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2:00PM Water Cooler 1/19/2021

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2:00PM Water Cooler 1/19/2021


By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Bird Song of the Day

Sadly, the state bird of Delaware, the Blue Hen, is not a distinct species.


At reader request, I’ve added this daily chart from 91-DIVOC. The data is the Johns Hopkins CSSE data. Here is the site.

I feel I’m engaging in a macabre form of tape-watching, because I don’t think the peak is coming in the next days, or even weeks. Is the virus gathering itself for another leap?

Vaccination by region:

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Vaccination reporting (I assume) drops over all regions, like reporting (I assume) over all regions, but I’m reeling at the scale of it, equal to Christmas. Musical interlude

Case count by United States region:

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Still reeling.

Big states (New York, Florida, Texas, California):

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Now Texas reporting drops, too.

Test positivity:

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Still reeling here, too.

Nowhere near 3%, anywhere.


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And here. Hospitalization is discretionary; they may also be reducing their admissions rate — relative to cases we cannot see in this data! — to preserve future capacity; or because hospitals have figured out how to send people home.

Case fatality rate (plus deaths):

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Fatality rate looking a little better, though still not as good as two months ago.


“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” –James Madison, Federalist 51

“They had one weapon left and both knew it: treachery.” –Frank Herbert, Dune

“They had learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.” –Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord


“Brayden Harrington, who bonded with Biden over stuttering, to appear in prime-time inauguration special” [CNN]. “Harrington, who went viral over the summer after talking about his bond with Biden in a video at the Democratic National Convention, said Biden’s inauguration will send a special message to kids — including those grappling with stuttering. It shows them ‘that they matter,’ he said. ‘It’s a huge part of our life because there’s a president being elected that has a speech issue.’ Harrington will be part of a segment introducing the President-elect’s remarks during the 90-minute ‘Celebrating America’ special airing on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC, CNN has learned.” • 

“‘Celebrating America’ Inauguration Special With Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake & More: How to Watch” [Billboard] and “Lady Gaga Set to Perform National Anthem at Biden-Harris Inauguration | Billboard News” [Billboard].


When Politics Becomes Substance Abuse


Transition to Biden

“Biden’s Record-Breaking Cabinet Nominees, In One Chart” [FiveThirtyEight]. Handy chart:

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“They say the next drone will be sent by a woman.” “We’re part of history!”

When they tell you who they are…

“[Power] is considered to have been a key figure in the Obama administration in persuading the president to intervene militarily in Libya.

“Blinken pledges ‘humility and confidence’ as secretary of State” [Politico]. “‘Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of America’s leadership coin,’ he said. “Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad. And humility because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone — even one as powerful as the U.S.’ Blinken, who has good relationships on both sides of the aisle, has not encountered much partisan resistance to his nomination. Indeed, a group of former foreign policy and national security officials — all Republicans who said they did not endorse Biden for president — urged the Republican chair Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho to confirm Blinken swiftly in a letter obtained by POLITICO.” • So there we are.

“Former Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing” [The Hill]. “Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats, who served under President Trump, on Tuesday introduced Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as DNI, at her Senate confirmation hearing…. Coats, who served as DNI for Trump between 2017 and 2019, described Haines as an ‘exceptional choice,’ praising her stated goal of ‘bringing non-politicized truth to power and restoring trust and confidence in the intelligence community and the American public.’” More: “Coats left the role of DNI after clashing with Trump on multiple issues during his tenure, most notably over Trump’s comments at a 2018 press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Trump accepted Putin’s claims that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Coats, and much of the intelligence community, strongly pushed back after those remarks.” • The Steele Dossier being the ideal example of “non-politicized truth”….

“Joe Biden names top geneticist Eric Lander as science adviser” [Nature]. “US president-elect Joe Biden has chosen decorated geneticist Eric Lander as presidential science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In what would be a first for this position, if Lander is confirmed by the US Senate, he will serve as a member of Biden’s cabinet… Lander was a key leader of the Human Genome Project — the race to sequence the human genome, which ended in 2003 — and is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He will be the first biologist to run OSTP…. One major question is what parts of science policy Lander and his office will be responsible for. Biden has already established a separate, high-level team to lead the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a team to drive forward his climate agenda. With COVID-19 and climate tasked to other groups, it remains to be seen what science issues OSTP will be able to take the lead on.”

“Senate Democrats make democracy reform first bill of new majority” [The Hill]. “‘Senate Democrats are committed to advancing real solutions and fighting to uphold the core tenets of our constitution, which is why we are announcing today that the first bill of the new Congress will be the For the People Act,’ Schumer said in a statement. The bill, which is endorsed by a wide swath of progressive and civil rights groups, includes, among other things, changes to voter registration requirements, more funding for election security, requirements for presidents and vice presidents to disclose their tax returns and new ethics rules for members of Congress. The bill would also require a code of ethics for the Supreme Court, boost public funding for presidential elections and require new disclosures for online advertising.” • Sounds like weak tea. Funding for “election security” should be zeroed out and replaced by a requirement for hand-marked paper ballots, hand-counted in public.

