Less than reviews

My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix special.  Overly sentimental for commercial reasons, and is there any film that so shoehorns a series of encounters into an overly crude narrative?  Nonetheless the footage of the octopus and her environment (yes her) is amazing and I definitely recommend this one.

Teheran, an Israeli TV show on Apple Plus.  From the writer of Fauda, it concerns Israeli agents working in Teheran, under precarious circumstances of course.  Not deep, and at times implausible in plot, but very high production values and agitated in the good sense of that term.  I am glad it is only eight episodes.

Gimme Some Truth, two-CD collection of earlier songs by John Lennon, remastered by his son Sean.  Good, classic selections, but this remaster is the greatest sonic crime I have heard in centuries, indeed millennia.  The album Plastic Ono Band, for instance, had one of the most special sounds of the LP era, somehow both spare and “wall of sound” at the same time, but now it just plods and thuds and the space surrounding it sounds empty.  How could Yoko Ono have let this one get through?  I won’t even give you the link.

Seven Samurai, by Kurosawa.  Ran is his peak achievement, then perhaps Ikiru (also one of the best movies about bureaucracy), and the much underrated late Kurosawa movies.  But this one is actually a drag,  Hollywood Westerns have improved on the plot, and the three hours of artificial face-mugging wears thin pretty quickly.

Yi Yi, 2000 Taiwanese movie directed by Edward Yang.  Rented out a theater to see this one again, Alex T. came too.  Not regretted, to say the least, one of the better movies.  But given the length and the methods of dramatic construction, I do not recommend that you watch it at home.  Just get a small (masked) group together, as indeed we did.

From the AstraZeneca comments

Transverse Myletitis has a background incidence of 4/million in the US. Currently there are 2 cases reported out of 18,000 people who have already been administered the vaccine. Of those two, one was diagnosed with concurrent MS (another neurodegenerative autoimmune condition known to cause TM and whose population has a 2000% relative risk increase in developing TM depending on criteria used) and one has not had details released.

With 18,000 data points, a “1%” risk would require there to be 178 missed cases. Odds of that are astronomically low. Much more likely, if there were any real correlation (which again seems rather unlikely) we are looking at something 80+) and would STILL result in fewer deaths than waiting. If the choice were this or letting Covid become endemic with just an influenza fatality rate, this would again be the more ethical choice. Economically 1.1 million being totally disabled would be somewhere around $3 trillion, which again would be vastly cheaper than ending transmission through current social policies. In terms of raw lives lost, a 1% incidence would easily be less than letting Covid run.

People say we need more numbers, but funny enough their doom and gloom scenarios invariably involve scenarios that are necessarily imply that all the trial data to date is spurious and/or that even if true are less deadly than waiting.

And note that this argument has no justification for pausing the trial. With 2 data points, 1 of which is almost certainly spurious for the general population, the solution is to keep administering it.

Reality is that regulators and drug companies are simply not doing a cost benefit calculation that weights the currently dying at all in the US. I am hoping that the drug companies are being amoral profit seekers and are hoping to just browbeat the FDA once the Brits get things settled and the US policy scene (one way or the other) stops being about Mr. Trump.

That is from MR commentator Sure.  And also from him:

The other thing to remember is that a lot of pharma’s actual business is not as much discovery of new entities, rather they buy up rights to a lot of those and then take somebody else’s work through the years long process of approval. For big pharma much of their comparative advantage is in navigating an expensive, byzantine approval process. Take that away and they might face far more competition from smaller firms and potentially foreign firms that can manage the new landscape better.

Lastly, pharma lives in fear of the regulators while trying to suborn them. Going against them FDA bureaucrats (who are unlikely to want to de facto kill their own jobs) risks one of them grinding an axe and slow walking a blockbuster approval or fast walking a biosimilar approval. Either of those actions will easily change the net profit for a pharma firm by more than they could possibly make off a Covid vaccine.

Currently, faster has very little upside for them. They have pre-commitment so they are going to get paid even if they are slow. There are dozen odd vaccines coming down the pike and one, maybe two, will take the lion’s share of the market once the immediate crisis is over. They are mostly doing this to win goodwill and being the guy whose vaccine kills 2,000 people is bad if your competitors kill only 5. From a public health perspective, we would be better with the less safe vaccine a month sooner than the safer vaccine a month later (and ideally we would get both and swap promptly). For the pharma firms, the calculus just goes towards being as slow as the rest of pack and being ungodly thorough.

