Sunday, May 22, 2022

The impending global collapse: will it end the obesity epidemic?

 


The portrait of Larthia Seianti, Etruscan noblewoman, on her sarcophagus. She died probably during the 2nd century AD. As you can see, she was not exactly thin, you may even say that she was a little overweight. But, surely, she was not obese. The ancient Romans just didn't seem to have the obesity problem that plagues us nowadays. Yet, they had plenty of health problems. In this discussion, I argue that the moment of maximum growth of a civilization may correspond to the lowest level of health for its population and that, in our case, the obesity epidemic is a symptom of our global health crisis. Such is the law of the Seneca Cliff! 


We are collapsing, there is little that we can do about that. Many things are changing so fast that we are left bewildered by how today's world is different from yesterday's one. It is not just the economy that declines: you see the worsening trends in culture, social habits, quality of life, infrastructure, and even people's health. The last factor, health, has not been often examined, but I am sure it is important. 

Surprisingly, I found that as we collapse our health may well improve -- at least for those who survive. It is a chain of thoughts that comes from a comparison with the case of the Roman Empire that, as usual, provides us with a roadmap for what we can expect for the future. But let me go in order. 

The health problems associated with the decline of the Western society are often dismissed because "the life expectancy keeps increasing." That has been true up to recent times, although the Covid pandemic may signal a reversal of the trend. But life expectancy is just one of the many parameters that define human health. What, I think, is an indicator that something is badly wrong in the Western World is the epidemics of obesity. 

You'll find, below, a post that I published on my "The Proud Holobionts" blog that summarizes some recent research on obesity. Basically, it seems that the main element causing it is added sugar in industrially processed food, although this is not by any means the only one. 

How is the fact that the food industry puts extra sugar in their products related with the decline of our civilization? It is, in my opinion, because all the economic actors strive to maintain their profits even though the economy is declining. One way to do that is to reduce the quality of the products while maintaining their appearance and their price. So, the food industry tends to add a cheap ingredient (sugar) to almost everything. The added bonus is that, if sugar makes people fatter, they will eat more, and the industry will make more money. It is, in the end, our tendency to monetize everything that is leading us to our doom. 

So, did the Ancient Romans have an obesity problem during their decline? For one thing, the term "obese" comes from the Latin "obesus," with the same meaning as today. The Romans knew what obesity is, but they tended to consider it as an attribute of other peoples or of depraved persons. Livy spoke of the obesus etruscus ('fat Etruscan') as an insult to a people he considered lazy and decadent. 

We have some images from Roman times that show fat people. At least one emperor, Vitellius (15- 69 CE)  (see the image here) was often represented, and derided, as fat and corpulent. Even Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who inspired the title of this blog, seems to have been overweight in old age. Yet, we have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of portraits of Ancient Romans, and very few are fat. Obesity just didn't seem to be a problem for the Romans: that seems to make sense: they didn't have our industrially processed food. 

Yet, the Ancient Romans did have health problems. There is a fascinating study by Jongman et al., that reports this graph:


Here, the "Mean Factor Score" is a measure of the overall health of the Romans, as determined by their skeletons. Note how it reaches a minimum around the mid 1st century AD. This is amazing, because that was supposed to be the moment of maximum splendor for the Roman Empire! Yet, despite the moment of glory and of wealth, the Romans were sick of various ailments that stunted their growth and deformed their bones -- we can still see that in their skeletons. Poor diet, pollution, crowded towns, bad hygienic conditions, metal pollution, and the like. 

Even more amazing is how the health of the people improved as the empire went through its death throes. It makes sense: the population went down, and the survivors could enjoy a healthier lifestyle, eat a better diet, and suffer less from pollution. They actually had to be lean and fit if they wanted to survive. 

If we translate these considerations to our times, then it may well be that the obesity epidemic is a transient phenomenon of the "peak wealth" of our civilization: the result of a combination of pollution, stress, poor diet, crowding, etc., just like in Roman times. As we go down the Seneca curve, we'll be thin again. It will not be painless, though! 



The obesity epidemic keeps expanding. The above are, I believe, the most recent data available for the US. The COVID-19 lockdowns and isolation measures are reported to have made things even worse. This trend is simply horrendous: what the heck is happening to humankind? (Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, I am just someone who is fascinated by data and trends. And, of course, we are all interested in our health! Here, I report some data I found, hoping you may find them useful. Don't take them as the last word on the subject. As always, before acting on things that affect your health, do your own search and use your judgment about what works for you.)

The obesity epidemics had a considerable boost by the lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Coupled with the opposite effect, that obesity is a risk factor for people who contract Covid, you have a remarkable disaster in the making. With several Western countries having percentages of obese people close to or higher than 50%, one wonders what's going to happen in the future. Why are the human holobionts in such a poor shape?

The story is complicated, and I don't pretend to say anything new. I just want to attract your attention to some recent studies that I think shed some light on the mechanism of human obesity (but even our fellow dog holobionts are suffering from obesity). 

First, the work by Raubenheimer and Simpson on the food preference of various animals. It is summarized in a recent book titled, "Eat like the Animals." (Mariner Books, 2021). Their discovery is easy to summarize: it seems that most living beings have a specific set point in their needs for the main nutrients. They seek a specific balance among proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. In particular, they aim at a minimum intake of protein. If animals are fed an unbalanced diet, for instance, poor in protein, they will tend to eat more food until they reach the right level. Raubenheimer and Simpson call this the "protein leverage hypothesis:
"In a protein-poor but energy-rich food environment, humans will overeat carbs and fats to try to reach their protein target. However, when the only available diet is rich in protein, human will underconsume carbs and fats"
Since excess carbohydrates are stored in the body as fat, we can say that one of the causes of the obesity pandemic is that the human diet in Western countries is overstocked in carbohydrates. 

Here comes Robert Lustig and his book "Metabolical" (Yellow Kite 2021) where he minces no words on how this is not only true but also a profitable strategy for the food industry. They discovered long ago that if they put more and more carbohydrates (sugars) in the food they sell, then people will get fat, they will eat more, and that will increase their profits. Just like sick people are a boon for medical doctors, obese people are a boon for food producers. 


You don't believe that? Let me show you a picture I took a few days ago in an Italian supermarket:


There are four kinds of regular mayonnaise on sale, plus a fancy one with no eggs. Can you guess which is the only one that does not contain added carbohydrates? Let me tell you, it is the most expensive one among the regular ones. All the others contain sugar. Maybe it is not the same for all mayonnaise brands on the market, but I think it is significant. Food companies do add sugar everywhere, even when it is not called for by the traditional recipes. They deny that, but it is written on the list of the ingredients (I have pictures, if you don't believe me!)

