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Links and Notes for June 18th, 2021

Published by marco on

Below are links to articles, highlighted passages[1], and occasional annotations[2] for the week ending on the date in the title, enriching the raw data from Instapaper Likes and Twitter. They are intentionally succinct, else they’d be articles and probably end up in the gigantic backlog of unpublished drafts. YMMV.

[1] Emphases are added, unless otherwise noted.
[2] Annotations are only lightly edited.

Table of Contents

COVID-19

Delta variant spreads to 74 countries as data suggests it will become dominant coronavirus mutation worldwide by Bryan Dyne (WSWS)

“As a result of such outbreaks, the decline in daily cases worldwide has begun to slow. According to the World Health Organization, while the number of new cases has declined for seven weeks in a row largely thanks to vaccination efforts, the global decline is concealing a growth in cases caused by the Delta variant, especially in regions with low rates of vaccination. “That means,” as stated by WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “the risks have increased for people who are not protected, which is most of the world’s population.”
“A study by PHE of Delta variant cases in England found that it causes 2.61 times more hospitalizations than the Alpha variant, and causes about 4.1 times more hospitalizations than the original variant. The Delta variant is also much more transmissible, somewhere between 50 to 60 percent more infectious than the Alpha variant, thus more than twice as infectious as the wild coronavirus.

“In Australia, Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng noted that the reproduction number (R0) of the Delta variant is likely about 5, meaning that one person infected with the virus would spread it to five others if uncontrolled. Disease modelers at Imperial College London estimate the R0 value for the Delta variant could be as high as 8.

“In comparison, the R0 for the original coronavirus was estimated to be between 2.0 and 2.5. Put another way, if 10 people were infected with the original variant, about 1,520 people would be infected after four weeks if there were no measures to contain the virus. Ten people infected with the Delta variant, in contrast, would infect 4 million people over that same period. [four weeks]”

“The coronavirus vaccines, for example, have been shown to be largely effective at preventing serious illness and death caused by the Delta variant.

“The much higher transmissibility, however, means that more people will have to become vaccinated to stop the spread of the variant if it becomes dominant, which it is currently poised to do. While earlier estimates of the herd immunity threshold called for at least 70 percent of the world’s population to become vaccinated, the Delta variant implies a needed vaccination rate of 80-85 percent, a difference of between about 800 million and 1.2 billion humans.

“[…] vaccines have only been effective against the Delta variant after the full vaccine regimen has been completed. Protection against infection after just a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine, for example, is at best 36 percent effective at preventing a serious infection, according to figures from PHE. As a result, there have been thousands of patients in the UK that have so far contracted the Delta variant after receiving only their first vaccine dose.
“As Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director noted on Monday, “I would just maybe remind us all that, I think, in 2020, we spent nearly $2 trillion. I think that was around $1,981 billion in defence spending around the world. $16 billion [needed by WHO to vaccinate the world] represents less than 1 percent of one year’s spending on military defence around the world.
“In the United States, for example, with the administration of Democrat Joe Biden leading the charge, mask mandates have been largely dropped and schools and workplaces are slated to fully reopen by the fall. Little thought is given to the 600,000 lives that have been lost in that country alone, or to the further heights of mass death to come as virtually all public health measures are discarded even as the most dangerous coronavirus variant to date continues to surge.”


As COVID-19 variant continues to spread, World Health Organization warns “we expect things to only get worse” by Bryan Dyne (WSWS)

“Worldwide, the number of new cases on Thursday totaled just over 367,000, just 20,000 less than new cases reported seven days previously. In contrast, the decrease in daily new cases from two weeks ago to one week ago was more than 71,000.

“World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus further warned on Friday, “Every region has countries that are now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths. Many countries in Latin America have rapidly increasing epidemics, and others have plateaued at a high level. In Africa, cases have increased by 52% just in the past week, and deaths have increased by 32%. And we expect things to only get worse.”

