Goddam, Mississippi

by Deanna K. Kreisel (doctorwaffle.substack.com)

This week I had planned to present the 3 Quarks Daily readership with a fluffy little piece about my memories of a grade school foreign language teacher. It was poignant, it was heartfelt, it was funny (if I do say so myself). Above all, it was intended as a brief respite from the nonstop parade of horrors scrolling past our screens every day—a parade in which my own recent writings have occupied a lavishly decorated float. We all deserve a break, I thought. It would be nice to look at some baton twirlers for a minute, listen to an oompa band.

And then. Something happened in my newly adopted home state that has filled me with such rage that I feel I have to write it out in order to be able to move on with my life. Everyone around me—my colleagues and friends—are filled with the same rage, to the point where I think we could use some kind of collective catharsis. It occurred to me yesterday that maybe my monthly essay for 3QD could form a tiny part of such a catharsis. Maybe I could scrap what I’d already written, and quickly write a piece about what happened here on Friday. At the very least, it would feel good to scream a little into the void, even if ultimately no one in the rest of the country really cares. That happens a lot with stuff that goes down in Mississippi.

Before I go any further, let me hasten to say the following. I am about to complain about Covid protocols at a university. I fully recognize that many, many other faculty, staff, students, and teachers across the country are dealing with horrifying working and learning conditions right now—not to mention, of course, what health care workers are going through. I do not mean to imply that we are somehow special. And yet—who are we kidding? It’s Mississippi. Of course we’re special! If you’ve been checking the New York Times Covid coverage for the past couple of weeks you might have noticed that things here are … challenging. For weeks our state has occupied pride of place as the top, labelled line in all the new-case graphs published above the fold. Indeed, we are now number one in the world for Covid transmission. So please bear with me as I attempt to complain about my own patch while simultaneously recognizing that it’s pretty bad all over the place. Read more »

Epilog: Peace and Horror

by Akim Reinhardt

Two profound horrors have plagued the world in recent times: the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump presidency. And after years of dread, their recent decline has brought me a brief respite of peace.

Not that my peace was ever disturbed as much as many others’. One reason is that unlike the ICU patient or the undocumented immigrant child, neither horror has ever afflicted or assailed me directly. Another is that I have long been comfortable with impermanence, the reality that nothing lasts forever. Not the United States. Not me. Should the one be toppled by a dictatorial demagog or the other felled by a microscopic, multiplying coronavirus, so be it. All must end eventually.

Yet here we are, steps closer to but still somewhere short of the Great Undoing that the pathogen and the politician relentlessly dragged us towards. And only now, as their grips finally begin to release a bit, can I recognize more fully how each, in its own way, had previously commanded my attention, either undermining my peace or at least forcing me to redefine it.

First, the blinding orange glow.

Just the other day it dawned on me that not only hadn’t I thought about Donald Trump for a couple of weeks, but I also had not spent much energy charting the republic’s precipitous decline and decay. That is not to say I see Joe Biden as some kind of savior, or even have high expectations for his administration. I don’t. Nor am I convinced that the world is better off with the United States than without it. There are strong arguments either way. But regardless, to live in the United States during the Trump presidency, and to recognize the very real threat it posed to American culture and to U.S. constitutional systems and democratic and institutions, meant that you had to, at the very least, pay close attention to their ongoing perversion and erosion. Because it’s one thing to be intellectually okay with the United States’ eventual demise. It’s another to live through various stages of it while facing down the very real prospect of increased oligarchy, theocracy, nativism, and racism. Read more »

Science Is Truth Until It Isn’t

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Science cat
Don’t forget to credit my research assistant, Erwin Schrödinger. Image: ScienceLive / Shutterstock

“Trust the science; follow the scientists” has become a familiar refrain during our past year of living dangerously. It is the admonition of world health organisations to shifty politicians; it is good advice for all whose lives have been battered into disruption by Covid-19. But another insidious pandemic has been creeping up on us. The World Health Organization calls it the “infodemic”. It includes those endlessly forwarded emails from ill-informed relatives, social media posts, and sensational videos full of spurious “cures” and malicious lies about the virus and the pandemic. The disinformation isn’t all the work of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and “alternative” medicine peddlers. Some actual scientists have been caught in acts of deception. These are people who undermine whatever faith the public has left in science, and who sabotage the credibility of their scrupulous colleagues. One of the worst cases of fraud was Dr Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 research paper linking vaccines to autism, which endangered the lives of countless children before it was debunked and its author struck off the UK medical register. In this 700th anniversary year of Dante Alighieri’s death, we should reserve a special place in his Inferno for those who profit from turning the truths of Mother Nature into dangerous lies.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it,” the physicist Richard Feynman once said in a lecture on scientific method. It’s a noble truth — your theory is wrong if the experiments say so — but given the flaws of human nature, it’s not that simple. Sloppy work or deliberate fraud can make your theory seem correct enough to get published in one prestigious journal, and cited in many others. Scientific theories should follow the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest”. Yesterday’s cast-off ideas (goodbye, phlogiston) may pave the path to progress, but along the way, there are also some fake signposts pointing in wrong directions. Read more »

