Fascinating

There’s a side-topic I’m trying to avoid (badly) covering mainly because it is 80% changing the subject from the actually topic du-jour i.e. shitty behaviour by authors in SFF and comics towards other people — mainly (but not limited to) sexual harassment and sexually exploitative behaviour. I more than alluded to it in this post because of the 20% of it that isn’t changing the subject (shitty behaviour in a community and how a community should respond without itself being shitty).

This post isn’t the post that I’m not writing but just a note to myself. The note is simply* pointing at a recent Mad Genius Club post by Dave Freer: https://madgeniusclub.com/2020/06/29/a-bonfire-of-vanities/ Which is fascinating in that it clearly is inspired by the current events in the science fiction community but is very firmly centred on the 80% changing the subject aspect of it.

That is fascinating. Put another way, people who we know have been demonstrably and outspokenly hostile to well being, peace and prosperity of the science fiction community would really like to change the subject from powerful male authors (none of whom they like, indeed Myke Cole is actively hated by the Puppies) being held to account.

*[OK not “simply” because I couldn’t help editorialising.]

Back to Flint

A follow up to yesterday’s post. One rabbit-hole I had to stop myself running down was Eric Flint’s 2015 post THE DIVERGENCE BETWEEN POPULARITY AND AWARDS IN FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. Eric Flint, often cast as the token left-winger of Baen’s stable, tread a difficult line during the Debarkle with many of his colleagues or professional collaborators (e.g. Dave Freer) very much advocating the Sad Puppy line. Flint’s overall position could be described as conceding that there was some sort of issue with the Hugo Awards but disagreeing with the tactic and rhetoric of the Sad Puppies and the underlying causes of the problem.

Flint’s diagnosis of the issue is explained in the post I linked to and can be summarised by this proposition:

“the Hugos (and other major F&SF awards) have drifted away over the past thirty years from the tastes and opinions of the mass audience”

This was not a post-hoc reaction to the Debarkle but a view he had held for several years:

Here’s the history: Back in 2007, I wound up (I can’t remember how it got started) engaging in a long email exchange with Greg Benford over the subject of SF awards. Both of us had gotten a little exasperated over the situation, which is closely tied to the issue of how often different authors get reviewed in major F&SF magazines.

[some punctuation characters have been cleaned up -CF]

Flint goes on to describes the issues he had trying to substantiate the feeling. He acknowledges that the basic issue with any simple analysis to corroborate his impression is that sales data is not readily available or tractable. He goes on to attempt to address that deficit of data in other ways. However, regardless of of his method (how much space book stores dedicate to given writers) his approach only address one part of what is actually a two part claim:

  • There is a current disparity between popularity of authors and recognition of authors in the Hugo Award.
  • Thirty years ago this was not the case (or was substantially less).

Now I have even less access to sales data than Flint and publishing has changed even further since even 2015. Nor do I have any way of travelling back to 1985 (or 1977) to compare book stores then with the Hugo Awards. Flint’s claim is far to subject to impressions and confirmation bias to really get a handle on. I could counter Flint’s more anecdotal evidence of current (at the time) big genre sellers unrecognised by the Hugo Awards with examples form 1985. An obvious one would Jean M. Auel’s whose Clan of the Cave Bear series was selling bucket load in the early 80’s and beyond (The Mammoth Hunters would have been cluttering up book stores in 1985). A more high-brow megaseller from 1985 would be Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s Contact, which, again, did not make into the Hugo list of finalists. Yet, these counter-examples lack bite because the Hugo’s missing a couple of books don’t demonstrate that Flint’s impression is wrong even if they help demonstrate that his evidence for the current (as of 2015 or 2007*) is weak.

However, Flint does go on to make a different kind of argument by using the example of Orson Scott Card:

“With the last figure in the group, of course,Orson Scott Card,we find ourselves in the presence of a major award-winner. Card has been nominated for sixteen Hugo awards and won four times, and he was nominated for a Nebula on nine occasions and won twice. And he was nominated for a World Fantasy Award three times and won it once.
But…
He hasn’t been nominated for a WFC in twenty years, he hasn’t been nominated for a Nebula in eighteen years, and hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo in sixteen years. And he hasn’t won any major award (for a piece of fiction) in twenty years.
This is not because his career ended twenty years ago. To the contrary, Card continues to be one of our field’s active and popular authors. What’s really happened is that the ground shifted out from under him – not as far as the public is concerned, but as far as the in-crowds are concerned. So, what you’re really seeing with Orson Scott Card’s very impressive looking track record is mostly part of the archaeology of our field, not its current situation. As we’ll see in a moment, the situation is even more extreme with Anne McCaffrey and almost as bad with George R.R. Martin.

[some punctuation characters have been cleaned up -CF]

Well this is more tractable. We can track authors over time through the Hugo Awards and we can look at what we might call ‘windows’ in which they receive awards. So that’s what I did. I grabbed list of Hugo finalists for the story categories (novel, novella, novelette, short story), put them in a big spreadsheet, cleaned up all sorts of things as per usual and went to have a look.

