Half of Deliberately Exposed Unvaccinated Volunteers in UK Study Did Not Get COVID; Why?

A British study by Ben Killingley and 31 co-authors recently appeared in pre-print form, where 36 (heroic) healthy young adult volunteers were deliberately exposed to the Covid virus by nasal drops. These volunteers then went into quarantine for 14 days, and logged their symptoms and were subjected to various tests for a total of 28 days.


Of the 36 subjects, only 18 (53%) became infected with the virus, as determined by PCR testing (the gold standard for Covid tests) and by direct counting of viral loads in mucus cells by FFA.

The study found that viral shedding (as estimated by mucus viral loads) begins within two days of exposure and rapidly reaches high levels, then declines. Viable virus is still detectible up to 12 days post-inoculation. This result supports the practice of people quarantining for at least 10 days after they first exhibit symptoms of infection. There were significant higher viral loads in the nose than in the throat,  which supports the practice of wearing masks that cover the nose as well as the mouth.


The cheap, fast, LFA rapid antigen test method (used in home tests) performed fairly well. Because it is less sensitive, it did not it did not yield positive results for infected individuals until an average of four days after infection, or about two days after viral shedding may have begun. But from four days onward, the LFA method was sensitive and reasonably accurate which supports the ongoing use of these quick, cheap tests.

These direct inclusions from the paper are helpful, but not earthshaking. The elephant in the room, which the paper did not seem to directly address, is why nearly half of the people who were exposed did NOT become infected. This raises all kinds of issues about what mechanisms the human body may have to naturally fight off COVID or similar viral infections. Gaining insight on this could lead to breakthroughs in preventing or mitigating this pernicious virus.

An article by Eileen O’Reilly at Axios probes these questions. There is nothing conclusive out there, but four ideas that are under investigation are:

1. Cross-immunity from the four endemic human coronaviruses is one hypothesis. Those other coronaviruses cause many of the colds people catch and could prime B-cell and T-cell response to this new coronavirus in some people.

2. Multiple genetic variations may make someone’s immune system more or less susceptible to the virus.  Some 20 different genes have been identified which affect the likelihood of severe infection, and a genetic predisposition to not getting infected is seen in other diseases where people have one or multiple factors that interfere with the virus binding to cells or being transported within.

3. Mucosal immunity may play an underrecognized role in mounting a defense.

This suggests nasal vaccines might have a chance at stopping a virus before it invades the whole body.

4. Where the virus settled on the human body, how large the particle was, the amount and length of exposure, how good the ventilation was and other environmental circumstances may also play a role.

These considerations support continuing with the usual recommendations of social distancing, wearing facemasks, and ventilating buildings, especially when caseloads are peaking. Also, the doses administered to the volunteers in the study were considered quite small by clinical standards. It was surprising that such a low dose was effective as it was in causing full-blown infections; and the particular strain used in the experiment was not necessarily one of the more recent highly virulent variants. After reading these results,  it is more understandable to me why so many reasonably careful friends and family members of mine (nearly all vaccinated, fortunately) have come down with (presumably) omicron COVID in the past two months. Just a little dab will do ya.

“Pfumvudza” Planting Technique Revolutionizes Crop Yields in Zimbabwe

Birth of a New Farming Method

Brian Oldreive is a Zimbabwean, born there in 1943. A star cricket player as a young man, he moved on to become a successful tobacco farmer. In 1978, he became convinced (given the harm that tobacco causes) that he should no longer grow tobacco. When he tried to switch to food crops like corn (called maize in Africa), using standard agricultural practices, he could not make a go of it. He ended up losing his farm and his livelihood due to his moral stand against growing tobacco. He went to work for another large farm, but even there it was a struggle to grow food at a profit. Soil was eroding and crop yields were falling.

