About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Life in a time of COVID-19

November update: The US continues to set new records for cases — 181,000 on November 13, up about 75 percent from two weeks earlier. Deaths rose by 34 percent, with 1,380 people dying on November 13 and 68,000 people hospitalized (up 41 percent). Looking at a graph of the number of new cases plotted as a seven-day moving average, it’s obvious the US is in the third wave of the pandemic. There are a total of more than 10 million people in the country that have had COVID-19. Despite the continuing climb in numbers, however, there are still those in the US who believe that COVID is “under control,” that we have to “learn to live with it” (as soon-to-be former president Donald Trump put it) and that wearing masks and other precautions are not necessary. Even in Canada there have been tensions between governments that have imposed mask rules, and those who believe that such laws are an infringement on their rights. This also happened during the 1918 flu.

Source: New York Times November 13

As you can see from the above graph, the US is entering a third wave, much higher than the previous two. The 1918 flu followed a similar trajectory: a small initial wave, followed by a summer lull, and then a much higher wave in the fall and winter. Almost all 50 states are in what experts call an “unrestrained spread” category, with positivity rates climbing, and some are close to or at their limit in terms of ICU beds. On the upside, mortality rates seem to be advancing at a lower rate than in earlier waves — in part because doctors have gotten better at treating patients with COVID — but it’s also worth noting that deaths lag testing by about three weeks. And American Thanksgiving could be a very difficult time, with many people desperate to get together with family, combined with “pandemic fatigue,” where some people seem fed up with all of the quarantining and mask-wearing, and are either uninformed about the risks or willing to take them. Experts also say many people are dealing with mental health issues as a result of being quarantined, especially the elderly.

The graphic below comes from an interactive map designed by researchers at Georgia Tech, which displays the odds of you encountering someone with COVID, based on the number of people at an event and the testing results from counties across the US. So for example, if you are at an event with 25 or more people in much of the Midwest, there’s a better than 80 percent chance that someone at that event has COVID. And for much of the US, the odds are better than 50 percent that there will be an infected person at any event with more than about 25 people. Many countries in Europe are also going back into lockdown because their rates are climbing faster than they did during the first outbreak, and there seems to be a consensus that Sweden’s attempt to keep things open and pursue a “herd immunity” strategy is a failure.

via Georgia Tech
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16th century badass Julie D’Aubigny, also known as Le Maupin

Legendary swordswoman, opera singer, bisexual icon — Julie D’Aubigny was all of these things, in 17th century France. She was born in 1673 to Gaston d’Aubigny, the secretary to Louis de Lorraine-Guise, the Comte d’Armagnac, the Master of the Horse for King Louis XIV. Because of her father’s position, she was taught to read, draw, and use a rapier. At the age of 14 she began an affair with her father’s employer Count d’Armagnac (or he began one with her) but in order to protect her reputation, she was married to Sieur de Maupin and thereafter was known as Le Maupin. She soon tired of the Count and ran off with one of her fencing teachers — they fled to Marseille, where they entertained crowds by fencing and singing. D’Aubigny performed while dressed as a man but was billed as a woman, and more than once when a heckler yelled that women couldn’t be that good with a sword, she tore open her blouse to shut him up.

After falling in love with a woman, the girl’s parents sent her off to a convent so that D’Aubigny couldn’t pursue her, but Le Maupin followed her to the convent in Avignon. She said she wanted to become a nun, and after taking her holy vows and being admitted to the nunnery, she found her lover and they two plotted their escape — when an elderly nun died, they took her body and put it in the girl’s bed and then set the convent on fire. D’Aubigny was sentenced to death in absentia, but after making her way to Paris, she approached the Count d’Armagnac and he agreed to ask King Louis XIV for a pardon, which was granted because the king was amused by her exploits.

D’Aubigny joined the Paris Opera, and took many lovers, both male and female. According to one story, she challenged a fellow actor to a duel after she rejected his advances and he called her a whore. Later that night she beat him senseless with a cane and took his watch and snuffbox — when he told the story about being mugged by thieves the next day, D’Aubigny produced the watch and snuffbox and he was humiliated. Later, she fell in love with the Marquise de Florensac, widely known as the most beautiful woman in France. They lived together for several years, until Florensac died from a fever. D’Aubigny was reportedly devastated — she retired from the opera, joined a convent and died at the age of 33.