I’ll save a lot of the data for another post. There are two big issues with looking at the data over time. The first is that there are built in patterns to the data that show changes overtime that arise just out of the data being collected. Back in 1953 a Hugo finalist could only possibly have been nominated that once. Likewise a first time Hugo finalist in 2020 has a hard limit on the span of years between their first and last Hugo nomination.

A different issue is exemplified by this grouping of data where span of years if the difference between the first year an author was a Hugo finalist to the last year.

Span of YearsTotal
0201
1 to 576
6 to 1035
11 to 1527
16 to 2021
21 to 2517
26 to 309
31 to 357
36 to 402
fee-fi-fo-fum I smell the blood of a power-law distributi-um

More than half of the data set are one-hit wonders because everybody’s first go as a finalist is a one-hit wonder until they get their next one. That’s quite a healthy sign IMHO but I digress. 70% of the authors are in 0 to 5 year span but there a small number of authors who have large time spans of nominations. The top two being George RR Martin and Isaac Asimov (38 years and 36 years). This kind of data is not summarised well by arithmetic means.

I’ll save some of the geekier aspects for another time. Is there a shift in some of these spans recently? Maybe but both the structural issues with the data and (ironically) the Debarkle itself make it hard to spot.

What we can do though is look at specific cases and Orson Scott Card is a great example. He’s great because he undeniably fell out of favour with people by being an enormous arse and we can corroborate that externally from this data set. However! EVEN GIVEN THAT the table of groupings I posted shows us something that severely undermines Flint’s point.

Card’s Hugo span (last year as finalist minus first year as a finalist) is 14 years. That puts him in the top 14% of writers by Hugo span. Card has been very far from being short changed compared to other authors. These are his 14 year-span companions:

FinalistMin of YearMax of Year
C. M. Kornbluth19591973
Dan Simmons19902004
James Blish19561970
Joan D. Vinge19781992
Orson Scott Card19781992
Robert J. Sawyer19962010

Note that the group is from multiple decades. The broader 11-15 group includes writers like Frank Herbert, China Miéville, C. M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, and John Scalzi. Now Miéville and Scalzi might still extend their span (as might Card but probably not).

Flint goes on to suggest that awards get more literary over time and maybe they do but looking at the data I think Flint is sort of seeing a phenomenon but misreading what it is.

I would suggest instead that Awards favour a sweet-spot of novelty. A work that is too out-there won’t garner enough support quickly enough to win awards. A work that is too like stuff people have seen before isn’t going to win awards either — almost by definition, if we are saying ‘this book is notable’ it has to stand out from other books. For the Sad Puppies or even the LMBPN Nebula slate, this was apparent in works that struggled to differentiate themselves from other stories in an anthology or another book in a series. Jim Butcher’s Skin Game (to pick a Debarkle example) was just another book in his long running series and not even a particularly good episode.

The same applies to some degree for authors. I am not saying John Scalzi will never win another Hugo Award but I don’t expect him to even though I think he’ll be writing good, entertaining sci-fi for many years. This is not because he’s not sufficiently left-wing for current Hugo voters but because we’ve read lots of John Scalzi now and sort of know what to expect.

A future equivalent of Eric Flint in 2036 may look back to 2006 and say “Back in the day the Hugos used to reward popular authors like John Scalzi. Look at the virtual-cyber shelf on Googlazon and you’ll see rows of Scalzi books up to his latest ‘Collapsing Old Red Shirt 23: Yogurt’s Revenge’ – why don’t the Hugo’s give him rockets any more!”**

The Hugo’s move on, it is true but they have repeatedly picked out not exactly brand new talent but authors when they are at a sweet spot of their careers. Yes some have much longer Hugo spans but they are unusual and many are the sci-fi giants of yore and others are people with long gaps between nominations.

Card actually had a good run but even without his more giant-arsehole like antics, it is very unlikely that he would have got a Hugo nomination any time soon. Note, for example, that Card has not yet been a Dragon Award finalist despite having eligible novels and despite the Dragons (championed by Flint) as supposedly addressing the popularity issue.

*[Or 2020, as I don’t think Flint has said everything is fine now.]

**[I suspect future John Scalzi will be more inventive than just rehashing his former hits but also I think he’d actually be quite brilliant at writing a parody pastiche of his own work.]

