August 2018 gwern.net newsletter with links on genetic engineering, DRL, research quality, security, economics, and 4 book/movie reviews
source; created: 1 Aug 2018; modified: 20 Feb 2020; status: finished; confidence: log; importance: 0
This is the August 2018 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, July 2018 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern/; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
- Nothing completed
Before convenient smallpox vaccines, transmitting cowpox required a human chain of donors, who were infectious for short periods before recovering; Jannetta covers the difficult logistics of this global feat of philanthropy, orchestrated by Jenner, such as the extraordinary Balmis Expedition, which required 22 orphans to carry the pox safely across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. Eventually the narrative reaches Japan where it runs up against the shogunate’s policy of exclusion and minimal Dutch trade. The Dutch governors in Batavia made dutiful efforts, once a year, to ship a serum sample to the Nagasaki outpost where it could be used to infect a volunteer and seed Japanese vaccination, but the pox repeatedly died en route. After a great while, they succeeded and the problem became how to build a critical mass: the shogunate refused to endorse vaccination, but benignly neglected it; in the end, the successful strategy was for the Dutch-educated Japanese doctors to vaccinate their families and the families of their sponsoring daimyo, and by this display of elite aristocratic confidence in the vaccination, the ordinary people would want to imitate them (mimesis!) and gradually be willing to send their children for a stay in the pox clinics and vaccinate other children in turn. (Depressingly, contemporary anti-vaxxers exhibit the same mechanism of following latter-day aristocrats like Hollywood stars.) Many didn’t, but the effect size of vaccination was so large that it could be observed with the naked eye during subsequent smallpox outbreaks, convincing holdouts. Western medicine was already one of the best arguments for opening Japan to foreigners, and the smallpox vaccination surely helped; ironically, the eventual opening of Japan would lead to even more epidemics (as the isolation had been so successful at blocking importation of infectious diseases as well) and the need for formal government public health bureaucracies and official vaccination campaigns.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jannetta’s whole history is the level of existential horror provoked by the sheer casualness and unconcern manifested by almost everyone but “Jennerites”: despite smallpox being a global threat killing >10% of all people, nearly guaranteed and of regular occurrence, preferentially killing children & the aged, and the vaccination indisputably and dramatically effective—one of the greatest silver bullets in the history of medicine—most people… just. didn’t. care. The earlier method of variolation killed around or less than 1%, dramatically less than the usual smallpox mortality of >10%, but was still highly unpopular. Even the people who did something, like the Dutch governors & station-chiefs, often did so in a bizarrely lackadaisical manner: the death toll of smallpox was so well known, and the population of Japan sufficiently numerous, that if they had thought about it for even a few seconds, it would be clear that the cost of each year of delay was on the order of 360,000 lives; but their reaction to the failure of sending one package of cowpox samples to the Nagasaki station was to try the same thing again, the next year, instead of, I don’t know, trying a hundred different kinds of packages simultaneously—or anything resembling a genuine effort. (Suppose your child was dying in front of you, and you had pills which were a cure; you give them one pill, and it doesn’t work. Do you shrug and decide to wait another day before trying again? What would a genuine effort look like?) In a similar vein, Jannetta spends a peculiar amount of space defending Jenner against charges that his cowpox research was unethical and immorally conducted and could not have been approved by an IRB; I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the existence of such criticism, other than to note that if Jenner’s cowpox research would not have been approved by an IRB, that is a sufficient refutation of IRBs, and I seriously wonder whether humanity would still be capable of curing a future equivalent of smallpox. In general, I’m reminded of a tweet about self-driving cars:
“so what did you do before self-driving cars?”
“we just drove ’em ourselves!”
“wow, no one died that way?”
“oh no, millions of people died”
‘So what did everyone do while they were ignoring both variolation & cowpox vaccination for centuries?’ ‘They just endured smallpox epidemics.’ ‘Wow, no one died?’ ‘Oh no, hundreds of millions died.’ (And then there’s the mosquitoes…)
Sometimes people read about a concept like nuclear war, or strong AI, or Effective Altruism, or astronomical waste, and they seem to be unable to deal with it: “surely”, they think, “if it was really that bad or serious, someone would have said so; there would be enormous ongoing efforts to deal with it; surely there isn’t any real risk that nuclear war could kill hundreds of millions or billions of people, or that so many lives are wasted in Africa, or that there could, in general, just be silver bullets sitting around unfired. Humans aren’t like that, we’d fix it! And it’s good to not be reckless or move fast, and be Very Serious People and carefully check that there are no rare malaria-mosquito-eating frogs before we gene drive malaria out of existence and save millions of lives a year. It’s not like delays are really killing millions of people, that’s just alarmist and not serious or respectable!” The history of smallpox shows that none of these comforting assumptions are true; when you fail to do enough, reality doesn’t care and people just die:
In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, ‘If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.’ These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith’s death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood.
Low Aptitude Men in the Military: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Laurence & Ramsberger 1991 (on Project 100,000 and the ASVAB Misnorming)
- Memories of the Space Age, J.G. Ballard (some striking images let down by short stories padding them out; reading them in one sitting, I thought that only 6 stories seemed like a rather short anthology—but it was actually 8 and I had completely confused some of them so much did they overlap, especially the ‘time compression’ theme, which I struggled to see how it related to the Space Age at all and is overwrought. I thought it might provide some examples for my Scanners Live in Vain essay but it all comes off as more of a sublimated reaction to psychedelics than the Space Age. To invert The Martian Chronicles effectively, Ballard would have had to vary the topics much more, gone less into his inexplicable metaphysics of time, and made the stories leaner.)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018; while featuring some of the typically unnecessarily convoluted plotting of the Marvel movies and idiot-ball-holding, Ant-Man pleasantly surprised me with a steady fare of humor and action scenes showing that someone involved once thought for a few seconds about how to effectively use shrink-rays, and didn’t feel like it was 2 hours long)
- Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (one of the most popular anime that season, it drew interest for its low-key lesbian romance/slice-of-life/fantasy mashup; I found it considerably overrated. The same-sex aspect is almost entirely irrelevant and, forgetting that admitting a fault is not fixing that fault, lampshaded numerous times; the pacing was badly timed and early on highly demanding of emotional engagement which it had not remotely earned; the grim-dark fantasy counterpoint to the slice-of-life was too cursory to provide a real contrast or motivation for the eponymous dragon maid; the side characters were one-note and unimaginative caricatures (although the Genshiken-esque pair of side characters might have worked if the series had tried a lot harder), indeed, eventually thoroughly obnoxious. The animation, aside from the care lavished on Tohru’s striking dragon eyes, was serviceable. There are a few nice touches: I was amused to note that the protagonist programs in Python—of course! although Ruby would’ve been almost as appropriate. Overall, boring.)