave trouble. Whether or not we like to admit it, banks provide an essential service in the economy, one which we all rely on. To return to my crude cog analogy, the banks are some of the biggest cogs of all; and if they stop turning, nothing else can move.

Keynes’s solution to this dilemma was essentially to use the government’s almost limitless ability to borrow money, and inject as much cash into the economy as possible. In other words, the idea is to stimulate demand, so that people can continue to spend money. It is an idea that has been criticized by so-called ‘responsible’ people for generations. Can the government really afford to go into so much debt during a recession? Can such artificial measures actually prop up an ailing economy? Can we tolerate such a huge degree of government involvement in a liberal society?

Republicans—and to a lesser extent, even Democrats—have been sharply critical of Keynesian economics over the years. When Obama wanted a stimulus package for the 2008 financial crisis, he faced endless opposition and criticism from the Republican party. And now that we are facing an economic crisis on a comparable scale, the Republicans are turning without hesitation to Keynes: hundreds of billions in stimulus, and even resorting to mailing checks to every American. One could hardly imagine a more straightforwardly Keynesian solution than this. Keynes had this to say about how the government could deal with a recession:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

This is the closest that Keynes got to the notion of simply giving people money. Paying people for absolutely useless work is better than nothing, since at least then people are being paid; and if they are being paid, they can spend their money; and if they spend their money, I can get paid; and so on. If this were a different kind of crisis—a kind where we did not have to practice social distancing—then perhaps we could imagine large-scale infrastructure projects as a way of combating recession. But now, we must resort to the even more radical idea of paying Americans to do nothing. Maybe Andrew Yang’s notion of a universal basic income is not so far after all?

Well, here is where I must warn my readers (all three of you) that I am really quite clueless when it comes to economics, so everything written here must be read in that spirit of ignorance. However, I think that Keynes’s quote is also quite relevant for non-economic reasons. As so often true in economics, we are facing an entirely novel situation. This is a crisis without precedent, and that means that all of our ideas of how to cope with the crisis are untested. The closest historical precedent to the coronavirus is the 1918 flu pandemic; and yet there are important differences between both the disease and the historical situation. We are thus operating without ‘conclusive tests,’ in Keynes’s words, of our ideas. It remains to be seen which country’s approach will be the wisest.

In the meantime, Keynes is an example for us to follow: an intellectual who responded to a historical crisis with both ingenuity and rigor. Let us hope there are many more like him.

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

A Manual of Greek Mathematics by Thomas L. Heath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the case of mathematics, it is the Greek contribution which it is most essential to know, for it was the Greeks who first made mathematics a science.


As a supplement to my interest in the history of science, I figured that I ought to take a look into the history of mathematics, since the two are quite intimately related. This naturally led me to the Greeks and to Sir Thomas L. Heath, who remains the most noteworthy translator, divulgator, and commentator in English eighty years after his death. This book is likely the best single volume you can get on the subject, as it covers all of the major mathematicians in some detail while giving a complete overview.

It is also reasonably accessible (“reasonably” being the operative word). Certainly it is no work of popular math in the modern sense; it is not pleasure reading, and Heath assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the reader’s part. A thorough knowledge of algebra and geometry is assumed, and a few words in ancient Greek are not translated. What is more, large sections of the book are essentially extended summaries and explications of Greek treatises, which makes them almost impossible to read without the original text alongside. Personally I would certainly have appreciated more spoon-feeding, as it was quite difficult for me to prevent my eyes from glazing over.

The book is divided primarily by subject-matter and secondarily by chronology. Heath introduces us to notation, fractions, and techniques of calculation, and then on to arithmetic. Geometry, of course, dominates the book, as it was the primarily form of Greek mathematical thought. Heath summarizes the contributions to geometry by Pythagoras and his followers, and the scattered mathematicians we know of in the years between Thales and Euclid. Once Euclid appears, he writes his famous Elements, which encapsulates the entire subject and which rendered many previous works obsolete. After Euclid we come to the divine Archimedes and the great Apollonius, who put the capstone on the tradition. Ptolemy (among others) made great advances in trigonometry, while Diophantus made strides in algebra (as well as inspired Fermat).

