Broken clocks during the pandemic

Proponents of conspiracy theories during the pandemic, at least in India, appear to be like broken clocks: they are right by coincidence, without the right body of evidence to back their claims. Two of the most read articles published by The Wire Science in the last 15 months have been the fact-checks of Luc Montagnier’s comments on the two occasions he spoke up in the French press. On the first, he said the novel coronavirus couldn’t have evolved naturally; the second, he insisted mass vaccination was a big mistake. The context in which Montagnier published his remarks evolved considerably between the two events, and it tells an important story.

When Montagnier said in April 2020 that the virus was lab-made, the virus’s spread was just beginning to accelerate in India, Europe and the US, and the proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis to explain the virus’s origins had few listeners and were consigned firmly to the margins of popular discourse on the subject. In this environment, Montagnier’s comments stuck out like a sore thumb, and were easily dismissed.

But when Montagnier said in May 2021 that mass vaccination is a mistake, the context was quite different: in the intervening period, Nicholas Wade had published his article on why we couldn’t dismiss the lab-leak hypothesis so quickly; the WHO’s missteps were more widely known; China’s COVID-19 outbreak had come completely under control (actually or for all appearances); many vaccine-manufacturers’ immoral and/or unethical business practices had come to light; more people were familiar with the concept and properties of viral strains; the WHO had filed its controversial report on the possible circumstances of the virus’s origins in China; etc. As a result, speaking now, Montagnier wasn’t so quickly dismissed. Instead, he was, to many observers, the man who had got it right the first time, was brave enough to stick his neck out in support of an unpopular idea, and was speaking up yet again.

The problem here is that Luc Montagnier is a broken clock – in the way even broken clocks are right twice a day: not because they actually tell the time but because the time is coincidentally what the clock face is stuck at. On both occasions, the conclusions of Montagnier’s comments coincided with what conspiracists have been going on about since the pandemic’s start, but on both occasions, his reasoning was wrong. The same has been true of many other claims made during the pandemic. People have said things that have turned out to be true but they themselves have always been wrong, whenever they have been wrong, because their particular reasons for something to be true were wrong.

That is, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. Unless you can explain why the time is what it is, you’re not a clock!

Montagnier’s case also illuminates a problem with soothsaying: if you wish to be a prophet, it is in your best interests to make as many predictions as possible – to increase the odds of reality coinciding with at least one prediction in time. And when such a coincidence does happen, it doesn’t mean the prophet was right; it means they weren’t wrong. There is a big difference between these positions, and which becomes pronounced when the conspiratorially-minded start incorporating every article published anywhere, from The Wire Science to The Daily Guardian, into their narratives of choice.

As the lab-leak hypothesis moved from the fringes of society to the centre and came mistakenly to conflate possibility with likelihood (i.e. zoonotic spillover and lab-leak are two valid hypotheses for the virus’s origins but they aren’t equally likely to be true), the conspiratorial proponents of the lab-leak hypotheses (the ones given to claiming Chinese scientists engineered the pathogen as a weapon, etc.) have steadily woven imaginary threads between the hypothesis and Indian scientists who opposed Covaxin’s approval, the Congress leaders who “mooted” vaccine hesitancy in their constituencies, scientists who made predictions that came to be wrong, even vaccines that were later found to have rare side-effects restricted to certain demographic groups.

The passage of time is notable here. I think adherents of lab-leak conspiracies are motivated by an overarching theory born entirely of speculation, not evidence, and who then pick and choose from events to build the case that the theory is true. I say ‘overarching’ because, to the adherents, the theory is already fully formed and true, and that pieces of it become visible to observers as and when the corresponding events play out. This could explain why time is immaterial to them. You and I know that Shahid Jameel and Gagandeep Kang cast doubt on Covaxin’s approval (and not Covaxin itself) after the time we were aware that Covaxin’s phase 3 clinical trials were only just getting started in December, and before Covishield’s side-effects in Europe and the US came to light (with the attendant misreporting). We know that at the time Luc Montagnier said the novel coronavirus was made in a lab, last year, we didn’t know nearly enough about the structural biology underlying the virus’s behaviour; we do now.

The order of events matters: we went from ignorance to knowledge, from knowing to knowing more, from thinking one thing to – in the face of new information – thinking another. But the conspiracy-theorists and their ideas lie outside of time: the order of events doesn’t matter; instead, to these people, 2021, 2022, 2023, etc. are preordained. They seem to be simply waiting for the coincidences to roll around.

An awareness of the time dimension (so to speak), or more accurately of the arrow of time, leads straightforwardly to the proper practice of science in our day-to-day affairs as well. As I said, unless you can say why you’re right, you’re not right. This is why effects lie in the future of causes, and why theories lie in the causal future of evidence. What we can say to be true at this moment depends entirely on what we know at this moment. If we presume what we can say at this moment to be true will always be true, we become guilty of dragging our theory into the causal history of the evidence – simply because we are saying that the theory will come true given enough time in which evidence can accrue.

