Saturday, August 21, 2021


Simultaneous disasters are messing with our brains.

Psychologist Steven Taylor was [recently] at a socially distanced get-together with some relatives and their friends when the conversation turned to the chaos in Afghanistan. Someone mentioned the sickening footage of desperate Afghans clinging to American military aircraft as they departed. Then one man made a remark that caught Taylor off guard: The videos, he said, were funny. Others agreed.

Taylor was appalled. It was one of the most disturbing things he’d heard all week. Worse, he doesn’t think it was an isolated instance of casual sadism. Taylor studies disaster psychology at the University of British Columbia, and he knows how intense, sustained stress can desensitize the mind. What most concerned him about the incident was what it suggested about the pandemic’s effects on our experience of other disasters and, more broadly, our ability—or inability—to empathize.

For the better part of two years now, the world has been living through a pandemic. The suffering has not been parceled out evenly, but virtually everyone has felt the pain in one way or another. Meanwhile, the world’s baseline drumbeat of catastrophe has not faltered. Wildfires have filled the skies with smoke; earthquakes have leveled cities; buildings have collapsed without warning. It is worth asking, then, how, if at all, the most universal of disasters is changing the way we process these crises—and how we’ll react to disasters for the rest of our lives.

The question is really two questions: one about the victims of future catastrophes and the other about the observers who will watch those catastrophes play out from a safe remove. The first question, at least, has a fairly straightforward answer. After surviving a disaster, Taylor told me, a minority of people become more resilient, so that, should another disaster strike, they are better able to cope. For most people, though, the stress compounds: Surviving one crisis puts one at greater risk of having an unhealthy psychological reaction to another. In California, a state that now burns on an annual schedule, wildfire survivors I’ve spoken with have described feeling “haunted” by subsequent blazes.

“There is a sense in which people’s coping reserves are sort of finite entities,” says Joe Ruzek, a PTSD researcher at Palo Alto University. “So if you have to cope a whole lot”—as so many people have over the past year and a half—“you can kind of diminish your resources.” In this way, the pandemic has left everyone more vulnerable to the psychological effects of tomorrow’s earthquakes, mass shootings, and pandemics.

The second question is trickier. For those of us lucky enough to observe a disaster from afar, the experience of having lived through one before could make us more empathetic toward the survivors. Or it could leave us fatigued to the point of inurement, like the people who said at Taylor’s get-together that they found the Afghanistan videos funny. At this point, psychologists told me, which of those effects prevails is anyone’s guess.

In his research on post-disaster empathy, Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, has found that children as young as 9 can become more generous in the aftermath of disasters. The caveat, he says, is that most studies in the area have focused on short-term disasters with well-defined beginnings and ends, such as earthquakes. Few, if any, look at long, drawn-out disasters, like pandemics. “This,” he says, “is very new to psychologists.”

To gauge the pandemic’s effects on generosity, Lee suggests looking at data on charitable giving—an imperfect but nonetheless useful barometer. Sure enough, in 2020, despite a severe economic downturn and mass unemployment, donations in the United States hit an all-time high. But philanthropy experts predict a return to normal this year, which would mirror Lee’s findings on kids and shorter-term crises: Over time, he and his colleagues observed, children tend to revert to their regular levels of generosity. He suspects that in the later phases and aftermath of a pandemic, with its roller-coaster trajectory and vertiginous uncertainty, people may be less inclined toward empathy.

This could be especially true when the people in need of empathy are far away from the people with the resources to help—say, in Haiti or Afghanistan. In unpublished research, Lee has found that racial and national biases tend to sharpen after disasters. When humans’ reserves of generosity run low, we give what little we have to people who look like and live where we do. Perhaps when they run low enough, we can even laugh at fleeing masses clinging to an airplane on the other side of the world.

People “are just burned out,” Taylor said. “They’ve had enough atrocity and stress for the time being, and they just don’t want to hear any more of that.” He doesn’t think the people he encountered last week are unique. “My concern,” he said, “is that many people are just tuning this stuff out.” If that is the case, if fatigue is in fact swamping empathy, it would be a darkly ironic outcome: the disaster survivors more vulnerable than ever to trauma, the onlookers less willing than ever to help.