Now, it may well be that there is much more to obesity than just carbohydrates, but I think that these results point at an important cause of the problem. There are data showing that what we are seeing may be a delayed effect of "peak sugar" that occurred around the year 2000. From then on, the amount of sugar consumed in the U.S. has been going slightly down. But it remains high. 

The beauty of this is that, if it is true, with obesity we don't have such a wicked problem as others, say, global warming. We know that to avoid global warming, we should stop burning hydrocarbons, but it is also true that we can't just stop: billions of people would die. But we could stop, or at least strongly reduce, the extra carbohydrates added to processed food, and we could do it today. Nobody would die, but the problem would be eased and many people would be healthier! But this is the way things are in the world: no problem can ever be solved when there is somebody making money if it remains unsolved. 

To make you happier, let me show you some data that tell us that a little excess weight (a little!) is not necessarily bad for your organism. Here are some data from Malcolm Kendrick's wonderful book "The Clot Thickens" (Columbus 2021). 


BMI stands for "Body Mass Index" and the overall lowest risk of death is for a BMI of 25-30 that's normally classified as "overweight" (if you want to know, I am at BMI=27). Being underweight is a larger risk than being obese! But obesity has many other problems, not least in terms of self-esteem. 

In the end, remember that you are a holobiont and that for hundreds of millions of years your holobiont ancestors never ate anything that was processed in an industrial plant. You are a fine-tuned machine that includes trillions of friendly viruses and bacteria living in your guts. They want a balanced diet of fats, protein, fiber, and not too much in terms of carbohydrates (but you need them, too!). Try to make them happy, and you'll be happier, too!






Monday, May 16, 2022

The Age of Exterminations -VII: Can we survive by going undercover?

 

Italian members of the secret society of the "Carbonari" of the 19th century. They may be planning a revolution or maybe a pizza party. Is this our future?


Many ideas are floating in the memesphere on how to survive the current situation. Some people think of moving to a country ruled by less dangerous governments, others of retreating to an agricultural village in some remote area, and others about the possibility of going undercover. That is, disappearing from the sight of the government, waiting for better times that might come in the future. And even acting to bring those times closer.

Is it possible? Could you really hide in a world that's becoming more and more like the fabled "panopticon," a prison where the jailers have a full view of everything that the prisoners do? Difficult, surely, but it is also true that we still maintain a certain degree of freedom inside our brains, provided that we don't expose them to government propaganda. So, could people who think alike in certain matters get together and form a secret network?

As you can imagine, it is not an easy task, and it may also be dangerous. When we think of a secret organization, we think of something like the famed Al-Qaeda society. They managed to carry out one of the most successful terrorist attacks in history and, remarkably, they did so while leaving no traces anywhere, except for a videocassette tape showing a bearded sheik in a cave accusing himself of having been the perpetrator. 

The problem with discussing secret societies is that, obviously, they are secret. That means we know something only of the ones which were not so successful at keeping their secrecy. In any case, it seems that secret societies are typically based on a pyramidal cell structure, where each member knows only the members of his/her cell (typically no more than three). The reason for this structure is the need to minimize the effect of treason: any member can defeat and betray the others, but the smaller the number of members he/she knows, the smaller will be the damage. You can find a good description of how cell-based secret societies are supposed to work in terms of keeping secrecy in the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (1966) (*). Similar descriptions exist all over the Web. 

A cell-based structure is well-known, but it is not very practical. One problem is that it grows very slowly. If you want to have at least a few thousand people in the pyramid, probably the minimum needed to start a serious revolution, with cells of three people, you need at least 6-7 layers. That makes no sense: an order coming from the top must go through each step before it arrives at the base layer, where it can be finally carried out. If a structure like this one were ever to work for real, cells would have to be much larger.

Even so, a cell structure is not a good idea in terms of generating a revolution. Nobody would want to join an organization so secretive that they would never be able to know who is at the top. People need leaders to act, and they need to know who their leaders are. But being a member of a small revolutionary cell freezes you in a closed world where you can only follow orders coming from above, together with just a few like-minded companions. Why should you do that? For some lofty ideal? Maybe, but how do you know that your leaders are actually working for those ideals? How do you know that the organization has not been infiltrated by your enemies? Or by aliens from Betelgeuse?  

In practice, cell-based secret organizations can work only as military covert operations, as you may discover if you take up a career as a spy. But, typically, people who take up spying do that for money which, indeed, is what keeps together the organization. The carrot is normally coupled with a massive stick: if you betray, you risk your life: either you will be hanged as a spy, or shot as a traitor by other members of the organization. I don't know how much spies are paid, but I think it is not a condition anyone would want to find themselves in. 

Can we think of more effective ideas? Yes, but we have to accept that the organization cannot be 100% secret, and neither it should be. Early Christianity is a good example of a semi-secret organization that was created in opposition to an oppressive government. A common legend has that the early Christians would hide in subterranean refuges called "catacombs." But these were never secret places (hiding in caves seems to be only a habit of bearded sheiks in Afghanistan). The historical catacombs were just cemeteries. But it is true that many Christians kept a low profile in a society that sanctioned their beliefs with death. Later, the Muslims practiced the Taqiya, a precautionary dissimulation in the face of persecution.

Both Christianity and Islam were successful, although only in the long run, and not without a harsh struggle. So, it is possible to fight oppression by a religion. You could even think of creating a new one, it is probably possible in the US. For those of us who think that the task is a little too steep, though, we may need a different approach. Can we think of non-religious groups that could successfully oppose state oppression? There are some examples in history, one is that of the Carbonari, who were most active in the 1800s, in Italy and in other European countries. 

The story of the Carbonari is as fascinating as it is scarcely known. They started around 1800 as liberals who hated all forms of oppression. They were anti-clerical, wanted to destroy the Catholic Church, and aimed at a revolution to get rid of the many petty monarchies that ruled the Italian peninsula. They were not necessarily favorable to a united Italy, although it must have been clear to them that it was an unavoidable consequence of the elimination of the local tyrants. 