Sci-fi, Libertarians, Heinlein and other stuff

I got bored with my previous habit of checking on the clumsy articles at Quillette — the online magazine for people who want to be reassured that reactionary ideas are really quite nice if you stand on your head and squint at them for long enough. However, a recent article crossed into multiple aspects of my interests that I really thought I should write about it. Entitled “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” (https://quillette.com/2020/06/12/the-libertarian-history-of-science-fiction/) it is not a particularly great examination of the topic but not so blisteringly awful as to be funny. In responding to it I appear to have gone off in many directions and have used many words and long run on sentences. So more after the fold…

There really are free lunches

Certantibus in medio catulorum: May 2015

I mangled Latin using Google Translate when I put together a timeline of the Puppy Debarkle. The problem is, I have no idea what I was trying to say with some of these tags, other than to give sections of the timeline a portentous feel. I think maybe it was an attempt at “certainly this is the middle” but who knows?

Perhaps a better tag would have been a Latin version of “it is all over bar the shouting”. In truth, all the core arguments had been made about the attempt to game the votes of the 2015 Hugo Awards. The shouty part was still going but despite the noise even that was dying down. The constructive part i.e. voting reform was well under way.

The shouting would continue but much of it would wait until next month. Irene Gallo’s comment on Facebook characterising the two Puppy groups as “extreme right wing to neo-nazi, respectively” sat unremarked during May. Weeks later, Vox Day would use the comment to keep the pot boiling. It was a clever tactic on his part and drawn from GamerGate: keep the angst high, escalate the argument and give people something to do i.e. boycott Tor Books.

Gallo’s comment would even draw some criticism from parties beyond the Puppies (Eric Flint for example in this disappointing post). Now? It seems very tame. From key Sad Puppies we’ve since seen more aggressive anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment, we’ve seen tolerance of genocide, extreme anti-Roma prejudice, endorsement of authoritarian regimes and policies and encouragement of violence against protestors and politicians for having the views they don’t approve of. To what extent that was reflected in broader Sad Puppy support back in 2015 we’ll never know but “extreme right wing” was putting it mildly and “neo-nazi” as a term remains a case of distinguishing small kangaroos from large wallabies. Ironically Flint’s post would have seemed a sensible move on his part, attempting to heal a growing fracture but as a Marxist he really should have spotted that the fracture was far deeper than a spat amid one community but rather part of deep social divisions becoming more manifest.

  • 2015/5/1 Voting opens for the Hugo Awards [124]
  • 2015/5/2 On File 770 Juliette Wade provides an account of how Brad Torgersen invited onto Sad Puppies 3 and why she later withdrew. Brad disputes her account in the comments. [125]
  • 2015/5/4 Brad Torgersen implies on Twitter than John Scalzi is gay. Scalzi replies saying “If Brad Torgersen wants to insult me, insinuating I’m gay won’t work. It’s not an insult to be gay. Be an insult to be a Sad Puppy, however.” Torgersen later apologizes. [126]
  • 2015/5/6 Alexandra Erin reviews “The Little Prince” in character as John Z. Upjohn, USMC (Aspired) – a satirical Puppy commentator [127]
  • 2015/5/7 Vox Day describes himself as ‘the leader of Gamergate’. [128]
  • 2015/5/10 John Scalzi posts an essay on why he regards the Hugos as not broken. “the flaw is fixable by addressing the nomination process so that a) slating is made more difficult, while b) the fundamental popular character of the Hugos (i.e., anyone can vote and nominate) is retained. There are a number of ways to do this (the simplest would be to allow folks to nominate three works/people in each category and have six finalist slots on the ballot; there are more complicated ways as well), but the point is that there are options.” [129]
  • 2015/5/11 Tor Creative Director Irene Gallo posts a message on her personal Facebook page that describes the Sad and Rabid Puppies as “extreme right wing to neo-nazi, respectively”. The comment goes unremarked beyond her Facebook page at the time. [130]
  • 2015/5/12 At Making Light, Keith ‘Kilo’ Watts posts the wording of a proposal for the Hugo Awards to adopt a single divisible vote with least popular eliminated system (SDV-LPE) [131]
  • 2015/5/14 The Sad Puppy 4 blog goes online with a post from Amanda S Green promising that on September 3 ‘more goodies to end Puppy-Related Sadness will start appearing here’ [132]
  • 2015/5/18 Hugo Packet (a collection of nominated works made free to members) is released online for members. [133]
  • 2015/5/19 At Making Light the name ‘E Pluribus Hugo’ is first suggested by Joshua Kronengold, as a name for the SDV-LPE proposal, [134]
  • 2015/5/24 A $3.4 million deal between Tor and John Scalzi is announced. [135]
  • 2015/5/26 At Making Light a thread starts on finalising the wording of the E Pluribus Hugo proposal [136]

Blogiversary: Greatest Hits

Five years of all this nonsense but what nonsense were people reading and when? I’m down here in the archive stacks of Felapton Towers and blowing the dust off the weird old filing cabinets to find out. These posts are just the numbers-game hits rather than special favourites and often other factors drove the traffic to them.

2015

The first year out for the blog and Puppy-kerfuffling was already in full on kerfluff.

2016

2016 was the year that the unreality field started spilling out everywhere.

