March 2020


It’s been just 18 days since I last wrote about the coronavirus. Since then, numbers have gone boom.

18 days ago, the US had just under 1000 cases. Today it’s 120,000. Deaths are at 2000.

The Financial Times has had the best charts on the spread. Here’s today’s:

rona-3.28

Now, Lesson One is still it can be worse. Exponential growth will hit you in the ass like that. What if we have another 18 days at that rate?  Quick calculation: 14.4 million cases.

Lesson Two, however, is the cross-country comparison.  The US is way out on top in terms of cases and rate of growth. (USA NUMBER ONE!) The European nations (including the UK) are clustered together. The East Asian countries in cyan have already flattened the curve.

The FT helpfully captions these: “South Korea: huge test-and-trace programme”, “Japan: strong social norms around civil obedience and mask-wearing”, “Singapore: strict quarantine rules & contact tracing”.

Somehow these things work better than Republicans running around denying the virus, comparing it to the flu, gathering in groups, and suggesting that old people should die for the sake of the Dow Jones.

A case in point: Landon Spradlin, a musician/evangelist, posted two weeks ago about how the virus was “mass hysteria” designed to impugn Trump, and said the “Spirit of God” would protect against germs.

He died from the virus on Wednesday.

And this isn’t atypical. Republican governors in the South are countermanding cities’ stay-at-home orders; Sen. Rand Paul, who has the virus, was until his test results came back socializing with other senators and swimming in the Senate pool. (Which is still open, because surely the virus wouldn’t dare infect a Congressman? Five so far are infected.)

I’ve been writing for years about US rightism, and each crisis we go through shows what they don’t believe and what they do. The Reagan era (and every GOP presidency since) showed that they don’t actually care about the deficit, only about low taxes. The Bush era showed that they couldn’t competently run a government. Trump’s election showed the continuing dominance of overt white supremacy. And Covid-19 has shown them happily courting death for themselves and their own constituents.

At the end of my “last century” piece, I predicted “collectivism will come back in a big way… but not for another generation.” That was 20 years ago, and right on time, laissez-faire individualism is imploding and the kids are clamoring for socialism.

I’m not promising that the GOP will collapse.  Far from it: outraged, scared authoritarians are capable of even more sociopathy than usual. But there is nothing magic about Trump’s GOP. It’s been unpopular almost since the inauguration. And more broadly, right-wing states always go too far, indulging themselves till they engineer broad social revulsion. The Depression discredited plutocracy for nearly fifty years. Bush II presided over Katrina and two recessions, and got himself and his party solidly kicked out of power. When things go badly wrong, people don’t descend into Lord of the Flies; they suddenly value community, helping one another, making things work.  A party that has spent the last forty years mocking those things suddenly looks very bad.

(Possible counter-argument: the threat of nuclear war, or climate change, doesn’t seem to do this. Yes, because until they happen they’re abstract and far in the future. People aren’t good at abstract threats.  They respond, however, to direct hardship that affects themselves and their communities.)

Trump has been exceedingly lucky: despite his narcissism and incompetence, the economy has continued growing and he stopped short of going to war. He was never going to perform well in a real crisis, and now we have one and he won’t or can’t.

For a few days Trump seemed to take the virus seriously; and then he made a series of noises about “re-opening the economy” by Easter. Dutifully, the right-wing media amplified this into a new litany. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that old people should die off to protect the economy.  He phrased it as if it was a personal choice and somehow noble, but jesus, people, throwing your old people into the ICU ward to die is not noble, it’s genocidal. Suicidal, too, since those are his party’s key voters.

Less apocalyptically, people have worried about how the crisis ends… we can’t keep cooped up at home for months on end, can we?  Well, the direct answer is, yes we can— we just passed a $2 trillion bill to keep people and more importantly corporations going, and as Matt Yglesias likes to say, we can make the money machine go brr. But it can be useful to go over once again why we’re at home.