Writing the Virus: A New Anthology

by Andrea Scrima

An anthology I’ve edited with David Winner, titled Writing the Virus, has just been published by Outpost19 Books (San Francisco). Its authors—among them Joan Juliet Buck, Rebecca Chace, Edie Meidav, Caille Millner, Uche Nduka, Mui Poopoksakul, Roxana Robinson, Jon Roemer, Joseph Salvatore, Liesl Schillinger, Andrea Scrima, Clifford Thompson, Saskia Vogel, Matthew Vollmer, and David Dario Winner—explore the experience of lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, and the politicization of the virus from a wide variety of perspectives. The majority of the texts were written exclusively for the online literary magazine StatORec, and a keen sense of urgency prevails throughout, an understanding that the authors are chronicling something, responding to something that is changing them and the social fabric all around them.

The range of this anthology is broad: there’s a haunting story that explores the psychological dimensions of an anti-Asian hate crime with a curiously absent culprit; hallucinatory prose that gropes its way through a labyrinth of internalized fear as human encounters are measured in terms of physical distance; a piece on the uncomfortable barriers of ethnicity, civic cooperation, and racism as experienced by someone going out for what is no longer an ordinary run; and a jazz pianist who listens to what’s behind the eerie silence of the virus’s global spread. Read more »

Can We Ensure Fairness with Digital Contact Tracing?

by Fabio Tollon

COVID-19 has forced populations into lockdown, seen the restriction of rights, and caused widespread economic, social, and psychological harm. With only 11 countries having no confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of this writing), we are globally beyond strategies that aim solely at containment. Most resources are now being directed at mitigation strategies. That is, strategies that aim to curtail how quickly the virus spreads. These strategies (such as physical and social distancing, increased hand-washing, mask-wearing, and proper respiratory etiquette) have been effective in delaying infection rates, and therefore reducing strain on healthcare workers and facilities. There has also been a wave of techno-solutionism (not unusual in times of crisis), which often comes with the unjustified belief that technological solutions provide the best (and sometimes only) ways to deal with the crisis in question.

Such perspectives, in the words of Michael Klenk, ask “what technology”, instead of asking “why technology”, and therefore run the risk of creating more problems than they solve. Klenk argues that such a focus is too narrow: it starts with the presumption that there should be technological solutions to our problems, and then stamps some ethics on afterwards to try and constrain problematic developments that may occur with the technology. This gets things exactly backwards. What we should instead be doing is asking whether we need a given technology, and then proceed from there. It is with this critical perspective in mind that I will investigate a new technological kid on the block: digital contact tracing. Basically, its implementation involves installing a smartphone app that, via Bluetooth, registers and stores the individual’s contacts. Should a user become infected, they can update their app with this information, which will then automatically ping all of their registered contacts. While much attention has been focused on privacy and trust concerns, this will not be my focus (see here for a good example of an analysis that looks specifically at these factors, drawn up by the team at Ethical Intelligence). I will instead focus on the question of whether digital contact tracing is fair. Read more »

Plague Echoes

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is the men who pass away…” —Albert Camus (The Plague)

Photo by Yaseen Hashmi

“So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling. In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in.” (The Plague, Page 35)

Death by pneumonia, and then another, and another, advancing in only days to large populations— caused by one of those crown-wearing microbes, a Coronavirus, deadly, beautiful under the microscope. They named it Novel Coronavirus. Once unsheathed, it leapt from animal to human, one town to another, then between land and sea borders. The first confirmed case in the United States was recorded on January 20, 2020. Only 20 days ago, we had wished each other peace and a vision clear as 20/20. But is a year of numbers and blurred vision. The Grand Princess sailed with 2000-plus, 21 infected by the time she passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. By March 18th there were 7,769 cases. Ten days later, on March 28th, they had risen to 116,505.

“The evening papers that day took up the matter and inquired whether or not the city fathers were going to take steps, and what emergency measures were contemplated, to abate this particularly disgusting nuisance. Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation.” (The Plague, Page 15)

There was a memo early on, wasn’t there? One of them asked.
The man had no answers, only mirrors and insults inside. He spoke as if swirling in a perpetual drumroll. He appeared every day for the press conference, knotting a bright tie in a different color, head skewed; most days he favored red— red and oversized, as he snarled or shrugged at a question, red as he made his pounce. Read more »