Their relationships with government and banks put them at the front of the line for bailouts

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

The U.S. Commerce Department reported that retail spending in March collapsed by the largest number on record:

Travel spending — including on airlines, hotels, and cruises — is down more than 100 percent, if you include refunds. Department stores and clothing stores are facing an extinction-level event after having experienced years of decline. Pockets of resiliency and even strength include grocery stores and liquor stores, which in March had their best month of growth on record. Home-improvement spending is up as well.


Over the past 50 years, the number of American malls grew almost twice as fast as the U.S. population, to the point that in 2015, the U.S. had 10 times more shopping space per capita than Germany. Such abundance makes no sense in the age of Amazon. Overleveraged, overbuilt, and oversprawled, American retailers had a long way to fall as the country moved toward online shopping. In 2017, and again in 2019, physical-store closures reached an all-time high, led by the decay of suburban totems like Sports Authority and Payless.

The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store, marking the end of that 200-year-old retail innovation after decades of decline. Macy’s has furloughed more than 100,000 workers. Neiman Marcus has filed for Chapter 11. More legacy department stores and apparel retailers will almost certainly follow them to bankruptcy court or the corporate graveyard. As these anchor stores shutter, hundreds of malls that were already wobbling in 2019 will be knocked out in 2020.

The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy. In the early innings of this crisis, the most resilient companies include blue-chip retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Dollar General, Costco, and Home Depot, all of whose stock prices are at or near record highs. Meanwhile, most small retailers — like hair salons, cafés, flower shops, and gyms — have less than one month’s cash on hand. One survey of several thousand small businesses, including hotels, theaters, and bars, found that just 30 percent of them expect to survive a lockdown that lasts four months.

Big companies have several advantages over smaller independents in a crisis. They have more cash reserves, better access to capital, and a general counsel’s office to furlough employees in an orderly fashion. Most important, their relationships with government and banks put them at the front of the line for bailouts.

The past two weeks have seen widespread reports of small businesses struggling to secure funds from the federal government. Larger companies do not seem to be experiencing the same delays. In one particularly controversial case, Ruth’s Chris Steak House — a public company with 159 locations and $87 million of cash on hand — announced that it had secured $20 million from a small-business rescue program that ran out of money before it could help countless independents. (Ruth’s Chris later pledged to return the money, and the federal government replenished the pot, though it will likely run out again quickly.)

Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is all shot on iPhone 11 phones from the homes of the production team

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

Apple’s streaming service is posting free short episodes of its Fraggle Rock reboot, Fraggle Rock: Rock On!, each Tuesday, but what’s especially interesting — at least to this silly creature — is how it’s being produced:

“In accordance with the Covid-19 ‘Safer at Home’ guidelines,” Apple writes in a release, “Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is all shot on iPhone 11 phones from the homes of the production team and individual artists from all over the U.S.”

The digital release has generated more revenue for Universal than the original Trolls did during its domestic theatrical run

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Last month, as the nation’s movie theaters were days from closing down, Universal Pictures decided not to postpone the release of Trolls World Tour, but to make it available as a digital rental for $19.99:

Three weeks later, “Trolls World Tour” has racked up nearly $100 million in rentals.

With nearly five million rentals in the U.S. and Canada, the digital release has in three weeks generated more revenue for Universal than the original “Trolls” did during its five-month domestic theatrical run, according to a person familiar with the matter. Its performance has convinced Universal executives that digital releases can be a winning strategy, and may diminish the role of theaters even after the pandemic passes.


For Jeff Shell, head of the film studio’s parent division, NBCUniversal, the campaign to experiment with the digital marketplace known as premium video on demand, or PVOD, had been a goal long before he ascended to his current job, four months before the coronavirus pandemic struck.


For studios, the prospect is especially alluring because they retain about 80% of the digital rental or purchase fee — compared with about 50% of box-office sales.

Universal has made more than $77 million in revenue from “Trolls World Tour” domestic customers so far. That means “Trolls World Tour” has generated about $95 million in rental fees from nearly five million customers since its release, based on revenue figures cited by the person familiar with the matter, who didn’t dispute the estimate.

The same amount of revenue during a theatrical run would have required a box-office gross of $154 million, or about the final tally of the original “Trolls” movie. The sequel cost about $90 million to produce.

The original “Trolls” collected $153.7 million at the domestic box office. Universal received about $77 million of that total; about half stayed with theaters.

It is unclear how the $20 rental strategy will affect future sales of “Trolls World Tour” DVDs and digital downloads. Researchers at Universal found 51% of people who rented the sequel said they would have “definitely” seen the movie in theaters. About one-fifth said they rarely or never rent movies from digital services.

The title set digital records at platforms operated by Inc., Apple and Comcast’s own Xfinity service. The movie benefited from a market largely devoid of competition, since studios have postponed most releases, and families sheltering in place are seeking things to watch together.

Actual underwater combat occurs silently with very little reaction time

Sunday, April 26th, 2020

Submarine movies such as Crimson Tide and Hunter Killer use torpedo chase scenes for dramatic effect:

The reality is that a torpedo maneuvering and hunting submarines that are frantically trying to evade is the least likely scenario in a modern submarine attack. As already noted, in a 21st Century torpedo attack, the target will likely never know it’s about to be destroyed. Modern submarine torpedoes have sound silencing built into their design and, unless they use their active sonar modes, they may not be detected until the moment before detonation.

A common event observed in naval exercises is two submarines passing within a few hundred meters of each other, detecting each other at the same time, and racing to get a shot off before the other. The other type of engagement is when one sub detects the other sooner, and often at range, resulting in a first shot, first kill. So, the underwater prolonged dogfights that are such beloved set pieces of modern submarine thrillers are just not the reality. Actual underwater combat occurs silently with very little reaction time to fend off an impending attack.