Surely the political class generally:

Stats Watch

At reader request, I added some business stats back in. Please give Econintersect click-throughs; they’re a good, old-school blog that covers more than stats.

Housing: “November 2020 CoreLogic Single-Family Rent Index Rent Growth Exceeds Pre-Pandemic Rates” [Econintersect]. “The Single-Family Rent Index (SFRI) shows a national rent increase of 3.7% year over year, up from a 2.8% year-over-year increase in November 2019. Annual rent growth slowed in the early months of the pandemic – from February through June – but then steadily picked up in November, which was the highest annual growth since June 2016.”

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Tech: “Apple Plans Upgraded MacBook Pros With Return of Magnetic Charging” [Bloomberg]. • Apple brings back the MagSafe connector? Maybe they want my business after all?

Tech: “A lightweight book aims a heavyweight punch at the digital advertising ecosystem” [Science]. “Many folks do not realize that the ads they see on their screens are sold through automated real-time auctions that resemble algorithmic trading in financial markets. Buyers bid for attention, and sellers offer eyeballs through which the attention is supplied. The market for online ads managed to grow to its current size because the underlying technology created standard ways in which attention is measured and sold. Attention has been “commoditized” in order for it to be easily traded. Those who shaped these platforms were inspired by financial markets, Hwang argues, and indeed—under the hood—the industry resembles a stock- or commodity-trading market. The ad-tech industry, he cautions, exhibits strong parallels to the mortgage-backed financial markets that caused the 2008 global financial crisis. Hwang describes what experts refer to as the ‘opacity’ problem, arguing that companies do not know exactly what they are getting for their ad spend and that they considerably overvalue online ads, just as the market overvalued mortgage-backed securities in the mid-2000s. The book is thin on supporting evidence, but there is indeed a growing academic literature that demonstrates the severity of the opacity problem and the degree to which digital advertising is overvalued (1–3). The opacity problem is exacerbated by the ‘subprime’ nature of attention, suggests Hwang. Over the past decade or so, the value of attention has deteriorated as a result of fatigue, ad blockers, and outright fraud in the ad-tech space. Combine these factors with companies that want to spend tons of money on a shiny new advertising medium, and you have a bubble waiting to burst.”

Tech: “Exclusive: Over 1,000 brands ran ads alongside election misinformation” [Axios]. “The chaotic nature of the modern news cycle and digital advertising landscape has made it nearly impossible for brands to run ads against quality content in an automated fashion without encountering bad content… The report finds that advertisers are also inadvertently boosting sites that repeatedly publish conspiracies and misinformation.”

Tech: “Enter Sandbox: How Google is building an internet without cookies – and why publishers are concerned” [Press-Gazette]. “The “cookie-less web” is nothing less than a total restructuring of the internet, which will spell the end of digital advertising as we know it with obvious ramifications for online publishers too…. With cookies marked for extinction, the question now is: what will replace them? Enter Google Privacy Sandbox…. Google’s Privacy Sandbox will keep data on a user’s browser, rather than storing it on servers, and use application programming interfaces (APIs) to share data on users with advertisers. These will be limited by a ‘privacy budget’ capping the number of APIs that can be ‘called’ by a site. Each call to an API will reveal more about a user. ‘Websites can call APIs until those calls have revealed enough information to narrow a user down to a group sufficiently large enough to maintain anonymity’, said [Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh]. Any further attempts will be blocked, however. Google Privacy Sandbox is being phased in and is currently in developer testing. It is expected to be completed in 2022.” • This doesn’t sound evil. But it’s Google. So there’s a catch.

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Today’s Fear & Greed Index: 61 Greed (previous close: 60 Greed) [CNN]. One week ago: 69 (Greed). (0 is Extreme Fear; 100 is Extreme Greed). Last updated Jan 14 at 12:24pm.

Rapture Index: Closes up 1 on food supply. “Corn, wheat, and soybeans are at five-year highs” [Rapture Ready]. Record High, October 10, 2016: 189. Current: 185. (Remember that bringing on the rapture is a good thing, so high is better.) You’d think there were Beast Government implications from the Biden Adminstration; apparently not.