This protocol (of sorts) to verify the truth of claims isn’t restricted to the philosophy of science, even if it finds powerful articulation there: a scientific theory isn’t true if it isn’t falsifiable outside its domain of application. It is equally legitimate and necessary in the daily practice of science and its methods, on Twitter and Facebook, in WhatsApp groups, every time your father, your cousin or your grand-uncle begins a question with “If the lab-leak hypothesis isn’t true…”.

The problems with one-shot Covishield

NDTV quoted unnamed sources in the Indian government saying it will be conducting a study to assess the feasibility of deploying the Covishield vaccine in a single-dose regimen instead of continuing the extant double-dose regimen.

At any other time, such a statement may have been sufficient to believe the government would organise and conduct a well-designed trial, publicise the findings and revise policy (or not) to stay in line with the findings, informed by socio-economic considerations. But the last 15 months have thrown up enough incidents of public-health malpractice on the state’s part to make such hope outright stupid. I’m fairly certain, especially if the vaccine shortage persists and the outbreaks on an upward trajectory in some parts of the country at the moment aren’t tamped down quickly, that the government is going to conduct a trial, not publish its methods and findings and push through a policy to deploy Covishield as a single-dose shot.

Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong – but in the event that I’m not, I’m already filled with a mix of sadness and fury. The government seems set on finding new ways to play with our lives.

News that the government is going to conduct a feasibility study broke to the accompaniment of a suggestion, by NDTV’s same unnamed sources, that Covishield was originally intended as a single-dose vaccine and that it was later found to be better as a two-dose vaccine. This is ridiculous to begin with, considering Covishield’s phase 3 trials around the world, conducted by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, tested the two-dose regimen.

But it is rendered more ridiculous because Public Health England (PHE) reported just a week ago that two doses of Covishield are necessary for a recipient to be sufficiently protected against infections by the B.1.617.2 variant. The PHE study found that one dose of Covishield had an efficacy of 33% against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by the variant, increasing to 60% after both doses. Has the Indian government forgotten that B.1.617.2 is becoming the more common variant circulating in the country? Or is laundering the national party’s image more important than the safety of hundreds of millions? (The latter is entirely plausible: in the last seven years, the country has seldom been larger than the supreme leader’s ego.)

The PHE study isn’t without its shortcomings – but I’d be more inclined to pay attention to them at this moment if:

  1. I didn’t have to contend with the non-trivial possibility that the Indian government will bury, obfuscate and/or twist the data arising from its assessment, and therefore we (the public) need to bank on whatever else is available;
  2. I didn’t have to contend with the fact that data from Covaxin’s phase 3 trial (which apparently went past its final interim-analysis endpoint in April) and Covishield’s bridging trial (which IIRC concluded on March 24) are still missing from the public domain;
  3. If we could access large-scale effectiveness data of the two vaccines (the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, is set to begin collecting such data this week); and
  4. If there was any other reliable data at the moment about the two vaccines vis-à-vis the different variants circulating in India.

There is another problem. If Covishield is administered as a single-dose vaccine, its efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by B.1.617.2 viral particles is 33% – which is below the WHO’s recommended efficacy threshold of 50% for these vaccines. If the Indian government formalises the ‘Covishield will be one dose’ policy and if the B.1.617.2 variant continues its conquest, will the vaccine, as it is used in India, lose its place on the WHO’s vaccine list? And what of the consequences that will follow, including other countries becoming reluctant to admit Indians who received one dose of Covishield and one dose of the BJP’s way of doing things?

I would be wary, too. The longer the particles of the novel coronavirus are able to circulate within a population, the more opportunities they will have to mutate, and the more mutations they will accumulate. So any population that allows the virus to persist for longer automatically increases the chance of engendering potentially deadlier variants within its borders. One-dose Covishield plus B.1.617.2, and other variants, will set just such a stage – compounded by the fact that Serum Institute, which makes Covishield, has a much larger production capacity than Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin.

(The PHE study also found that Covishield and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an efficacy of “around 50%” against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by an infection of the B.1.1.7 variant.)

In fact, the government could have made more sense today by saying it would prioritise the delivery of the first dose to as many people as possible before helping people get the second one. This way the policy would be in line with the most recent scientific findings, be synonymous with a single-dose campaign and keep the door open to vaccinating people with both doses in a longer span of time (instead of closing that door entirely), while admitting that the vaccine shortage is real and crippling – something most of us know anyway. But no; Vishwaguru first.

‘Surface of last screaming’

This has nothing to do with anything in the news. I was reading up about the Big Bang for a blog post when I came across this lucid explanation – so good it’s worth sharing for that reason alone – for the surface of last scattering, the site of an important event in the history of the universe. A lot happens by this moment, even if it happens only 379,000 year after the bang, and it’s easy to get lost in the details. But as the excerpt below shows, coming at it from the PoV of phase transitions considerably simplifies the picture (assuming of course that you’re comfortable with phase transitions).