Perhaps things will improve in a few weeks’ time.

Sunday assorted links

1. Redux of my early August piece on why you should moralize less about national coronavirus performance (now ungated).

2. Jet Suit assault teams.

3. Local experimentation with the Chinese vaccine seems to be proceeding very well.

4. The progress of Africa’s largest dam, and the international relations problems it is causing.

5. Can they build a Netflix TV series around a woman chess player?  The article has other interesting features.

6. Good signs for Covid lung damage recovery (NYT).  Not the final word, but you will note I have not been pushing the “long-term damage” line here at MR.  Just as I have not been pushing the Vitamin D thing, weak theory in my view and it gets pulled out of the hat with empirical correlations for all sorts of maladies.

And yet the American trial remains suspended

Those nasty, reckless Brits:

The NHS is preparing to introduce a coronavirus vaccine soon after Christmas. Trials have shown it will cut infections and save lives, Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, has privately revealed.

He told MPs last week that stage three trials of the vaccine created at Oxford University and being manufactured by AstraZeneca mean a mass rollout is on the horizon as early as December. Thousands of NHS staff are to undergo training to administer a vaccine before the end of the year.

The government changed the law this weekend to expand the number of health professionals able to inoculate the public. The regulations will enable pharmacists, dentists, midwives and paramedics to administer jabs.

C’mon U.S. public health authorities, let’s get on this one and demand a resumption of the suspended AstraZeneca trial.  You are advocates of science, right?  You don’t actually want to make Donald Trump correct, do you?  (Maybe that one will work.)

You don’t have to make it the vaccine, as the Brits seem to be doing, you just have to resume the trial, as the even more reckless Japanese did weeks ago.  How about it?

Here is the article from Times of London (gated, but a cheap and worthwhile subscription for foreigners), via Linda Yueh.

Solve for the China equilibrium

Chinese government officials are warning their American counterparts they may detain U.S. nationals in China in response to the Justice Department’s prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Chinese officials have issued the warnings to U.S. government representatives repeatedly and through multiple channels, the people said, including through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese message, the people said, has been blunt: The U.S. should drop prosecutions of the Chinese scholars in American courts, or Americans in China might find themselves in violation of Chinese law.

Here is more from the WSJ.  Three to four years ago I used to explain to friends and family that I needed to visit China as much as possible very quickly, because soon enough my opportunities would be over.  And it seems that now — even without the Covid factor — we have reached that point.

Is concentration eroding labor’s share of national income?

Here is a new piece from Joe Kennedy, here are his summary points:

Despite the persistent claims that increased market power has hurt workers, the scholarly evidence is weak, while the macroeconomic data is strong and clear in showing that this is not the principal cause.

Labor’s share of income has declined slightly over the past two decades, but not principally because capital’s share of income has increased.

Most of the decline is offset by an increase in rental income—what renters pay and what the imputed rent homeowners pay for their house. This increase is due to restricted housing markets, not growing employer power in product or labor markets.

Antitrust policy is not causing the drop in labor share, so changing it is not the solution. For issues such as employer collusion over wages or excessive use of noncompete agreements, antitrust authorities already have power to act.

Stringent antitrust policy would do little to raise the labor share of income, but it could very well reduce investment and productivity growth. The better way to help workers is with pro-growth, pro-innovation policies that boost productivity.

This probable untruth received a big boost about three years ago, in part through mood affiliation.  Perhaps other data will yet rescue it, but for now I am watching to see how long it will take to die away.  Ten years perhaps?

Saturday assorted links

Fama on Pornography and the Fed

Excellent interview with Eugene Fama. The usual stuff on efficient markets but also

It’s not just the Fed, around the globe central banks are flooding the system with liquidity like never before. Is this a reason for concern?

Frankly, I think this is just posturing. Actually, the central banks don’t do anything real. They are issuing one form of debt to buy another form of debt. If you are an old Modigliani–Miller person the way I am, you think that’s a neutral activity: You’re issuing short-term debt to buy long-term debt or vice-versa. That’s not something that should have any real effects.

Then again, the financial markets sure seem to love it. At least it looks like that the S&P 500 is moving upwards in tandem with the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Every day we hear a story about the movement of stock prices. But the story is different each day. So basically, these stories are made up after the fact. But when we look at it systematically, we don’t see a big effect of Fed actions on real activity or on stock prices or on anything else. That’s why I use to say that the business of central banks is like pornography: In essence, it’s just entertainment and it doesn’t have any real effects.