65cm Wake homing torpedoes, like the Russian 65-76A, are large long-range torpedoes designed to search for a ship’s wake and follow it. 65cm torpedoes have enough fuel to travel in excess of 100 kilometers at 50 knots for just over an hour. This makes evasion a very time-consuming affair, allowing the attack submarine time to evade and re-engage. There are ways to actively defeat a wake homing torpedo, but a salvo of this kind of weapon is a carrier killer.

Matt Ridley is rationally optimistic that within a month or two, one of the 30 or more therapies for COVID-19 currently being tested is likely to prove effective and safe

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

Matt Ridley is rationally optimistic that within a month or two, one of the 30 or more therapies for COVID-19 currently being tested is likely to prove effective and safe:

The biological problem, as Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University argued in a prescient call to arms just before the pandemic struck, is that viruses do not have their own biochemistry, because they borrow ours.

So unlike, say, tuberculosis, there is not much to attack.


The problem is that viruses differ from each other, so treatments that work for one seldom work for another. The drugs that work against HIV-1, the main cause of Aids, sometimes do not even work against HIV-2,a milder version of the virus. Those that work against herpes don’t kill the very similar cytomegalovirus. One influenza drug works only against influenza A and not B. One antiviral kills just one genotype of hepatitis C. It is no coincidence that the antiviral treatments capable of attacking more kinds of virus, such as ribavirin, are also the most toxic to the patient, because they tend to attack the machinery of the host as well.


Protease inhibitors tend to be highly specific, so the HIV ones are not necessarily useful against Sars-CoV-2. A different protease inhibitor, however, called camostat mesylate, already approved for use in Japan as a treatment for pancreatitis, is showing promise. It was found in 2012 to work against Sars in the laboratory.


In 2015 remdesivir worked against ebola in monkeys, but in the 2018 epidemic in Congo it failed to make sufficient difference to ebola patients compared with other treatments. [...] However, remdesivir is unlikely to be the silver bullet because it is probably best if taken early in the infection, but you would not want to take it if you had a mild bout. It’s administered intravenously and has some nasty side effects.


There is more hope for favipiravir, sold as Avigan, one of the few antiviral treatments showing promise against more than one kind of virus. Bizarrely, it’s made by a subsidiary of Fujifilm, which diversified into chemicals and pharmaceuticals to avoid the fate of Kodak. Invented during the search for a herpes cure, it has since shown promise against influenza. Though good in the laboratory, it was only partially effective against ebola in Guinea in 2014, but initial trials on 80 coronavirus patients in China this year have suggested that it can speed up the recovery time for Covid patients, perhaps cutting it in half. So Fujifilm is now rushing to increase production and the drug has been cleared for use against coronavirus in Japan. The good news is it’s a pill, not an injection, and has few side effects except in pregnant women, where it is not safe.


If chemical treatments do not work, so-called monoclonal antibodies might. If someone recovers, their own body produces antibodies that smother the virus. These days it’s possible to mass-produce exact copies of the antibodies that work, using genetic engineering. Known as monoclonal antibodies, they proved to be the best way to treat ebola patients in Congo in 2018, when the US biotech firm Regeneron came up with a cocktail of human antibodies using genetically engineered mice. Regeneron has rushed a new cocktail of Covid-19 antibodies through the same procedure and hopes to have it ready to test in early summer. Scaling it up for mass production will not, however, be as easy as it would for a chemical pill.


It is not yet clear how [hydroxychloroquine] works: after all, malaria is neither a virus nor a bacterium, but a parasite. But hydroxychloroquine is used against rheumatoid arthritis and the autoimmune disease lupus. In the laboratory, it does seem to slow and inhibit the infection of cells by this coronavirus.

Hydroxychloroquine also tends to team up with the metal zinc and there are persistent and reliable reports that zinc either stops viruses replicating or helps the immune response to them. A gold-standard review of clinical trials found that zinc lozenges do shorten the duration of a cold by somehow interfering with virus replication. This does not just seem to be a diminishing-returns effect whereby having too little zinc, like having too little vitamin D, is bad, but once you have enough, having even more is no better. But if it is, up to a quarter of people in developing countries are deficient in zinc, and zinc deficiency is not uncommon among the elderly in western countries, so this may be part of the explanation why some elderly people are more seriously affected. In short, zinc supplements as a cheap medication, unrewarding to big pharma and therefore neglected, cannot be ruled out as a useful thing to try. Intriguingly, too much zinc kills your sense of taste, as does Covid-19 in many cases.

He has a new book out, by the way — How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom.

Wherever and whenever people are up in each other’s faces, laughing, shouting, cheering, sobbing, singing, greeting, and praying

Friday, April 24th, 2020

In 1899, a German bacteriologist named Carl Flügge proved that microbes can be transmitted ballistically through large droplets emitted at high velocity from the mouth and nose:

His method for proving the existence of these “Flügge droplets” (as they came to be known) was to painstakingly count the microbe colonies growing on culture plates hit with the expelled secretions of infected lab subjects. It couldn’t have been pleasant work. But his discoveries saved countless lives. And more than 12 decades later, these large respiratory droplets have been identified as a transmission mode for COVID-19.

Flügge’s graduate students continued his work into the 20th century, experimenting with different subjects expelling mucosalivary droplets in different ways. Eventually they determined, as a 1964 report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine put it, that the quantity of expelled Flügge droplets varies markedly based on the manner of respiration: “Very few, if any… droplets are produced during quiet breathing, but [instead, they] are expelled during activities such as talking, coughing, blowing and sneezing.” A single heavy cough, it is now known, can expel as much as a quarter teaspoon of fluid in the form of Flügge droplets. And the higher the exit velocity of the cough, the larger the globules that can be expelled.