“Spikes in the Delta variant are particularly happening in the countries and regions that have the lowest vaccination rates. “It’s a trajectory that is very, very concerning,‘ said Dr. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s executive director. “The brutal reality is that in an era of multiple variants, with increased transmissibility, we have left vast swathes of the population, the vulnerable population of Africa, unprotected by vaccines.”

And Delta is worse than Alpha, which is worse than the original, “wild”, variant. That means those unvaccinated people face a far worse disease than the one that originally drove the world into their homes and out of society.

“It is up to 60 percent more infectious than the Alpha variant, and thus up to 2.5 times more infectious than the original wild variant. It also causes more than 4 times as many hospitalizations as the wild variant. And while those fully vaccinated are largely protected from the Delta variant, most of the world remains extremely vulnerable.”
“As Dr. Tedros […] made explicit that, “Vaccines donated next year will be far too late for those who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today,” before calling for further increases in vaccine production and for their more equal distribution around the world.”

“[…] as the virus is allowed to spread among those partially vaccinated, there is every possibility that, under the selective pressure of partial immunity, it will evolve to evade the immunity of those fully vaccinated.

In a world where public health measures such as masking, testing and contact tracing are largely being abandoned, such a development would reignite the pandemic in an even more explosive form. Vaccination is in many areas the only form of protection against the coronavirus, and if it fails, cities could once again resemble the horrors of Wuhan, Italy and New York City in the early days of the pandemic.”

“Records from the UK indicate that children are more susceptible to the Delta variant, meaning that reopened schools are not just vectors of transmission but also have the potential to become charnel houses for the youth that attend them. More broadly, the increased infectiousness of the Delta variant indicates that, if it was not stopped by vaccines, a dozen people infected could become millions inside a month.

Economy & Finance

The Meme Stocks Keep Coming by Matt Levine (Bloomberg)

“A corporate plan of “I will do stuff to attract short sellers, and then try to get Redditors to squeeze the shorts, and my stock will rally to all-time highs and I’ll be able to raise infinite money and become an internet folk hero” seems like a crazy strategy. But a year ago it was not a strategy at all; a year ago, if I had written those words, you wouldn’t have even understood what I meant. “No no no attracting short sellers makes your stock go down, not up,” you would have patiently explained to me. Things have changed.”
“when you plug inputs into the Black-Scholes formula to get the price of the option, you’ll use a higher volatility input for the $40 put than you will for the $60 call. Using a higher volatility will make the price of the option higher than a lower volatility would. You’d use an even higher volatility for a $30 put than for the $40 put, and an even lower one for a $70 call than for the $60 call. (The $30 put will cost fewer dollars than the $40 put, because it is more out-of-the-money, but it will be “more expensive” in the sense of implied volatility.) The implied volatility of a stock option generally goes up as the strike price goes down. This is called “skew.”
“Usually volatility goes up when stock prices go down, and goes down when prices go up. “Stocks take the stairs up and the elevator down,” they say: Prices move down faster than they move up; panic acts faster than greed. So a falling stock is more volatile than a rising one.
“The other explanation is about supply and demand for options: People mostly want to buy options to protect themselves against a market decline, so they buy lots of $20 put options. People mostly want to sell options to get some extra yield out of their current positions with buy-write programs, so they sell lots of $80 call options. So the price of low-strike put options gets pushed up and the price of high-strike call options gets pushed down, so implied volatility decreases as the strike price increases.
“Though its shares initially fell as news broke of the widespread interruption to media companies, streaming services and ecommerce platforms, the strong recovery suggests that investors may have been impressed by the speed with which Fastly fixed the issue. … The strong response by investors may also reflect the number of big-name companies that the outage revealed as Fastly customers, including Amazon-owned Twitch, Spotify, Stripe and Shopify, as well as media companies including the BBC, The New York Times, CNN and the Financial Times.”

People just realized how essential/too big to fail Fastly is, so they bought it.