To visualise how this effect arises, imagine that you are in a large field filled with people screaming. You are screaming too. At some time t = 0 everyone stops screaming simultaneously. What will you hear? After 1 second you will still be able to hear the distant screaming of people more than 330 metres away (the speed of sound in air, v, is about 330 m/s). After 3 seconds you will be able to hear distant screams from people more than 1 kilometre away (even though those distant people stopped screaming when you did). At any time t, assuming a suitably heightened sense of hearing, you will hear some faint screams, but the closest and loudest will be coming from people a distance v*t away. This distance defines the ‘surface of last screaming’ and this surface is receding from you at the speed of sound. …

When something is hot and cools down it can undergo a phase transition. For example, hot steam cools down to become water, and when cooled further it becomes ice. The Universe went through similar phase transitions as it expanded and cooled. One such phase transition … produced the last scattering surface. When the Universe was cool enough to allow the electrons and protons to fall together, they ‘recombined’ to form neutral hydrogen. […] photons do not interact with neutral hydrogen, so they were free to travel through the Universe without being scattered. They decoupled from matter. The opaque Universe then became transparent.

Imagine you are living 15 billion years ago. You would be surrounded by a very hot opaque plasma of electrons and protons. The Universe is expanding and cooling. When the Universe cools down below a critical temperature, the fog clears instantaneously everywhere. But you would not be able to see that it has cleared everywhere because, as you look into the far distance, you would be seeing into the opaque past of distant parts of the Universe. As the Universe continues to expand and cool you would be able to see farther, but you would always see the bright opaque fog in the distance, in the past. That bright fog is the surface of last scattering. It is the boundary between a transparent and an opaque universe and you can still see it today, 15 billion years later.

The political theatre of Vardhan v. Ramdev

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine and against people desperately looking for oxygen for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

However, it wasn’t clear why the Indian government – so trigger-happy against any small, even nonexistent, slights against “India’s reputation” – didn’t book Ramdev under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 or any other law. Or is this not the right question to ask?

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the Centre-company vaccine orders with the people.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a madman’s diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed to curry favour with his own party, and his Supreme Leader, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists is met with blockheaded whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers, who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”. Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers? This is the right question to ask.

Featured image: Harsh Vardhan and Baba Ramdev. Credits: MST/PIB and Kumari Anu/PIB, Wikimedia Commons.

On the PSA’s new COVID-19 advisory

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India, K. VijayRaghavan, has issued a new advisory emphasising the roles of “masks, distance, sanitation and ventilation” to end the country’s COVID-19 epidemic.

Over the last few weeks, VijayRaghavan has been sharing similar messages from his official Twitter account, most recently on May 15. The advisory reflects many of his suggestions, including following COVID-appropriate behaviour, maintaining distances and ventilating rooms.

It’s noticeable that this advisory has shown up in the middle of the country’s second wave – instead of before the first wave, which began around February 2020.

What to do but not what not

The advisory begins with a recap of how the virus is transmitted: “Even one infected person showing no symptoms can release enough droplets to create a ‘viral load’ that can infect many others,” it says. “Symptoms can take up to two weeks to appear in an infected person, during which time they may continue to transmit the virus to others. Some people may never show symptoms and still transmit the virus.”

Next, it briefly discusses the mechanics of aerosol versus droplet transmission, starting with: “Aerosols and droplets are the key transmission mode (sic) of the virus.”

Both aerosols and droplets describe fluid particles; aerosols are just smaller and lighter, thus less susceptible to being pulled down by gravity and more likely to be blown around by winds. All persons release both aerosols and droplets when they breathe, talk, cough, sneeze, etc. If a person is infected with the novel coronavirus, the aerosols and droplets will contain viral particles.

Early last year, when the pandemic was just getting underway, the WHO refused to admit that particles of the novel coronavirus could be transmitted through aerosols.

Because droplets are bigger, they typically settle down to the ground within six feet, or two metres – a point that the advisory also makes. Fluid dynamics expert Ronak Gupta wrote for The Wire Science in May 2020 that this figure is based on a study conducted with tuberculosis patients in the 1930s. This is also where the suggestion to maintain a distance of six feet from people around you comes from.

The WHO didn’t change its mind until 200 scientists expressed their concerns in an “unusually public outcry”, and forced the international body to reconsider the evidence for aerosol transmission.

The advisory also reminds readers of the reality of transmission via surfaces. “Virus-laden droplets can survive on non-porous surfaces such as glass, plastic and stainless steel for a fairly long time,” it reads, and recommends that people regularly clean surfaces they touch often, like door-knobs and light switches, with bleach or phenyl.

Note that the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said last month that the chance of a person getting infected after touching surfaces is “1 in 10,000”. The PSA’s advisory doesn’t mention the relative unlikelihood of this mode of transmission, suggesting that it is as equally likely as the other two (droplets and aerosols).