  • To slow the spread of the virus. If you’re at home, you’re not catching it or passing it on. (The really insidious thing about Covid-19 is that it can be spread for days by asymptomatic people.)
  • To keep the health care system from imploding. We don’t have enough ICU beds, enough ventilators, enough frigging face masks. Doctors and nurses are worn ragged in Lombardy and Seattle and New York. And when the ICU is filled up with Covid-19 patients, that can be fatal to anyone coming in with a regular old heart attack.
  • To buy us time. We need tests in huge quantities. We need a contagion tracing regime. We need to build up health care capacity. We need to look at possible cures.

I distrust any piece of punditry that ends “…and therefore we must suffer a few million deaths.”  Just don’t go there, even if you’re really concerned about the Dow Jones. And even more so, don’t go there just because you can’t see an alternative.

The alternative is staring us in the face, in that chart above: control the freaking virus, as South Korea has, using South Korea’s methods.

The Financial Times has stumbled on something that doesn’t just explain a few data points, but the crises and opportunities of the next decades: that little point about “strong social norms.” Ultra-individualism and predatory capitalism aren’t working out so well. Maybe we should try some of those strong social norms.

Those norms might prove useful in other areas, you know, like climate change. Slate has an article that points out that the virus is making people do away with a lot of bullshit: being unable to carry 12 oz. bottles of things on planes; jailing people for minor offenses; using the police for evictions; turning off the water for hardship; throttling the Internet to motivate tiered pay plans. If it turns out that bullshit isn’t necessary in a crisis… why was it ever necessary?

There’s a million things to say, but I’ll just add one more.  People work hard to avoid a repeat of a disaster they themselves experienced. So, world wars were avoided for a century after Napoleon; plutocracy was discredited for 50 years after Hoover; Naziism was universally condemned for 50 years after Hitler. As soon as the people who experienced a disaster are dead (or in nursing homes), however, people are ready to repeat the errors.

We had a global pandemic— a century ago. The influenza epidemic ended up killing 50 to 100 million people, far more than World War I did directly. A lot of the same measures were used, such as school closures and prohibitions on large gatherings. And a lot of the same mistakes were made: many cities lifted the prohibitions, only to see a huge spike in deaths.

So: the basic situation isn’t new, it’s just forgotten. And a lot of people are misreacting because they just don’t have a framework for this. Some people think we need to defy the virus, go out and mingle, because that’s what we were supposed to do after 9/11. The virus isn’t 9/11; it’s not a terrorist who wants to cause fear and disruption. It doesn’t care about your fear or defiance. What it wants is large gatherings of victims; don’t indulge it.

Anyway… stay safe, stay sane, take walks, good luck when you have to go out. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself, may I suggest creating a conlang?

 

I’m reading the Talmud right now. It’s good coronavirus reading since there’s 37 volumes in the 1886 Vilna edition. (I am not reading that edition.  I’m reading a one-volume, 800-page selection, translated by Norman Solomon.)

To get you in the mood, here’s a lovely scholarly putdown from the Talmud:

If you learned [Scripture] you did not review it; if you reviewed it you did not go over it a third time; if you went over it a third time they never explained it to you.

You probably know that for many Jews, lifelong study in a yeshiva is the highest aspiration. What are they studying, the Bible?  Not really– it doesn’t take years to read the Bible. They’re studying the Talmud. Here’s the first page of the Vilna edition:

talmud2

This page has been helpfully color-coded.

  • The pink in the middle is the Mishna (3C)
  • The orange just below it is the gemara (6C), the Babylonian rabbis’ discussion of the Mishna. The pink + orange is the Talmud proper
  • The cyan column to the right is the commentary of Rashi (11C, France)
  • The blue to the left is the commentary of the Tosafists (Rashi’s successors)
  • The yellow is commentary by Nissim ben Jacob (11C)
  • The other colors are cross-references and other helps

And there’s 5500 more pages like that. You can see it’d take awhile to absorb.

So, what is it? Well, the rabbis believed there was an “Oral Torah” which accompanied and explained the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, rabbis gathered in yeshivot, first in Yavne near Jerusalem and later in Galilee, to codify the Oral Torah. It was finally written down (edited by Judah ha-Nasi) in the 3C; this is the Mishna.