He began to think that maybe there was a better way to farm than the usual Western model. One day in 1984 when he was walking in the forest, he noticed that the trees and bushes there grew just fine, with no help from humans, no plowing or irrigation. How was that possible? He observed two things. First, the ground was covered with a thick layer of leaves and other debris, which formed a natural mulch. Beneath this mulch layer (“God’s blanket”), the soil was moist. This was while the region was experiencing drought, and regular farmers’ fields were parched. Secondly, the undisturbed mulch layer naturally decayed to return nutrients to the soil.

Oldreive parlayed those observations into a system of no-till agriculture which mimics the created order. He called this “Farming God’s Way”. The emphasis is on high productivity from a small plot. This involves precision planting at the proper time, crop rotation (corn/beans), and deep mulching to retain moisture and keep weeds down. Nutrients are supplied by both compost and chemical fertilizers.

This method can be practiced by farmers owning no tool other than a hoe. This breaks the cycle of farmers or nations going into debt to purchase expensive Western agricultural machinery, which then may become useless due to inadequate maintenance out in the bush.    

This approach contrasts with conventional farming practice which plows up the soil, leaving it to erode away when it rains and to dry out when it doesn’t rain. Plowing also disturbs the natural ordering of the microbial communities within the upper and lower soil layers. (There is aerobic metabolism near the surface, and a whole different anaerobic community in the soil lower down).

Oldreive started by planting one small plot using this approach in the estate he was then managing:

I decided to copy what God does in natural creation and I observed that the leaves fall down on the ground and the grass dies down and there is a protective blanket over the earth, and that is how God preserves soil to infiltrate the water that we receive…

Many people did not believe me and said I was wasting time. But I was not deterred because I was convinced that this method would work. I decided to put the model into practice by starting with just two hectares. I prayed for wisdom and God showed me how to plant maize into wheat straw residue. This is just the same as what God does in nature.

That two-hectare (about 5 acre) plot confounded the skeptics, yielding about ten times more corn per hectare than the local average yields. He then planted more acreage using this approach. Over the next few years, while a number of conventionally-run farms around him went broke, he kept expanding and growing more food with his system.

Oldreive believed these insights were gifts from God which were meant to be shared with others. Therefore, he shifted his effort towards teaching other Africans how to farm with this method.

Things Fall Apart in Zimbabwe

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Optimal Policy & Technological Contingency

A person’s optimal choice depends on what they know. To consume more ice cream? Or to consume more alcohol? It depends on what we know about the expected utility across time. If a person thinks that alcohol has few calories, then it is understandable that they would choose to drink rather than eat. The person might be totally wrong, but they are acting optimally contingent on their knowledge about the world. (FWIW, 4oz of ethanol has 262 calories and 4oz of typical ice cream has 228 calories.)

The case is analogous for good government policy. The best policy is contingent on accessing the distribution of knowledge that’s inside of multiple people’s heads. It’s not sensible to assert that a policy is suboptimal if the optimal policy requires knowledge that neither a single individual nor all people together have. Even if the sum of all knowledge does exist, it may not be possible to access it.

Economists like to tell their undergraduate classes that it doesn’t matter who you tax. But that’s contingent on 1) identical compliance costs among buyers and sellers and 2) identical relevant information. If a tax comes as a surprise to the buyer or the seller, then it absolutely matters who is taxed.

When I was in 1st grade in North Carolina, my class went on a field trip to a Christmas tree farm. We learned a bunch about maintaining the farm and we got to choose a pumpkin to take home. At the end of our visit we took turns perusing the gift shop. My mother had generously given me a dollar to spend  and I was eager to spend it (I rarely had money to spend). Unfortunately, even in the early mid-90s, most of the things in the shop cost more than $1. So, I settled on purchasing some beef jerky that cost 99 cents.

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The Return of Independent Research

Universities have been around for about a thousand years, but for much of that time it was typical for cutting-edge research to happen outside of them. Copernicus wasn’t a professor, Darwin wasn’t a professor. Others like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and Albert Einstein became professors only after completing some of their best work. Scientists didn’t need the resources of a university, they simply needed a means of support that gave them enough time to think. Many were independently wealthy (Robert Boyle, Antoine Lavoisier) or supported by the church (Gregor Mendel). Some worked “real jobs”, David Ricardo as a banker, Einstein famously as a patent clerk.