The advisory also doesn’t advise against unnecessarily disinfecting certain surfaces. For example, Sumi Krishna has written about civic officials in Bengaluru spraying bleach on trees, roads and vehicle tyres, echoing reports of similar activities in other parts of the country. In the face of uncertainty about what to do, people have often done whatever they can – leading to what some have called ‘hygiene theatre’.

In one infamous incident in March last year, municipal officers in Bareilly forced a group of migrant workers to squat on the road and hosed them with a sodium hypochlorite solution.

Masking strategies

Next, the advisory discusses masks and the risks of different masking strategies in different situations.

Wear a surgical mask, then wear another tight fitting cloth mask over it. If you do not have a surgical mask, wear two cotton masks together. Ideally surgical mask should be used only once, but when pairing, you can use it up to 5 times by leaving it in a dry place for 7 days after one use (ideally give it some sun exposure) and then reuse as double layer.

The next five pages are devoted to ventilation. It describes having windows and doors shut as “poor ventilation”, having doors and windows open as “good ventilation” and doors/windows open with an exhaust system as “ideal ventilation”. Second, it describes what people living in hutments can do to improve ventilation, including requesting gram panchayats to install small windows to improve air flow.

Its recommendation for work spaces is the same as in the first case, with the addition of air conditioners, thus ensuring both directed inflow and directed outflow.

Fourth, the advisory recommends “offices, auditoriums, shopping malls, etc.” install “roof ventilators and HEPA/regular filters” and that the people in charge be mindful of the filters’ service lives and replacement schedules. High-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filters are filters designed to remove at least 99.95% of particles that are 0.3 µm wide.

Finally, it makes similar recommendations for people travelling in crowded vehicles, that passengers should have as many opportunities as possible for fresh air to flow in a direction away from them.

The last part of the advisory deals with “community-level testing and isolation” in rural and semi-urban areas.

Get rapid antigen testing done for people entering the area. ASHA/anganwadi/health workers must be trained and protected for conducting the rapid antigen test. These health workers must be given a certified N95 mask even if they are vaccinated. ASHA/anganwadi/health workers to also be provided oximeters to monitor infected person (sic).

It also asks that “every person who tests positive should be given a certified N95 mask, or a surgical mask if this is not feasible, and advised isolated (sic) as per ICMR guidelines.”

Other communication events

Many behavioural economists have said that clear, simple and authoritative communication that encourages good behaviour vis-à-vis controlling the epidemic is always welcome. The Office of the PSA also released an advisory early last year stressing the importance of wearing masks, including a widely appreciated guidance (PDF) on how to stitch one’s own masks.

This said, the advisory’s timing is interesting because it coincides with some other significant pandemic-related communication events.

First, Tamil TV channels, especially those affiliated with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have been airing a two-minute long video in which Tamil Nadu’s new chief minister M.K. Stalin describes the proper way to wear a mask, to wash hands, the importance of staying indoors to the extent possible and of getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

Second, the CDC recently updated its guidelines to say people in the US who had received both doses of their vaccines needn’t have to wear masks in public. The update stoked some confusion among experts, but CDC director Rochelle Walensky said the agency’s decision was based on early reports that suggest the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines also significantly cut transmission. That is, people who have received both doses of either vaccine also become highly unlikely to be able to transmit the virus if they get infected.

However, any similar data for the vaccines in use in India – mostly Covishield and Covaxin – are lacking. We don’t know, provably at least, if Covishield and Covaxin cut down transmission and, if so, to what extent.

Conflicting aims

Third, as a document that sticks to the ‘physical’ characteristics of the epidemic, the advisory doesn’t address what people without the resources whose availability it presumes – like room enough to maintain a gap of six feet, exhaust fans that open to meaningful air-streams or clean running water – can do to avoid getting infected.

Even if this criticism can’t be laid at the PSA office’s doorstep alone, the issues make up a significant point of difference between the government’s poor communication thus far and the lived realities of many lakhs of Indians, especially in rural parts, where the second wave is expected to surge next.

By not discussing what the government could have done better, differently or not at all, the advisory gives the impression that the pandemic’s future is in the people’s hands. However, the Indian and many state governments are already out of step with many of the recommendations.

For example, the advisory spends five pages on ventilating rooms properly – but many vaccination centres and hospitals around the country have become potential sites of new infections themselves: the queues are long, the rooms often crowded; in some instances, overcrowding forced healthcare workers to accommodate two people on each bed, sharing oxygen supplies.

For another example, the advisory suggests that air-conditioned trains and buses install HEPA filters. This demand is a far cry from the conditions in which many of these vehicles, but especially buses, currently operate – with torn seat covers, broken handles and guardrails and grime covering most surfaces.

There is no indication that VijayRaghavan or his colleagues have spoken up against these shortcomings before. VijayRaghavan himself has been silent in the face of many questions about his role in the government’s actions. For example, as Karan Thapar asked: “when Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said there was no need to wear masks in his state or when Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said faith in god and the power of the Ganga river would protect people from COVID-19”, what did VijayRaghavan say to them?

