When a virus is a problem trust people who're used to dealing with things viral

I've honestly had a lot better luck learning about this coronavirus from some of the people in the venture capital VC) sector I follow rather than the media. I suspect that VCs are probably at least as well equipped to discuss the sort of phenomena in question than the typical journalist who's been writing about for the last few weeks. Not only are VCs looking for investment opportunities with the possibility of (metaphorically) viral growth a lot of them are also pretty heavily involved in the biotech sector.

It's been kind of interesting to consider the latest change in media focus over the last week weeks - which originally seemed to focus frequently on racism, complaining about the diversity of those involving in addressing it, and frequently downplaying the risk relative to the flu when the flu is a much better understood phenomena than this latest virus (though influenza is definitely still gonna kill a lot of people in any given year).

Now it seems to me that over the past 24-48 hours it's been starting to flip - such that now I've been hearing more about inadequate preparation. There's also been fake news floating around about Trump having imposed drastic funding cuts on the agencies responsible for dealing with a pandemic - to quote An AP fact check column Democrats distort coronavirus readiness:

Trump’s budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there’s strong bipartisan support for agencies such as the CDC and NIH. Instead, financing has increased.

Indeed, the money that government disease detectives first tapped to fight the latest outbreak was a congressional fund created for health emergencies.

Some public health experts say a bigger concern than White House budgets is the steady erosion of a CDC grant program for state and local public health emergency preparedness — the front lines in detecting and battling new disease. But that decline was set in motion by a congressional budget measure that predates Trump.

The above is a story that makes Trump look bad, but it's also not quite the same story that I find I've been hearing. I keep hearing about the important of clear and consistent communication from people but it's not something that I think that Trump is performing much worse on than some of the loudest alternative sources - i.e. the primary opposing party and the media. The element that seems most dangerous (unless it'd get Trump to just shut up for once .. but that'll never happen!): Pence Will Control All Coronavirus Messaging From Health Officials.

Am personally guessing that if there are widespread deaths due to this virus in the US that Trump will be blamed and if there aren't then he'll get the credit (even if he hasn't really done much of anything to deserve it). That's more or less the way politics goes.

Seeing an early indication that a change in treatment strategy in Wuhan may have significantly improved survival rates1 and Israeli claims of almost having a vaccine ready due to already having passed a vaccine for a coincidentally very-similar virus through a lot of trials already. Not quite sure how either of those paths might play out ... and that'd be pretty difficult to gauge at this stage. From the average person's perspective there's not too much that can be done beyond taking precautions of the same sort you might against the flu2 ... and maybe grab a novel to read while you wait.


  1. It's difficult to overstate the low level of confidence here with regards to certain claims like this particular one... just such is what you're stuck working with as better information slowly emerges. ↩︎

  2. Note that this article seems to suggest even if it wouldn't help against this newest virus directly, getting a flu vaccine should reduce overall burden on the healthcare system and also make it easier to identify cases of this new virus. ↩︎

Random links

The 2019-nCoV Coronavirus: Are there two routes to infection?
"While a sneeze or a cough by someone infected with a “respiratory disease” can only infect others within a few meters, the virus-laden gaseous plume from an infected person having diarrhea can infect others up to 200 meters. Some experts estimate that 10%-20% of SARS patients had diarrhea, with the possibility that the virus in their intestinal tracts could potentially infect others by this route"
Why Can Some Blind People Process Speech Far Faster Than Sighted Persons?
"When we speak rapidly we are verbalizing at about six syllables per second. That hyperactive radio announcer spewing fine print at the end of a commercial jabbers at 10 syllables per second, the absolute limit of comprehension for sighted people. Blind people, however, can comprehend speech sped up to 25 syllables per second."
Figuring out How to Talk About Female Characters You Don’t Like When You’re Feminist
An almost-sensible article from The Mary Sue for once - "Last night, I was talking to a friend of mine about Star Wars discourse when she suddenly stopped in the street and whispered to me, “Don’t tell anyone, but I just don’t really like Rey, I think she is boring.” I hugged her and whispered back, “I think the Wonder Woman 1984 trailer looks really bad.”"
Presidents, Politics, and Military Strategy: Electoral Constraints during the Iraq War
Using "Recently declassified documents and interviews with senior administration officials and military figures ... Both George W. Bush's surge decision of 2007 and Barack Obama's decision to withdraw troops in 2011 are shown to have been profoundly influenced by concerns related to the domestic political calendar."

Sweet Meteor O'Death in the polls...

Take a look at the following tweet - you should interpret a lot more polls (like, e.g., this one, similar to how you'd interpret this:

Finding freedom in strange places

A tweet by Timur Kuran on a ranking claiming greater critical thinking being taught in Saudi schools than in French, Italian, or Spanish had me thinking back to an earlier incident - where Sam Altman reflected on a trip to China:

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me. I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco. I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

Altman later tried to clarify his views but I think that both this incident and the later ranking of critical thinking skills point to something a little different12. It seems to me important to emphasize that different societies have different taboos. What one can speak about in one society one might not be able to speak about in others and vice-versa.

This post started with one tweet from Timur Kuran and it seems only fitting to end it with another:


  1. It seems also worth noting that some of Altman's treatment might also be due to differential treatment of foreigners - how societies can frequently seem to impose higher penalties on ingroup members who dissent than upon outgroup members who do. Interestingly, and perhaps semi-relatedly, the Saudi government seems to be relaxing restrictions on dress and gender segregation in the tourism sector↩︎

  2. Another interesting oddity is some of the recent research on the Chinese government's approach to censorship as you'll find expressed here. Basically it's an argument that "Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content." One of the things that might stimulate some sort of collective action, of course, being dissemination of details of a certain virus ↩︎

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