Yet if Flügge were with us today, he might be surprised by how little his science has been usefully advanced over the last few generations. As Lydia Bourouiba of the MIT Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory recently noted in JAMA Insights, the basic framework used to represent human-to-human transmission of respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 remain rooted in the tuberculosis era. According to the binary model established in the 1930s, droplets typically are classified as either (1) large globules of the Flüggian variety—arcing through the air like a tennis ball until gravity brings them down to Earth; or (2) smaller particles, less than five to 10 micrometers in diameter (roughly a 10th the width of a human hair), which drift lazily through the air as fine aerosols.

In a fascinating paper published on March 26th, Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions: Potential Implications for Reducing Transmission of COVID-19, Bourouiba shows that analyzing a human sneeze is unusually difficult, even by the standards of fluid dynamics (whose mathematics I once modeled in my former capacity as an engineer and computer programmer). That’s because those mucosalivary droplets we emit are cocooned within a warm, moist enveloping gas cloud—Bourouiba calls it a “puff”—that protects the droplets from evaporation and allows even small globules to travel much farther than one might otherwise predict. The binary distinction between large and small droplets remains fundamental: Eventually, the big particles fall while the smaller ones don’t. But during those first fractions of a second when a sneeze (or cough, or shout) is expelled, Bourouiba shows, the enveloping gas sheath allows smaller particles to act, ballistically speaking, as if they were larger.

The science here is mind-bogglingly complex, because modeling the puff’s behaviour requires that Bourouiba and her team model not only the dynamics of the puff as it travels and dissipates, but also the biophysical and thermodynamic processes unfolding within the gas cloud. But the overall upshot is that such a puff “and its payload of pathogen-bearing droplets of all sizes” can travel seven to eight meters—about four times the length of the six-foot social-distancing buffer zone we’ve all been taught to enforce since mid-March.

Bourouiba’s research hits squarely on a blind spot in our knowledge of COVID-19. On one hand, scientists have an intimate molecule-by-molecule knowledge of the virus’s structure, its full genome having been sequenced months ago. On the other hand, the scientific and lay literature is bursting with epidemiological reports from just about every corner of the planet. But the nitty-gritty mechanics of actual disease transmission doesn’t take place on the microscopic scale of nucleic acids or on the gargantuan scale of whole nations. It takes place on the everyday face-to-face scale of inches and feet, as Flügge showed 121 years ago.

And it is on this crucial scale that our knowledge is thinnest. Despite the passage of four months since the first known human cases of COVID-19, our public-health officials remain committed to policies that reflect no clear understanding as to whether it is one-off ballistic droplet payloads or clouds of fine aerosols that pose the greatest risk—or even how these two modes compare to the possibility of indirect infection through contaminated surfaces (known as “fomites”).

Super-spreader events fit a pattern:

These parties, funerals, religious meet-ups and business networking sessions all seem to have involved the same type of behaviour: extended, close-range, face-to-face conversation—typically in crowded, socially animated spaces. This includes the many people infected by a bartender while being served at a raucous après ski venue in Austria, and party guests in Brazil greeting “each other with two kisses on the cheek [a local custom], hugs and handshakes.” The funerals in question are generally described as highly intimate and congested scenes of grieving among close friends and relatives. In the case of the SSE funeral in Albany, Georgia that devastated the local population, “people wiped tears away, and embraced, and blew their noses, and belted out hymns. They laughed, remembering. It was a big gathering, with upward of 200 mourners overflowing the memorial chapel, so people had to stand outside.”

With few exceptions, almost all of the SSEs took place indoors, where people tend to pack closer together in social situations, and where ventilation is poorer. (It is notable, for instance, that the notorious outbreak at an Austrian ski resort is connected to a bartender and not, say, a lift operator.) But generalizations in this area are complicated by the fact that some of the religious festivals described herein were mixed indoor/outdoor affairs. (Moreover, the February 19 SSE at San Siro stadium in Milan is also ambiguous, since that stadium has a roof over the seating area, but not over the field—and thousands of the fans spent hours bouncing around bars in and around Milan.)

The media accounts of these SSEs are full of descriptions in this vein. At a February 15 festival in Gangelt, a town in Germany’s tiny Heinsberg district, “beer and wine flowed aplenty as approximately 350 adults in fancy dress locked arms on long wooden benches and swayed to the rhythm of music provided by a live band. During an interval in the programme, guests got up to mingle with friends and relatives at other tables, greeting each other as Rhineland tradition commands, with a bützchen, or peck on the cheek.” Since that time, more than 40 Germans from the Heinsberg district have died. It’s been called “Germany’s Wuhan.”


When do COVID-19 SSEs happen? Based on the list I’ve assembled, the short answer is: Wherever and whenever people are up in each other’s faces, laughing, shouting, cheering, sobbing, singing, greeting, and praying. You don’t have to be a 19th-century German bacteriologist or MIT expert in mucosalivary ballistics to understand what this tells us about the most likely mode of transmission.

It’s worth scanning all the myriad forms of common human activity that aren’t represented among these listed SSEs: watching movies in a theater, being on a train or bus, attending theater, opera, or symphony (these latter activities may seem like rarified examples, but they are important once you take stock of all those wealthy infectees who got sick in March, and consider that New York City is a major COVID-19 hot spot). These are activities where people often find themselves surrounded by strangers in densely packed rooms—as with all those above-described SSEs—but, crucially, where attendees also are expected to sit still and talk in hushed tones.