Prem Shankar Jha has pointed out that the government has maintained “two conflicting aims”, each undermining the other, since the pandemic began: one to avert a second wave and the other to extract political mileage. The PSA is a high office in the government: articulating the bare minimum of what needs to be done is necessary to further one set of aims. But what happens when he doesn’t push back against the other?

The Wire Science
May 21, 2021

On The Lancet editorial

On May 8, The Lancet published an editorial criticising the Narendra Modi government’s response to India’s second COVID-19 outbreak, which has been redefining the meaning of ‘snafu’. All hell broke loose. Of course, hell has been breaking loose for quite some time in India now, but the latest episode was in one specific sense also gratifying to behold.

There were the usual rumbles in the week following the editorial’s appearance, until on May 17 India’s health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan shared a blog post penned by a Pankaj Chaturvedi deriding The Lancet‘s choice of arguments. (I’m fond of emboldening the honorific: it shows doctors can be stupid, too.) The post is mostly whataboutery studded with a few gems about how people who liked the editorial aren’t pissed enough that favipiravir and hydroxychloroquine were approved for use – as Dr Vardhan’s ministry did. More importantly, it seems Dr Vardhan, and his colleagues in fact, threw themselves into the barrel looking for anything with fully formed sentences that said The Lancet was wrong – a sign that their government still gives a damn about what foreign journals, and perhaps magazines and newspapers too, say about it.

We need to use this to the fullest extent, and I daresay that it’s the sort of resource the government is going to find difficult to duplicate as well. There was recently an article about Modi doing a great job during India’s second wave, published in an outlet called The Daily Guardian. There was enough confusion to draw the UK’s The Guardian forward and clarify that it was an unaffiliated entity – but no amount of confusion can supplant an institution, no matter how illiberal. Aakar Patel wrote in 2018: “The fact is that intelligent and intellectual bigotry is very difficult. There are very few people who can pull that off and that is why we can count the major ones on our fingers.” This is also why the government has twitched every time the New York Times, the Washington Post, BBC, The Lancet, Science and The BMJ have published articles critical of India, even if this isn’t the full picture.

It’s doubly interesting that the sophistry of the rejoinders aside, Dr Vardhan, his colleagues in government and his party’s supporters have all been antagonised by what they perceive to be a political act by a medical journal. This is an untenable distinction, of course – one that fantasises about a clear divide between the Watchers, who look out, and the Watched, who dare not know what the Watchers see. More pertinently, it’s a reflection of what they desperately expect from their own compatriots: to ignore how bad political leadership could help a virus ravage hundreds of thousands of families.

Featured image credit: Kunj Parekh/Unsplash.

Melinda, Bill and Jeffrey (Epstein)

I’m not sure what to make of Bill Gates as he features in the New York Times‘s report on his divorce with Melinda French Gates, although it’s tempting to see hints of that attitude so often on display when the Jeffrey Epstein scandal broke in 2019: “I had to have known of the sort of man I’m doing business with but I’m going to pretend that stuff doesn’t exist – or if I can’t then I’m going to remember that it doesn’t bother me – and if someone asks I’m going to say ‘I didn’t know’, and if they don’t believe me I’m just going to offer some money.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s revelation on May 9 that Melinda had been speaking to divorce lawyers since 2019 made it hard to discount an Epstein connection, too.

Other people who came tumbling out of the closet at the time, crooning excuses of various degrees of similarity, include Joi Ito, John Brockman, Lawrence Krauss, George Church, Seth Lloyd and Jean-François Gariépy, plus MIT and Arizona State University.

Excerpts from the report:

And then there was Jeffrey Epstein, whom Mr. Gates got to know beginning in 2011, three years after Mr. Epstein, who faced accusations of sex trafficking of girls, pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor. Ms. French Gates had expressed discomfort with her husband spending time with the sex offender, but Mr. Gates continued doing so, according to people who were at or briefed on gatherings with the two men.

So, in October 2019, when the relationship between Mr. Gates and Mr. Epstein burst into public view, Ms. French Gates was unhappy. She hired divorce lawyers, setting in motion a process that culminated this month with the announcement that their marriage was ending.

About a year after the settlement – and less than two weeks after Ms. French Gates’s column in Time – The Times published an article detailing Mr. Gates’s relationship with Mr. Epstein. The article reported that the two men had spent time together on multiple occasions, flying on Mr. Epstein’s private jet and attending a late-night gathering at his Manhattan townhouse. “His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing although it would not work for me,” Mr. Gates emailed colleagues in 2011, after he first met Mr. Epstein.

(Ms. Arnold, the spokeswoman for Mr. Gates, said at the time that he regretted the relationship with Mr. Epstein. She said that Mr. Gates had been unaware that the plane belonged to Mr. Epstein and that Mr. Gates had been referring to the unique décor of Mr. Epstein’s home.)