“But just, like, heuristically, if you wake up one day to find that a company you’ve never heard of controls half the internet, then that company is more important than you thought, and maybe you should buy it.”
““Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato.” The career advice is that if you have the choice of writing an interesting paper that might not be true, or a true paper that definitely isn’t interesting … look, you do what you want, your scientific ethics are your business, all I can do is point you to what the literature says. The literature says that your interesting paper will be cited more and, if it turns out not to replicate, people will probably be cool with that.
“In the early days of Black-Scholes —as the lore has it, it’s not like I was there —this assumption was taken as true-ish, and if one option on a stock traded at a 35 implied vol and another option on the same stock traded at 30, that was considered an arbitrage: You could buy the 30 option and sell the 35 option and make a riskless spread of 5 vol points. After Black Monday, people realized that it was not in fact an arbitrage, and that the lower-strike option probably *should* trade at a higher vol.


MoviePass Changed Some Passwords by Matt Levine (Bloomberg)

“If you sell $20 worth of movie tickets for $10, people will sign up, you will have rapid user growth and you can probably get someone to think that that’s valuable, even though in fact every user that you add costs you $10.
“What if MoviePass collected your $10 each month and then, when you asked it for movie tickets, it ignored you? Then it could keep collecting your $10 a month without spending money on tickets. Eventually you’d get annoyed by not getting what you paid for, and you’d try to cancel your membership and get your money back, but MoviePass could ignore that too and keep collecting the $10. Giving people unlimited movie tickets for $10 a month is a good way to get rapid customer growth; telling people you’ll give them unlimited movie tickets for $10 a month, but not actually doing it, is a way to pivot to profitability.

Not business advice, right?

“There is still plenty of irrationality in the market, and some start-ups still burn huge piles of money in search of growth. But as these companies mature, they seem to be discovering the benefits of financial discipline. Uber lost only $108 million in the first quarter of 2021 — a vast improvement, believe it or not, over the same quarter last year, when it lost $3 billion, and both it and Lyft have pledged to become profitable on an adjusted basis this year.”

Bullshit. They learned nothing. This was the plan all along. Gain a monopoly or monopsony by undercutting the market at a loss, then raise prices. It’s not that complicated. These media handmaidens are just fluffing their benefactors.

The trick is that you are required to be clean of material nonpublic information when you enter a 10b5-1 plan, but not when you cancel it. You can cancel it for any reason — your kids dropped out of college, you feel like it, etc. — and because canceling a 10b5-1 plan is not a trade, it’s not insider trading.”


SPACs Can Shoot Out SPARCs by Matt Levine (Bloomberg)

“[…] right now is kind of a hard time to raise money for a SPAC: There are a lot of SPACs, there is a lot of money tied up in them, a lot of them have not traded that well, and there is a general sense that the early-2021 frenzy for SPACs left the market oversaturated.”

What a fucking surprise. Useless froth. Thank goodness that at least a few people got absolutely even more filthy rich. If not for that saving grace, it wouldn’t have been worth doing at all.

“There are three important tiers of U.S. stock indexes. The lowest is the Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks, made up of, roughly speaking, the 2,000 smallest of the 3,000 biggest U.S. companies. The middle tier is the Russell 1000, made up of, roughly speaking, the 1,000 biggest U.S. companies. The top tier is the S&P 500, made up of, roughly speaking, the 500 biggest U.S. companies.”
“So when a company goes from being a large small-cap to being a small large-cap, it gets a smaller weight in a smaller index. So indexed investors sell. So the stock goes up to get into the bigger index, and then getting into the bigger index causes it to go back down. Fortunately the Russell indexes only change members once a year, so there’s time to recover; it’s not like stocks are constantly ping-ponging between the indexes.
“I don’t really mean “biggest” and “smallest,” just highest and lowest weightings on Bloomberg’s list of index constituents. Those weightings should correspond to float-adjusted market cap at the time of the last index rebalancing, not to current market cap.