2017

2017 was dominated by Rabid Puppy shenanigans. In particular Vox Day’s spoiler campaign for John Scalzi’s new sci-fi trilogy.

2018

I was downloading a report from an online database the other day and I was entering a date range. I wanted to cover the whole set of records which started in 2011. So I picked 2011/1/1 as the start date and that day’s date which I typed as 2018/5/8. What? I think my brain stopped updating the year and I’ve been stuck in 2018 ever since.

The reality dysfunction was going full-on as world politics got even stranger. Meanwhile this blog was forced into self-referentiality as I got caught up in my own Sad Puppy kerbungle and then later became a Hugo Finalist.

2019

At the very start of January 2019 I considered winding down the blog. Later I decided to post something every day. I’m fickle. Surprisingly, it was the Nebula Awards that drove traffic to the blog.

2020

The year isn’t finished yet but it started on fire and followed up with a global pandemic. This is a first-quarter list but I think some of the themes for the year are clear…

Larry Correia bullshits about anti-infection measures

To be fair to the ÜberPuppy (and I do try to be fair) he’s largely avoided some of the worst nonsense of his erstwhile colleagues. Some of his posts on the topic of covid-19 have even verged on the sensible. He’s not the one we can expect quack cures or the more outlandish conspiracy theories from. However, when his ‘side’ keeps repeatedly making fools of themselves, there’s a point where he can’t just taking it any more and has to find a way to argue that no-no-its-the-left-that-are-the-stupidheads.

Today he is attempting to defend the Hoyt-style anti-lockdown protestors by linking their demands with the potential of pandemic-related famine in third-world nations.

“But don’t worry, if millions of poor people starve in the third world now, the same smug fucks who’ve been yelling at us to shut down everything for the last couple of months will take zero blame for that. I’m willing to bet that when/if this happens, they’ll still be out there, signalling their virtue from their comfy homes, because They Care So Hard.”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/04/23/perspective/

Says Larry, busy signalling his virtue from his comfy home. Despite never showing much concern for the food security of third-world nations, now the people of the developing world have a new champion in Larry Correia. Not that he has any solution to the possible food shortages other than vaguely attacking people who are criticising other people who want an end to the US measures (endorsed by a conservative federal government) designed to limit the impact of the pandemic.

“But that’s okay. You guys with the spicy memes, and your work from home jobs, and savings in the bank, just keep on pretending that everything is simple. Right/wrong, good/evil, black/white, your shit don’t stink, and anybody who disagrees with your hot take, well it can only be because they’re a fool. That guy who lost his job, business, and is worried about losing his house, or how he’s gonna feed his kids? He’s dumb. You’re the real champion.”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/04/23/perspective/

And so on. Rather like the “comfy home” jibe, the response is remarkably self-descriptive. While trying to avoid overtly supporting the anti-lockdown protests (so he can later say that he never did), his argument absolutely depends on pretending that everything is simple. The simplicity is the same error we see from the anti-lockdown protestors and can be summed up in a set of fallacies:

FALLACY ONE: The anti-lockdown fallacy: There’s no bad economic consequences to ending lockdown/social-distancing measures and all the bad economic outcomes currently (and projected) are due to those measures.

It’s a massive fallacy and once you identify it you can see it everywhere, not just among ideological extremists like Hoyt (for example) but even in more mainstream news. The truth is that an uncontrolled pandemic would 1. have severe economic impacts and 2. those impacts would be harder to mitigate. Fear fuelled by spikes in infections and by waves of overwhelmed health and emergency services would be devastating to the economy more so than measures because business would have no framework around which to plan. This is a point I’ve been talking around on a few occasions when looking at different national strategies: they actually need to be strategies that result in confidence from the population. Capitalist economies absolutely require public confidence to function. Lockdowns or not, a population (or even just a proportion of a population) needs to have confidence in the short-term future to keep spending and to keep the economy going.

The second aspect of the fallacy, is that lockdown measures can be guaranteed to be avoided. That is not the case. A nation or a state might get lucky and with a low starting rate of infection and a top-notch healthcare structure, avoid infection rates soaring to the points were they face an imminent collapse of healthcare provision (thus compounding deaths) but once infection rates do hit extreme levels then absolutely you are going to end up with far more extreme quarantine measures. Avoiding those extremes is why more moderate measures to keep infection rates lower make sense.

But, but what about famine! Firstly let’s go back to the fallacy one. Getting your local bookstore to re-open isn’t going to get wheat to southern Africa*. The pandemic itself is disrupting the economy but also, measures beyond the personal impact that the anti-lockdown protests are moaning about would also need to be lifted (eg movement of seasonal farm workers). That doesn’t mean we should collectivity shrug our shoulders about the impacts of the virus. On the contrary, anti-pandemic measures REQUIRE measures to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Such measures include trying to reduce financial insecurity or food insecurity. However, that takes us to the other big fallacy that Larry leaves unspoken:

FALLACY TWO: The libertarian fallacy. The only solution to poor economic outcomes is more free-markets and the government can only make things worse.