As a political movement, the Carbonari were not very successful. They tried an Italy-wide revolution in 1820, but they failed. Over the years, they were replaced by more open organizations, such as the "Giovine Italia" (Young Italy) created by a former Carbonaro, the Italian intellectual Giuseppe Mazzini. Yet, we cannot say that the Carboneria was a failure. It was alive (and heavily repressed) during the Fascist period in Italy, and it was still playing a role in Italy in the 1970s, as a group of members of the Italian Republican Party. Some say they still exist, surely a legend but, who knows? In any case, the term "carboneria" is still used in Italy to indicate groups of people acting in partial or total secrecy. (do not confuse it with the carbonara, a pasta dish!)

So, what was the Carboneria, exactly? It was an offshoot of a burst of semi-secret societies that appeared at the end of the 18th century. The Freemasons are probably the oldest, there followed others with different names: the "Adelphians," ("brothers") the "Philadelphians," and more. The Carbonari were the Italian version of this movement of ideas that aimed at removing the old European ruling class, the landed nobility. The idea was to replace them with the entrepreneur class, a dynamic economic force that was growing on the availability of cheap energy from coal. This class took power in France with the French Revolution of 1789, and it advanced in Europe with a series of local revolutions, then with Napoleon and his heirs. 

The name "Carbonari" means 'charcoal makers.' The choice of this name goes in parallel with the older idea of Freemasonry. The Freemasons emphasized the knowledge of their members as "masons" -- people who knew how to design and build structures and so were independent of the rule of the nobles. The Carbonari, instead, focused on the technical prowess of the people who could make charcoal from wood. The "carbonaro" was idealized as an independent person who could make a living out of his knowledge and skills and would not accept being oppressed by anyone, including the government. 

A point that made the Carboneria successful was that it was never a completely secret society.  Indeed, most of what we know about the Carbonari comes from police reports. They knew who the Carbonari were and probably preferred to leave them relatively in peace rather than force them to go into true secrecy. From these reports, we know something about their rituals. Here is an example from a document of 1818, describing the ceremony of acceptance of a new member. 

Grand Master - What do you ask, Pagan?
He answers: the light.
Gr. M. - This will be granted to you at the third blow of my hatchet.
The Assistants turn their hatchets against him. The Master of Ceremonies takes off his blidfold.
Gr. M. - These hatchets, which you see in our hands, will be used to kill you in case of perjury on your part. On the contrary, they will fly to your aid if you need them,
The Master of Ceremonies leads him to the Throne.
You must pronounce again and ratify a part of the Oath you swore blindfolded. Repeat with me: I swear and promise to recognize and observe the General Statutes and Regulations of the Carbonic Order and of the High Sale of Naples and those no less of this Respectable Sale of which I am a Member.
That said, the Baptism of the Initiate happens, which is done as follows: 
The Grand Master touches his eyes, ears, nostrils and lips with a linen cloth slightly wet in water, saying afterwards:
- You shall not see except by our eyes.
- You will not hear except by our ears.
- You shall smell the effluvia of our coal.
- You will speak only wise words.
Having said this the Grand Master continues:- To the glory of the Grand Master of the Universe, in the name of Saint Theobald and under the auspices of the High Sale of Naples, by the powers confided to me, I constitute you an Apprentice Carbonaro and a Member of this Respectable Sale.
(He rises and gives him the decorations).

I know that it sounds like the Simpsons' episode of the "Stonecutters" and that is because the episode was created specifically to reflect the way these semi-secret societies work. But if you imagine the ceremony taking place in some secret place, maybe a shack in the woods at night, then it must have been quite impressive. The idea was to generate fealty bonds among members by creating an elaborate symbolism and word codes supposed to be known only by initiates. For instance, a local carbonari association was called a "Vendita" (sale), the reunions were held in a "Baracca" (shack), the aspiring members were called "Pagani" (Pagans), and so on. It worked reasonably well if the Carboneria thrived and survived for so long. 

So, the question is: could we create a new Carboneria, today? And would it be useful for something? Maybe the answer is positive to both questions, but we need to be aware of the limits of what can be done. Essentially, as the Carbonari learned, you cannot hope to obtain and maintain real secrecy. If you strive for it too hard, not only you'll fail, but you'll make yourself suspect. Even if you don't do anything illegal, never forget that governments are constantly looking for people to blame for their own failures -- scapegoats. And when they find a suitable target, they have no scruples. That is, unless you have the power and the money to create a true secret society to take over the state. It has happened many times in history (**), and it will surely happen again (it may already have happened). But, in this case, it is unlikely that you would be interested in this post -- you already know enough on the matter.

What you can do is play the game relatively in the open. In most Western states, it is perfectly legitimate to form associations, formal or informal, that pursue some goal that may be weird, but not illegal. For instance, it is perfectly legal to believe that the Earth is flat and to form an association of believers. It actually exists (the Flat Earth Society, FES) and may have several thousand members. It is normally dismissed as a group of slightly feebleminded people. But ask yourself a question: could the FES be the front of an association that has entirely different purposes? Imagine that the core members are Aliens planning to exterminate humankind, how would you know? Then, of course, the group would be formed of an outer "ring" of true believers and an inner ring of initiates who actually know that they are servants of the Green Oozing Aliens from Betelgeuse and that they are bound to feed to their masters one baby to eat every week.

So, you can shroud your group with some harmless or weird purposes that will not attract too much attention from the powers that be. Then, there remains the problem of how the members will actually know what the society is about. That becomes a question of communication, and communication always involves codes. Again, you have to be cautious: all codes can be cracked. More than that, the very fact of using codes makes the users suspicious. That's especially true if you use the Internet, as you obviously must do. Some people use special precautions for their everyday communications, things like encoded messages, hidden servers, all that. Maybe is a good idea, but I am not sure. The more you try to hide, the more suspicious you look to the powers that be. The problem can be circumvented, in part, by using the technique called "steganography" which consists in utilizing terms or objects as symbols with a hidden meaning. So, if you agree with your follower that the term "lawyer" means "Alien from Betelgeuse," then an innocent sentence that goes as, "let's go meet our lawyers" carries a meaning that the non-initiate cannot decipher. There are limits to what steganography can do, but it can be extremely effective.   

In the end, what's realistically possible for a carbonaro of modern times? We are going through enormous changes, and we simply don't know what shape a future society will take. If we don't go back to the Middle Ages (or to hunting and gathering), what role will have governments in the future? Will there exist governments? How will the internet be shaped? As a centralized entity managed by hordes of fact-checkers? Or by a large number of "rings" of like-minded people who speak mainly to each other? For the time being, a blog with a funny title that mentions an ancient Roman Philosopher may be seen as the equivalent of a vendita carbonara, not a secret place, but a baracca where the adepts don't do so much damage that they deserve active repression. So far, at least...