The Biosphere

“Tracking, targeting, and conserving soil biodiversity” [Science]. “Nature conservation literature and policy instruments mainly focus on the impacts of human development and the benefits of nature conservation for oceans and aboveground terrestrial organisms (e.g., birds and plants) and processes (e.g., food production), but these efforts almost completely ignore the majority of terrestrial biodiversity that is unseen and living in the soil. Little is known about the conservation status of most soil organisms and the effects of nature conservation policies on soil systems. Yet like “canaries in the coal mine,” when soil organisms begin to disappear, ecosystems will soon start to underperform, potentially hindering their vital functions for humankind. Soil biodiversity and its ecosystem functions thus require explicit consideration when establishing nature protection priorities and policies and when designing new conservation areas.” • We really don’t know anything. And surely the more salient issue is carbon capture, not “nature conservation”?

Health Care

“Mutated strain of COVID-19 spreading quickly, tied to Kaiser, jail outbreaks” [East Bay Times]. ” A potentially more infectious COVID-19 variant that’s increasingly spreading throughout California is now “relatively common” in Santa Clara County, where it has contributed to the infamous Christmas Day outbreak in a Kaiser emergency room and multiple other outbreaks…. A hospital receptionist died from the Kaiser outbreak, which has been largely attributed to an employee making an unannounced visit to the ER to bring some holiday spirit. She wore an inflatable Christmas tree costume that may have spread the virus because it used power-circulated air.”

“Memory B Cells, Infection, and Vaccination” [Derek Lowe, “In the Pipeline,” Science]. “This new article, I have to say, is rather reassuring about the human immune response to the coronavirus…. [It goes] to a deeper level and looking at the actual memory B cells. Those, you may well recall or already know, are the ones that persist and stay on guard should the same antigens reappear. They can go on for decades as an inbuilt surveillance system, ready to expand and start the antibody production process again if a similar immunologic threat shows up again… The good news is that the ones from the six-month check showed both increased potency and an increased range of responses against various protein mutations. That includes many of the ones that are in the news these days, things like R346S, Q493R, and E484K. (As an aside, did anyone ever imagine that amino acid variant notation would creep into major news stories? Strange days). But while the one-month antibody samples were unable to recognize these and bind to them, the six-month ones were.” • Much more detail at the link. Lowe is always good at breaking down the concepts so that a layperson like me can understand them.

“Provider practices in Iowa lead to more c-sections, complications” [Bleeding Heartland]. “So what is causing Iowa’s high cesarean rate while at the same time its maternal mortality rate is increasing? It is well documented that the biggest risk factor for whether someone will have a c-section is the hospital where they will give birth. I take this a bit further and would say that while the hospital is a factor, ultimately the biggest risk is the provider and their practices. “You can pick a hospital with a low rate, but you don’t know if that individual provider is the one contributing to that,” says Dr. David Lagrew, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist based Orange County, California in this U.S News and World Report article.”

Police State Watch


Our Famously Free Press

“Sharon Begley, path-breaking science journalist who spun words into gold, dies at 64” [STAT]. “In the hours after Sharon died on Saturday at 64, due to complications of the cancer, her longtime friend and colleague Melinda Beck was unsure of what to do with herself and opened their college yearbook. “In her little entry, she wrote that she hoped to be a science journalist,” Beck said, a little after midnight. “What an understatement. It’s kind of like Louis Pasteur saying, ‘Gee, I’d like to be a biologist.’” • Begley wrote for STAT, and I always welcomed an article that began with her byline. Which I can’t say about many other publications these days.

Black Injustice Tipping Point

“White women’s role in white supremacy, explained” [Vox (Re Silc)]. • See review of They Were Her Property at NC.

Class Warfare

“The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable” [The Atlantic (VE)]. “The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence that now seems out of reach for all too many Americans. I refer, of course, to the Simpsons. Homer, a high-school graduate whose union job at the nuclear-power plant required little technical skill, supported a family of five. A home, a car, food, regular doctor’s appointments, and enough left over for plenty of beer at the local bar were all attainable on a single working-class salary. Bart might have had to find $1,000 for the family to go to England, but he didn’t have to worry that his parents would lose their home. This lifestyle was not fantastical in the slightest—nothing, for example, like the ridiculously large Manhattan apartments in Friends. On the contrary, the Simpsons used to be quite ordinary—they were a lot like my Michigan working-class family in the 1990s….. For many, a life of constant economic uncertainty—in which some of us are one emergency away from losing everything, no matter how much we work—is normal. Second jobs are no longer for extra cash; they are for survival. It wasn’t always this way. When The Simpsons first aired, few would have predicted that Americans would eventually find the family’s life out of reach. But for too many of us now, it is.” • Obviously, diversity is the answer to this.

“HR is not your friend, and other things I think you should know” [Rachel by the Bay, Writing]. “HR is not your friend. HR is there to support the company. If you are not the company, they are not going to be there to support you. HR boils down to paid witnesses in some cases. It changes it from a ‘you said, the boss said’ thing to two-on-one (or worse). They just pay attention and maybe give a sworn statement down the road if things turn truly nasty. Who else operates like that? Mall cops and security guards. They don’t have guns. They have phones and notepads. So, it’s really mall cops, security guards… and HR.”

