"A Game That Plays People"
Five Things You Need to Read Today
NIH scientists targeted the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch onto healthy cells and infect them. The mRNA vaccine instructs the body to produce this protein. It generates an immune response, which helps protect against the disease.
After the coronavirus' genetic sequence was published on January 11, it took two days for the teams to finalize the targeted genetic sequence for its vaccine, dubbed mRNA-1273. With traditional vaccine platforms, the process can take years.
In the weeks that followed, the virus spread worldwide, killing thousands of people through February and March and weighing on financial markets. In that same time, about 100 employees at Moderna—one-tenth of the entire workforce—worked around the clock alongside NIH scientists to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
That period was full of "crazy hours, short nights," Bancel said in an interview in March, adding: "They did what they had to do to get things done."
In the first lap of a marathon race, Moderna's technology excelled. Its collaboration with Graham's team helped it move faster than anyone else. On February 24, the company shipped the first batch of its experimental vaccine to NIH scientists in Bethesda, Maryland.
The first volunteer received the first dose on March 16, in Seattle, and that launched the world's first clinical trial of any coronavirus-vaccine candidate.
At the time that the first of the pandemic lockdowns were beginning, the vaccine had already been developed and was being tested. Everything from then to now has been clinical trials. Everything after now—Moderna applies for and is expected to receive emergency use authorization today—is just production and distribution. This is why we are contemplating the final stages of this pandemic less than a year into it.
Coronavirus is just the demonstration project for this new approach to rapid vaccine and drug development.
Bancel said he anticipates that the COVID-19 success could translate to immunizing against these other diseases just as well.
"It's copy and paste," he said. "So the Zika vaccine, the CMV vaccine, if this vaccine shows high efficacy, they are going to have high efficacy. It's just science."
A new vaccine is great. What's even better is whole new way of making vaccines, which makes possible a much faster response to new diseases, saving a lot of lives and reducing the economic impact of future pandemics.
2. Facts Don't Care About Your Feelings
Several years ago, a young conservative popularized the motto, "Facts don't care about your feelings." It's a perfectly true and useful idea—but in practice it turns out to be a lot easier to invoke this to dismiss somebody else's feelings.
We're seeing a lot of this in the aftermath of the election.
First, let's acknowledge that the election is, for all practical purposes, over. The General Services Administration has approved the presidential transition, giving the incoming Biden team access to the resources it needs to create a new administration ready to take over immediately upon his inauguration. Moreover, while complaining endlessly about a "stolen" election, Donald Trump has already committed that he will leave the White House at the end of his term if the Electoral College votes in favor of Biden, which it will do. Trump is a blusterer, but like all blusterers, he will cave in the end.
And yet Trump's team is still contemplating bizarre fantasies about overturning the election result. Since all of their attempts have failed in the courts when they had to provide actual evidence, their last-ditch hope lies in trying to convince state legislatures to simply overturn the results and install a different slate of electors. But one of the big stories of this post-election period has been local Republican officials standing up against attempt to overturn the vote, often when much more prominent Republicans refused to do so. So it's not going to happen—though Trump and his team still deserve all the infamy for trying.
Why the big effort, then? It's not because it's likely to work, nor because it's good for the Republican Party. (In fact, it puts Republican control of the Senate in danger by undermining the Senate runoffs in Georgia.) No, I'm afraid it's all to spare the feelings of one man.
At least, that's the conclusion of the editors at National Review.
The chief driver of the post-election contention of the past several weeks is the petulant refusal of one man to accept the verdict of the American people. The Trump team (and much of the GOP) is working backwards, desperately trying to find something, anything to support the president's aggrieved feelings, rather than objectively considering the evidence and reacting as warranted.
This is reinforced by the Washington Post's reporting on President Trump's reaction to his loss.
Sequestered in the White House and brooding out of public view after his election defeat, rageful and at times delirious in a torrent of private conversations, Trump was, in the telling of one close adviser, like "Mad King George, muttering, 'I won. I won. I won.'"
However cleareyed Trump's aides may have been about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, many of them nonetheless indulged their boss and encouraged him to keep fighting with legal appeals. They were "happy to scratch his itch," this adviser said. "If he thinks he won, it's like, 'Shh...we won't tell him.'"...