Over time academia grew and an increasing share of research was done by professors, with most of the rest happening inside the few non-academic institutions that paid people to do full time research: national labs, government agencies, and a few companies like Xerox Parc, Bell Labs and 3M. In many fields research came to require expensive equipment that was only available in the best-funded labs. “Researcher” became a job, and research conducted by those without that job became viewed with suspicion over the 20th century.

But the Internet Age is leading to the growth in opportunities outside academia, opportunities not just economic but intellectual. Anyone with a laptop and internet can access most of the key tools that professors use, often for free- scientific articles, seminars, supercomputers, data, data analysis. Particularly outside of the lab sciences, the only remaining barrier to independent research is again what it was before the 20th century- finding a means of support that gives you time to think. This will never be easy, but becoming a professor isn’t either, and a growing number of people are either becoming independently wealthy, able to support themselves with fewer work hours (even vs academics), or finding jobs that encourage part time research. If you work for the right company you might even get better data than the academics have.

Particularly in artificial intelligence and machine learning, the frontier seems to be outside academia, with many of the best professors getting offers from industry they can’t refuse.

Even in the lab sciences, money is increasingly pouring in for those who want to leave academia to run a start-up instead:

I think it’s great for science that these new opportunities are opening up. A natural advantage of independent research is that it allows people to work on topics or use methods they couldn’t in academia because they are seen as too high risk, too out there, make too many enemies, or otherwise fall into an academic “blind spot“.

I’m still happy to be in academia, and independent research clearly has its challenges too. But over my lifetime it seems like we have shifted from academia being the obvious best place to do research, to academia being one of several good options. Even as research has begun to move elsewhere though, universities still seem to be doing well at their original purpose of teaching students. Almost all of the people I’ve highlighted as great independent researchers were still trained at universities; most of the modern ones I linked to even have PhDs. There are always exceptions and the internet could still change this, but for now universities retain a near-monopoly on training good researchers even as the employment of good researchers becomes competitive.

As an academic I may not be the right person to write about all this, so I’ll leave you with the suggestion to listen to this podcast where Spencer Greenberg and Andy Matuschak discuss their world of “para-academic research”. Spencer is a great example of everything I’ve said- an Applied Math PhD who makes money in private sector finance/tech but has the time to publish great research, partly in math/CS where a university lab is unnecessary, but more interestingly in psychology where being a professor would actually slow him down- independent researchers don’t need to wait weeks for permission from an institutional review board every time they want to run a survey.

Is an Academic Career Still Worth It?

Being a professor is still great, but the alternatives are getting better fast.

I’m glad I started a PhD in 2009; I wanted to learn more economics and the opportunity cost was low, with the worst job market in a generation. When I went on the job market in 2013, I still thought academia was such a clear favorite that I didn’t even apply to private-sector or government jobs. I wanted to teach, yes, but above all I wanted freedom- the freedom to choose my own research topics, to think deeply, to not have a boss, to not spend 40+ hours every week in an office.

It’s easy to find essays about how academic jobs are terrible, or at least much worse than they used to be. To me, being a tenure-track academic is still great work if you can get it, for all the reasons Bryan Caplan explains here. But I do think the quality of the job is standing still while the alternatives get better. The academic superiority that seemed obvious to me in 2009 and 2013 no longer seems obvious in 2021, due to three big changes:

Higher Demand: The demand for workers with quantitative and/or programming abilities has never been higher. My impression is that now anyone with the ability to do a PhD in a quantitative subject could be making six figures in tech, data science, or finance within a few years if they set their mind to it. Of course, this is simply a difference of degree; its always been the conventional wisdom that you could make more money outside of academia. The gap seems to be growing now, but to me the more important change is