An example. Exodus gives instructions for Passover: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

Now, if you want to take this seriously… and, let’s be honest, if you have a pedantic mindset… this raises a lot of questions. First, do you remove the leaven the first day, or the day before that? The Mishna comments:

This [Ex. 12:15] means on the eve of the festival. Or could it mean on the first day of the festival itself?  No, for it is written, “you shall not slaughter my sacrifice with leaven.” ….But Rabbi Aqiva says, This is not necessary. It says “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your house”, and it is written, “No work shall be done on those days”; since burning is a principal category of forbidden work, it is clear that the removal of ħametz [food with leaven] should not take place on the festival day itself.

Now, even this wasn’t considered enough by the rabbis. They kept talking for a few more centuries, both in Palestine and in Babylonia, where there was a large community of Jews safe from Roman persecution (whether pagan or Christian). The result was two Talmuds, though the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud is both more thorough and more authoritative. It was finally written down in the 6C. It took a few more centuries to get to Europe.

Here’s a sampling of the discussion of the above point:

Evidently, [Meir and Judah] both agree that it is forbidden to eat ħametz after the 6th hour [of 14 Nisan, the day before Passover]. On what is this based?

Abbaye said, on two verses. One states, “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days”, and the other states, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.” What does this imply? The 14th of Nisan is added to remove ħametz.

…It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “We find that the 14th is called first, as it is said, “In the first, on the 14th day of the month.” Rav Naħman bar Isaac said, “First may mean previous, as when Scripture says “Were you the first of men to be born?” [Job 15:7]

Then what about “You shall take for yourselves on the first day”? Can that mean the previous day? That is different, for it continues, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”; just as the 7th day must be the 7th of the festival, so the 1st day is the first of the festival.

Oh dear, and they’re not done yet. They go on to analyze why “first” has a definite article and what that means, and the use of “first” elsewhere in the Bible. They conclude that indeed you must remove the leaven on the 14th, because burning it on the 15th would be work, which is forbidden. (Which is what the Mishna had already concluded.)

After this there’s a discussion of what to do if there are two houses that are already pure, and a mouse takes a bundle of ħametz, but we don’t know which house it entered. They discuss variations on this for several pages.

Isn’t this faintly ridiculous?  Well, the Talmud isn’t above telling jokes. But it’s a thought experiment, no sillier (and perhaps no more serious) than modern ethicists telling stories about trolleys.

The yeshivot had masters and students, but proceeded by argument and discussion. This is reproduced in both Mishna and Talmud, but it’s an artful editorial creation: the rabbis mentioned lived in different times and centuries. Sometimes the issue is resolved, and sometimes it’s not– Elijah would rule on all the unresolved issues when he came. I like the way that disagreements are recorded– even if a point is resolved, it’s a reminder that things will look different to different sages. It’s evident that the compilers relished a juicy rejoinder or a clever bit of logic.

Linguistic note: the Torah and Mishna are written in Hebrew; the Gemara is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time. So you need to know both languages to study the Talmud. (And even so the discussion can be difficult, which is where Rashi is invaluable.)

Now, the rabbis believed that the Mishna might be mistaken, but the Torah itself was inerrant. This led to a good number of problems, which were faced and addressed:

It is written, “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly” (Proverbs 26:4), and it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his folly (26:5). No problem! One verse refers to matters of Torah, the other to worldly things.

That seems like a stretch, but often the rabbis are pretty free with their interpretations… if a verse anywhere in the Tanakh sounds vaguely appropriate they’ll cite it. A particularly freewheeling example: Abba Arika is discussing astrology, and recounts a discussion between Abraham and God. Abraham says (this is not in the Tanakh!) that his horoscope says he won’t have a son. God replies that if Abraham’s belief is based on Jupiter being in the west, he (God) can move Jupiter to the east. The citation is Isaiah 41:2: “Who has roused a victor from the East, summoned him to His service?” Huh?  As it happens, ṣedeq ‘victory’ is also the name for Jupiter!

The Talmud can be charmingly digressive– e.g. a discussion of the Sabbath leads into this discussion of whether astrology is true (the best rabbis say that it doesn’t apply to Jews). In the middle of the discussion of Passover, the rabbis are suddenly insulting “ignoramuses” (those Jews who didn’t take the Law seriously) and discussing the benefits or disadvantages of marrying a priest’s daughter.