Public Policy & Politics

Britain is a Parasite on Other Countries by Patrick Cockburn (CounterPunch)

“But the nasty secret about British aid is that, in reality, the subsidies are often going in the opposite direction because Britain deliberately trains far fewer doctors and nurses than it needs. It makes up the difference by recruiting great numbers of trained medical staff from impoverished countries where they are already in critically short supply.
“Even with what amounts to the poaching of trained medical staff from abroad, the number of doctors in the UK per capita is still one of the lowest in Europe, second only to Poland. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that the UK has 2.8 doctors for every 1,000 people compared with an average of 3.5 doctors in the OECD’s member countries as a whole.
“For all the self-congratulatory talk about Britain donating vaccines to the world’s poor, it is in practice knowingly parasitic on their ill-funded health systems. Of the 289,000 licensed doctors in the UK in 2021, two-thirds were trained in this country and one-third trained elsewhere. The losers are overwhelmingly poor and middle-income countries in southeast Asia and the Middle East, with the largest number of doctors coming from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa and Ghana.”
A gain for an importer of medical expertise such as Britain is a loss for an exporter where already-inadequate healthcare provision is disproportionately degraded by the loss of skills. When one psychiatrist emigrated from Nepal to Britain some years ago, Nepal lost a quarter of all its trained psychiatrists.”


How Democrats and Progressives Undermined the Potential of the Biden-Putin Summit by Norman Solomon (CounterPunch)

“Now, on the verge of the Biden-Putin summit, U.S. media outlets are overflowing with calls to confront Russia as well as China, pounding on themes sure to delight investors in Pentagon contracting firms. Leading Democrats and Republicans are in step with reporters and pundits beating Cold War drums. How much closer do they want the Doomsday Clock to get to midnight before they call off their zeal to excite narrow nationalisms?
“In the United States, the political context of the Biden-Putin summit should have included widespread progressive support for genuine diplomacy with Russia. Instead, overall, progressives went along with Democratic Party leaders and corporate liberal media as they fueled the momentum toward a nuclear doomsday.”


NATO summit threatens China, at US instigation by Andre Damon (WSWS)

“Despite a raging pandemic, all of the NATO members are massively expanding their militaries. Earlier this year, the UK announced a 40 percent expansion of its nuclear arsenal, while the Biden administration has requested the largest Pentagon budget in human history.

“The massive military buildup currently underway, combined with US threats against China, present an immense danger to all mankind.

“With a frankness entirely missing from the US press, Russia’s Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov spoke with China’s Global Times about the consequences of a US war with China.

“Denisov was asked by the Global Times: “Competition and confrontation between China and the US are escalating. If one day an armed conflict between China and the US happens, what position would Russia take?”

Denisov replied that there “will be no answer to this,” because “such a conflict would exterminate all mankind, and then there would be no point in taking sides.”

Art & Literature

The Impossible Dream: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future” by George Katsiaficas (CounterPunch)

“His faith in India’s capacity to overcome its ecological demise through legislation fails to comprehend caste culture’s dire need for a social revolution. From 1981 to 2015, Chinese “socialism” lifted more than eight hundred million people out of dire poverty. In India, Dalits still comprise as much as half of the population, their anguished cries ignored by insolent politicians, while even basic women’s rights, like the capacity simply to walk the streets at night, remain a distant dream—despite legislation banning rape and discrimination decades ago.”
Real freedom cannot be achieved through political representation in its present forms, including a United Nations where a handful of countries have veto power. Indigenous Americans, Kurds, Palestinians and hundreds of other nations have no UN representatives, since only recognized states, especially ones legitimized by armed force, are permitted entry.”
“[…] the present system artificially evolved over thousands of years, during which time ever-changing elites forced the rest of us to hand over control of the vast social wealth generated by the labor of previous generations. Today’s billionaires and kings are the latest iteration in an unplanned development of unbridled economic accumulation based upon exploitation, conquest, and war.”
“No matter how many times capitalism is rejuvenated by grudgingly allowed refinements, no matter how many times positive legislative reforms may be legislated, they will only end up preserving a system based upon impoverishment of a huge minority of people who are kept subjugated by daily police violence and that requires continual wars to protect billionaires’ accumulation of vast fortunes.
Republicans and Democrats may differ on climate change and health care, yet both agree on imperialism (whether or not they believe it exists) and on the need for increasing corporate profits. Neither party refrains from using weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians: Obama and Trump were both premeditated serial killers. No matter who sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street makes enormous profits.