 _____________________________________________________________

(*) From "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" - By Robert A. Heinlein (1966)

Dialog of the three of the protagonists, professor Bernardo de La Paz (Prof.), Wyoming Knott ("Wyo") and Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis (Mannie) (speaking voice)

Prof: "..... revolutions are not won by enlisting the masses. Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they alight. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges, terror. I hope you will forgive me if I say that, up to now, it has been done clumsily." 

Wyo looked baffled. "What do you mean by 'correct organization'?" 

"Functional organization. How does one design an electric motor? Would you attach a bathtub to it, simply because one was available? Would a bouquet of flowers help? A heap of rocks? No, you would use just those elements necessary to its purpose and make it no larger than needed—and you would incorporate safety factors. Function controls design. "So it is with revolution. Organ must be no larger than necessary—never recruit anyone merely because he wants to join. Nor seek to persuade for the pleasure of having another share your views. He'll share them when the times comes. . . or you've misjudged the moment in history. Oh, there will be an educational organization, but it must be separate; agitprop is no part of basic structure.

 "As to basic structure, a revolution starts as a conspiracy therefore structure is small, secret, and organized as to minimize damage by betrayal—since there always are betrayals. One solution is the cell system and so far nothing better has been invented. 

"Much theorizing has gone into optimum cell size. I think that history shows that a cell of three is best—more than three can't agree on when to have dinner, much less when to strike. 

"Here is a cells-of-three tree. If I were planning to take over Luna. I would start with an three. One would be opted as chairman. We wouldn't vote; choice would be obvious—or we aren't the right three. We would know the next nine people, three cells. . . but each  would know only one of us." 

"Looks like computer diagram—a ternary logic." 

"Does it really? At the next level there are two ways of linking: This comrade, second level, knows his cell leader, his two cellmates, and on the third level he knows the three in his subcell—he may or may not know his cellmates' subcells. One method doubles security, the other doubles speed—of repair if security is penetrated Let's say he does not know his cellmates' subcells—Manuel, how many can he betray? Don't say he won't; today they can brainwash any person, and starch and iron and use him. How many?" 

"Six," I answered "His boss, two cellmates, three in sub-cell." 

"Seven," Prof corrected, "he betrays himself, too. Which leaves seven broken links on three levels to repair. How?" 

"I don't see how it can be," objected Wyoh. "You've got them no split up it falls to pieces." 

"Manuel? An exercise for the student" "

"Well ... blokes down here have to have way to send message up three levels. Don't have to know who, just have to know where." 

"Precisely!" 

_______________________________________________________________

(**) On 7 or 8 December 1970, a coup d'├ętat was allegedly planned in Italy by a combination of military forces, the Sicilian Mafia, and the Masonic Lodge "P2" (propaganda 2). This unholy alliance of subjects failed utterly to carry out the coup, but it is true that there existed a masonic lodge called P2 that collected a large number of high-profile politicians, bankers, professionals, and entrepreneurs. Were they aware that their organization was organizing a coup? And do such organizations still exist today? And, if they exist, how would we know what they are actually doing?


Friday, May 13, 2022

Ukraine: does history repeat itself, or just rhymes?

 


Greek Artillery in 1940, fighting the Italian invasion

I have no more information available than the average person connected to the Web, nor can I claim to be more than an armchair strategist. For these reasons, I haven't written anything about the war in Ukraine, so far. But I have studied Italian history, and I have a special fascination for the incompetence of leaders. So, I thought I could propose to you a retelling of the Greco-Italian war of 1940, one of the clearest demonstrations of incompetence that a government ever provided. Can it provide us with insight into the current situation? I leave that to you to decide.  


In the late 1930s, Benito Mussolini, the prime minister of Italy, had reached the stage in which he could not be contradicted by anyone. And not just that: he was like a child who, when he wants a toy, wants it immediately. Since Mussolini was the absolute ruler of the country, this combination of incompetence and arrogance was the perfect recipe for disaster. Which took place in multiple forms.  

In 1940, when World War II had just started, it seems that Mussolini's main concern was to show his ally, and also rival, Adolf Hitler, that Italy, too, could engage in a victorious blitzkrieg campaign. It was at this stage that the idea of attacking Greece appeared. It made some sense because Greece was a potential ally of Britain (**), and also a relatively weak target. After all, Italy had been able to subdue the Albanian Kingdom in just a few days, the year before. So, why should things be different with Greece?

The problems with this idea were several: the main one was that -- unlike Albania -- Greece had a serious army.  But Mussolini wanted the invasion at all costs, and his military staff seemed to be engaged mainly in the game of pleasing him. So, a plan was devised to use the Italian troops stationed in Albania to attack Greece. Everyone seemed to be convinced that it would be a cakewalk and that Greece would fall at the first push. So, in the Summer of 1940, Mussolini set the date for the start of the invasion in October. Nobody dared tell him that the plan implied crossing the Epirus mountains and that doing that in winter was not exactly a good idea for a blitzkrieg, German style. 

Duly, on the chosen date of October 28, 1940, the Italian infantry advanced into Greece. It was instant disaster. The Greeks were waiting, well-entrenched, supplied with weapons and ammunition by the British, and ready to fight. The list of mistakes made with this campaign is so long to be worth a whole book (which exists, it is titled "The Hollow Legions" by Mario Cervi). Let's just say that the Italian attack was carried out by insufficient troops, insufficiently equipped, insufficiently prepared, and led by incompetent generals. The Italian high command seemed to think that they were still fighting World War I. What could go wrong with running against an entrenched enemy with fixed bayonets? 

During the first weeks of the campaign, not only the Italians could not advance, bogged in the mud and the snow, but they took heavy losses, and they seriously risked being thrown back into the sea. That could be avoided only throwing everything available in terms of troops and equipment at the Greeks. The struggle lasted about six months, and even with a numerical superiority of 2 to 1, the Italians couldn't get through. It ended when the Germans intervened in the spring of 1941. At that point, the combined pressure of the German and Italian armies forced Greece to surrender. 

The cost of the Greek campaign had been enormous for Italy: more than 100,000 casualties. The Greek front had also absorbed five times more troops than on the North-African front, where they would have been badly needed -- one of the reasons for the Italian defeat in that region. It was one of those victories that one almost wishes had been defeats. 