Or, there’s this nice story contrasting Shammai and Hillel, teachers in the -1 to 1C:

A heathen presented himself to Shammai saying, Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg! Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measure he was holding.

He came to Hillel with the same request, and Hillel accepted him as a convert.He said to him, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you! That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

Now, the statement of the Golden Rule is elevating and all that, but the piquancy comes from Hillel’s evasion of the pagan’s trap (teach the Torah in a few moments), as well as the contrast to the irascible Shammai. (Rabbinic Judaism goes with Hillel in the few instances where they disagree, thus the slightly negative picture of Shammai here.)

I’m reading about the Talmud and about Judaism as research for my book on the ancient Middle East. And really, I’m surprised the Talmud is so little known or studied outside Judaism. For one thing, it’s one of the largest troves of literature from its time… we can only dream of a similarly voluminous text from Babylonia or Egypt. (As I’ve noted before, you can read almost all of ancient Egyptian literature in three short volumes.)

The other thing is undoubtedly Christianity’s uneasy relationship with Judaism. Christians read the “Old Testament” basically with the idea that they can ignore the Law… except on those issues where they can use it to support a prejudice of theirs. (E.g. they carefully read the prohibition on male homosexuality, and ignore the bits on forgiving debts.) The overall result is that Christians are very interested in Jews… up till the lifetime of Paul, and after that not at all, except for the occasional persecution.

And the result of that is that I think most Christians imagine that the Jews “just have the Old Testament”– that their religion is focused on the Tanakh as Christianity is focused on the New Testament. No, there’s this whole Talmud thing too!

(It’s more complicated than that, of course. There were those that rejected the Talmud, such as the Karaites. There’s Kaballah, which adds a whole mystical element. And the chaos of modernity, which was as disruptive to Judaism as it was to literalist Christianity.)

There is one group of non-Jews that study the Talmud. That’s… South Koreans, where study and discussion of (a simplified, translated) Talmud is a big craze.

 

You know what you could do to pass the time at home during the pandemic?  Minecraft! Specifically, Skyblock.

I wanted to write about this more because I’ve gotten further than I ever thought I would. I figured I could never defeat the dragon alone. But look!

mc wings

Oh yeah, dig those elytra. They are way addictive, and fortunately I learned how to repair them, with phantom membranes.  In the early game, before I had a bed, I hated phantoms– nasty creatures that put the mare into the night. Now it’s like, come at me bro, I need your membranes.

Plus you get such a good view:

mc vista

The End is pretty freaky, and fortunately it isn’t skyblocked.  I say fortunately because I lost my spare pair of elytra and had to find another End City to get another pair. I got some other great loot there, but the best thing besides the elytra is shulker boxes and ender chests– the closest you can come to extra inventory slots.  Plus the first diamonds I got in Skyblock.

With wings, I was able to take this place on:

mc mansion

That of course is a Woodland Mansion… basically three floors of monsters, including some specially nasty ones– evokers, which create dangerous flying monsters. In Skyblock, the most valuable thing here is the mansion itself, a treasure trove of wood and bookshelves.

Besides this, I’ve been working on the advancements list. This involved learning some new things, such as: in Skyblock, husks drop sand and drowneds drop clay. Great!  But how do we get husks and drowneds?  Well, husks spawn in the desert, so you find the desert and build a mob farm. For drowneds you need an ocean, so you can build one. (There is also an Ocean Monument, but that’s a scary place and I haven’t taken it on yet.)  Sand and clay allow you to take on a very time-consuming challenge: create wool, concrete, and terracotta blocks in each of the 16 possible colors. I just got that one today.

If you’re at all interested in Skyblock, I recommend Impulse & Skizzleman’s series. They know what they’re doing, and I learned a lot from it. They create all sorts of machines to do the work, and you can download the initial and final maps.