It is, of course, bollocks. Aside from the more genuine (and fringe) libertarians, the pseudo-libertarians like Larry carve out a big exemption to this clause for the military and for war. As I’ve discussed before, this is because they are fine with the idea of the state being a punitive body. What they object to is the state ever helping people. Yet here we are in a circumstance that the best thing to do if you want CAPITALISM to keep going is for the government to hand people free money.

Of course that is much easier said than done in a nation where decades of effort has gone into demonising any support from government and making the process of government as ungainly (and as punitive) as possible. Buying into Reagan’s malicious lie (or pandering to it as the Democratic Party has done) for decades means that the US doesn’t have social infrastructure or the healthcare infrastructure to cope with either a pandemic OR to cope with the impact of measures to mitigate a pandemic.

Which takes me to Larry’s third unspoken fallacy — the other unwritten error made visible by the obvious gaps in his thinking:

FALLACY THREE: The nationalist fallacy. International cooperation is not possible.

There is potential famine, there are crops. This is not an unsolvable problem but nor is it a simple problem. In a different timeline, it would be exactly the sort of problem that a nation with a huge food production industry, a strong central executive government structure and huge international influence could do a lot to solve. Unfortunately, America currently is led by somebody incapable**. Yet, while America’s capacity to act is hampered, that doesn’t mean international cooperation is impossible. Physical international trade hasn’t ceased. Working around the impact of a pandemic isn’t impossible but it requires nations acting in concert.

Of course, when we put fallacy two and three together, the ideological implications become a bit clearer.

  • If government could mitigate economic down turns during a pandemic…then they could do so in other kinds of recessions.
  • If government could intervene to help people get the care they need during a pandemic…then they could do so at any time.
  • If government can help reduce world hunger during a pandemic…then they could do so whenever people were going hungry.
  • If governments around the world can act collectively during a pandemic…then they could do so with other global issues such as…

As I pointed out over a month ago, one major advantage Australia has had (aside from being an island obviously) during this pandemic was the 2007 general election. When the global financial crisis hit, the government of the day went full into stimulus measures rather than austerity measures (or half-hearted stimulus). The resulting relatively mild impact of the GFC shifted the conventional economic wisdom in Canberra to ‘in case of emergency spend money’. Consequently the conservative-leaning government here could politically ditch their existing economic policy and start spending. That doesn’t mean the economic impact of the pandemic has been easy in Australia but it does mean it is so much easier to get people on board with the measures. That means, maybe (and we’ve still got winter to go) Australia will be able to get back to a BAU economy quicker.

But let’s return to Larry Correia’s bullshit. It is, frankly, bullshit. He has a fairly obvious tell when he’s bullshitting because most of the time he’s big on how well-off he is and ideologically he’s very much in the rugged-individualist if you are well off it’s because you worked hard and who gives a shit about other countries etc etc. So when he starts chiding people for living in ‘comfy homes’ or starts crocodile tears about ‘guy who lost his job, business, and is worried about losing his house, or how he’s gonna feed his kids’ or third-world hunger, you have to wonder why the guy who lost his job before the pandemic (and was worried about losing his house, his healthcare etc) or the level of food insecurity not just in developing nations but in his own nation never warranted his concern?

I can’t even given him points for originality. The sudden concern for developing nations from people who normally are disparaging about them has been a feature of people arguing against measure to combat global warming for decades. The argument has been that limitations on fossil fuels will hamper developing economies. Of course, this argument is also accompanied by a claim that isn’t fair if more prosperous nations have to have stricter emission reduction targets because fallacy-mongers love nothing more than both having their cake and eating it to.

BUT the other big tell is there utter lack of substance in his post. It is nothing but chiding of imaginary people. There is a vacuum at the centre. No genuine analysis but also zero solutions. He offers no way forward nor does he even have the intestinal fortitude to even side explicitly with the anti-lockdown protestors. It’s no difference to his anti-anti-Trump stance: ever keen to establish that he personally doesn’t like Trump but forever wagging his primary-school-principal fingers at the naughty children who ever dare criticise Trump. It is simply political cowardice.

*[Worth pointing out that he didn’t even read the article he was pointing to which states:

“This hunger crisis, experts say, is global and caused by a multitude of factors linked to the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing interruption of the economic order: the sudden loss in income for countless millions who were already living hand-to-mouth; the collapse in oil prices; widespread shortages of hard currency from tourism drying up; overseas workers not having earnings to send home; and ongoing problems like climate change, violence, population dislocations and humanitarian disasters.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/world/africa/coronavirus-hunger-crisis.html

*[ I initially wrote ‘…incapable of’ and was wondering what word to use next and then realised it didn’t need the ‘of’.]

