Assorted Links (Spring 2020)

I like to share interesting links I've collected on a somewhat regular basis. It seemed especially timely when many people could be looking for things to read while stuck at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

I won't spend this whole post on current events, but did want to start with some articles on big-picture topics related to the pandemic or what might come next. "As rare, high-impact events like the coronavirus epidemic reminds us, a densely-networked world may also be more fragile," writes Dr. David Shaywitz. He quotes Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called ‘efficiency’ that makes people now sail too close to the wind….One problem somewhere can halt the entire project… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

The concept of network effects contributing to complexity was a point that came up in some books I reviewed a bit over a year ago. In that post I pointed out, "the value of circuit breakers/firebreaks in an age when so many things are interconnected" in the context of not getting sucked in to social media pile-ons, but clearly it's also applicable to public health.

I've already shared a quote from N.N. Taleb; this post explains his concept of anti-fragility: going beyond robustness (stability in the face of challenges) to actually getting stronger under adversity. He explains how this is true of our immune system, which gains valuable information about threats to our health through exposure (including via vaccines, when available).

Something I've been thinking about as schools and workplaces have shut down and people have been encouraged to self isolate is that some families might find that their kids learn as well or better at home than at school, and some employers/employees might find that working from home arrangements can be just as productive as being in an office. This won't be everyone's experience, of course, but for some people their first time trying homeschooling or working remotely will be a success and I expect these things to grow in popularity accordingly. Similar predictions are made here, with the added point that this could enable people in dense urban areas (facing challenges from high housing costs and other issues) to disperse geographically without giving up too much in the way of career opportunities. Dispersing away from dense urban areas may mitigate some of the risks we face in our hyper-networked modern world (e.g. NYC is currently a global hotspot for COVID-19 cases).

This article makes the case that cracking down on free speech is a counterproductive approach to fighting a pandemic (or doing most other things).

The economic impact of coronavirus-related shutdowns can be seen in the drop in air pollution over places like China and Italy.

My previous post noted the budget challenges that New Brunswick was facing even before the pandemic crisis in affording healthcare for an aging population. Some of the people on the front lines of that effort (and not just in NB) are not paid very well. This article examines that topic and draws a comparison to pre-industrial spinning labour due to the sheer amount of hands-on effort that's required:

But the pay isn’t low because the people who hire caregivers are greedy and mean-spirited. Neither is it because the work is easy or unimportant. It’s a much tougher problem. Caregiving is vital, but so labor-intensive that at higher wages, hardly anyone could afford it.  
Before the Industrial Revolution, Indian hand-spinners, the world’s best, took about 100 hours to produce enough cotton thread to weave the fabric for a modern pair of jeans — not including the time cleaning and preparing the fiber beforehand. Spinning the equivalent amount of wool on a European spinning wheel took about 110 hours. At the low modern wage of $11 an hour just the thread in a pair of trousers would have cost well over $1,000, not including the time spent dyeing, weaving or sewing. Only by finding mechanical ways to get much more thread per hour did people finally make cloth abundant...  
Boosting productivity, and the wages it supports, is tougher for in-person services like caregiving.  

If you're looking for things to do from the comfort of your home, here are a few ideas:

If you are—quite reasonably—looking for things unrelated to COVID-19 to read and think about, the rest of this post is for you:

  • A book I reviewed last year discussed sand mining. Here's a video about the practice, along with an infographic related to some of the themes of that book.
  • Shortly before it closed temporarily, I saw an exhibit at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery where I learned about the Canadian Forestry Corps that cut a huge amount of trees to support the Allied efforts in WW1. They are worth remembering at a time when I think a lot of us have a renewed appreciation for supply chains and logistics.
  • As a professional resource, WEF has some factsheets on biosolids and biogas (among other topics).
  • Venkatesh Rao thinks he has spotted some emerging trends on upcoming generations placing a renewed value on domesticity
  • Here are a couple of articles from Jonathan Kay on things we can learn from boardgames, a subject he's co-authored a new book about.
  • Nassim Taleb has been mentioned above. Here's a description of how one of his concepts can advise someone aspiring to a creative career.
  • Some pieces of writing advice.
  • Some dramatic before and after photos showing how some cities have changed over time.
  • A reminder that "politics is a jealous god".
  • Some discussion of tropes represented by the Fremen in Dune.
  • WIRED has an engrossing article on the tension between faith and the success-driven world of tech start-ups.
  • A map of the Roman Empire with travel time estimates between significant locations.
  • Arguments in favour of nuclear power and the nuclear family.