[S]ome lawyers around Trump began to suddenly disappear from the effort in what some aides characterized as an attempt to protect their reputations.... "Literally only the fringy of the fringe are willing to do pressers, and that's when it became clear there was no 'there' there," a senior administration official said....
Giuliani and his protégée, Ellis, both striving to please the president, insisted Trump's fight was not over. Someone familiar with their strategy said they were "performing for an audience of one."
And yet, it's not just about Trump. I think The Bulwark's Jonathan Last is onto something when he argues that this emotionalism is now central to the Republican Party.
Trump...mounted a hostile takeover of the GOP because he alone understood what Republican voters wanted. They wanted the spirit that had animated his birtherism gambit: a politics devoted not to policies and ideologies, but to grievances and combativeness.
One of Trump's insights was that these voters had become fully postmodern in that they no longer wanted outcomes. They wanted feelings. And when Trump offered them the pure, uncut catharsis they craved, they offered him their loyalty, and ensured that the party would remain his, no matter what.
It is usually the case that what people want out of politics is emotion. But they tell themselves that they want emotion and that they want certain policies and principles. Usually the candidates who wins is the one who can provide just enough to a combination of the heart and the head.
Trump's hold on the Republican Party is that he was the first to appeal only to emotion and not to reason, and that hold will only be broken (if it ever is) when conservatives decide that they need reason and ideas and principles again.
3. A Game That Plays People
I've seen a lot of people on the right go down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories in their attempt to justify President Trump's illusions about not having lost the election.
One that struck particularly close to home is this item I found from David Harriman. You may recall that almost exactly ten years ago, the Objectivist movement was turned upside down in order to defend Harriman's work on the philosophy of induction. And now here he is presenting a cloud of innuendo, derived mostly from already debunked claims, as an example of inductive reasoning.
It's a small thing in the big picture, but it is an example of the kind of cognitive breakdown that has happened among a large number of thinkers on the right, and when I found this and commented on it on Facebook, one of the replies steered me toward a fascinating article describing exactly how it all goes wrong.
This analysis starts from the QAnon conspiracy theory, but it applies perfectly to election conspiracy theories, too.
I am a game designer with experience in a very small niche. I create and research games designed to be played in reality. I've worked in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), LARPs, experience fiction, interactive theater, and "serious games." Stories and games that can start on a computer and finish in the real world. Fictions designed to feel as real as possible. Games that teach you. Puzzles that come to life all around the players. Games where the deeper you dig, the more you find. Games with rabbit holes that invite you into wonderland and entice you through the looking glass.
When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming's evil twin. A game that plays people....
In one of the very first experience fictions (XF) I ever designed, the players had to explore a creepy basement looking for clues. The object they were looking for was barely hidden and the clue was easy. It was Scooby Doo easy. I definitely expected no trouble in this part of the game.
But there was trouble. I didn't know it then, but its name was APOPHENIA.
Apophenia is: "the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)."
As the participants started searching for the hidden object, on the dirt floor, were little random scraps of wood. How could that be a problem!?
It was a problem because three of the pieces made the shape of a perfect arrow pointing right at a blank wall. It was uncanny. It had to be a clue. The investigators stopped and stared at the wall and were determined to figure out what the clue meant and they were not going one step further until they did. The whole game was derailed....
In most ARG-like games apophenia is the plague of designers and players, sometimes leading participants to wander further and further away from the plot and causing designers to scramble to get them back or (better yet) incorporate their ideas. In role-playing games, ARGs, video games, and really anything where the players have agency, apophenia is going to be an issue....
QAnon is a mirror reflection of this dynamic. Here apophenia is the point of everything. There are no scripted plots. There are no puzzles to solve created by game designers. There are no solutions.
QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe "guided apophenia" is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.
There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality.
There's a lot more, and the whole thing is worth reading. But the most important thing is that the author points out that QAnon has grown beyond its original conspiracy theory to become a kind of incubator of conspiracy-theory thinking, which can then be applied to any new issue that arises—such as an election with a sore loser.
All of this isn't really about politics. Rather, it's a warning of the need for the intellectual discipline that will keep you grounded in reality.