Whether this comes to pass in the immediate future, Lee, for one, does not much worry about more extreme cold-heartedness calcifying into the norm. In his research, he has found disasters’ effects on empathy to be short-lived. If he’s right, then the pandemic is unlikely to change us, at least in this particular way. We will neither be more inured nor more attuned to the suffering of others. And that is both very reassuring and not reassuring at all.

--Jacob Stern, The Atlantic

 Origins of a deadly fungus

Scientists are a step closer to untangling the origins of a deadly fungus that has been causing dangerous drug-resistant infections in hospitals in the U.S. and around the world.  Candida auris was discovered as a human pathogen about a decade ago, reports, and some 1,700 cases have since been reported in the U.S.  The superbug’s ability to thrive inside humans was a mystery, because most fungi cannot grow in such sweltering conditions.  That led scientists to suspect that C. auris originated and became accustomed to higher temperatures in tropical wetlands, which have warmed significantly in recent years because of climate change. Researchers struck gold in coastal wetlands on the remote Andaman Islands, about 200 miles south of Myanmar, finding C. auris at a site with no known human activity.  One sample was still sensitive to antifungals, suggesting that the fungus developed drug resistance inside humans.  The findings should help scientists undertake future studies of the superbug, and better understand its tolerance for higher temperatures and its resistance to antifungals.

--The Week

Taxing the rich won’t suffice

Progressives are afraid of taxes.  To pay for trillion-dollar stimulus and infrastructure plans and expand the social safety net, Democrats always say they’re limiting their tax hikes to “the rich.”  But the trouble for the Left is that you can’t pay for the government they want by taxing only the rich.  Every social democracy in the world has far higher tax rates for the middle class than the U.S. Canada pays for its single-payer health-care system and extensive social safety net with a national 5 percent sales tax, provincial sales taxes of up to another 10 percent, and a top income-tax rate in Ontario of 46.13 percent on incomes of more than $175,000.   

In the U.K., taxpayers get hit with a 40 percent tax on incomes of just $52,100, and 45 percent at $208,600, without standard deductions.  That comes on top of a 20 percent value-added tax on all goods and services, and a $3-per-gallon gas tax.  In Denmark, the top tax rate of 55.9 percent kicks in at $86,500, and there’s a 25 percent value-added tax.  If progressives want a social democratic utopia, they’ll have to persuade middle-class Americans to pony up and pay for it.

--Henry Olsen, Washington Post 

Biden’s climate plan:  Is it realistic?

*****America is back in the global fight against climate change.  At a virtual summit of 40 world leaders last week, President Biden made an emphatic break from the Trump era, pledging to slash U.S. net carbon emissions to 50 percent of their 2005 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050, with the entire U.S. energy sector achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2035.  Biden did his best to make his plan sound like a win-win for the American people, calling it an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity.  That’s unlikely to persuade hostile Republicans, however, and though Biden could nibble away at U.S. carbon emissions through executive orders, the greatest challenge his plan faces is that he needs Congress to pass it.

--Ella Nilsen,

 *****Experts say that achieving such dramatic cuts in emissions will also require rapid and sweeping changes to virtually every corner of the nation’s economy.  Coal-fueled power plants, already a declining source of energy, will need to shut down.  The number of wind turbines and solar arrays would need to quadruple.   Most new cars will have to be electric.  It’s all achievable in theory, but success will mean a very different America.

-Brad Plumer, New York Times

 *****Thanks, but no thanks.  With 80 percent of our current energy coming from fossil fuels, Biden’s vision would mean a precipitous drop in the living standards of most citizens.  The cost of retrofitting every home, factory, warehouse, and building in America to run on electricity would cripple our economy.   We’d then need to envelop most of the nation in panels and windmills, presumably relying on Gaian prayer circles to ensure enough sunshine and wind to keep our country running.

--David Harsanyi, 

*****Even in the unlikely event the U.S. could meet Biden’s targets, China, India, and other countries will merely pretend to go along.  Who’s going to hold China accountable for its climate pledges, and how, precisely?