Thinking Like an Octopus by Louis Proyect (CounterPunch)

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.


“HR Managers of the Human Soul” by Justin E.H. Smith (Hinternet)

“at least in the domain of arts and culture, it seems to me uncontroversial to say that in the current moment bien-pensant Americans broadly share Stalin’s view that there is, or ought to be, a concrete purpose to literature, and that that is, namely, to engineer the human soul.”
“But for Bissell the real problem is that the novel’s anti-hero, a reactionary and stunted autodidactic New Orleans medievalist with serious mommy issues, is an unsuitable guest at the never-ending internet-mediated public festival that passes for culture in the United States in 2021.
“He was also a retrodiction, of course, and a distillation out of several precedents, from Simplicius Simplicissimus and Don Quixote through Lermontov’s Pechorin and beyond, of a type that Western literature, or at least free Western literature excluding “socialist realism”, has excelled at producing: the somewhat repellent, wayward, comically un-self-knowing, tragically superfluous man, not as a model for how one ought to be oneself, but as, among many other things, a stimulus for being something different than that.
“But the context here suggests that “writing” means “asserting”, which again suggests a failure to understand what literature is: not an affirmation of the characters and their conduct and their views, but a lens placed on these characters as exempla of universal humanity.
“But this concession by the soft-totalitarian regimes is not for the sake of freedom itself; it was made only because a relatively free internet is a far more effective means of surveillance and social-control than any top-down old-fashioned authoritarian regulation ever could be.
“[…] it is growing increasingly difficult to deny that private tech companies in the United States are converging in their function with the mostly state-run data-collection systems that produce the social-credit scores of citizens in China. Public or private, called explicitly by the name of social credit or not, increasingly the metrics of our online lives are also metrics of our freedom, and the ever-present threat of being “canceled” is for that reason a threat against our freedom, about which anyone who values liberal democracy is right to be gravely concerned.”
“As often, I can’t help but invoke the name of Michel Foucault here, whose central animating idea was that modernity has been a long process of coming up with ever more subtle ways to keep political subjects “in line”. If this is correct, then we might say that the drain at the bottom of the floor in Babel’s prison, where any hope for more words from him trickled away along with his blood, was just what you would expect from a crude and shaky revolutionary regime that was still working out its place in modernity. This was never the way the dogmatic zealots in power wanted to get rid of writers, just the way they settled for getting rid of them under chaotic circumstances.
“Unlike the full-time anti-woke crusaders, I very much believe in “structural violence”. This new world of ours, structured by the internet, is unrelentingly violent, as it is inimical to human freedom and human thriving.
“We see this in the drowning of Lucette in Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor of 1969 (his greatest achievement, in my view), when she begins to perceive her life as built up out of slices of time;
“But this narrative positioning, it seems, is a key part of the construction of the effect I identified above, whereby the reader is made to feel “right there”. Nabokov’s greatest achievement is to convey to the reader so much more about Lo’s emotional condition than her diary ever could, and this even though the morally cretinous narrator himself has no consciousness of her condition. When Lo is sobbing on the bed, and Humbert Humbert happens, for once, to notice this, and to misinterpret it as adolescent moodiness, Nabokov is rubbing the reader’s face in the pure moral depravity of the narrator he has conjured from his imagination. But, again, the narrator is not the author,”

No, but it is legitimate to dislike a work because the narrator is annoying or reprehensible or both. I agree wholeheartedly that that is not the case for Lolita, which I very much enjoyed (the book as well as the film by Kubrick).