4. The Middle Class Welfare State
It's not new to observe that Democrats are completing a long transformation from the party of the blue-collar "working class" to the party of the white-collar, college-educated upper middle class. There's plenty of evidence that their policy priorities are often those which are more important to the well-off than to the bottom rungs of society.
I can't think of a more perfect example of this than one of the signature policies being floated for the incoming Biden administration: student loan debt forgiveness.
This creates a classic case of moral hazard that punishes anyone who was so foolish as to actually pay back his student debt—and rewards and encourages the bloated institutions that have been sopping up the subsidized student loan money all these years. This is the effect I call the Paradox of Subsidies, and even the New York Times is catching on.
In isolation, the Biden plan would help debtors in a time of crisis. But it would also instantly create a world of student debt winners and losers, divided by an arbitrary date. Or, the precedent of debt cancellation would create an expectation for future jubilees.
The parts of the higher education system that produce the most debt—private, graduate and professional schools—have greatly increased tuition in recent decades. Some online master's degree programs—a lucrative and fast-growing sector that returns 50 percent profit margins to universities and their corporate partners—charge $50,000 or more in annual tuition. How much will they charge if they can effectively promise that the first $10,000 or more will be free?
But don't question a folly, ask only what it accomplishes. In this case, notice who benefits.
[T]he $50,000 across-the-board relief championed by Schumer and Warren is wildly out of synch with the traditional approach of progressive policymaking. Food stamps, for instance, serve households whose median income is about $19,000 a year, and provide $2,300 in value for the average household. Families that claim the Earned Income Tax Credit—the largest cash income support for working families—earn about $36,500; their average annual benefit is about $2,200. The median income of parents of Pell Grant recipients was about $28,800.
By contrast, the median income of households with student loans is $76,400. Even if debt forgiveness were capped at $50,000, according to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, the average benefit to these households would be roughly $26,000.
In sheer magnitude, canceling $50,000 in student debt would rank among the largest transfer programs in US history. At a cost slightly above $1 trillion, it would equal the total amount spent on cash welfare since 1980. And its largest effect would be to improve the finances of college-educated workers.
This is supposed to describe the case against student loan forgiveness, but it actually explains the popularity of the idea among Democrats, who still advocate a welfare state but are tailoring it to benefit their new party "base," middle class college graduates.
5. Our National Emergency of National Emergencies
Given that Democrats are unlikely to control the Senate, student loan forgiveness is being proposed as something President Biden should do by executive order (among other things). This highlights a major failure of Trump-era Republicans: their total lack of interest in reining in executive power.
President Obama spent the final years of his administration scheming to find all the ways he could govern with "a pen and a phone," using executive power to make an end-run around an uncooperative Congress. President Trump came into office and gladly took over all of that authority to use according to his own preferences.
There is a lesson for both parties there, if they care to learn it. Hence a recently floated proposal.
If President-elect Joe Biden is serious about forging a bipartisan consensus in Washington and Senate Republicans are looking for ways to assert power, there is a natural solution. Congress should seek to reclaim powers that the legislative branch has surrendered to the executive, and Biden should agree to return them to their rightful place....
Congress should review and restrict presidential powers to declare national emergencies, bestowed to the executive branch under the 1976 National Emergencies Act and the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
Trump showed how easily these powers could be abused when he declared a "national emergency" in February 2019 as a legal justification for ordering the Armed Forces to build the southern border wall after Congress explicitly refused him the money. Congress twice passed bipartisan resolutions disapproving his declaration, which Trump promptly vetoed, and Congress was unable to override.
In response, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) proposed the ARTICLE ONE Act that would automatically terminate any national emergency after 30 days if Congress does not approve it. Again, this is a long-overdue reform for a problem that pre-dates Trump.
Could this happen? Maybe, just maybe, there is a narrow window of opportunity.
As the Biden administration settles in, the temptation among Democrats to begin using Trump's various abuses as justification for their own will only grow. Republicans should act quickly, while worries of Trump's abuses of power are fresh in Democrats' minds and before Biden finds himself tempted to misuse these powers himself.
Ah, but Barone's Law will assert itself: Nobody opposes the abuse of power when it is being abused to do something they like. If Republicans, who nominally oppose excess government power, couldn't be bothered to rein it in over a period of many decades, it's not likely Democrats are going to do it.