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice, Rick Stump argues:

I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte d’Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance’s Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.

The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to The Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits — they were brave, they were honest, they protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

Note that I didn’t mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Morte d’Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory’s work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good — modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren’t.


I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,

“Then he is safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Didn’t you hear what she told you? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or this one, more detailed is less famous,

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless.


Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.

In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of ‘don’t be afraid’. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote, “Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.”

Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

Apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

The far future might be Post-Malthusian or Neo-Malthusian:

On a long timeframe, there are three coherent views of where history is going: we might escape Malthus forever, and our wealth and happiness compounds ever faster above subsistence; we might be locked around new Malthusian barriers, with higher low-hanging fruit that’s all been picked nonetheless; or history might end. You can write a story about the end of the world, but you can’t make it a franchise: either the world ends or it doesn’t, so eventually you have to stop writing.

The two fictional universes the best exemplify the two visions of the future are Warhammer 40,000 and the Culture series. Like all far-future science fiction, they both start in the present, pick a few technological and social trends, and apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next.

In the Culture novels, improvements in physical and software technology reach the point that all essential work can be done by robots, whether they’re hyperadvanced Roombas, tiny Predator Drones, or superhumanly smart ship-based Minds. There’s no need for laws or conflict; when everything is free, there’s nothing to fight over. The Culture has conflicts with other societies, but given their immense productive capacity, victory is inevitable. In The Player of Games, for example, The Culture wants to absorb the empire of Azad in order to treat the Azadians more gently than the emperor does. They could overwhelm it militarily, but they think that’s less elegant than subverting the empire from within.

The world of Warhammer 40,000 is… not that. It’s grim. It’s dark. It’s so much of both that the term grimdark was coined to describe it. W40K’s universe, like that of Culture, is superabundant, but only in suffering and terror. The moral center of the Culture is the Minds, which give humans diverting and amusing tasks. The moral center of W40K is the God-Emperor, who is slowly dying over millennia, kept alive by life support and human sacrifice. Technology exists, but science has been forgotten; their engineers are just an elaborate cargo cult. Fermi estimates of the size of the empire range from trillions to quadrillions of people, but their enemies are tangible manifestations of abstract forces like War, Disease, and Excess. The plot of every Warhammer story is a bleak, bloody retreat ahead of an inevitable loss.

The body counts in these universes vary wildly. In one Culture story, the main character has been away from his homeworld for years and years. He asks for recent news, and learns that the most shocking event of the last few years was an accident in which two people died. In W40K stories, million-casualty terrorist attacks are background noise, and the heroes tend to commit murder about as frequently and casually as the average person checks Instagram.


To some extent, you can explain the different traits of these universes by the intents of their authors: Iain Banks wanted to imagine what a socialist utopia would be like; Games Workshop wants to produce novels that encourage people to buy pricey game figurines.

But you can also run them through an theoretical lens: in the very, very long-term, do we live in a post-Malthusian world, or a neo-Malthusian one? It’s a topic I’ve explored in the past. Literal Malthusian math no longer applies; we’re not constrained by arable farmland any more. But meta-Malthusianisms are everywhere. As it turns out, when people don’t spend every waking hour eking out an existence in grinding poverty, they find other things to do.


At the Malthusian limit, the value of a human life rounds down to zero. If you’re either starving, worried about starving, or fighting a war that’s ultimately driven by resource limitations, your ratio of QALYs to lifespan takes a dive. In the other direction, if you’re a hedonic utilitarian — and Iain Banks was an atheist utopian socialist, which tends to eliminate everything but pleasure from the telos menu — then prosperity ratchets up the value of a human life to unfathomable proportions. Banks is making a reasonable extrapolation here; as countries get richer, more of their incremental wealth gets spent on healthcare despite severe diminishing marginal returns.

This variance in values is reflected throughout both books. In the Culture novels, characters are constantly changing their appearance, job, and gender. In Warhammer, too, characters change their appearance — a conceit of the stories is that extended contact with evil causes physical mutations. Intra-Culture conflict is rare and polite (characters argue, even with Minds, but those arguments all have the tone of a loving parent telling a 19-year-old to choose a less practical, more fulfilling college major). In Warhammer, the conflict is constant; the nominal good guys are antiheroes at best, who profess a code of authoritarian values (duty, sacrifice, religious fanaticism, xenophobia) but also hypocritically fail to live up to it. Interestingly, both series tend to have protagonists who are fundamentally loyal to their society, but for opposite reasons: characters are loyal to the Culture because it gives them anything they could possibly want, which makes it the best place it could possibly be. It’s entirely conditional loyalty. In the universe of W40K, loyalty is expected, and unconditional; the reward for intense loyalty is dying in a more interesting way.

Oddly enough, even though Warhammer 40,000 reads as simplistic and the Culture as sophisticated, W40K is the more introspective of the two. Iain Banks was a nice left-wing guy who liked the idea of technology making the world a better place. I don’t know how every Warhammer writer feels, but the whole thing was originally meant as a parody of dark and gritty science fiction. It just turned out that if you took the most extreme parts of that genre, and 10xed them, you got something people absolutely loved. So Banks has a love-love relationship with his creations; he only wants his universe to have conflict so his characters will have something to do. The W40K writers may absolutely loathe their protagonists, and take immense satisfaction in their gory deaths and moral corruption. The way this plays out is that Banks will give his villains halfhearted justifications for going to war against the Culture, whom Banks thinks of as a bunch of fundamentally very nice people who just want to invite every sapient being to their interplanetary orgy. Meanwhile W40K villains make some pretty good points about how crummy it would be to live in a galaxy-spanning police state with widespread misery, zero respect for human rights, and demons.