But Italy suffered the strongest blow in terms of propaganda. Mussolini had built his reputation as an "infallible" leader (the slogan was "Mussolini is always right"). After all, up to then, he had won all the wars he had engaged Italy in. But the failure of the Greek campaign offered the Allies a chance to paint him not just as an evil dictator (which he was), but also as a bumbling idiot (which he was, too). To say nothing about the blow to the reputation of Italy as a military power. Even from the Axis side, Mussolini received plenty of flak. The Germans used the Italian blunder in Greece as an excuse for the failure of their 1941 campaign against the Soviet Union, which they attributed to the delay caused by the need of helping the distressed Italians (*). Only in Italy, the press continued to praise Mussolini's leadership and his clever strategic insights.  

So, history always teaches you lessons, often fascinating ones. In this case, we can learn that:

  1. Having won the previous war doesn't mean automatically winning the following one.
  2. Invincible leaders often turn out to be just lucky leaders. Until their luck runs out.
  3. Aging leaders may turn into bumbling idiots. Or maybe that's what they were all along.
  4. No mistake made by a leader can be so big that his followers will not praise it as evidence of superior strategic savvy.
  5. A victory obtained at too high a price is worse than a defeat. 
  6. Propaganda is mightier than the sword.
  7. History pardons no mistakes. 

Now, does the story of the Italian attack on Greece in 1940 offer us insights into the current situation in Ukraine? Maybe, but only in part. Evaluating ongoing events by comparing them to historical ones is the fastest way to enormous mistakes. Whatever happens in the world, happens for a reason, and Tolstoy correctly said that "a king is history's slave." History made Mussolini able to make enormous mistakes only because a series of factors had converged in making these mistakes possible. Other factors led to what's happening right now in Ukraine. And history moves on anyway. 

The main reason why I told you about the Greco-Italian war is that, more than 80 years later, we can pause for a moment to consider why tens of thousands of Italian and Greek men fought against each other so hard and died in such large numbers. Thinking about how useless that ancient war was may give us some perspective on how useless the current war is. We can only hope that it will end as soon as possible. 

 

(*) The story that the Italians were responsible for the failure of the German attack on Russia in 1941 is, most likely, just a piece of propaganda. It may hold something true, though, and it opens a number of fascinating questions about leader control. Why exactly did Mussolini decide to attack Greece in winter? Just because he was completely stupid? Or was the idea somehow "planted" in his mind by a foreign agency? We'll never know that, but it is remarkable how often leaders don't just make huge mistakes, they make the kind of mistakes that play in the hands of their enemies. 

(**) Formally, in 1940, Greece was neutral. But, in international politics, form and substance are always different. When Italy invaded Albania in 1939, it sent to Greece a clear message: "you are next." In the complex mosaic of the Balkan politics, that had pushed Greece into the uncomfortable position of being surrounded by potential enemies (Bulgaria, Italy, and Turkey) and, as a consequence, to seek for closer links to its traditional ally, Britain. The British saw Greece mainly as an ally against German expansion in the Balkans and, in 1934, had created the "Balkan Entente" that implied military support in case of threats on the signatories’ territorial integrity. All that gives a certain strategic logic to the events of 1940-1941. 


Monday, May 9, 2022

"The Limits to Growth" after 50 years: More relevant than ever

 


50 years after the publication of the first report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth," it is time to re-assess the validity of its evaluation of the destiny of humankind. Are we really destined to collapse? Or can we still make the right choices and avoid it? It is discussed in a new report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond."

Can you think of a book published in the twentieth century that we still remember 50 years later? There is one that has left such an important mark that we are celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. It is the report to the Club of Rome published in 1972 with the title "The Limits to Growth".

"The Limits to Growth" was a study of the future of the global economy. Its basic message was that growth could not continue to go on forever on a finite planet. And not just that. It also said that if we continued to exploit natural resources without worrying about depletion, pollution, and overpopulation, things would start to go pretty bad: the economy would collapse. When? Maybe during the first 1-2 decades of the 21st century. 

The message of "The Limits to Growth" was hard to digest in the 1970s, an age of optimism and enthusiasm for technological progress and economic expansion. So, from the beginning, the study was criticized and demonized in every possible way, so much that many people, still today, are convinced that it was "wrong" for one reason or another. Actually, there was nothing wrong with the study: it was only affected by the unavoidable uncertainties in the parameters of the system. But the very fact that it was demonized so heavily means that it said something fundamental, relevant to our survival as a civilization and perhaps even as a species.

But what was so special about that book? Many things: perhaps the most important one was that it was the first study that addressed the problems of the future of humanity in a "systemic" way, that is, using a model that, for the time, was incredibly sophisticated. Let me explain: today there is a lot of talk about "artificial intelligence," but the concept was born in the 1960s. "The Limits to Growth" was part of the concept of using computers as a tool to help human intelligence

One of the problems we face when we try to manage complex systems, that is systems where many factors interact with each other, is that the human mind heavily relies on "intuition." We tend to focus on single parameters and consider them as the only relevant factor. Did you notice how people tend to interpret the world's problems on the basis of single factors? "Overpopulation!" "Climate change!" "Pollution!" "Peak Oil" "The public debt!" and so on. All these are relevant factors, certainly, but none of them is the only problem. But how can we estimate their effect when every single factor interacts with all the others? If you focus on the wrong parameter, you can make enormous mistakes. 

That's where a computer can be helpful. The computer is not intelligent, but for this very reason, it is not swayed by ideology or other kinds of personal biases. So, in 1972, the authors of the "Limits to Growth" created a computer-based model that analyzed the human economy according to various hypotheses on the availability of resources, pollution, population growth, and other things.

It was not a prophecy, not a political program, and not a religious revelation, either. The "Limits to Growth" model was simply an evaluation designed to answer the question, "what will happen if ……?" The results were stark clear. If the economy remained focused on growth at all costs, the global economic system would reach its physical limits around 2010-2020. And it wasn't just a matter of stopping growth. It was much worse: the model predicted the collapse of the system.

Today, given the current situation, we may legitimately wonder if we are finding ourselves at the beginning of the collapse that some of the scenarios of "The Limits to Growth" had seen in store for humankind. Is that our future? Maybe, but let me repeat that "The Limits to Growth" was not a prophecy: there was nothing unavoidable in the scenarios it proposed. And the authors never saw themselves as prophets of doom. The study was conceived as a roadmap to avoid collapse! 

Unfortunately, we didn't put into practice the solutions that the study proposed, such as reducing the consumption of natural resources, slowing down economic growth, and the like. But it is also true that today many things have changed. The revolution in renewable technologies has changed the rules of the game. With renewable energy, in principle, we can phase out fossil fuels and avoid the main causes of the coming collapse: depletion and climate change. Yes, but this does not mean that renewable energy comes for free: we have to invest in it and not a little. Unfortunately, up to now, we have not invested enough, not to mention the bureaucratic obstacles that hinder the new installations. 