LOL!

The Times article included details about Mr. Gates’s interactions with Mr. Epstein that Ms. French Gates had not previously known, according to people familiar with the matter. Soon after its publication she began consulting with divorce lawyers and other advisers who would help the couple divide their assets, one of the people said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the timing of her lawyers’ hiring.

The revelations in The Times were especially upsetting to Ms. French Gates because she had previously voiced her discomfort with her husband associating with Mr. Epstein, who died by suicide in federal custody in 2019, shortly after being charged with sex trafficking of girls. Ms. French Gates expressed her unease in the fall of 2013 after she and Mr. Gates had dinner with Mr. Epstein at his townhouse, according to people briefed on the dinner and its aftermath.

The Daily Beast reported on May 7:

Melinda Gates met with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein alongside her husband, Bill, in New York City and soon after said she was furious at the relationship between the two men, according to people familiar with the situation. The previously unreported meeting occurred at Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion in September 2013…  The meeting would prove a turning point for Gates’ relationship with Epstein, the people familiar with the matter say, as Melinda told friends after the encounter how uncomfortable she was in the company of the wealthy sex offender and how she wanted nothing to do with him. Gates’ friendship with Epstein—who for years was accused of molesting scores of underage girls—still haunts Melinda, according to friends of the couple who spoke to The Daily Beast this week…

Again, a hint of the “the two things aren’t connected” logic.

And for his part: “A person who attended meetings at Epstein’s townhouse says Gates enjoyed holding court there. … Gates used the gatherings at Epstein’s $77 million New York townhouse as an escape from what he told Epstein was a ‘toxic’ marriage, a topic both men found humorous, a person who attended the meetings told The Daily Beast.”

Gates’s spokesperson has denied all these allegations, and others.

Back to the New York Times:

For years, Mr. Gates continued to go to dinners and meetings at Mr. Epstein’s home, where Mr. Epstein usually surrounded himself with young and attractive women, said two people who were there and two others who were told about the gatherings. Ms. Arnold said Mr. Gates never socialized or attended parties with Mr. Epstein, and she denied that young and attractive women participated at their meetings. “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy,” Ms. Arnold said.

Read: “The other stuff didn’t bother him. Bill only met with Epstein to help launder Epstein’s reputation.”

Sometime after 2013, Mr. Epstein brought Mr. Gates to meet Leon Black, the head of Apollo Investments who had a multifaceted business and personal relationship with Mr. Epstein, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The meeting was held at Apollo’s New York offices. It is unclear whether Ms. French Gates was aware of the latest meetings with Mr. Epstein.

It seems the Bill-Jeffrey friendship wasn’t as benign as media reports have suggested, but while he was clearly bad news for the couple, Epstein was also the last straw – and not the sole cause of the break-up. As the rest of the Times article discusses, as do articles in The Daily Beast and Wall Street Journal, Melinda had been discomfited by Bill’s response to accusations of harassment against his money manager and his affair with an employee a year before he quit the Microsoft board in 2020.

Featured image: A photograph of Jeffrey Epstein in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Review: ‘Love Death + Robots’ 2 (2021)

It’s not so much born in my head as it seems to be repeated in everything around us. Or maybe it’s playing in my head and I’m afraid to admit it.

I’ve been curious why the Marvel Cinematic Universe picked the Malthusian catastrophe for the ultimate disaster the superheroes rescue everyone else from. Narendra Modi has invoked the misguided idea of some (religious) communities breeding too fast for Hindu India – for Bharat – to bear. The third episode of Love Death + Robots 2, ‘Pop Squad’, visits the same idea from the class perspective. Its story seems to assume the language peculiar to the world it is set in doesn’t need explanation, and how right it is: a minute into the episode, you know ‘Pop’ in the title refers to ‘Population’. You know that lady’s “boost” is her longevity injection, that “rejoo” is short for rejuvenation (no spoilers). ‘Snow in the Desert’, the next episode, visits a dystopia in the neighbourhood. Both of them touch on the allegedly polar issues of poverty and immortality.

I know all these words in stories because they’re old tropes but the public imagination is not a synecdoche: perhaps we know them because they’re on the back of our minds? And if so, why are they there? Perhaps they haunt all pre-fascist societies – like premonitions of otherisations ad infinitum, inequalities ad absurdum. Perhaps they haunt everyone who’s come close to the deranged eschatologies of the far right, and they’re phantoms of the irreversible unforgetting of what these ideologues are prepared to do to make their fantasies come true.

Love Death + Robots 2 seems fixated on such auguries, in fact. It has nothing of the variety the first season did, a season that explored so many facets of the human condition (my favourites are ‘Sonnie’s Edge’ and ‘Zima Blue’); in contrast the second season only seems interested in passing commentary, and anything interested in commentary over substance can offer neither.