I agree that people think the Fed is much more powerful than it is.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

Could we detect it if we are living in a simulation?

“If quantum computing actually materializes, in the sense that it’s a large scale, reliable computing option for us, then we’re going to enter a completely different era of simulation,” Davoudi says. “I am starting to think about how to perform my simulations of strong interaction physics and atomic nuclei if I had a quantum computer that was viable.”

All of these factors have led Davoudi to speculate about the simulation hypothesis. If our reality is a simulation, then the simulator is likely also discretizing spacetime to save on computing resources (assuming, of course, that it is using the same mechanisms as our physicists for that simulation). Signatures of such discrete spacetime could potentially be seen in the directions high-energy cosmic rays arrive from: they would have a preferred direction in the sky because of the breaking of so-called rotational symmetry.

Telescopes “haven’t observed any deviation from that rotational invariance yet,” Davoudi says. And even if such an effect were to be seen, it would not constitute unequivocal evidence that we live in a simulation. Base reality itself could have similar properties.

Here is further discussion from Anil Anathaswamy.  Via Robert Nelsen.  As you may already know, my view is that there is no proper external perspective, and the concept of “living in a simulation” is not obviously distinct from living in a universe that follows some kind of laws, whether natural or even theological.  The universe is simultaneously the simulation and the simulator itself!  Anything “outside the universe doing the simulating” is then itself “the (mega-)universe that is simultaneously the simulation and the simulator itself.” etc.

New results on the Chinese vaccine

Importantly, this was the first study of an inactivated SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to include participants older than 60 years—the most vulnerable age group for this infection. In the phase 1 dose-escalating trial, the vaccine was given at a two-dose schedule at three different concentrations (2 μg, 4 μg, and 8 μg per dose) and was well tolerated in both age groups (18–59 years and ≥60 years). The older age group had lower rates of solicited adverse events than the younger adults: the overall rates of adverse events within 28 days after vaccination were 34 (47%) of 72 participants in the group aged 18–59 years, compared with 14 (19%) of 72 participants in the group aged 60 years and older. At the same time, in both age groups the vaccine was similarly immunogenic: the geometric mean anti-SARS-CoV-2 neutralising antibody titres measured by a 50% virus neutralisation assay 14 days after the booster dose were 88, 211, and 229 in the group aged 18–59 years and 81, 132, and 171 in the group aged 60 years and older for 2 μg, 4 μg, and 8 μg vaccine doses, respectively. Moreover, the authors tested cross-reactivity of the neutralising antibodies against several drifted SARS-CoV-2 isolates and showed the potential of their vaccine to protect against evolutionary diverged viruses, should they appear in circulation.


The current study is the second to report the interim results of safety and immunogenicity of inactivated SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, with the first being the another β-propiolactone inactivated aluminium-adjuvanted whole-virion SARS-CoV-2 vaccine developed by Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

Both studies showed very similar levels of adverse events and neutralising antibody titres post vaccination, which indicates the reproducibility of clinical results of similar vaccine modes produced by different manufacturers.

All good news of course, and this vaccine exists right now.  Just not for you!  Here is the piece from The Lancet, and here is associated commentary, also seeming to confirm the positive results.  A phase III trial is underway in the UAE to measure efficacy.  I cannot speak to data reliability issues, but presumably the referees at The Lancet find this credible enough to recommend publication.

Via Alan Goldhammer.

Friday assorted links

1. Shruti Ideas of India podcast with Viral Acharya.

2. Is stupidity expanding, or just becoming more visible?

3. “The world’s largest chess play website has closed more than 85,000 accounts for cheating since March.

4. Teachers’ unions aren’t about education: the war against microschools and Prenda in particular (WSJ).

5. Flat results for remdesivir and interferon from a new study.  Interferon is the big news here, noting that timing may well be the issue (more likely that it works when administered early, which is not what this study measured — another reason testing matters!).  And note this:

The silver lining may be that the trial itself, unprecedented in several ways, succeeded. Set up in a short time in March as the pandemic engulfed the world, it used a simple protocol that allowed doctors in overstretched hospitals anywhere to randomize their patients to whatever study drug was available or to standard care.