I will say that I do not support anything so simplistic as “distinguishing between the artist and the work”, since it is fairly plain to me that often the moral rottenness of the artist is constitutive of the work. This extends even to philosophy, where any honest person will concede that Martin Heidegger was not “a great philosopher” who was “also a Nazi”, and that the whole challenge of dealing with Heidegger and his legacy is to figure out how Western philosophy developed in such a way that when Nazism emerged it made sense for at least one of its greatest expositors to offer his services as a handmaiden to this ideology. It is precisely for this reason that reading and understanding Heidegger is so urgent. There is nothing “honorific” about doing this; philosophy is not a fan club, and if you are treating it as one, this is because you do not really understand what philosophy is.
“Not coincidentally, it is the same Moshfegh who recently wrote in Bookforum: “A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?” Hear hear.”
“In the prenuptial ritual traditions of several Eurasian cultures, extending broadly from the western coast of the Black Sea all the way to the north of Lake Baikal and the Lena River basin, there is a moment where the groom’s family and friends simulate a kidnapping of the bride. The simulated quality of the ritual is generally obvious in more bourgeois and urban settings; as one moves out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to say whether one is witnessing a sublimation, or indeed the real thing. The Olonkho motif with the ogre and the maiden is itself a more distant sublimation — correctly discerning the true monstrous nature of the men who perpetuate this tradition. It’s an evil tradition. Engineers of the human soul would wish to deal with this evil by suppression; literature, real literature, deals with it through the power of imaginative sublimation. It is dark and wrong, to speak with Moshfegh, and we understand ourselves through it.”

I remember going to a wedding in Switzerland in 1990 where this ritual was played out. It was a medieval-themed wedding (we call had costumes). This ritual is not limited to the benighted realms of the near Orient.

Technology

How Software Is Eating the Car by Robert N. Charette (IEEE Spectrum)

“A vehicle’s physical electronic architecture poses more network design constraints to contend with. Many ECUs need to be close to the sensors and actuators they interact with, like the ECUs for braking systems or engine control. As a result, an automobile’s network harness, which can attach thousands of components, may contain more than 1,500 wires totaling 5,000 meters in length and weigh in excess of 68 kg. Reducing harness weight and complexity has become a major objective of automakers as ECUs, sensor and related electronic device numbers have grown.”
“Making variant management more challenging, Whydell notes, is that “nearly all ECU design and software is outsourced to suppliers, with the OEM integrating the ECUs” to create a unified system from the desired customizable functionality. Whydell says that individual suppliers often do not have a great insight into how OEMs integrate ECUs together. Similarly, OEMs have limited insight into the software resident within the ECUs which are often acquired as a “black box” to support one of several functions such as infotainment, body and conform control, telematics, power train, or automated driver assist systems.”
“In 2008, there were an estimated 2,500 data signals being exchanged among the ECUs in a luxury car. Volvo’s Antinyan says that today more than 7,000 external signals connect the 120 ECUs in Volvo vehicles, and the number of internal vehicle signals being exchanged are two orders of magnitude greater. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates this information can easily surpass 25 gigabytes of data an hour.
“Nearly 60% of the labor costs to repair a collision involving a vehicle with advanced safety features results from the vehicle’s electronics. Even minor damage, say a cracked windshield that used to cost $210 to $220 has climbed to as much as $1,650 if the vehicle is equipped with a windshield-mounted camera for automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning systems, a 2018 AAA study shows. The expense of calibrating of all these systems, which is typically done manually, is a major cost driver.”
“A recent report by claims management company Mitchell International says its data shows the average age of vehicles being declared a total loss has been dropping due to the repair cost of vehicle electronics. It expects the trend to continue as “vehicle complexity heightens,” the report states.”
“Part of the problem is supporting a steadily increasing code base, with one auto company leader telling McKinsey that at the current pace, software maintenance of the existing code base will consume all of its software R&D resources if the gap does not close. In fact, Whydell observes that, “In some cases, the auto industry doesn’t view total lines of code as a measure of complexity anymore, but the number of software personnel an OEM or supplier employs to meet current and future needs.””