Both universes are fictional. Moreover, they’re genre fiction, and most of W40K’s literary output qualifies as pulp. They’re good intuition pumps, though. If you extrapolate from the present and don’t get to the apocalypse, one of them is directionally true. Either technology and society improve in a self-reinforcing way, until we reach a future state that rounds up to utopia, or the post-Malthusian period that started around 1800 will end some day. We’ll lose something — social technology, natural resources, all electrical devices — and find that we’re so far beyond our newly-lowered carrying capacity that we simply can’t recover. History doesn’t end, except in apocalypse. Civilization is either a divergent function or a convergent one; it’s either compound interest or a Martingale bet. If you’re building the future, it’s good to pause, think of which part of the function has the biggest exponent, and see what another few millennia of compounding will do.

Hong Kong’s success containing the virus is against the odds

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

In many ways, Hong Kong’s success containing the virus is against the odds:

Hong Kong has the fourth highest population density in the world and 90% of the population uses public transportation.

Hong Kong was affected early, with the first confirmed case on January 22. By end-January, there were already 13 confirmed cases.

There were multiple daily direct flights from Wuhan and tens of thousands of daily Mainland Chinese visitors in January and thousands of European visitors in February.

Hong Kong is among the world’s most elderly countries, with a median age of 44.4.

Despite this, as of April 8, Hong Kong has only had 4 deaths due to COVID-19 and fewer than 1000 confirmed positive cases.


Hong Kong began shutting down public facilities when there were fewer than 10 confirmed cases. The government acted with urgency as soon as the first cases began to appear. Hong Kong shut down all schools, parks, and public museums on January 29th when there were just 9 confirmed cases and zero deaths. The Hong Kong Marathon was canceled on February 8, when the city had only 36 confirmed cases. This stands in stark contrast with governments elsewhere who were quick to administer travel bans but slow to encourage, much less mandate, social distancing. Examples include President Trump suggesting the threat from COVID-19 was exaggerated and Bill DiBlasio recommending New Yorkers go out on the town in early March. Other examples include the mayor of Los Angeles allowing a 27,000-person LA marathon when there were hundreds of cases in California and Madrid holding the International Women’s March in early March. According to Professor Yanzhong Huang at Seton Hall University, “Hong Kong chose in the very beginning to move toward maximizing protection, while [other countries] seemed focused on minimizing disruption to the economy and society.”

Hong Kong isolates ALL positive cases and quarantines close contacts in government facilities. Every person who tests positive, even if symptom-free, is put into the public hospital system. Patients are then required to remain at hospitals until they produce two consecutive negative tests. Should hospitals run out of beds, the government will isolate patients in other facilities. Details about every case are made public through government websites. All known contacts of the positive cases must spend 14 days in government quarantine. The importance of isolating positives cannot be understated. A study of one China province showed that 80% of cluster infections originated from people who tested positive and were told to rest at home. Wuhan began quarantining all mild cases in makeshift hospitals converted from offices, stadiums, and gymnasiums in early February, a move that helped dramatically slow the spread of the virus. Doctor Aaron E. Carroll wrote in the New York Times that a robust system of contact tracing and isolation is necessary to prevent further outbreak and lockdown.

Hong Kong’s population has broad virus awareness, largely a result of SARS. The memories and lessons of SARS linger in Hong Kong. Since well before COVID-19, masks have been commonly used by individuals who harbor a common cold. Buttons on elevators are frequently sterilized once if not more times each day. It is customary not to wear shoes within the home and gel sanitizer is widely available throughout shared facilities such as office buildings. The population quickly tapped into virus-prevention mode as soon as the news of the virus circulated from Mainland China. Not wearing a mask is shunned in Hong Kong, and the population takes pride in responsible, virus-preventative everyday behavior. According to a poll by SCMP, the majority of Hong Kong residents believe they have only themselves to thank rather than the government if the city wins its battle against COVID-19.

Hong Kong tests all people entering the country and requires them to home quarantine for 14 days. Hong Kong only recently implemented severe travel bans, denying entry to non-residents on March 25. There was, however, a 14-day required home quarantine for people arriving from Mainland China, which was then expanded to arrivals from nearly anywhere in the world. While a delay in requiring home quarantine for European and American visitors led to a second wave of cases, that surge has already begun to flatten. People in home-quarantine wear electronic bracelets that track location. While there were initial glitches with the technology, the spirit of the law is broadly respected and violations are enforced. Three people have already been sentenced to jail time for breaking the quarantine.

Is the 1918 influenza pandemic over?

Monday, April 20th, 2020

The sudden nature of the “Spanish” flu pandemic meant that children born just months apart experienced very different conditions in utero:

In particular, children born in 1919 were much more exposed to influenza in utero than children born in 1918 or 1920. The sudden differential to the 1918 flu lets Douglas Almond test for long-term effects in Is the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Over?

Almond finds large effects many decades after exposure.

Fetal health is found to affect nearly every socioeconomic outcome recorded in the 1960, 1970, and 1980 Censuses. Men and women show large and discontinuous reductions in educational attainment if they had been in utero during the pandemic. The children of infected mothers were up to 15 percent less likely to graduate from high school. Wages of men were 5–9 percent lower because of infection. Socioeconomic status…was substantially reduced, and the likelihood of being poor rose as much as 15 percent compared with other cohorts. Public entitlement spending was also increased.

Make torches burn for one hour

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

Old-school dungeon master Rick Stump explains that if you really want your players to engage with your game world, make torches burn for 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.:

Remembering that AD&D is a resource management game is the key to having players and character motivations intersect with your campaign.