Even if we could move toward renewables fast enough that we could smoothly replace fossil fuels, that would not be sufficient to avoid all problems. Never forget that the origin of collapse is its opposite: growth. Already long ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, noted that ruin is rapid after growth: it is called the "Seneca Effect." If we want to avoid the "Seneca Cliff," the rapid decline that arrives after the growth phase is over, we need to recognize the limits of our planet. Growth at all costs is a dream of the 20th century, that we must abandon now.  

So, we are facing difficult times, but we can muddle through if we make the right choices. Meanwhile, there is a new book that re-examines the whole story of "The Limits to Growth" and its relevance for our present and our future. It is titled "Limits and Beyond," a multi-author book that includes contributions from 21 authors, including two of the original authors of the 1972 "The Limits to Growth." It is edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alvarez Pereira. Already available for purchase! 





Thursday, May 5, 2022

The lockdown in China: if the powerful are doing something that looks stupid, is because whatever they’re doing IS actually stupid





I received several comments on my post "The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis," and I think that some were so interesting to be worth reproducing in a full-fledged post. The first comment comes from an anonymous commenter living in China. It seems to me believable, and also consistent with my interpretation. In practice, the Chinese were (and are) not the only one who are conditioned by factors such as avoiding a loss of face. Italians did the same during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. There seems to be an enormous psychological problem that when you discover that you have been conned, you don't want to admit that. It makes little difference if you are Chinese, Italian, or another nationality. There follows a comment by "Mon Seul Desir" on which I fully agree. So much that I used it in a condensed version for the title of this post. When something looks insane, most likely, it IS insane. (UB)


A comment on "The Shanghai Lockdown: A Memetic Analysis"
by "Anonymous"

I am in Shanghai. I have been living here since 2007. I can read/speak Chinese at a high level of fluency. I also travelled extensively in the country.

There is something that most foreign analyst do not grasp: the Chinese Mind (the "collective subconscious" if you wish.)

-The Chinese Mind likes to be seen in the Struggle doing things to fight in the Struggle (no matter what the Struggle is, whether those actions give tangible results or not, at least they make great photo ops for the media.)
-The Chinese Mind is hive-like, it's blindly obedient, and it lashes out at the "Enemy" (whether real or imaginary)
-The Chinese Mind is a bit childish, it is for sure stubborn, and non-rational/logical (non-Cartesian)
-The Chinese Mind is constantly under ideological propaganda, everywhere, every time, from childhood til death, from home to the workspace...
-The Chinese Mind is never guilty, it always blames the Other (and the object of the blame is constantly shifting)
-The Chinese Mind hates losing face (what face, nobody knows) and hates being criticized (just shut up and put it under the carpet)

Remember the famines? One day they wake up and decide to kill all the birds (that were eating bugs that were eating crops...)

Same Mindset.

Shanghai has always been seen as the most "civilized" city in China. Shanghai is often called Le Paris de l'Orient, it is an "international" first tier city... probably the top Chinese city in terms of openness, quality of life and access to medical care.

Nobody expected to see such levels of insanity in Shanghai... in other areas of the country, yes, but not here. Looking at the conditions in the quarantine centers... Containers without doors in a field, tents set on a highway, toilets flooded with feces... open air zoo.

They come take positive cases in big buses and ambulances almost daily. The police is patrolling streets at all times and we are unable to even set foot on the sidewalk. Every building that had a positive case is either: shut down with barriers OR has 1-2 men in a tent monitoring 24/7 (imagine all the manpower required.) Currently there are 3-4 of those tents in my compound. It's basically Martial Law.

The psychological toll is quite high. The monetary one must be hard of lower classes. Some neighbors have mental breakdowns. Some people spray alcohol in the air while walking to get tested... You'd think the Plague is upon us.

Some people were getting messages in group chat about "foreign spies" and "foreign media fueling anti-China conspiracies." Good ol' shift the blame tricks.

I have been in lockdown since mid-March, got tested 35 times, and lost about 12 pounds. The local governmental commune gave us a little bit of food, but barely enough to survive.

Luckily we had some preps and were able to order some food. Now most delivery guys are not allowed to deliver to our address. We can get a bit of food, but we need to get imaginative to create new recipes (boiled/sweet and sour/spicy/fermented cabbage.)

My take is:

It could be a test for something much bigger (ie., war, energy crisis) or they are truly afraid of the unrest if lots of old people were to die. Chinese people tend to get emotional and the last thing the authorities want to deal with is mobs lynching doctors in the streets.

Is the frog slowly boiling in the pot?

I think so.

Except the whole planet is pot and we're all frogs.

__________________________________________

Posted by "Mon Seul Desir"

I think that there’s far too many attempts to rationalize the conduct and policies of the powerful as being part of some astonishingly clever plan, myself I use Occam’s razor, if the powerful are doing something that looks incredibly stupid, self destructive and utterly insane, then it is because whatever they’re doing IS actually incredibly stupid, self destructive and utterly insane. I don’t buy the myth that those in power are unusually clever, informed or are far seeing. Here in Canada I’ve been witnessing the follies of our child-rulers for the past few years and the bungling of senile Brandon south of the border and this is governance on the level of Honorius and Arcadius and their corrupt intrigue filled courts. As for China, I saw a report on Xi’s appearance before the Congress of Peoples Deputies and I wondered. How many of the deputies applauding him are actually plotting against him?


Note added after publication. Latest news from China:

https://www.9news.com.au/world/china-zero-covid-policy-shanghai-xi-jinping-warning-coronavirus-asia-news/372e4151-b679-4cc6-85d7-34bf0d7040e8

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Saddam Trap: Winning by Checkmate

 

The game of chess is not supposed to be a realistic simulation of a battle. But, on one point, it may provide a fundamental hint: wars are mostly a question of command and control. Killing or neutralizing the leader (the king) may cause the collapse of the country's military forces. But, in modern times, country leaders are rarely killed by their enemies, rather, they are controlled, sometimes in subtle ways that involve them engaging in foolish or counterproductive actions. 

 

If the world is a giant chessboard, then the leaders of the major powers are equivalent to the "king" in chess. It is a common perception that whatever is being done in the giant struggle, is done by specific orders from the great leader, be him Putin, Biden, Xi Jinping, or whoever controls -- or is said to control -- a country.  