I may be close to done on this run, but I’ve thought that before.  I have to express some admiration for Minecraft: it’s really surprisingly deep, yet it’s simple on the surface, and you can have fun not knowing 90% of what’s there. You can learn as you go. Though kind of sadly, you’ll have to learn most of that arcana from the wiki or Youtube; there’s no in-game way to learn e.g. what a particular object can be used for.

But then: there’s also Borderlands 3, which is now out on Steam, and 50% off for the next few days…

It turns out that a global pandemic is one situation where you really don’t want a narcissistic thug as president– a man whose first instinct is to lie, and whose second and third instinct is to lie again, differently.

The basic situation is that the Covid19 coronavirus is highly infectious even when people don’t show symptoms, and has a fairly high mortality rate, especially for people over 65. That means things can go south extremely quickly. Three weeks ago, Italy had 3 cases; now it has over 10,000, with 600 deaths, hospitals are overwhelmed (80% of hospital beds are virus victims) and the entire country is quarantined.

You can have a success story with coronavirus: Taiwan, which has extensive contacts with China and yet just 45 cases.  Or even South Korea, which has had 7500 cases, but is managing to reverse the tendency for new cases to skyrocket. Both countries were prepared for pandemics, took contract tracing and social distancing seriously, and were honest to the public.

By contrast, what has Donald Trump, darling of the GOP, done?

  • Two years ago, fired the person in charge of pandemic readiness, and his team, and never replaced them.
  • Cut the CDC’s global epidemic prevention budget by 80%.
  • Kept testing catastrophically low.  As of March 8, South Korea had tested 189,000 people; the US, 1700. Test kits are in short supply and test labs are backed up. When you hear that the US has had 971 cases (as of today), bear in mind that we just don’t know the total number of cases because we’re barely testing.
  • Lied about the severity of the disease.
  • Lied about it being contained.
  • Encouraged people with the virus to go to work, spreading it further.
  • Lied about the number of tests available.
  • Lied that the coronavirus is just like “the flu.” Coronavirus’s mortality rate is about 20 times that of the flu. (The flu’s rate is 0.1%; WHO has estimated coronavirus’s at 3.6%. But in China, it was 14.8% for people 80 or older.)
  • Misled people about how quickly a vaccine can be produced. (It could take a year or more.)
  • Been more concerned about “the markets” and his own popularity than in combating a public health crisis.

Add to all this the economic world the GOP’s plutocracy has created, in opposition to every other advanced nation: poor health care, limited or nonexistent sick days, a gig economy where people can’t afford to stay home. All of this suddenly matters very much when there’s a dangerous, contagious virus running around.

See here for a good interview with an outbreak preparedness expert on why the president needs to step up in a crisis like this, as Obama did, as Trump is unable or unwilling to.

None of this denial is necessary, or makes sense at all. A national emergency can actually prop up a president– just ask Dubya Bush after 9/11. Democrats would not be somehow enabled if the president had beefed up rather than gutted preparedness, made tests available, told the truth about how to contain the disease.

The rest of the GOP propaganda engine, of course, is falling in line behind the lies. Fox News is downplaying the virus; the online idiots are contributing conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories are just stupid froth, but they’re a symptom of the underlying disinformation: it no longer matters where the virus came from, and they don’t even realize it. That ship has sailed. When Ted Cruz is in quarantine because he’s been exposed to a conservative American at a conservative conference in America– it’s just beside the point to indulge in anti-Chinese racism, or talk about closing the borders. The virus is now inside the house. Also, inside the House.

The irony is that the people most at risk from the GOP’s lies are the GOP supporters themselves.

  • Older people, who strongly skew GOP, are the most at risk of dying from coronavirus. If you want to keep your elder relatives alive, keep them from gathering in groups, and turn off their damn Fox News.
  • GOP loyalists get most of their news from Fox, Rush Limbaugh, or others spreading the lie that the virus is mild and nothing to be afraid of– and therefore they will be failing to wash hands, failing to avoid crowds, going to work when sick, and spreading the disease among themselves.

The large point about authoritarianism is simply that this sort of stupidity is not an accident. It’s what authoritarianism naturally produces. When a party rejects experts, rejects the ordinary functions of government, rejects everything the opposition says, it makes itself stupid. And eventually it causes this sort of incompetent meltdown.