Way back when in the late ’70′s when I started playing I dutifully wrote down my maximum encumbrance, recorded all of the locations and weight of my gear, listed containers, etc. As a DM I have all the PCs do the same for themselves, their mounts, their henchmen, and I track hirelings. It affects movement, naturally.

I also keep careful track of time overland and in the dungeon which means I track food, water, and light source usage.

I use reaction and morale checks. I use the disease and parasite rules. I use the overland movement rules, the rules for getting lost, and random encounter checks. When missile weapons are used the ammo is often lost or broken.

Even in 1977 when I was first playing a few DMs weren’t doing these things. They had everything from rolls to see if you still had arrows after you fired the first 12 to blithe indifference – everyone had infinite food, water, light, and ammo.

I also noticed that in virtually all of those games the PCs had damn near zero interaction with NPCs and henchmen were vanishingly rare. And in a ton of them the DM’s complained that no matter what else they tried the game was only about fighting.

Here’s how the enforcement of the basic rules on resources demands my PCs engage with the campaign in one easy, if long and boring, lesson. The source of great power and great loot (as well as great mystery) is Skull Mountain, a remote area surrounded by the Briars. The only safe-ish way to get there is the Old Road – there is one stream halfway up the Old Road and no food available along it. For an unencumbered man on horse in good weather it is 3 days to the mountain and 3 days back to the nearest town, Esber. So if you want to spend a day in the mountain you must have no less than seven days of food and the capacity for 3 days of water so the bare minimum encumbrance per person is 31 lbs and per horse (horses aren’t bicycles! They eat and drink, remember?) you’ll need a minimum of 100 lbs per horse. So for a party of 5 on horses that’s about 660 lbs just for provisions.

I’ll write a big blog post on logistics someday soon, and it’ll be about 12,000 ‘why yes I was a soldier, why do you ask?’ words.

If you switch to foot travel to avoid horses you go up to 9 days food and 4 days water, minimum, etc.

Then you’re in the dungeon. Low-level parties don’t have Continual Light objects and Light spells use up rare slots and don’t last long. Assuming the party is underground for 8 hours and has two light sources (a lantern and a torch) they’ll need 5 lbs of food and water (bare minimum) each and 31 lbs of light sources total. And this leaves no room for error, at all. Need to be underground for days at a time? Without magic you’ll need about 50 lbs of light sources per day if you all sleep in the dark.


So if you enforce encumbrance, food, time, distance, etc. rules the characters have to be prepared and the players have to plan. This is a perfect excuse to make them interact with the world you’re building and toss in tons of details they will get no other way.

The players will need to find sources for food and equipment, like torches or oil. This makes everyone think – where does the oil or resin come from? Can I get more/a better price if I go to the source? Are there limits? What food is available? In what season? How much? Where? etc.

As the party prepared for the Mapping expedition, a full year in the Briars with a base camp in the Mountain, the party had to source 13 months worth of food, water, light sources, etc. and get it to the mountain. The result?

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn’t keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many. The price of mules and pony carts went through the roof because they bought every one they could find in the kingdom for the bi-weekly caravans to the mountain. Independent merchants from Adrian started making runs up the Old Road to try to sell to the base camp (even though 3 in 4 vanished, never to be seen again).

In the end the increased demand opened up trade and diplomacy between Seaward and Banath for the first time in a generation, all because the party was feeding 25 people and 20 horses in a remote area for a year as well as stocking up a mountain hidey-hole for future expeditions.

I’d also like to note that the party did fun stuff like replacing or repairing a number of strategic doors and putting locks on them; hiding huge stashes of food, water, torches, lamp oil, candles, rope, spikes, etc. in several places; and conducting regular patrols in the upper levels. they effectively added treasure and random encounters to my dungeon.

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food.

They also then had to use the mule train to get the loot from the Briars and the Mountain down to Esber, then sell everything off (taking a loss) before feeding the mules wiped out their treasure.

If I simply said,

“Don’t worry about food, water, light, or time. Let’s just play.”

None of that happens. They don’t have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

The resource portion of AD&D is there for reasons, and the reason isn’t to annoy you. It is to point out that the characters live in a world that is supposed to make (at least internal) sense and provide a non-combat challenge for players to overcome with wit and skill.

Want the players involved in the campaign? Want them doing domain level stuff?

Then make torches burn 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.

(Hat tip to Benjamin I. Espen.)

If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

Discussions about reforming Navy boot camp began in 2016, but they picked up urgency following a pair of deadly collisions at sea in 2017:

Officers and administrators have rewritten 60% of boot camp’s two-month curriculum, tightening standards and emphasizing fundamentals like firefighting, damage control such as plugging leaks and day-to-day equipment repairs, and standing watch.

“If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor,” says Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, the Navy SEAL who was tapped in spring 2019 to command several training programs, including boot camp. “We’ll remediate you, we’ll try to get you there, but if you can’t get there, you can’t be a sailor.” Adm. Sands keeps a copy of the Navy’s report on his desk at all times to remind him that when the service sends poorly trained sailors out to sea, lives are lost.


Recruits now receive 177 hours of hands-on learning during their eight weeks, up from 160 hours in 2017. Classroom instruction fell, as elements were removed, condensed or pushed to subsequent training periods.

In each of the 13 barracks that house recruits at Great Lakes, “we literally tore out computer labs, removed all the desks and turned them into ship decks to practice basic war-fighting competencies,” says Adm. Sands.

Commanders, who lead boot-camp divisions of around 88 recruits and are responsible for their performance, now assess their divisions’ weaknesses and use blocks of time once devoted to online learning to have their recruits drill skills like patching pipes or tying knots to anchor and moor a ship.