This perception opens up a chess-like strategy that consists in eliminating the enemy leader. But that is rarely a good idea. Unlike what happens in chess, a dead leader may be turned into a heroic figure by propaganda, and then replaced by another one who may be even more warlike. So, a better strategy could consist in controlling the enemy leader(s), something that you cannot do in Chess. If you can convince your enemy to make poor strategic choices, you are halfway to victory (Sun Tzu never said that in his "The Art of War", but he could have). 

So, let's see if we can find historical examples of this strategy having been successfully applied in the recent past. I can propose at least three. 

1. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), 1808 – 1873. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, turned Emperor of the French, is such a fascinating figure that I dedicated at least four posts to him (see below). The fascination about him derives from the fact that he was thoroughly, completely, and hopelessly incompetent. All his major decisions seemed to be aimed at ruining the remaining chances for France to become a world power, as it had been during the reign of his uncle, Napoleon 1st. One of these decisions was especially disastrous: when Louis Napoleon helped the Piedmont King, Vittorio Emanuele II, to defeat the Austrians and then unify Italy into a single kingdom. The result was the creation of a state that forever blocked all the attempts of France to expand in North Africa. Was Luis Napoleon controlled by the Piedmontese? It seems that he was: the control took the form of the work of the Countess of Castiglione, aka Virginia Oldoini, one of the most beautiful women of the time. She was sent to France by her cousin, the Prime Minister of the Piedmontese government, with the explicit purpose of becoming Louis Napoleon's lover and influencing his decisions. It is hard to say how effective Ms. Oldoini was, considering that Luis Napoleon took plenty of bad decisions even before knowing her. But we may at least suspect that she had a role in shaping the world as it is today. 

2. Benito Mussolini, 1883 – 1945. You could say that his first years of leadership went reasonably well. The turning point for him seems to have been the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still today, we may wonder how it was possible that the Italian government engaged the country in the conquest of a territory that held nothing of interest for the Italian economy and that, much worse, was a gigantic burden for the state's coffers. It should have been obvious that the military forces stationed there could not be resupplied in case of a major conflict and were destined to be defeated. Which was precisely what happened. Was the idea of invading Ethiopia "planted" in Mussolini's mind by the British secret services? If that was the case, it was a remarkably successful trick that considerably weakened Italy's military power at the start of World War II. How could that have been obtained? It is hard to think that Mussolini could be controlled using women: he was a renowned womanizer and had plenty of them. But we know that the British secret services had paid him to push the Italian government to join the Allies during WWI. Then, in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." That opened up for Mussolini the road to put into practice a mad idea of his: that of rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire, maybe with him becoming emperor. Instead, he ended up hanged by the feet, but that's the way history works. Incidentally, Mussolini's removal from power in 1943 is a remarkable example of a Chess-like decapitation strategy in modern times. Without a leader, the Italian armed forces disbanded and ceased to fight in days. 

3. Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006. Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader who engaged his country in a disastrous war against neighboring Iran, probably thinking of himself as the heir of the Arab leaders who had conquered Iran during the 7th century AD. His doom came when he took another disastrous decision, that of invading Kuwait in 1990. It is well known that, before invading, Hussein met the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, and discussed with her his grievances with the Kuwait government. We have the transcripts of their discussion: while she never explicitly encouraged Hussein to invade Kuwait, she also didn't mention that the US would have been strongly displeased. Then, surely, not everything that was said was also transcribed, and we may imagine that Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait if he had imagined the US reaction. On the contrary, he may have taken what the ambassador said as a green light. After all, the US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, so Hussein could easily imagine that the US would continue to support him. We will never know, but we may at least suspect that Hussein was framed and pushed into making the mistake that would eventually lead to his death and the destruction of Iraq. 

There are surely more examples of absurd decisions taken by country leaders. That may be the case with Stalin's decision to invade Finland in 1939. It looked like an easy task, but it cost more than 300,000 casualties to the Soviet Union. Then, some people argue that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was, at least in part, a trap created by the American diplomacy to put them in a position from which they could not back down anymore. But the three examples I listed, I think, are enough to indicate that a strong leader can be pushed to take bad decisions by foreign forces, although the methods for doing so are not straightforward. 

Neither money nor intimidation can do much to control top-level leaders: they are riding the tiger, so, they afford to appear weak, or -- worse -- as traitors to their countries.  Sex may be a more effective tool, and the recent story of Jeffrey Epstein tells us that many politicians may have sex-related skeletons in their closets. But truly powerful leaders can intimidate their critics and afford to be womanizers or sexual perverts. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a case in point. 

So, stroking an overinflated ego may be the best strategy to influence a leader. All country leaders are normally lone men (very rarely women) surrounded by people who have no interest and no convenience in contradicting them. Older leaders may be especially sensitive to this approach and, surely, in getting older, their mental capabilities do not improve. Lev Tolstoy gave us a remarkable description of how Napoleon (the first) made incredible mistakes simply by doing the things that had been doing before and then discovering in horror that these things didn't work anymore (see below). 

In this light, the best controlling technique to defeat a foreign leader can be called "The Saddam Trap" (we may also call it "Saddamization." It does sound bad but, just for this reason, it may be a suitable definition). The Saddam Trap consists in enticing the leader to engage the country in a military adventure that, in the beginning, looks like a cakewalk (what could go wrong with invading Kuwait?) Then, it turns out to have been a trap from which the great leader cannot extricate himself without losing face-- which for him is equivalent to admitting defeat. Leaders cannot admit defeat, they can only double down and hope that making a mistake bigger will turn it into a success. Except that it doesn't always work. And then history moves forward, unforgiving as usual. 

The study of history may tell us much about our present, but we have to be cautious in interpreting current events according to similarities with previous ones. And don't forget that the "great leaders" are few: most of our politicians can be bought on the cheap, we don't need to look for sophisticated strategies. So, we cannot say with certainty how exactly some recent events can be interpreted in terms of one or more leaders being trapped Saddam-style or, simply, paid to sell their country to a foreign power. With time, though, we will know. 


_______________________________

Lev Tolstoy: War and Peace.


Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy’s line, and a cavalry attack by ‘the men of iron,’ all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another’s eyes only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now with the fight balanced on such a strained center destroy him and his army.

When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind. The Russians might fall on his left wing, might break through his center, he himself might be killed by a stray cannon ball. All this was possible. In former battles he had only considered the possibilities of success, but now innumerable unlucky chances presented themselves, and he expected them all. Yes, it was like a dream in which a man fancies that a ruffian is coming to attack him, and raises his arm to strike that ruffian a terrible blow which he knows should annihilate him, but then feels that his arm drops powerless and limp like a rag, and the horror of unavoidable destruction seizes him in his helplessness.