Authoritarians see themselves as efficient and tough, and when luck is with them they can make other people think the same thing. But when you prize loyalty to the Leader over the truth, and persecute the messengers bearing any other message… well, eventually the truth wins.

That isn’t to say that authoritarians aren’t dangerous. They’re supremely dangerous. But their own system undermines itself, and leaves the system unprotected when a really severe crisis occurs. It’s up to fate whether that gets them kicked out of office in a few years like Dubya, or hung from a tree after causing millions of deaths, like Mussolini, or dying in a pool of their own urine after exiling all the competent doctors, like Stalin.

Edit: I don’t want to liveblog the pandemic, but the stupid keeps coming. Just today, Trump’s budget guy is still proposing a 15% cut to the CDC, and Trump lied that “the Wall” would prevent the spread of the virus.

I also should mention why we do all this “social distancing” (keeping people at home as much as possible). The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent all exposure, though it helps. It’s to spread out the cases, so the health care system can take care of them. When huge numbers are sick all at once, the system is overloaded and burns out.

I’m writing a grammatical sketch of Biblical Hebrew for the Middle East Construction Kit, and I could use someone who knows Biblical Hebrew.

Basically I need some proofreading of morphological tables, some help glossing Hebrew non-Bible inscriptions, and the ability to produce syntactic variants of Bible verses.

That is: I can take most of my sample sentences from the Tanakh. But it’s very useful to show close variants of a sentence. E.g. “The woman is very beautiful” (2 Sam. 11) might be contrasted with “The woman is not very beautiful”, “Is the woman very beautiful?”, etc. (I do have grammars and such, but I want to make sure my examples are correct, and not filled with student-level errors!)

As ever, I’m markrose at zompist dot com.

Jeffrey’s book, Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, is out!

File photo of Jeffrey conlanging

Well, the print edition has been out for a couple weeks, but the Kindle edition is finally out too. The Kindle Create program was not cooperative. First, it refused to import the base document, so I had to import a plain text version and redo all the formatting. And then the program got slower and slower till it was almost unusable. It’s fine for touchups but not so good for actually formatting your book.

But never mind that, it’s done! Admire the editing, and Jeffrey’s work too! Did I mention how much groovy Fith is?  And the lovingly satirical Tev’Meckian?  And bask in over a thousand conlangs which will make 2005 live for you once again.

I’ve finally opened a file for “things to add to the Syntax Construction Kit, 2nd edition.”  Because syntax keeps happening. I’ll give you two examples, both of which come from my board.

Gapping with pronouns

Ser pointed out that you can say

I thought I could save you, and you me.

Now, this is an instance of Gapping (p. 305). The interesting bit is when you compare it to French, where you can’t do it:

*J’ai pensé que j’ai pu te sauver, et tu m’.

I think you can say “…et toi moi”, but that’s the point: je and te are no longer independent words, but clitics or even affixes on the verb. Ser also pointed out another fact leading to the same conclusion: you can’t coordinate the verb alone, as in

*Je t’écoute et aide.
I hear and help you.

You have to say Je t’écoute et je t’aide. Though Je t’écoute et t’aide is acceptable, suggesting that the object pronouns are more firmly fixed to the verb than the subjects.

(There is other evidence too, such as the difficulty of adding any other material within the French verbal complex. People often resist this concept, because the spaces in the written language make the morphemes feel like separate words!)

Can + aspects

I wrote a lot in the SCK about the English verbal complex, but Xwtek pointed out a restriction I wasn’t aware of, namely that can + perfect is disallowed:

The snakes should have coordinated with the city.
The snakes may have coordinated with the city.
The snakes could have coordinated with the city.
*The snakes can have coordinated with the city.

Your first thought might be that this is a semantic restriction. But the negative is fine:

The snakes can’t have coordinated with the city.

What about other aspects?  Can + passive is OK: I can be persuaded.

Can + progressive seems tricky:

?I can be going to Vyat right now.
While you sand that down, I can be thinking about the next step.

Why this should be, I have no idea! But it’s pretty neat that after sixty years of syntactic study, the English verbal complex holds a few more mysteries.