Recruits spend two days inside the U.S.S. Marlinspike, a facility at Great Lakes containing a life-size replica of the deck of a surface ship and a classroom outfitted with ropes and bollards, the posts to which ships are tied. There, recruits practice tying lines, relaying orders, getting a ship under way and bringing it back to port. The only thing missing is water.

U.S.S. Marlinspike

To graduate, recruits must pass an all-night test called “battle stations,” proving their skills in an environment designed to look and feel like the deck and hull of a warship. As water floods through a burst pipe, they must identify and repair the leak and move boxes of ammunition to dry storage. In another area, an explosion is followed by smoke and alarms; dummies stand in for sailors with injuries, some fatal. The recruits put out fires and extract the wounded.

Battle stations used to be more of an exercise with coaching from instructors; it is now an evaluation of skills, and failure just before the finish line isn’t uncommon, officers say. On rare occasions, commanders fail entire divisions if recruits don’t display teamwork. Some who fail get one chance to retake the test with another division; others are discharged.

Collecting corpses for a fee

Friday, April 17th, 2020

To put the coronavirus pandemic in perspective, consider what happened when the bubonic plague struck London in 1665:

The onset of the disease could be sudden, says Yale historian Frank Snowden: “You actually have people afflicted and in agony in public spaces.” Trade and commerce swiftly shut down, and “every economic activity disappeared.” The city erected hospitals to isolate the sick. “You have the burning of sulfur in the streets—bonfires to purify the air.”

Some 100,000 Londoners — close to a quarter of the population, equivalent to two million today — died. Some sufferers committed suicide by “throwing themselves into the Thames,” Mr. Snowden says. “Such was their horror at what was happening to their bodies, and the excruciating pain of the buboes” — inflamed lymph nodes — that are the classic symptom of the bubonic plague. Social order broke down as the authorities fled. “Death cart” drivers went door to door, collecting corpses for a fee and sometimes plundering the possessions of survivors.

The plague’s violent assaults on European cities in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods created “social dislocation in a way we can’t imagine,” says Mr. Snowden, whose October 2019 book, Epidemics in Society: From the Black Death to the Present — a survey of infectious diseases and their social impact — is suddenly timely.

I interviewed Mr. Snowden, 73, over Skype. We’re both home in lockdown, I in California and he in Rome, where he’s gone to do research in the Vatican archives. In the mid-14th century, Italy was “the most scourged place in Europe with the Black Death,” he notes. In the 21st century, it’s among the countries hardest hit by Covid-19.


Isolation as a defense against infectious disease originated in the city-states of Venice and Florence. Italy was the center of Mediterranean trade, and the plague arrived in 1347 on commercial ships. The dominant theory at the time was “miasmatism” — the atmosphere was poisoned — perhaps by visitors’ garments — and people get sick “when they breathe that in, or absorb it through their pores,” Mr. Snowden says. “That is, there is some emanation, and it can be thought to be coming from the soil, or from the bodies” of sick people.

After plague visitations, the Venetian navy eventually began to force sailors arriving at the harbor to disembark on a nearby island, where they remained for 40 days — quaranta — a duration chosen for its biblical significance. The strategy worked when it was enforced as disease-ridden fleas died out and the sick died or recovered. Mr. Snowden notes that Americans returning from Wuhan, China, in early February were “detained on army bases for a quarantine period” — 14 days rather than 40.

“We can see the roots of many aspects of modern health already in the Renaissance,” he adds. Another example is the wax “plague costume” worn by physicians. It resembled modern-day medical garb — “the protective garments that you see in the hospital for people dealing with Ebola, or this sort of space suit” — but with a long beak containing resonant herbs. They were thought to “purify the air that you were breathing in.” The costume “did, in fact, have some protective value,” Mr. Snowden says, because the wax repelled the fleas that carried the disease.


The plague was more traumatic than a military assault, and the response was often warlike in its ferocity. One response was a “sanitary cordon,” or encircling of a city-state with soldiers, who didn’t allow anyone in or out. “Imagine one’s own city, and suddenly, in the morning, it’s cordoned off by the National Guard with fixed bayonets and helmets on, and orders to shoot if we cross,” Mr. Snowden says. Cordons were regularly imposed in European cities in times of plague risk, leading to terror and violence. In the 18th century, the Austrian army was “deployed to prevent bubonic plague from moving up the Balkan Peninsula and into Western Europe” by halting travelers who might be carrying it.

The sociologist Charles Tilly (1929-2008) famously argued that “war makes the state” — that borders and bureaucracies were forged by necessity in military conflict. Plague had similar effects, requiring “military commitment, administration, finance and all the rest of it,” Mr. Snowden says. In addition to a navy to enforce quarantines, “you needed to have a police power,” a monopoly on force over a wide area. Sometimes “watchmen were stationed outside the homes of people who had the plague, and no one was allowed in or out.”


Infectious disease can change the physical landscape itself. Mr. Snowden notes that when Napoleon III rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th century, one of his objectives was to protect against cholera: “It was this idea of making broad boulevards, where the sun and light could disperse the miasma.” Cholera also prompted expansions of regulatory power over the “construction of houses, how they had to be built, the cleanliness standards.”

The mind can go either direction under stress

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Maria Konnikova (Mastermind) makes an embarrassing confession — well, to science fiction fans:

Until last week, I had never read Dune. I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to have read Dune. Nor did I know I should be embarrassed at the failure. Consider me properly chastised. Fifteen or so years too late, I have finally finished the book that calls itself — on the cover of the 40th anniversary edition — “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I will say that I was surprised by the accuracy of some of its insights into the human psyche, especially when it comes to our ability to deal with stressful situations.

Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, find themselves alone on Arrakis, the inhospitable desert planet, and Paul makes the most of their circumstances:

Instead of panicking at their isolation, he remarks, “I find myself enjoying the quiet here.” This, just before a journey that might well kill them both. His mother doesn’t quite buy it, but she does think to herself, “How the mind gears itself for its environment. The mind can go either direction under stress — toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.”

Decades of psychological research have proven her to be quite correct. The story begins in 1949, with Donald Hebb. (Actually, it begins much earlier, but you need to start somewhere.) Hebb — a student of Wilder Penfield (who found that stimulating different areas of the temporal lobe during open-brain surgery could elicit different memories and sensations) and Karl Lashley (who quested for the engram, or the location for a specific memory, in the brains of rats) — believed that memories are stored by virtue of repeat association: an action causes activity in a cell, which in turn excites a neighboring cell. With each repetition, the connection between these two cells is strengthened, and over time, the cells become associated with one another, so that the activation of one predictably causes the activation of the other (as Carla Shatz memorably described it in 1992, “cells that fire together wire together”). These strengthening connections are now known as Hebbian plasticity, and Hebb’s idea, Hebb’s postulate.

But Hebb goes a step further than actual sensory experience. As he famously wrote, “You need not have an elephant present to think of elephants.” The thought itself can be enough to trigger the type of association that comes with learning. In other words, Paul Atreides need never have been in this specific desert environment in order to react as he does. It is enough for him to have trained his mind for that particular reaction, toward the positive and away from the negative, for the reaction to take place in reality.

Hebb’s work has since been expanded on, refined, and modified, but the general principle remains the same: training matters when it comes to how we learn and what we remember. Habit is king. Hebb’s postulate explains much of the logic behind such phenomena as Pavlovian conditioning (bell plus food equals salivation; fast forward to bell alone equals salivation), Skinnerian conditioning (pull lever, get pellet, learn to pull lever for pellet), fear conditioning and desensitization (think James Watson and poor Little Albert, or James Ledoux and scary snakes), and visual learning (Hubel and Wiesel and monocular deprivation in cats — no visual stimulus during the critical period makes for blind felines). Of course, it’s far more complicated than a single postulate, but the basic process is all about how our brains are trained, by our external and internal environment both, to respond to various situations in a predictable fashion.

Jessica, however, doesn’t just talk about training. She also brings in stress. Here, too, she is correct: where you will see the effect of the synaptic bonds most openly is under highly emotional conditions. There, habit memory — the same type of procedural memory that you use when you do something that you’re skilled at, like drive a car or perform an integral function of your job — will take over, and declarative memory — or that memory that functions when you memorize something or when you’re still learning a new skill — will recede into the background. Nothing like stress to distinguish real habit from what you wish were habit.

In one study, participants who experienced a stress condition — the cold pressor task, where one hand is submerged in freezing (0-2 degrees Celsius) water for three minutes — reverted to habit when performing a forced choice task – whereas those who were not stressed were able to perform admirably on new contingencies. Specifically, habit was chosen at the expense of goal-directed performance when choosing what food to eat: a food that had previously been devalued or one that had not. Stressed individuals chose to eat the same food they had been eating to the point of over-satiation, while non-stressed individuals chose to diversify their food choices.

So, not only does stress inhibit new learning, but it pushes the brain to fall back on those habits of mind that are second nature. Of course, the process can vary from person to person — and it’s important to remember that stress follows an inverted-U function; that is, performance under stressful conditions actually improves up to an optimal point, and then drops off dramatically as more stress is added — but in general, stressful conditions are not the best for trying to assimilate new information. Indeed, chronic stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain intimately involved in memory formation and consolidation) and can aversely impact the dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain, so that we overvalue rewarding outcomes and are impaired in our ability to learn about negative outcomes. In other words, were we to land unprepared in the arid desert of Arrakis, we’d be in bad shape, indeed.

Humans are remarkably adaptable. Paul learns quickly to appreciate the positive aspects of his new surroundings, to enjoy the quiet and value the beauty of the new landscape. But he could have just as easily shut down, spiraling into a negative feedback loop and losing his cool entirely. In fact, had he not had prior mental training to dealing with just such stressful contingencies, he would have likely done so; certainly, he would not have been in a position to learn a new positive coping mechanism in the heat of the moment.

The Kindle edition of Dune appears to be on sale for $1.99 at the moment.

My feelings on Dune are mixed, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking novel.

Most subjects found this very confusing

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

We’ve been hearing about pandemic models and policy responses lately. With that in mind, James Thompson discusses the logic of failure;

At a Royal Society lecture in 1990 I was charmed by a diffident presentation given by Prof Dietrich Dorner who described not his success in modelling the future, but the difficulties subjects had when they tried to manage fairly simple models.

His first example was extremely simple. Subjects had to turn a control dial so as to get a small target to move from the top of the screen to a line drawn horizontally across the middle. Clearly, the solution was to turn the knob clockwise so that the target sank down to the mid-line. This proved difficult. Dorner had arranged the system so the target only moved after a delay. Most subjects found this very confusing. They kept turning the dial to get the target down, only to find that after a period of no response the target suddenly shot down past the desired mid-line to the bottom of the screen. Irritated and confused, subjects then twisted the dial anti-clockwise, thus making it shoot back to the top of the screen. It took many corrections and much time to get the target onto the desired mid-line. A minority of subjects made just one cautious movement and then waited to see what happened. Such subjects were able to place the target onto the mid-line quickly and with very few moves.

This was a beautiful illustration of the key feature of executive power, that even if what you command has a real effect on a complex system in the real world, it is usually a delayed effect. Oil tankers take time to turn around.

I’ve discussed The Logic of Failure twice before.