­­ --Rich Lowry,

*****Nonsense.  The costs of wind and solar power are already competitive with fossil fuels, thanks to an extraordinary innovation cycle that makes them cheaper every year.   As usual, conservatives are responding to the climate crisis with misinformation and a dismissive attitude toward doing anything.

--Jonathan Chait,

Tech gives, but it also takes away

We are steadily losing the rights of ownership.  While packing for a move recently, I came upon a box of old DVDs.  But it was something more than nostalgia that made me balk at tossing them:  They were among the few possessions I actually owned. Through the proliferation of streaming, internet-based media and now even digital art, we consume more and more yet seem to have less and less.  Technological advancements not only weaken our connections—imagine, for instance, inheriting a grandparent’s e-books instead of their books—but also raise critical questions about the future of possession.  Farmers may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fancy new John Deere tractor, but soon discover that only an approved dealer is allowed to fix it if it breaks.  U.S. law traditionally limits sellers’ ability to control what a customer does with their products, but courts have struggled with goods that did not exist in physical space.   This issue is gaining more urgency. Some cars now have devices that allow them to be disabled remotely in the case of a missed payment.  If this doesn’t feel frightening, consider that the precedent now being set with things like tractors could even mean that those with advanced prosthetics do not truly own their limbs.

--Dan Greene,

Is that really ‘Nowheresville’?

Fake satellite imagery is a growing geopolitical concern.  “Deepfake” technology, which uses machine learning to superimpose altered footage on top of a video in a way that’s misleading or deceptive, has been widely discussed in other fields, such as political science.  Now geographers are raising the alarm about the potential for fake, AI-generated satellite imagery that could be used for propaganda—for instance, erasing prison camps or generating images of fake wildfires.  There is a long tradition of mapmaking deception; cartographers even used to insert fake settlements or “paper towns” into their maps to expose knockoffs.  Manipulated satellite imagery is particularly worrisome, however, because the resolutions are poor to begin with, and satellite images have gained broad public credibility.

--James Vincent, 

Cybercrime's threats and attacks

The crippling of a major oil pipeline by hackers represents a new extreme in the global ransomware epidemic.  Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half the fuel consumed on the East Coast, [recently] announced that hackers had attacked its internal computer network, and shut down parts of the pipeline’s operations to contain the threat.  Though the attack does not appear to have reached key control systems for the 5,500-mile conduit running from Texas to New Jersey, it is still one of the largest disruptions of American critical infrastructure by hackers in history.

--Andy Greenberg, 

The Russian cybercrime group known as DarkSide claimed responsibility.  The DarkSide hackers are known for double extortion, simultaneously locking up networks and threatening to leak stolen data unless a ransom is paid. The group claims it is apolitical, but its activity reflects a pattern of Russia taking an indulgent approach to cybercrime targeting the West

--Eamon Javers,

 Nation states can easily hide behind criminal groups in this new form of cyberwarfare.  Attackers can simply use modified variants of ransomware commonly used by cybercriminals, keeping the real motives behind an attack hidden.

--Danny Palmer,

One state that barely bothers to conceal its cybercrime ambitions is North Korea. In a country where few families own computers, North Korea has trained cybercriminal talent the way Olympians were once cultivated in the former Soviet bloc, placing the most promising pupils in specialized schools.It’s estimated that 7,000 North Koreans now work in the country’s “hacker army.” Some of their operations involve months of planning and sophisticated social engineering.  For one attack in Chile, a Spanish-speaking actor was hired to impersonate a real banking executive to gain access to the company’s network.

--Ed Caesar,  New Yorker 

These attacks are getting nastier.  Hackers [recently] paralyzed the digital resources at Scripps Health.  Survivors of the smuggling boat that capsized off Point Loma could not be sent to the closest trauma center, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, because its computer systems were down.

--Paul Sisson, San Diego Union-Tribune 

We can ill afford another wake-up call.  The vulnerability, in particular, of our energy infrastructure is one of the top-drawer issues of the 21st Century. Companies and the government have to start acting now to insulate our networks.  Part of that is being transparent after attacks, rather than holding on to information out of embarrassment or competitiveness. That only makes it harder to prepare for and surmount the next one.

--Timothy O’Brien,




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