A small denial update

A short follow up on the pro-virus faction. Sarah Hoyt is promoting a protest today in Colorado in a big red font “GRIDLOCK PROTEST AT THE CAPITOL TODAY AT ONE.

On April 4 I wrote this post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/a-study-in-denial/ with a section looking at Colorado specifically.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA. Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor).

In the time since the number of cases in Colorado has reached 9,440 (as of 5 am April 20 Sydney time) with 411 deaths. The comparison I made then was with NSW but those figures now well exceed the whole country of Australia (6,457 cases, 71 deaths). NSW confirmed cases is currently 2,926.

Here is my other fear. We know that Covid-19 isn’t the worst case scenario, even given how bad it is. We will face worse and this current crisis is a dress rehearsal. Counterfactual beliefs on the right only become MORE entrenched and so the next major pandemic in a window of say 20 years will be met with more strident denial from the right earlier.

Evil and influence

[Content warning: post covers news stories about sexual abuse]

We’ve covered the right wing trad-catholic obsession with demons as an explanation for un-hellish activity before. This time the news of demons up to no good comes from the musician/game designer/columinst/author/publisher/film producer and hypothetical litigant Vox Day (link for reference http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/04/a-ferocity-and-intensity.html ) Day is not a trad-Catholic but he flirts with a lot of the ideas that come out of that milieu, particularly the fetishising of Thomas Aquinas and by extension (of course) Aristotle.

Day’s source “Life Site” I won’t link to but is a kind of Catholic version of the evangelical protestant far right “news” websites that people may be more familiar with. The article is basically an over wrought man ringing up his friends all of whom confirm that they also think demons are everywhere and are behind the pandemic:

‘I phoned an exorcist in Washington D.C. I asked if demonic activity had increased since the Eucharist had been held back and many church doors had been locked. “Exorcists and those gifted individuals with insights into the spiritual realm have seen more intense demonic activity now. There has been a definite uptick,” he said, “Satan’s taken advantage of this crisis to meet his own ends, It seems demons have been given a free hand now.”’

Priests reveal how coronavirus crisis has unleashed ‘intense demonic activity’
Kevin Wells, LifeSite Fri Apr 3, 2020 – 3:49 pm EST

I always felt that it was a kind of patronising cliche to claim that pre-modern people invented demons as a way of grappling with notions of mental illness and emotional trauma. I also don’t want to belittle people’s coping mechanisms in a time of genuine fear but the examples I’ve (e.g. the ones quoted above) don’t present as people finding a way of coping. Quite the opposite, it is a sustained pressure to begin Church services again. I can see that there is a genuine trauma there — a crisis like this would, in other circumstances, bring people together for collective worship but most mainstream church leaders get why that would be disastrous both in the short term (it will imperil everybody) and the long term (church attendance skews older and would lead to the virus disproportionately hitting people who go to church).

Meanwhile, SF authors more overtly trad-catholic than Day are delighted that previously convicted paedophile Cardinal George Pell has been acquitted after a second appeal to the Australian High Court (news story here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-07/george-pell-wins-high-court-appeal-what-happens-next/12126266 ) The case, like many sexual assault cases, rested on the testimony of one victim who was testifying many years after the event. A jury and and the first panel of judges to hear Pell’s appeal found him guilty on the strength of the testimony but this final appeal (after substantial lobbying from the Australian right) ruled that the case against Pell was not strong enough to find him guilty.

What is undisputed though is that as a powerful figure within the Australian Catholic Church, Pell protected abusive priest and demonised victims. Nor are Pell’s legal troubles over. Some civil cases against him had been on hold until his criminal cases had been resolved.

Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel that Isn’t a Horror Novel, Brian Niemmeier is delighted that Pell has been released: https://www.brianniemeier.com/2020/04/pell-acquitted.html

‘Now, this blog has never shied away from calling out members of the Church’s hierarchy when they betray Jesus’ command to tend His sheep. That said, digging deeper into Pell’s case turned up pretty strong evidence that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice prompted by the Enemy’s attack on a sincere servant of Christ.’

Whatever the court’s finding maybe there is no doubt that this ‘sincere servant of Christ’ throughout his meteoric rise through the echelons of power within the church, repeatedly failed to protect children and repeatedly went out of his way to protect abusers. We don’t need to invent demons to discover malign influences in the world.

