Former tech entrepreneur (co-founder of the music software company Sibelius). Among other things I now play the stock market, write software to predict it, and advise tech startups. I have degrees in philosophy.


Monastery and Throne

This seems like a post-rationalization. IIRC the way it played out over a number of days was that initially it wasn't clear what the facts were, and hence what if anything Cummings had done wrong (e.g. whether his journey had been legal, or at least justified). And even if he had done something wrong, I heard one pundit point out that as Cummings wasn't a minister or public-facing figure there was no requirement for him to resign or be fired (rather than apologise or be disciplined in some way).

But nonetheless the media picture right from the start was that this maverick egg-head weirdo must be guilty of something, even if they weren't sure what exactly. And the public reacted accordingly.

For example, 3 days before Cummings' press conference (which IIRC was the first time his side of the story was fully set out) I heard a radio phone-in about what an evil character Cummings must be, in which callers were mostly accusing him of risking his parents' health by going to stay with them. Or saying he must have stopped at a petrol station and so risked people there (he denied this). It later turned out he hadn't even stayed in his parents' house, or had close contact with them, but stayed in another building nearby.

So then it was a question of, was his main journey illegal (with much detailed media analysis of the fine points of the law)? Or if not, how about the short trip to Barnard Castle? Which is what most people - the narrative - have now settled on.

What this all shows is that in this trial by media, Cummings was presumed guilty from the start; and then it was just a matter of finding some crime to pin on him. And once something was found that seemed enough like one, everyone could congratulate themselves that they'd 'known' all along, and so their outrage had always been justified.

(I can't recall which cognitive bias this is - but quite a typical example.)

(To avoid doubt, as I turned out I think it's very likely he broke the rules and adjusted his story to try to exonerate himself. And clearly Boris mishandled it badly. But my point isn't about whether he/they turned out to be in the wrong, it's about the fact the media had it in for Cummings, and had no trouble swaying the public accordingly.)

Monastery and Throne

During COVID the UK government has been heavily advised by the SAGE committee (an emergency committee of scientists), including a subcommittee of behavioural scientists who advised on what the reaction to measures like lockdowns might be. I don't know how reliable behavioural science is at the moment (with the replication crisis) but this seemed like a reasonable move - being guided by them rather than politicians' own hunches.

Monastery and Throne

Social reality topics are often things in the news. When I was a student I realised I could just stop following the news because it almost never affected me. Only maybe once a year was there anything in the news that I needed to know, because it would affect my short-term actions. (COVID of course being a notable exception.)

The kind of serious news I follow is about real-world events - albeit in politics, things happening in other countries, etc. - causally distant from me. Not local news, which may be the most likely to affect me, though in some trivial way (a new store opening or something).

Those who follow celebrity culture etc. are even less affected by the 'news' they follow, except I suppose insofar as it's about new films, albums etc. which they might see/buy. Indeed such people see the news more like what it is. Its main effect is in the meta (= social reality) realm, as a source of talking points. You 'need' to know the news in order to join in conversations with your friends about the news.

The relevance or truth of the news is beside the point. For the same applies to the 'need' to read Harry Potter, if everyone else is talking about it.

Monastery and Throne

I think he was only known & unpopular among those who follow politics closely. I expect 80% or 90% of the UK hadn't previously heard of him. The media coverage of the incident turned him from a niche suspect figure into a universal hate figure.

Re your point [1], people associate physical appearance with attitude. I overhead someone in the street at the time saying of Cummings' press conference: "He's so arrogant! Did you see how he was dressed?" I.e. that Cummings was and is deliberately slovenly to show two fingers to the press/Establishment - i.e. that he doesn't care what they think. Which is probably the case. Or at least, the geeky view that how you dress shouldn't matter - the two of course being closely related.

Monastery and Throne

PS I just realized, one of the main reasons the general public fell in with demonizing Cummings was the very one you identified that delayed their reaction to COVID: he seems weird, and reacting to a faroff disease which everyone else is ignoring would seem weird. And seeming weird is the worst thing in the world.

Monastery and Throne


On a side issue, as you probably know but other readers may not, Dominic Cummings was central to another case of social reality. For he was subsequently turned into public enemy no. 1 by the British media, when he broke lockdown rules to drive his family across the country to his parents' home. Most of the public had never heard of Cummings, but he had apparently made enemies in the media (as well as government) by treating them with disdain, and this was their chance for payback.

And so, in a trial by media over several days, it was amazing to see how easily almost everyone in the UK was persuaded that Cummings was the devil incarnate, which continues to this day. (I broke ranks to post a defence of Cummings, or rather a criticism of the public's ill-founded view of him, on Facebook, which got a lively response.)

Just as amazing was the opposite attitude to the BLM protests in the UK soon after; I don't think it even occurred to 99% of the public that those were just as illegal as Cummings' trip. And a politician (Stephen Kinnock) who made a similar cross-country drive to Cummings on the very same day, to visit his famous father, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, attracted almost no media coverage or criticism. This all showing that the law was quite beside the point - merely providing a pretext for demonizing Cummings.

Anyway, in the face of all this media and public pressure, Boris Johnson spent much political capital refusing to fire Cummings, as he was said to be 'Boris's brain' and by far the smartest person in Downing St. Boris even extraordinarily granted Cummings (a mere adviser) his own press conference in the Downing St garden, in which Cummings presented an implausible account of events exonerating himself, to general derision.*

The whole incident provided a pretext (that phrase again) for many Britons subsequently to break lockdown rules. The public mood changed immediately from a wartime spirit of doggedly following government advice to half-disregarding it - often explicitly saying "If Dominic Cummings can drive to Barnard Castle, then I don't see why I shouldn't do XYZ". Regrettably it's likely this has significantly increased COVID cases ever since.

(*I reckon it should have been played like this: Cummings should have admitted breaking the rules (perhaps inadvertently), and offered his resignation. But Boris should have reluctantly refused the resignation, on the grounds of not rocking the boat in a national emergency, and maybe accepted a fine as punishment.)

Urgent & important: How (not) to do your to-do list

In this case of making a small one-off tweak with long-term benefits, if the expected return is only moderate, i.e. Should, then it's always less important than Musts, so you should never do it - until & unless one day you run out of Musts. It may seem paradoxical that there are some things you Should do but it's optimal never to do them, but that just shows that you always have (even) more important things to do.

However there's another kind of case which I call the Gym Paradox: it's never important to go to the gym today because you only miss out on 1 day of exercise, i.e. it's only a Could so should almost always be procrastinated; but it is important that you go to the gym (i.e. get exercise) sometimes, or you will become unhealthy. I haven't thought hard about this one and how to resolve it.

Covid 3/4: Declare Victory and Leave Home

It now seems it's about 60% more deadly:

Ah I see you discuss this in your latest post, just posted.

Covid 3/4: Declare Victory and Leave Home

Re the English strain, do you (still) think its dominating new cases by mid-March will lead to a huge increase in cases/deaths nationwide, or will vaccination prevent that?

The CDC's latest ensemble forecast doesn't predict an increase in deaths, though it only goes out to the end of March:

Takeaways from one year of lockdown

I wonder if this was partly due to groupthink, eg within your house. Wikipedia has a useful definition:

“a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”

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