I appreciate the structured, concise, almost fully bullet-point format of this post. Bullet points are underutilized as a viable writing style for presenting finished work!
Zvi, what are your thoughts on covid in the USA during the winter?
On the one hand:
On the other hand, winter is traditionally the worst time for colds and flus, including the monster covid wave of 2020. It seems hard to believe we'll skate through winter 2021 without somewhat of a bump in covid cases.
If you have thoughts about the course of covid beyond this winter (like the prospect for future variants or how necessary it will be for most of the population to take booster shots at a regular cadence), I'd be interested in that too.
One thing that I think will be consequential, in a kind of hilarious way, is that we're probably going to skip two flu seasons in a row, which will possibly set us up for a whopper flu season down the road. Last winter the flu was practically nonexistent, crowded out by covid. This winter, based on my read of this Metaculus forecast, the flu season is expected to be only half as intense as a typical pre-covid year -- peaking at around "4% ILI" instead of around 8%.
If we get a whopper flu season in 2022 or 2023 (perhaps 2-3x worse than normal), it will be interesting to watch how the media and culture responds -- will they go into covid-esque hysterics about the overcrowded hospitals and demand flu lockdowns? Or will it act as a nudge in the other direction, convincing people that the lockdowns and NPIs have got to stop somewhere? Or, perhaps we'll never get a whopper flu season -- maybe Delta will remain the transmissibility king of all the infectious viruses, even after stabilizing and going endemic? Perhaps our transition to remote work, covid-caution in shared indoor spaces, and mRNA vaccines means a permanently more hygienic world?
Overall, I'm very interested in the question of whether covid cases ever crash to suppression levels (as would perhaps have happened in a world without the Delta variant), versus only very slowly trailing off into the background of ordinary pre-covid colds & flus. I think this is very important for predicting how culture will evolve going forwards. A sharper transition from pandemic to negligible covid would encourage more of a snap-back to pre-covid "normality": more mass concerts, more comfort visiting shared indoor spaces, fewer masks and NPIs, less remote work. Versus a world where covid lingers interminably and there's no sharp transition into the post-pandemic world will make it harder for culture to coordinate a "return to normal".
I'm not sure which side I'm cheering for, but it's clearly an important question regardless. (Remote work and better tech adoption across the board have been highlights of pandemic culture. A slightly increased focus on scientific progress is obviously welcome. And the pre-covid world sometimes strikes me as being a little too heavy on present consumption, like travel vacations, with not enough long-term focus. But of course all the masking and social distancing and reduced socializing has been miserable, and the madness of constantly-changing restrictions is terrible for both business and living an enjoyable human life.)
Well, ironic to the extent that:
it is about abstract intellectual ideas vs going out and doing the stuff as jacob exhorts us to do
in that sense it is arguably more on the "personal development" side of things
it is a monklike, non-social activity
Anti-ironic (english doesn't really have a word for this... like when something is oddly fitting, like if someone named "James Baker" is actually a baker) insofar as LessWrong / rationalism is a pretty strong shared intellectual culture and that these seemingly solitary monkish endeavors are actually a space for social connection, thus perhaps we are fulfilling Jacob's exhortation.
I am pleased by the charming irony (and... anti-irony??) of this post. A complex point-by-point commentary on the writings of putanumonit on loneliness, this post recalls the intellectual traditions of ancient monks (a comparison that Jacob himself has made elsewhere: https://putanumonit.com/2021/04/03/monastery-and-throne/). As the author notes, writing like this is both a solitary endeavor and an oddly communal activity that demonstrates the depth of connection possible in distributed intellectual movements (whether modern rationalism or the medieval world of IRL monasteries). Of course it's intrinsically a bit silly to be enumerating the logical and psychological complexities of an exhortation to just get out there and actually socialize. But I'm obviously not too bothered by that silliness, because I'm here doing the same thing!
Perhaps the equanimous and incredibly joyful monk was within us the whole time?
The best resource I've found on this topic is a comprehensive investigation into both the nature of the problem and a list of potential solutions, by rationalist blog Nintil:
You claim that "just fight the war" is a wasteful and inefficient way to defend against invasion compared to clever strategies like taking out the enemy's leadership or deploying a propaganda campaign to change the invading nation's opinion about your nation's citizens. But doesn't most invasion-defense mostly consist of just fighting the war? If assassinations are so easy and are obviously the right thing to do, shouldn't they happen more often? When was the last time assassinations were used to end a war anywhere? Without examples, the ideas in this post seem unmoored from any real assessment about what's hard vs easy.
As for cultural/propaganda solutions, these all seem far too slow. Once the enemy's tanks are rolling, the war will be decided in a matter of days or weeks -- no time to go about changing the cultural attitudes of an entire population! (And how might we expect to shift their attention to domestic issues overnight, when we have to compete with the headline that their country has just declared war??) I could see some of these defensive tactics working as a way to try and prevent invasion from ever occurring in the first place (like Taiwan's situation), or as a way to make the best of a small international incident (like how the occasional India/Pakistan flare-ups are played by both governments to score domestic political points), or that they would become relevant amid a long, drawn-out stalemate. But if you're the victim of a fast-moving surprise invasion, no clever cultural shenanigans are going to stop the hard power streaming across your borders.
I was wondering about this too -- smallpox may be eradicated for now, but it is often mentioned as a top potential bioweapon (its genetic sequence is available, etc), plus the other possibilities you mention. So it seems crazy that our anti-smallpox preparations are pretty minimal. The US government claims it stockpiles enough vaccine for everyone, but they said the same thing about the national PPE / facemask stockpile, so I'm inclined to doubt that there could be a smooth rollout in an emergency (rather than, eg, discovering that many of the doses have spoiled, or running out of key secondary components like needles). It also struck me as odd that vaccination is impossible for ordinary citizens to get voluntarily, despite being mandatory for members of the military.
But when I looked into the details, things started to make more sense:
-The immunity created by the smallpox vaccine only lasts 3-5 years before beginning to fade. In modern society, it's not just young people who lack smallpox immunity -- it's everyone. Changing that would require giving shots every ~5 years, which is a significantly bigger effort than a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
-The smallpox vaccine is based on somewhat primitive tech -- it uses a live pox virus (not smallpox itself, but a less-deadly relative) and is administered in an odd way. Side effects of smallpox vaccination are more common and more dangerous than for most vaccines, such that vaccinating everyone in the USA would lead to several hundred deaths. (Repeat every five years!)
Even with up to ~1000 deaths per vaccination drive, this would plausibly still be worth it on utilitarian, longtermist grounds, considering the threat of smallpox as a global catastrophic biological risk. But there would be significant downside, so it's very understandable why we don't do it.
IMO, seems like these two things could improve the situation:
-we could allow private citizens to get the smallpox vaccine voluntarily (as seems to have been briefly considered in the years after 9/11). This would be an easy way to make civilization more resilient while offering folks incrementally more freedom, although there would inevitably be stories about a handful of people getting sick or dying from the vaccine, which might unfortunately reduce public trust in all vaccines generally.
-It would be great to have a more modern-style vaccine that's less dangerous. If we could create a modern smallpox vaccine using a platform like mRNA, this would also mean that we could more quickly make huge numbers of doses in an emergency (since we could use every mRNA factory instead of being limited by the custom pipeline for the current vaccine), and we could easily change the vaccine to handle variants -- especially important if we are trying to fend off a bioweapon with a deliberately modified genome. I don't know how much designing and testing a new smallpox vaccine would cost, but some scientists have called for preemptively creating at least partially-tested vaccines against every major virus family with pandemic potential, to give us a head start on future crises, so it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.