“35 Percent of Men and 17 Percent of Women Masturbate While ‘Working From Home’” [Vice]. “[T]he fundamental takeaway here is this: everyone is horny, sex is perfectly natural, and as long as you’re not breaking the law or hurting anyone in the process, go forth. It’s been a hellish year and you probably deserve it.” • How sad that this privilege is not afforded to essential workers….

“A wristband that tells your boss if you are unhappy” [BBC]. • Presumably with a motion detector?

News of the Wired

“Big O Notation – explained as easily as possible” [That Computer Scientist]. “So, the question is, How do you rank an algorithm’s efficiency? The simple answer to that question is the Big O Notation. How does that work? Let me explain!”

“The Unsettling Truth About the ‘Mostly Harmless’ Hiker” [Wired]. • This is a sad story, well worth a read. (It’s also a story about how identifying people from online data isn’t necessarily accurate.)

“the tragedy of gemini” [maya.land]. “There’s something called the Eternal September, about how – well, should I be pretending to tell you from the position of someone who’d know? It happened the month after I was born. Every September before, college students with new network access would stream onto Usenet fora without ever having accustomed themselves to the etiquette. Things would get rowdy and stupid for a while. Then they would learn or get bored and things would quiet down again. That September, though, was more than just college students – America Online offered Usenet access to all its members. Ever after, the numbers would be dominated by those who had no manners, who didn’t know there was culture to learn. September continued forever.”

“Eolithism and Design” [Hans Otto Storm]. “Children, when they construct things in play, normally play after the eolithic fashion: a pointed board suggests the making of a boat, and if the toy, in process of construction, begins to look less and less like a boat, it can conveniently be turned into an airplane. Select the child who appears most ingenious in the making of this class of toys, present him with adequate tools and lumber, give him a simple plan which must, however, be adhered to until completion, and usually his ingenuity gives way to a disheartening dullness. Poor children usually do not have this kind of opportunity, and it is notorious that poor children make themselves the best playthings. They have to make them out of scraps, and the scraps constitute variety. They are eolithic craftsmen; it is not only that eolithic craftsmanship can get along without uniform material and plans – it is precisely the non-uni- formity of scraps and the absence of set plans which form the circumstances for its best development. One of the saddest spectacles in professional education is the routing into design channels – that is, into science, certain fields of rational scholarship, and particularly engineering – of good, immature eolithic craftsmen. The great designer of works who spent his boyhood building windmills is a thoroughly established myth, so that the boy who builds things out of scraps is urged to study engineering, only to find out, late and perhaps too late, that the ingenuity and fine economy which once captivated him are some- thing which has to be unlearned before he can do satisfactory work on large projects which involve design. So much more formidable is the stern discipline of design than the genial junk-picking of the eolithic craftsman.” • I’m not sure if Storm is a forgotten thinker, or a deservedly forgotten thinker.

“Local “Planning” Follies Part 1 – The state of play in land use planning” [it’s simpler than it looks]. “In Sacramento, private development interests have diligently sought opportunities for their personal profit. Meanwhile discovering what are the real costs or benefits of their proposals for the public at large remains difficult, or at least obscure. Governments in the region often have not been interested so much in refining and clarifying public ‘input’ to empower the electorate as they are in public ‘offput; that essentially keeps the public off their backs. This ‘offput’ has been as insignificant as omitting any discussion of a policy’s consequences so the public’s advice is based on whatever fantastic imaginings the spin-meisters or conventional wisdom can produce. Another common offput strategy has been concealing a proposal’s consequences in a blizzard of distracting information. Consider Sacramento County’s General Plan—a document required by State law produced ostensibly to guide land use planning. For Sacramento County it is as thick as a phone book (remember those?), and about as readable. The public can only guess what the mysterious ‘RD-5’ zoning means, really, as a priesthood of planners assures them that the plan is working for the public benefit without specifics or real knowledge of its consequences. The truth: such zoning schemes do not, and could never work (see Why Bother Planning? below), but none of that is clear, on the face of it. For contrast, consider Haussman’s 19th century plan to rebuild Paris. It consisted of six rather large pages. That’s six pages, not a phone book. And he got Paris!” • Lots of detail on how local governments really work. And “offput” is a great coinage!

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Readers, feel free to contact me at lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com, with (a) links, and even better (b) sources I should curate regularly, (c) how to send me a check if you are allergic to PayPal, and (d) to find out how to send me images of plants. Vegetables are fine! Fungi and coral are deemed to be honorary plants! If you want your handle to appear as a credit, please place it at the start of your mail in parentheses: (thus). Otherwise, I will anonymize by using your initials. See the previous Water Cooler (with plant) here. Today’s plant (Madarka):

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Madarka writes: “A path in the botanical garden of Santo Domingo.”

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