The news that the Russians were attacking the left flank of the French army aroused that horror in Napoleon. He sat silently on a camp stool below the knoll, with head bowed and elbows on his knees.

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis


Despite evidence that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What's happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted -- and still be acting -- on the basis of a meme that has its origin in a military perception of the pandemic.  


A "meme" is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it "infects" people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as "boil the damn milk." It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless in the 1960s, when pasteurization had become common. 

My grandmother was not stupid: she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or harmful, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most people are unprepared to understand. We should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more -- no way! So, we rely on simplified snippets to guide our everyday activities. "Wear the damn mask," "stay home," "don't kill granny," "flatten the curve," and the like. That includes our leaders, and even many of the so-called "experts".

But how can we tell whether a meme is good or bad? One way to decide is to look at its origin. All memes have a story. Sometimes they begin as sensible precautions ("boil the milk before drinking it") but, in some cases ("lock everybody inside their homes"), they have a more complicated story. Where does the lockdown meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of "biological warfare." But let's go in order. 


The Militarization of Biotechnologies

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into besieged cities using catapults. It must have been spectacular, but it doesn't seem to have been common or especially effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that with chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times, bioweapons were never used on a large scale and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.

    

The Ngrams results are confirmed by an examination of the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that in the figure years go right to left in the graph and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of this renewed interest lies in the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. But they can do much more than that: what if you could "tailor" a virus to the genetic code of specific ethnic groups, or even to the DNA of single persons? That remains (fortunately) for now in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach. You can direct a virus to harm the enemy while sparing your population. You can do that if you have a vaccine, and they don't (like the old Maxim gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China often believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky's site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas: they have never been put into practice. And you are discussing lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people. What could go wrong? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. Then, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that "genetic warfare" was a real possibility. At this point, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country to react when targeted with bioweapons.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the objective of reaching the natural "herd immunity". For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others. On quarantines, they stated that "There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza." 

But when the military meme of biological warfare started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, waiting for herd immunity is not enough: the virus has to be stopped fast to allow the defenders to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. 

You can find several documents on the Web advocating an aggressive attitude toward epidemics. One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, where you can read of a scenario called "Operation Lockstep" that described something very similar to what came to pass in 2020 in terms of restrictions. Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn't use the term "lockdown" but it proposed a drastic series of measures to counter a possible outbreak that leading nearly two million victims in the United States only. It proposed a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of "flattening the curve." It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We'll go back to this graph later. 


Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, just memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 


The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov-2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone with the idea of containing an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don't see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, "People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing." I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to react, rather than act. They also tend to be authoritarian, and a drastic lockdown is surely something that they favor since it enhances their power. 

Seen in this context, it doesn't matter if the SARS-Cov-2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What's important is that the Chinese authorities reacted "by the book." That is, they put into practice the recommendations that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya's CDC paper, although, of course, that doesn't mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their own recommendations on preparedness that we may imagine were similar to those fashionable in the West. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China. We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years.

  

There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don't forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid during 2020 was of the order of 2-3 in a million. Infinitesimal, indeed. But was it was a success of the containment policies? Or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be? Whatever the case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success. It was a personal triumph for China's president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, masking, etcetera. They seemed effective not just in terms of "flattening the curve", but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of "zero covid." Memes such as "stay home" spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of "flattening the curve" and of "zero covid" were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends: 


Initially, it seemed that the Covid epidemic in Europe would disappear after the first wave, thanks to the NPIs. European leaders may have been genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled "Why we will be healed" taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But shortly afterward the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web. It was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle as it had been done in China. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:



Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. 

Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.

   


And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated. But then a new, stronger wave arrived. China didn't do so much better than the West, after all. 


The Memes that won

Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But the Shanghai lockdown changed everything. I argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 

The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let's go back to Venkayya's diagram in the 2007 CDC report, reproducing it here again. 



Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that the author, Mr. Venkayya, thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes the real-world data? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren't. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of "restrictions" during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based that show how the effect of NPIs such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak, if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was perceived to be so effective that it was replicated all over the world. The key, here, is the term "effective." If the virus had been as deadly as it was believed to be, maybe even a biological weapon, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not much more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese may have been already equipped to cope with it. That would also explain why the 2022 wave was so much stronger: the Chinese had not exposed their immune system to viruses for nearly two years, and they had become especially vulnerable to new variants.  

At this point, I can propose an interpretation for the reasons for the recent Shanghai lockdown as a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese authorities were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of the COVID virus, they reacted in the same way: with a new lockdown, convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat. 

If this is true, the Chinese authorities -- and the Chinese citizens, as well -- y must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave refused to be flattened, as it had seemed to be during the Wuhan lockdown. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don't lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were themselves another stubborn meme infecting a population.


Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from "Worldometers." What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in winter for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaigns of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. Every day in the world, some 150,000 persons die for all reasons. The graph tells us that, on the average, only about 7-8 thousand people died of (or perhaps just with) Covid every day. Even assuming that all those who died with Covid can be classified as dead from Covid (not obvious at all), more than 95% of the people who died during this period died for reasons other than the Covid. 

The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose that it was a typical "feedback cascade" in the world's memesphere. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don't mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies and individuals do ride memes for their own advantage. So, when the pharmaceutical industry discovered that they could make money with vaccines against the Covid, they pushed hard for the meme to spread. The surveillance industry did the same. And governments, of course, pushed for more control over their citizens. They are naturally authoritarian and the Chinese government may not be especially more authoritarian than the Western ones. 

But, overall, memes can be a force that moves infected people even against their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is much worse for the Covid story. A lot of ordinary people fully believed the memes that the government's propaganda machine was pushing and they did things that were positively harming them, physically, socially, and economically. They still do, memes are resilient. Daniel Dennett said that "a human being is an ape infested with memes." and the Covid story shows that it is true. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only go down. But the recent news from Shanghai is worrisome. If the Western media are to be trusted, the Chinese government is engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. It may still be way too early to say that the time of the requiem for an old meme has come. 


See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.



Note added after publication. Latest news from China (May 9th, 2022):

https://www.9news.com.au/world/china-zero-covid-policy-shanghai-xi-jinping-warning-coronavirus-asia-news/372e4151-b679-4cc6-85d7-34bf0d7040e8

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. ("our measures are scientific" -- yeah, sure.....)