Five years, what a surprise…

To be frank, two months ago now feels like an eternity but if you want to feel the inexorable passage of time even more, here is the appropriate sections from the Puppy Kerfuffle timeline for recent days:

  • 2015/4/2 Amazing Stories publishes an editorial ahead of the Hugo nominee announcement, indicating that Puppies had likely got many nominations and says: “I’m going to place ANY nominee that is associated with advancing a political agenda BELOW No Award. If that means that No Award is my top pick in one or more categories, then so be it. (I’ll read the works in the voters pack so I can rate the works as #1 behind No Award, #2 behind No Award, etc.)” [85]
  • 2015/4/4 Hugo 2015 Award finalists announced [86]
  • 2015/4/4 Deirdre Saoirse Moen posts ‘The Puppy-free Hugo Award Voting Guide’ [87]
  • 2015/4/4 Matthew David Surridge posts an article at fanzine Black Gate that he had declined a Hugo nomination for Best fan Writer before the announcement. “Had anybody contacted me to explain the thinking behind the Puppy campaign and ask if I wanted me to be on the slate, I would have politely refused. In retrospect, I certainly should have sent everybody involved e-mails asking to be withdrawn from the Puppy lists in February.” [88]
  • 2015/4/4 Conservative news and comment site Brietbart publishes a supportive story about the Puppy nomination success. [89]
  • 2015/4/4 At Making Light, Patrick Nielsen Hayden writes about connections between Sad Puppies and GamerGate – primarily in terms of tweets by Daddy Warpig. [90]
  • 2015/4/5 In ‘The Day Fandom Ended’ El Sandifer says ‘The Hugo Award Nominations have just been successfully hijacked by neofascists.’ and advocates that ‘if you can spare $40, I highly encourage you to join and, when the Hugo Ballot is released, vote No Award in all categories’ [91]
  • 2015/4/5 Brad Templeton lists various approaches to solving the problem of slate voting in the Hugo Awards. [92]

A study in denial

I could have written a post like this one every other day for the past few weeks. Highlight one of the right-wing blogs I read and talk about their reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. The story would be the same over and over: a mix of genuine confusion, an even more irrational faith in free market economics than usual and the now standard belief that genuine expertise is the hallmark of deception.

But I’ll highlight the inevitable one: Sarah Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/ The truth of the general statement I made above would also be nearly true of Hoyt’s blog. Not quite every other day but nearly so, there has been a post about the virus offering a close to fact-free dissent about the wider view of the pandemic.

The denial isn’t hard to understand. There really is no doubt that measures to reduce social contact reduces the spread of the disease – indeed, that’s almost axiomatic about communicable diseases. There’s also not much doubt that reducing social contact has a negative impact on the economy. Which takes us straight to the dilemma of every nation on Earth currently: saving lives will hurt your economy. A corollary to that is that there really is no immediate free market solution to the pandemic. Give it time and yes, there are fortunes to be made from vaccines and treatments but this current situation is genuinely a big-government kind of problem and hence even conservative governments are trying to buy time with quite severe laws restricting our movement.

For libertarians and pseudo-libertarians this must be nightmarish. OK the actual situation IS nightmarish but for the pseudo-libertarians like Hoyt the world has turned on its head. The route through the next months has narrowed to variations on the same basic policy: massive government efforts to keep the health system running, laws massively restricting human movement, massive government spending (based on borrowing) to stop the economy from collapsing. This is not a war (the pseudo-libertarians quite like war) but it is not unlike a war-footing but without the militarism that the pseudo-libertarians enjoy.

For the piece linked above the frame is a standard denialist line: models are simplifications of complex things and hence don’t capture the complexities and hence must be false and wrong and bad etc etc. Part of that is true. Models are simplifications of complex things and have aspects that are known to be both false and misleading. The simplest example (and analogy – which is cool that an actual example is also a metaphor for itself) is a map. Maps leave out details. A roadmap exaggerates the width of roads for the purpose of visibility. Any model must contain such simplifications and errors because that is the purpose of models.

The situation is even more dire than that though. Not only is every model ever wrong (to some degree) but we have no choice but to use models. Unless you are omniscient being, you can’t know everything. So you HAVE to use models. Your brain uses models, your basic SENSES use less than perfect models that approximate and fill in missing details. It is not unlike the version of the laws of thermodynamics (attributed to either Allen Ginsberg or C.P.Snow – take your pick)

  • You can’t win
  • You can’t break even
  • You can’t leave the game

People get that the first two must be true about any kind of model (cognitive, mathematical, computer-based) i.e. that the model is a simplification and that there will be aspects of the model that are misleading. People don’t always get the last one: you can’t escape models. Which takes me back to Hoyt:

“This came to mind about a week ago as I was stomping around the house saying that anyone who relied on computer models for anything should be shot.  My husband was duly alarmed, because as he pointed out, he has designed computer models. At which point I told him that’s okay because his models do not involve people.  Which is part of it.  Throw one person into a model, and you’ll wish the person were a spherical cow of uniform density in friction-less vacuum.”

The question Hoyt raises unintentionally is if people are not to rely on computer models then what SHOULD they rely on? What is the alternative? Because not relying on models at all is an impossibility. The virtue of a formal model is that they are examinable. Hoyt uses the old joke about the mathematician given the task of helping a farmer but the joke itself reveals a strength of a mathematical model as the butt of the joke. The simplification and hence the way the model departs from reality is overtly stated. The alternative is situations were we use models without realising we are doing so an without understanding how the cognitive model we are using departs sharply from reality.