‘Pop Squad’ had the tightest script by far and the lack of intensity and cynicism in every other episode was consipicuous. (You can’t say cynicism’s absence in Forrest Gump was conspicuous but you can with Tau, so you know what I mean.) ‘The Tall Grass’ got a rise out of me with its simple premise – Gigerian, I’d say, because like the artist’s work, it drafts a new sentence, leaves blanks where some words used to be and asks us to fill them in. The result is often a horror that feels visceral because it’s of our own making.

On the other hand, ‘Ice’ was a near-criminal waste of a premise, I’d argue, a children’s tale of the sort that shouldn’t find place in an anthology as iconoclastic as LDR. ‘All Through the House’ was a poor simile of the first season’s ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’. ‘Automated Customer Service’ was tosh. ‘The Drowned Giant’ was a short story annotated by CGI; the protagonist’s narration stood by itself so I’m not sure what the visuals were doing there. I don’t know what the point of ‘Life Hutch’ was.

But all of them – except perhaps ‘Ice’ – were concerned one way or another with a madhouse apocalypse. Imagine a spectrum defined by the following narrative function: a human or two is thrown into the deep end of the perishablity pool and thrashes about for a bit; some learn to swim; everyone discovers the possibility of unusual endings or the endings of unusual things. Encode this into a blathering neural network and sooner than later, you’d have Love Death + Robots 2.

Perhaps its producers started off aspiring to animate fantastic worlds with the tensions binding the real one, but sadly for them reality was and remains far ahead. People have lived through and anticipated more than what even ‘Pop Squad’ offers us. It’s easy to see where each episode is going within the first twenty seconds – fostering an unacceptable level of predictability, give or take a couple twists. There are no ghosts, no phantoms, nothing that lingers inside a small box you didn’t know was there inside your head. They show us the end of the world but do little to help us confront it.

Featured image credit: Netflix.

On the International Day of Light, remembering darkness

Today is the International Day of Light. According to a UNESCO note:

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

While there are natural lasers, the advent of the laser in Maiman’s hands portended an age of manipulating light to make big advances in a variety of fields. Some applications that come immediately to mind are communications, laser-guided missiles, laser cooling and astronomy. I’m not sure why “the first successful operation of the laser” came to be commemorated as a ‘day of light’, but since it has, its association with astronomy is interesting.

Astronomers have found themselves collecting to protest the launch and operation of satellite constellations, notably SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper, after the first few Starlink satellites interfered with astronomical observations. SpaceX has since acknowledged the problem and said it will reduce the reflectance of the satellites it launches, but I don’t think the problem has been resolved. Further, the constellation isn’t complete: thousands of additional satellites will be launched in the coming years, and will be joined by other constellations as well, and the full magnitude of the problem may only become apparent then.

Nonetheless, astronomers’ opposition to such projects brought the idea of the night sky as a shared commons into the public spotlight. Just like arid lands, butterfly colonies and dense jungles are part of our ecological commons, and plateaus, shelves and valleys make up our geological commons, and so on – all from which the human species draws many benefits, an obstructed view of the night sky and the cosmic objects embedded therein characterise the night sky as a commons. And as we draw tangible health and environmental benefits from terrestrial commons, the view of the night sky has, over millennia, offered humans many cultural benefits as well.

However, this conflict between SpaceX, etc. on one hand and the community of astronomers on the other operates at a higher level, so to speak: its resolution in favour of astronomers, for example, still only means – for example – operating fewer satellites or satellites at a higher altitude, avoiding major telescopes’ fields of view, painting the underside with a light-absorbing substance, etc. The dispute is unlikely to have implications for the night sky as a commons of significant cultural value. If it is indeed to be relevant, the issue needs to become deep enough to accommodate, and continue to draw the attention and support of academics and corporations for, the non-rivalrous enjoyment of the night sky with the naked eye, for nothing other than to write better poems, have moonlight dinners and marvel at the stars.

As our fight to preserve our ecological commons has hardened in the face of a state bent on destroying them to line the pockets of its capital cronies, I think we have also started to focus on the economic and other tangible benefits this commons offers us – at the cost of downplaying a transcendental right to their sensual enjoyment. Similarly, we shouldn’t have to justify the importance of the night sky as a commons beyond saying we need to be able to enjoy it.

Of course such an argument is bound to be accused of being disconnected from reality, that the internet coverage Starlink offers will be useful for people living in as-yet unconnected or poorly connected areas – and I agree. We can’t afford to fight all our battles at once if we also expect to reap meaningful rewards in a reasonably short span of time, so let me invoke a reminder that the night sky is an environmental resource as well: “Let us be reminded, as we light the world to suit our needs and whims,” a 2005 book wrote, “that doing so may come at the expense of other living beings, some of whom detect subtle gradations of light to which we are blind, and for whom the night is home.”