Heath’s account of these mathematicians is largely internal, meaning that he is focused on the growth of their ideas rather than anything external to the science. Reading this convinced me—as if further evidence was needed—that I do not have the moral fiber or intellectual temper to appreciate mathematics. Heath writes admiringly of the works of Euclid and Archimedes, finding them not only brilliant but beautiful. While I can normally appreciate the brilliance, the beauty normally escapes me. Ratios, volumes, lines, and equations simply do not make my heart beat.

Indeed, the questions that I find most fascinating are those that are hardly touched upon in this book. Most important, perhaps, is this: What aspect of a culture or a society is conducive to the development of pure mathematics? Though claims of Greek specialness or superiority seem antiqued at best nowadays, it is true that the Greeks made outstanding contributions to science and math; while the Roman contribution to those fields—at least on the theoretical side—is close to nil. The mathematics of Ancient Egypt amount to techniques for practical calculations. Admittedly, as Otto Neugebauer wrote about in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, the Babylonians had quite advanced mathematics, allowing them to solve complex polynomials; they also had impressive tabulations of the heavenly motions.

Even so, it was the Greeks who created science and math in the modern sense, by focusing on generality. That is, rather than collect data or develop techniques for specific problems, the Greeks were intent on proving theorems that would hold in every case. This also characterizes their philosophy and science: a rigorous search after an absolute truth. This cultural orientation towards the truth in the most general, absolute form seems quite historically special. It arose in one fairly limited area, and lasted for only a few centuries. Most striking is the Greek disdain of the practical—something that runs from Pythagoras, through Plato, to Archimedes.

Of the top of my head, here are some possible factors for this cultural development. The Greek economy was based on slavery, so that citizens often could afford to disdain the practical. What is more, the Greek political model was based on the city-state—a small, close-knit community with limited expansionist aims and thus with limited need for great infrastructure or novel weapons. The relative lack of economic, political, or military pressure perhaps freed intellectuals to pursue wholly theoretical projects, with standards that arose from pure logic rather than necessity. Maybe this seems plausible; but I am sure many other societies fit this description, not just the Greeks. The development of culture is something that we do not fully understand, to say the least.

This has taken me quite far afield. In sum, this book is an excellent place to start—either by itself, or as a companion to the original Greek works—if you are interested in learning something about this astounding intellectual tradition. That the Greeks could get so far using geometry alone—that is, without variables or equations—is a testament to human genius and persistence.



View all my reviews

Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

“It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in the Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.”

—Bill Bryson

This past Christmas, my mother gave me Bill Bryson’s new book on the human body as a present. It was an excellent gift: I spent half my Christmas break totally absorbed in it. The book is fascinating for several reasons. For one, there is an awful lot that most of us do not know about our own bodies—which itself is funny to think about. But perhaps we are better off not knowing, since the book also highlights how many things could potentially go wrong in the intricate functioning of our mortal frames. The existence of life is a miracle in its own right; and the existence of highly complex life—such as us (or so we like to flatter ourselves)—is a miracle of exponential proportions. So many things have to go right in order for you and me to be here.

That means it is easy for things to go wrong. And a viral infection—when malicious genetic code hijacks our cells—is one way that this marvelous process can get disrupted. One of the best chapters in Bryson’s book is on diseases. When I read the chapter, not too long ago, it seemed to be mainly about things from the distant past that used to menace our species. Bryson discusses typhoid and typhus, smallpox and ebola, and of course the Spanish flu of 1918. Most of these illnesses strike us nowadays as historical curiosities, rendered obsolete by the invention of vaccines and effective antibiotics. But Bryson sounds a note of warning in the chapter that now seems quite prescient. He quotes Michael Kinch, a specialist on drug discovery of Washington University, as saying:

The fact is, we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.