There’s no such thing as a fish

Please don’t assume from the title of this post that it’s about how fish don’t actually exist, and/or that they are some kind of spy robot developed by the government, which is a popular meme about birds that I’m pretty sure is a joke (although nowadays you never know). Fish definitely exist, if by that you mean things that swim and have scales and gills and so forth. So what does the title mean? I came across it because it’s the name of a podcast in which the hosts dive into unusual or little-known facts: There’s No Such Thing As A Fish. It’s also a statement reportedly made by the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, and elaborated on by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Ancestor’s Tale.”

Workers at the National Museum of Kenya show a coelacanth caught by Kenyan fishermen in 2001.

So what did Gould mean? In essence, his point is that the category of “fish” is way too broad, and that not all the members of that group share things in common. For example, the lungfish and an ancient fish known as the coelacanth have more in common with a camel than they do with a salmon, even though all of them live in the water and swim. There are more than 32,000 species that qualify to be considered “fish,” a far greater number than any other group of vertebrates, and there are some wide differences — the hagfish (known for its prodigious production of slime, which expands in volume by 10,000 percent in a fraction of a second) has a rudimentary skull but doesn’t have a spine, and takes in nutrients through its skin.

As a commenter on this blog post pointed out, the problem comes from the intersection between colloquial language and the scientific categorization of different species. And the problem with the category of “fish” is that if you include anything that has fish-like ancestors, it pretty much includes all mammals, including human beings, since we are ultimately descended from fish. But within that broad category there are discrete groups of fishy things, like the ray-finned fishes, which includes everything from goldfish to tuna, or the cartilaginous group, which includes sharks and rays.

Here’s what the Oxford Encyclopedia of Underwater Life (yes there is such a thing) says about the term fish:

“Incredible as it may sound, there is no such thing as a fish. The concept is merely a convenient umbrella term to describe an aquatic vertebrate that is not a mammal, a turtle, or anything else. There are five quite separate groups (classes) of fishes now alive, plus three extinct ones, not at all closely related to one another. Lumping these together under the term fishes is like lumping all flying vertebrates — namely, bats (mammals), birds, and even the flying lizard — under the single heading birds, just because they all fly.”

The Google case is a stew of technology, law, and politics

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, the House subcommittee on antitrust released a 400-plus page report detailing the anti-competitive practices of the four major digital platforms — Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook — and called for the Department of Justice (among others) to take action against them. And this week, the government did exactly that, filing a landmark antitrust case against Google, one the DoJ has reportedly been working on for some time. Depending on whom you ask, it is either a cravenly political gambit by Attorney General Bill Barr designed to make the Trump administration look tough, a legal quagmire that is significantly weaker than the 1998 Microsoft case and almost certain to fail, or a sign that the government is finally taking strong action to correct some of the blatant antitrust failures of the past two decades. It’s even possible that it may be all three of those things simultaneously.

What it is almost certain to be, if it survives the election (and there’s good reason to believe it will continue even if Joe Biden becomes president), is a full-employment program for antitrust lawyers both inside the DoJ and elsewhere. The Microsoft case generated work for thousands of lawyers for the more than five years it took to reach a conclusion. As a number of experts have pointed out since the Google case was filed, it also ended with a negotiated settlement and a series of fairly modest restrictions on Microsoft’s conduct, a deal the Justice Department was forced to reach after its proposed remedy — breaking of the company into two parts — was rejected by the courts. That said, however, some tech veterans believe the case was successful despite its weak conclusion, because it tied Microsoft up in legal knots, and made the company hyper-sensitive to criticism, and therefore leery of being too aggressive. This, ironically, helped the rise of a little company called Google.

Those who subscribe to the theory that the case was rushed out the door to make Trump look good point to reports before the indictment’s release that Barr was pressuring the DoJ to launch the case before the election, and some members of the staff there reportedly balked, saying it wasn’t ready. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, doesn’t buy this theory, however: he told CJR during a discussion on our Galley platform Wednesday that “it’s actually a very strong case, and a well-written case. So this was anything but a rush job”. Zephyr Teachout, a professor of law at Fordham University and a former Democratic candidate for governor of New York, said in a similar discussion that while she believes Barr “should be impeached, and I don’t trust him for a second”, the case is well-grounded, and should have been brought years ago. Both Lynn and Teachout said that despite the appearance of political divisions in the House report that preceded the Google case, there is more agreement than disagreement about the necessity for regulation.

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