More relevant to our original point, of the International Day of Light, astronomy and the night sky as a commons, a study published in 2016 reported the following data:

According to the study paper (emphasis added):

The sky brightness levels are those used in the tables and indicate the following: up to 1% above the natural light (0 to 1.7 μcd/m2; black); from 1 to 8% above the natural light (1.7 to 14 μcd/m2; blue); from 8 to 50% above natural nighttime brightness (14 to 87 μcd/m2; green); from 50% above natural to the level of light under which the Milky Way is no longer visible (87 to 688 μcd/m2; yellow); from Milky Way loss to estimated cone stimulation (688 to 3000 μcd/m2; red); and very high nighttime light intensities, with no dark adaption for human eyes (>3000 μcd/m2; white).

That is, in India, ‘only’ a fifth of the population experiences a level of light pollution that obscures the faintest view of the Milky Way – but in Saudi Arabia, at the other end of the spectrum, nearly 92% of the population is correspondingly unfortunate (not that I presume they care).

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377

While India has a few red dots, it is green almost nearly everywhere and blue nearly everywhere, lest we get carried away. Why, in March this year, Dorje Angchuk, an engineer at the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle who has come to be celebrated for his beautiful photographs of the night sky over Ladakh, tweeted the following images that demonstrate how even highly localised light pollution, which may not be well-represented on global maps, can affect the forms and hues in which the night sky is available to us.

The distribution of colours also reinforces our understanding of cities as economic engines – where more lights shine brighter and, although this map doesn’t show it, more pollutants hang in the air. The red dots over India coincide roughly with the country’s major urban centres: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Photographs of winter mornings in New Delhi show the sky as an orange-brown mass through which even the Sun is barely visible; other stars are out of the question, even after astronomical twilight.

But again, we’re not going to have much luck if our demands to reduce urban emissions are premised on our inability to have an unobstructed view of the night sky. At the same time we must achieve this victory: there’s no reason our street lamps and other public lighting facilities need to throw light upwards, that our billboards need to be visible from above, etc., and perhaps every reason for human settlements – even if they aren’t erected around or near optical telescopes – to turn off as many lights as they can between 10 pm and 6 am. The regulation of light needs to be part of our governance. And the International Day of Light should be a reminder that our light isn’t the only light we need, that darkness is a virtue as well.

Courts and COVID

India’s courts have played a prominent in helping (or not) the country manage its COVID-19 epidemic, especially during the second wave this year – from asking the government to explain which proofs of identity will be accepted at vaccination centres to recommending lockdowns. Two high courts, Madras and Allahabad, have also expressed sentiments that had until then been confined to Twitter – that the Election Commission should assume responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people and that state failures to supply oxygen amount to “genocide”. Here are some of the more notable search results from Bar & Bench, plus one from The Wire.

Death of COVID patients due to Oxygen shortage nothing less than genocide: Allahabad High Court orders inquiry

“Election Commission should be put up on murder charges:” Madras High Court on ECI’s failure to stop “abuse” of COVID norms in election rallies

Delhi High Court seeks report from Delhi Police in plea alleging hoarding of COVID-19 medicines by political leaders

Pained that orders are being completely ignored: Gujarat High Court asks why real-time updates on hospital beds are not available

Karnataka High Court suggests judicial inquiry into death of 24 patients in Chamarajanagar COVID-19 facility due to lack of oxygen

Overcrowding at COVID vaccination centres could become a “super spreader:” Kerala High Court registers suo motu case

Structured response required to give adequate relief to voiceless and the marginalised sections: Delhi High Court

News of death not negative: Delhi High Court dismisses PIL to regulate “negativity” due to reporting on COVID-19

“Current COVID vaccine policy will create disparity; Bahujans, marginalised groups may not have ability to pay:” Supreme Court

Is Aadhaar necessary for COVID-19 vaccination? Bombay High Court asks Central, Maharashtra government to clarify

“All you are showing is that things will be hunky-dory in June, did Central govt consult experts?” Madras High Court

SC Stays Delhi HC Order on Contempt Proceedings Against Centre Over Oxygen Supply

I’m not yet sure if one variety of proclamation will be more effectual than the other (social-media outrage versus outbursts from the courts) in terms of causing real change.

In addition, while the courts’ expertise is less questionable on matters related to the people’s rights and governments’ responsibilities, they do trip up when they recommend lockdowns or the supply of unproven drugs the same way the Supreme Court has tripped up asking for smog towers in Delhi. Have the courts assessed the trial data? Have they consulted doctors? If so, which ones were consulted? Do the courts also intend to ensure migrant and daily-wage workers don’t get fucked over this time?

It’s good that the judiciary is cracking the whip when almost no one else is, but knowing how the judicial system works, I’m not sure if we should rejoice already… “This is what things have come to, and the courts can help ensure the only way we go from here is up” is not a bad argument in their favour. But you may also notice a distinction between the high courts and the apex court: the latter seems reluctant to admit the idea that the government is responsible for the mess that almost everyone else (on this side of the aisle) believe it created. Is recovery sans accountability a good bargain?