Luckily for me (if not for the health and safety of her readers) Hoyt provides a perfect example of exactly that kind of unexamined model:

“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”

Hoyt is still stuck with a mental model of Covid-19 as a “Chinese” disease — as if somehow the novel coronavirus has a memory of where it first infected humans. Spread of the disease has long since moved well beyond travellers from China. For example, I believe in Australia more cases originated directly via travellers from the USA than from China. Mind you, remember this a person who puts every effort into refusing to believe that there can be such a thing as unconscious biases (at least among people she approves of).

Having robustly asserted how people aren’t spherical cows, Hoyt then promptly spends multiple paragraphers generalising about New Yorkers and Italians and so on. More flawed models.

That takes us to Colorado. Colorado, Hoyt assures us, is different. Now that is clearly true. Colorado is not Italy and it is not New York and some of those differences do matter for the spread of the disease. It is a less densely populated state without a doubt. Hoyt argues that because Colorado is different then the rules should be different.

“So, why are the same rules being applied to both places? AND why are both places treated exactly alike? And why are both places assumed to be on the same curve as Italy or Spain or Wuhan, places and cultures, and ways of living that have absolutely nothing to do with how we live or who we are? And here’s the kicker: if you allow states like Colorado and others that naturally self-distance to go about their lawful business, not only time but more money will be available to study the problem clusters.”

Here is the real kicker. Models are imperfect (by definition) and those imperfection can be misleading (by their very nature) and you can’t NOT use models of some kind or another BUT we have a way of minimising the mistakes we make. The method is simple but it has taken us millennia to work it out: we check the outcomes of our models against data and observation. Now even with data we still have models (sorry, they are inescapable) but we have ways of checking our conclusions against others.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA.

Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor). Colorado does have major ski resorts* and I suspect we’ll get a better sense of the role they played in the pandemic in the future.

Yes but…as I said, even data relies on models of one kind or another and maybe Australia and Colorado are using vastly different diagnostic criteria or maybe it is due to vastly different testing regimes. I might genuinely be comparing apples and oranges. Sadly, we can reduce (but not remove) disparities in reporting by looking at a more sobering statistic: deaths.

According to the John Hopkins University dashboard New South Wales has 12 confirmed deaths. That’s a tragic and worrying amount. Yes, many more people die from all sorts of other causes but these deaths add to that total or mortality and the progress of this pandemic is far from over. That’s just the beginning of the numbers.

Let’s compare with Colorado (there is also state specific data here also https://covid19.colorado.gov/case-data). From the same data source Colorado has had 97 deaths so far. It’s when I saw that number that I shuddered and decided that I’d write this post rather than just shake my head at Hoyt’s nonsense. I knew things were bad in some parts of the US but I’d assumed that some of the denial I was reading was because the writers of this toxic nonsense were in states were the wave of the pandemic was still to hit. Ninety-seven deaths, shit. I keep looking at that number and knowing that there other places in the US where the numbers of deaths are being under reported particularly for vulnerable communities and shuddering at what might be the true scale of thins.

Now sure, maybe the differences in testing and diagnostic criteria and data collection are so different between NSW and Colorado that the number of cases is incomparable BUT they would have to be significantly different in two different directions simultaneously. That is, if NSW are under-reporting the number of cases compared to Colorado then the case-fatality rate in Colorado is even worse when compared with NSW. I’m not making the comparison to say which state is somehow doing ‘better’ (it’s not a race or a competition) but simply trying to get a sense of what I can see HERE and compare it with where Sarah Hoyt is. It is undoubtedly a crisis here and we’ve got a conservative government in power at the state level and the national level and heck, both of them if they had an excuse to cut spending and pull back on entitlements and let business run wild they would and you know what, they aren’t and in fact they are doing the opposite. That’s not because they have had a sudden ideological conversion to policies they have derided for years but because massive government spending is the ONLY way to keep the economy going. When conservative ideologues rush to implement free government funded childcare it is safe to assume that they felt they had no other choice.

The morbid irony here is that Hoyt is ignoring her own advice. Rather than just look at Colorado and consider whether that state, regardless of what is going on anywhere else, is in the midst of viral outbreak and in grave danger and what action in such a circumstance the state government should take (hint: major restriction on movement and social contact to keep hospitals going and to give time for treatments and vaccines to be developed) she is insisting that because Colorado is not New York it can’t need the same measures as New York. It’s a compounded level of illogic.

Strip everything away from that piece by Sarah Hoyt and what you are left with is the common theme that captures so much of the train of political thought that joins Ayn Rand to Trump to Jordan Peterson: the desire to dress up wishful thinking as something other than a demand that reality should accord with their personal desires.

There’s no conclusion. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Think of others. Be kind. Don’t spread nonsense.

*[To be fair New South Wales does have ski resorts as well but during the start of the pandemic it was 1. summer here and 2. they were on fire.]