Scared by recent podcasts

Supply chains, pandemic enhancement, collective guilt

I listened to three scary podcasts last week. And you know what they say about “coincidences” that come in threes.1

First was a conversation with Ed Conway, Economics Editor at Sky News, on Talking Politics. What was so scary? Just the depth of ignorance about the distance we as a species have to go both to reduce inequality at least a bit and what the implications of that might be. It’s a pity there isn’t a transcript, because I wasn’t able to take notes, but a couple of things struck me. One was the point that all those goods we are buying in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have huge emissions embedded in their manufacture. Conway talked about the temperatures needed at various stages in the manufacture of silicon chips, and as I recall they’re all in excess of 1000°C. That takes a lot of energy, most of it still supplied by coal. The other story that scared me was about the amount of steel per person buried in a nation’s infrastructure. I can’t remember the details, but I seem to recall it was at least two orders of magnitude between rich and poor countries. Are they going to get the steel they need? And what will the externalities around that be?

Then there was Julia Galef talking to Kevin Esvalt on her podcast, Rationally Speaking. Esvalt created a bit of a stir a few years ago when he showed how CRISPR-Cas9 could be adapted to implement a rather clever form of gene drive. Normally, as Esvalt explained, directed tinkering with a genome is trying to persuade an organism to do something that it doesn’t normally do. As a result, natural selection tends to restore the status quo ante, getting rid of our intervention, whatever it may be. The CRISPR-based version ensures that subsequent generations always inherit the gene we engineered, rather than doing so only half the time. That makes it much more useful and, for a whole slew of reasons that Galef teased out, not all that scary. The scary part was the first part of the podcast, where they talked about research being done into what they agreed to call “potential pandemic enhancement”. That covers a lot of bases, but in essence it is about surveying known (and unknown?) viruses and asking what kinds of mutations would enable them to become pandemic pathogens. The scientists who are in favour say that this is important knowledge to prepare. Esvalt points out that, even if you completely discount the possibility that a virus might just possibly escape from a lab, if you publish the results openly, there are probably thousands of people who could use the information to build the virus from scratch without too much difficulty or too much expense. Esvalt made several salient points about the undesirability of this kind of research, all of which I found totally convincing. And this time, there is a transcript, so you can take a quick glance and see whether it scares you too.

And finally, though of course it is also not the end but a beginning, Benjamen Walker remixed his episode Émigration Intérieure, about Thomas Mann’s famous essays and lectures at the end of World War II, when he famously said that all Germans were complicit in the atrocities carried out in their name, and all were equally guilty.

“[T]here are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one, but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning. Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt, and ruin.”

I remember listening to the original just two weeks after Trump’s attempted coup, and being impressed then. The remix is, if anything, scarier. As Benjamen Walker concluded, “I’m finding it extremely difficult to let go of my irrational belief that there are two Americas, a bad America, and a good America”.

I checked, and that’s in the original too, but somehow it struck me far more forcefully in this remix. Forcefully enough to convince me that some malevolent force had indeed conspired to put these three episodes into my listening stream specifically to disturb my equilibrium.

  1. “Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Auric Goldfinger, In Goldfinger, Chapter 14 : Things That Go Thump In The Night, at least according to WikiQuote

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