Addiction to prediction

Samanth Subramanian makes a good point:

Our societies are complex systems, turning on a host of visible and invisible axes. Predicting their behavior is, quite literally, the stuff of science fiction; only Hari Seldon, the psychohistorian in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels, has managed to do it with any reasonable success. But he had the advantage of being a fictional character.

It’s always tempting to talk about “the new normal” and speculate about how the world will be different once all of this is over. I’ve done it myself often enough.

We should, however, keep in mind that we really don’t have much basis for extrapolating from the current situation, inertia is often underestimated, and any prediction probably says a lot more about the person making the prediction than anything else.

It strikes me that the problem with this sort of prediction is that it lazily assumes that things will work out however we want them to. As such, I think it would probably be worth spending a bit less time talking about how the world might look and a bit more time thinking about how the world should look.

Quote of the day: The baboon chorus

Large numbers of Tory MPs know that their job involves precious little beyond emitting low level growling noises at noon on Wednesdays to provide a sort of aural white noise masking effect for the blindingly obvious uselessness of the man they chose to be their leader.

Tom Peck explains why the UK’s virtual parliament has been deemed a failure and MPs absolutely must return to their benches after June.

The Belgian shutdown has started

You can tell things are getting bad when Belgium gets a government. This is, of course, only a temporary government — negotiations are still ongoing for the new federal government — but prime minister, Sophie Wilmès now has powers for six months to take measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic without requiring parliamentary approval.

The first thing this government did was to declare a declare a nation-wide shutdown as of noon today. Until 5th April, we are all expected to stay at home except for essential reasons, such as food shopping, or outdoor physical activities which can only be done with people living in the same house.

They are trying to avoid calling this a lockdown for fear of negative connotations. But that’s what this is.

Compared to yesterday, we’re not that much affected. I’m already working from home and Eve is still able to take the boys out in the afternoon in order to prevent us all going stir crazy. Because I am not walking to work at present, I have taken to taking a walk around town before I start working and again when I have finished. This is still allowed as long as I don’t talk to anyone.

In slightly more positive news, a citizens’ initiative has been launched aiming to bring together isolated people with volunteers available to gather and deliver essential shopping. The idea from Covid Solidarity is to make shopping list templates for printing out available to people who find themselves isolated.

Once completed, the list may be placed in a visible position in front of one’s house so that a neighbour can pick it up and set about making the necessary purchases.

The shopping is then deposited without physical contact, and reimbursement for purchases made is handled directly by the person lending assistance and the person being assisted, according to the procedure detailed on the site.

And two Dutch universities are looking into whether a vaccine for tuberculosis can be used to boost immune systems which may mean fewer and less severe infections.

Mad compromise of the moment

The Belgium National Security Council met on Thursday to come up with new measures to address the public concern surrounding the coronavirus. They have come up with a number of measures that, essentially, amount to cancelling weekends and, bizarrely:

All classes at school will be suspended, but schools will be asked to provide care, especially for parents who are unable to look after their children during school hours. The Prime Minister has called for children not to be taken care of by grandparents.

In other words, schools will remain both open and closed until the end of the month.

According to Politico, this is the result of disagreement between Flemish and French-speaking politicians:

Whereas French-speaking politicians wanted to close down all schools in Belgium, as is now the case in France, Flemish politicians were more reluctant to do so, fearing an economic shock. A compromise was found by suspending all classes but not closing all schools.

After the press conference, Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon stressed that schools are not shutting down completely. “Closing all schools would be a problem for people who work in the health sector or for parents whose children can only be cared for by grandparents. That is precisely the most vulnerable group. Parents who can’t find a solution for their children can still rely on schools.”

I am certainly sympathetic to the view that offloading kids onto grandparents — the most vulnerable group — for the best part of three weeks would be insane. But if schools are going to stay partly open, I don’t see the value in not keeping them fully open.

Then again, it probably shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the country that gave us Magritte would also be the first country to invent Schrödinger’s School.