I vividly remember reading that passage, and scoffing. Surely, I thought, we must be far better prepared than they were back in 1918, when medicine and technology were so comparatively primitive. I was wrong. Bryson deserves kudos for his writing, as this current crisis has completely borne out his warnings. We are in far more danger than we like to think, and we are basically not prepared for it.

One rather stunning fact—stunning because we so rarely think of it—is how many people normally die from the seasonal flu. In the United States alone, it is between 30-40,000 per year, and that number gets much bigger during particularly bad years. According to Bryson’s book, in the 2017-18 flu season, upwards of 80,000 people died of the flu. These numbers are stunning, especially considering the massive international response that is already underway to slow the spread of this new coronavirus, which has so far taken far fewer lives. Perhaps we should always be practising social distancing… 

The primary issue, at the moment, is essentially this: our society was not built to handle large-scale infectious diseases with fatality rates significantly higher than the seasonal flu. We do not have enough hospital beds, nurses, doctors, respirators, masks, or anything else. Our entire way of life—hanging out in bars, going to concerts, flying from country to country—is premised on being largely free from dangerous infectious diseases. We really did not know how lucky we were. Our situation was highly anomalous in human history, and it will take months before we can return to it.

What is most frustrating, for me, is the degree to which the situation is out of my hands. Everyone craves a sense of control. In a crisis, we want to know what we can do to protect ourselves, or to contribute to a common cause. Right now, these actions are rather humble: wash your hands, stay at home as much as possible, self-isolate if you show symptoms. This is all well and good; but we naturally want to know what is the scale of the danger and how long this immense disruption will last.

At this point, the information available is far from clear. The more articles I read, the more contradictory the information seems. Some are predicting infection rates of up to 80% of the population, while others predict 20%. Some predict that the disease will turn out to be less deadly than it seems, while others are predicting a complete global disruption lasting for months. It also seems unclear (to me, at least) whether children are effective vectors of the virus. Judging from the school closures, many believe yes; but I also have read that there is little available evidence.

Our best tool in fighting pandemics are vaccines. But unfortunately vaccines can take quite a long time to develop. It is not as easy as I (naively) thought. Many trials must be performed to ensure that the vaccine is effective and safe for the general population, and this takes time: months and months. If we cannot immunize ourselves artificially, then, the only possibility is to develop a herd-immunity the hard way: by getting the disease itself. This is a frightening prospect. That route would entail a great deal of suffering and death. But how long can we wait in our homes? In short, I am unclear how we are going to get out of this mess.

Meanwhile, I am fairly stuck in my little apartment in Madrid, one of the new epicenters of the virus. We have only had three days of isolation, and it is not so bad thus far. I began an exercise routine that I can do in my room, and my brother and I have been cooking a lot of hearty meals. But I really cannot see how everyone will be able to keep this up for the long-term, either economically or psychologically. Without extraordinary government measures, I do not think that people could stay in their homes much longer than one month without a great many people facing serious financial strain. Even in the best case scenario, the consequences for the economy seem quite grave. And this is putting aside the social pressure to resume normal life, which will increase from day to day.

At present, I swerve wildly from optimism to pessimism. What I want most of all is a return to normalcy. Never has my old life seemed so desirable! The strangest thing about this crisis is that it went from trivial to serious so quickly. Everyone seems to have been caught unawares. But even Bill Bryson—a popular writer with no specialized training—was able to see potential danger once he looked into the research. If only our experts had been as intelligent and as anxious as he.

Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the joy of Spanish cities (when there isn’t a pandemic, of course).

Click below for the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-18-spanish-cities/id1469809686?i=1000468584456

Here is the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel. 

It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global. 

Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life. 

A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.

I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same. 

Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.

The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.

A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)

Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).

There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.

Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.

Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)

Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.

Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.

Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there. 

Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.

Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.

Thank you.

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

—Thucydides

The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a surgical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what virus caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.