And this:

The biggest hurdle was the long time it took to get regulatory approval for the study in some countries, says WHO’s Marie-Pierre Preziosi. “Regulators, as well as the ethics committees for that matter, need to rethink their approaches in pandemics and need to be much more ready to cope with this because sometimes the duration for authorization is really not appropriate.”

Doing things “by the book” is not really appropriate in the current moment.  We need a better book!

6. Various pandemic updates from Karl Friston.  And a good albeit imperfect thread on GBD.

What is your useless superpower?

Trey Miller emails me about my polymaths post, and my observation that: “One of my views in talent search is that extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.”

Tyler…I’ve referred to this as a “Useless Super-Power.”

I’m not a polymath, but one of my Useless Super-Powers is the ability to pour nearly identical amounts of liquid without thought or effort. In practice, for example: if I’m pouring wine for four people, there is almost always no visible difference between the contents of the glasses. I am not, and never have been, a professional waiter or held a related job.

I would love to see a list of other people’s examples…

I am pretty good at knowing how long a particular journey will take, or at waking up at exactly the time of my choosing (neither is entirely useless I might add).  How about you?

Why I reject the Great Barrington Declaration

Here is my 2x normal length Bloomberg column on that topic, as had been requested by Daniel Klein.  The argument has numerous twists and turns, do read the whole thing but here is one bit (I will indent only their words):

“Here are the key words of the Great Barrington Declaration on herd immunity:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

What exactly does the word “allow” mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature’s will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: “Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.”

And the close:

“In most parts of the Western world, normal openings for restaurants, sporting events and workplaces are likely to lead to spiraling caseloads and overloaded hospitals, as is already a risk in some of the harder-hit parts of Europe. Reopenings, to the extent they work, rely on a government that so scares people that attendance remains low even with reopening.

In that sense, as things stand, there is no “normal” to be found. An attempt to pursue it would most likely lead to panic over the numbers of cases and hospitalizations, and would almost certainly make a second lockdown more likely. There is no ideal of liberty at the end of the tunnel here.

Don’t get me wrong: The Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty…

My worldview is both more hopeful and more tragic. There is no normal here, but we can do better — with vigorous actions to combat Covid-19, including government actions. The conception of human nature evident in the Great Barrington Declaration is so passive, it raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.”

MR Tyler again: You will note I do not make the emotional, question-begging argument that herd immunity strategies will kill millions (though I do think more people die under that scenario).  If you argue, as many herd immunity critics do, that the elderly cannot be isolated, it seems you also should not be entirely confident that the currently non-infected can be isolated.  The brutal truth is simply that a Great Barrington strategy put into practice would lead to rapidly spiraling cases and a rather quick and oppressive second lockdown, worse than what the status quo or some improved version of it is likely to bring.  Total deaths are likely higher, along with more social trauma, due to the more extreme whipsaw effects, but no not by millions.

Let’s accelerate those biomedicals, people!

From the comments, on AstraZeneca vaccine trial resumption

America is really, really messed up.

The only place with such intensely wasteful discussions about a disease is the U.S. And it is getting increasingly easy to ignore the U.S. as the world continues to respond to this pandemic.

And it is not just the British based trial. This is from Reuters on Sept. 14 – “Clinical trials for the coronavirus vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University resumed in Brazil on Monday after the country’s health regulator got confirmation over the weekend that its British equivalent MHRA had approved the restart, a company representative said.

The Federal University of Sao Paulo, which is running the trials, said in a statement that 4,600 of the planned 5,000 volunteers have been vaccinated in Brazil without any of them reporting any serious health issues.”

This from the Times of India on Sept 20th -“The phase-III human clinical trial of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) will begin at the Sassoon General Hospital in Pune next week. Dean of the state-run Sassoon General Hospital Dr Muralidhar Tambe told this to on Saturday.

“The phase-III trial of ‘Covishield’ vaccine will begin at Sassoon hospital from next week. It is likely to start on Monday. Some volunteers have already come forward for the trial. Around 150 to 200 volunteers will be administered the vaccine candidate dose,” he said.

Regulators in Japan and South Africa also have no problem with the trial continuing.

That is from Easy-Peasy.  And I did google to ensure that those claims about foreign trial resumption are correct, for instance Japan resumed no later than October 2.  This is one reason — not the only! — why I am puzzled when Derek Lowe claims on Twitter that American perhaps cannot go any faster with its vaccine.  If you think Japan and the Brits are irresponsible, by all means let us know.  Otherwise…it is time to speak up in favor of maximizing expected value.