What have we learned?

Lessons from the pandemic

Ludwig Wittgenstein, self-loathing genius (scroll down for more on him).

In the UK and indeed most of Europe, now that vaccination programs are finally in full gear, the end of the pandemic is in sight (the US too, even if cases there are on the rise again). I’m presuming, perhaps foolishly, no major plot twists ahead. On that basis, what have we learned - or at least, what have I learned? Here’s a few thoughts, you’ll have your own (comments open):

  • Modern societies are amazingly resilient. Within a few weeks, billions of people had to transform the patterns of their daily lives: where they worked, who they saw, how they worshipped. Yet society did not collapse into chaos and civil war. People adapted. New behaviours were learned, new habits quickly formed. Despite rumours of a global crisis of trust in institutions, citizens mostly cooperated with their governments, listened to experts, did some grumbling but complied. The public assessed the situation accurately, treading a middle path between extremists on both sides. While we haven’t yet done a full accounting of the long-term costs, economic and social, it looks like they won’t be nearly as high as feared. In some ways we’ll emerge stronger.

  • Society can fix most of its big problems quickly if it wants to. It’s a question of motivation and focus. London’s homelessness problem, bad for years, was cleared up in a matter of weeks. Can we transfer that attitude to the post-pandemic era? Biden is showing the way, maybe (I mean I hope it’s not just ‘spend a ton of money’). Of course it helps if you have Louise Casey on the case.

  • We should trust in the authorities and also be sceptical of them. The authorities got some things wrong in the UK "(“herd immunity”) and internationally (masks, borders). It wasn’t just that they made mistakes, it’s that they failed to own up to them, preferring to just cough and change position. They were better once they learned to place more trust in the public’s common sense.

  • Not all experts are the same. Some of the individuals who have been most wrong about the virus have been very highly qualified; some of those who got it most right had no credentials at all. The media can be gulled into presenting anyone with an academic title or a white coat as a credible expert. This is where Twitter, for all its flaws, comes into its own, if you’re doing it right. After a while, you can work out, not just who the real experts are, but who are the experts who can actually think, who aren’t beholden to an ideology or narrative or to celebrity; who get their deepest satisfaction from seeing things clearly. I acquired a rule of thumb: the scientists who get the most followers and retweets are the ones I trust least. Science saved us. Scientists have their own biases and blind spots and temptations of ego.

  • In an argument, even when you’re absolutely certain you have “facts” and “evidence” on your side, try to not be an asshole about it. Just in case you don’t.

  • Offices are good. There was a period early on when we thought “hey maybe this whole going-to-the-office thing was a form of mass hypnosis from which we’ve been shaken awake?” But now I think most people are looking forward to getting back to shared workplaces. Virtual working has proved to be a highly useful substitute but it draws on already-existing conditions for collaboration - personal relationships, strong cultures, tacit knowledge - best created in person. Looking forward, I think video is going to be additive - the habits we’ve learned will make it easier to have more and more diverse collaborations and conversations.

  • Weak ties are where it’s at.

  • Whew, that was close. Imagine if this virus had emerged two decades ago - perfectly plausible, and nothing in historical terms. Scientists would have not have had the wherewithal to crack the code of the virus or to share it globally and instantaneously. Office workers, in firms and in governments, would not have been able to meet over video, businesses would have not been able to reinvent themselves. Friends and family would have even less connection with the outside world than before. Food and other essential goods and indeed non-essential goods would have not have remained accessible to nearly so many people. Neighbours wouldn’t have been able to look after each other as easily. Governments, health services and businesses wouldn’t have been able to gather data or share information nearly so efficiently. A huge part of the reason we were able to adapt as we have is down to technologies that didn’t exist or were not in widespread use twenty or even ten years ago. It’s enough to make you believe in progress.


  • I like stories about how consumers use a technology in ways its inventors hadn’t foreseen. This one is about how Indian mobile phone users started to use “missed calls” as a method of communication. Eventually a whole industry built up around it (and then disappeared).

  • The Mac start-up sound was partially inspired by the chord at the end of A Day In The Life.

  • “Suddenly the noise stopped and I was outside the plane. I was in a freefall, strapped to my seat bench and hanging head-over-heels. I felt completely alone.” This is an incredible story.

  • The UK has administered zero first doses of Pfizer since February. Speculation on why that might be here and here.

  • Interesting discussion of the creative mind with, um, a psychologist.

  • Some rare good sense on “cancel culture” and related debates, parts one and two. First, this by Tom Chivers on how the problem with that phrase and other hotly debated terms is that they are hopelessly vague, which suits some of the antagonists but makes it hard to debate intelligently. I also feel like the term has been so enthusiastically adopted by bad faith actors that it’s become useless - which is frustrating because the actual problem is real (I feel like someone who was really into Cancel Culture before they went big and did that crappy car ad actually).

  • Part two, a thread by the political philosopher Teresa Bejan on viewpoint diversity in academia. I admire in particular her Johnsonian use of caps. I spoke to Professor Bejan for CONFLICTED and I recommend you all follow her, she is immensely erudite and has a brilliant mind.

  • Astonishingly good long read by the great Rachel Aviv, on the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Intensely interesting on about three different levels at once.

  • How to ask tough questions of status-conscious people.

  • Wonderful passage from Emerson in defence of bad language.

  • Paul Simon and Edie Brickell singing I Wonder If I Care As Much, just lovely.

  • RIP Prince Philip. I have a sense of him as someone intensely loyal to his wife and to the institution he joined and at the same time impatient with protocol and allergic to platitudes. He strained at the bounds of formality (hence some of his more regrettable moments), and had a hunger for authentic connection, propriety be damned. There is a great story about him here.


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    I’ve been reading, or at least dipping into, Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein (“The Duty of Genius”). I read it many years ago and it stayed with me. It’s such a vividly drawn portrait of this utterly singular, incredibly clever, fantastically weird man. Wittgenstein was intense, unrelentingly so, in every aspect of his life, as well as helplessly honest. This made him both charismatic and hard to be around for long. We tend to think of thinking as distinct from emotion but Wittgenstein threw himself into the most abstract problems of mathematical logic as if they were matters of life and death, which they pretty much were to him - everything was, from music to where to go on holiday to the correct shape of a door-handle. Increasingly, he felt trapped inside his own brilliant, unceasing mind. He came to regard philosophy as mainly bunk. He strove to get beyond mere thinking towards simpler, deeper truths. It’s a compelling, often quite funny book but a sad one, about a man who desperately wanted to use his genius for good but at the same time felt contempt for it.

    There are so many kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.
    Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain)

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