Remote Work: Quality, high-paying remote jobs have gone from rare in 2019 to common today, which is a game-changer for many decisions, including academic vs non-academic. Perhaps the worst part of an academic career is that it forces everyone to move- getting a PhD usually requires moving, and getting your first academic job almost certainly does. This is a huge cost for those who value family and community, a cost many people are unwilling to pay. In 2014 my wife’s career had just brought us to New Orleans, but the closest tenure-track job offer I had was a thousand miles away at Creighton University in Omaha. I took the job and spent the next three years flying back and forth, partly because I wanted to be in academia, but partly because there were no good private sector or government options for an Econ PhD in New Orleans either at the time. Back then the private sector and government economist jobs were plentiful but generally meant moving to one of a few cities (DC, NYC, SF, Boston) and spending all day in an office, so I ignored them. Today I wouldn’t.

Campus vs The Internet: So the practical side of non-academic jobs is getting better, but what about the life of the mind? When I first went to college I loved taking classes in new subjects and going to the events and seminars that were always happening on campus, and part of the appeal of being a professor was to be able to keep doing that. In graduate school I liked attending the seminars where visiting speakers would present their latest research, and hoped to get a job at research-oriented university where I could keep doing that. But these benefits of being on campus don’t seem so important anymore. Partly its that I feel too busy to take advantage of them; most of the time there’s a speaker on campus talking about something cool like a new translation of the Odyssey, I’m either catching up on work or home with my kids. But mostly the internet means this sort of thing is available to everyone all the time. I may have missed Emily Wilson’s talk at my campus but I heard her on Conversations with Tyler. I’m not at an R1 school with scholars in my field presenting new research every month, but there are now more great research seminars online than I have time to watch. The Internet makes it increasingly easy for anyone with the motivation to participate in the life of the mind regardless of where they live or what their job is- certainly as consumers, and in a future post I’ll highlight the increasingly impressive scholarly production coming from non-academics.

Earning Steady 9% Interest in My New Crypto Account

One reason for opening an account where you can purchase cryptocurrencies is to speculate on their price movements. There have been many cases where some coin has quadrupled in a few weeks, or gone up ten-fold in a few months, or even a hundred-fold within a year.

Another facet of crypto accounts is that in some cases you are paid interest on the coin you have purchased and hold in your account. That was the main draw for me. I already have a little Bitcoin and Ethereum exposure in my brokerage account through the funds GBTC and ETHE, enough to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when they go up, up, up and down, down, down, but I am not a big speculator at heart. So, I am drawn to the so-called “stablecoins”, whose value is tied to some major regular currency such as the U.S. dollar. It turns out that you can get high, steady interest payments on those stablecoins.

There are several crypto brokers which pay interest on coins. Some names include BlockFi, Celsius, Nexo, and Voyager Digital. Several such firms are reviewed here.  Initially I leaned towards Voyager, since it gives access to lots of the new, little alt-coins where you can 10X your money if you pick the right ones and jump in early. However, I still do my own taxes, and the tax reporting from Voyager looked daunting. Last I looked, they just provide a dump of all your transactions in a giant table, and it’s up to you to figure out capital gains/losses. The word on the street is that this is not as straightforward as it seems. Also, Voyager offered only mobile apps, not a desktop interface. All in all, Voyager seems more geared towards intense younger Robin Hood/Reddit crowd, punching daring trades into their phones at all hours.

BlockFi is quite staid by comparison. It only offers a few, mainstream coins. However, it is one of the best-established firms, and it provides a nice clear 1099 tax reporting form at the end of the year. BlockFi is backed by major institutional partners, and manages over $9 billion in assets.

Unlike some of its competitors, it is U.S.-based, and as such it is structured to function well in this jurisdiction. Also, its interest payouts are straightforward. In contrast, many of its competitors incentivize  you to receive your interest in special tokens issued by those companies, which adds another element of risk. Finally, BlockFi allows you to immediately transfer money in and out of your account by using a bank ACH link. I wanted that flexibility since I plan to keep a portion of my cash holdings in BlockFi instead of in the bank, but I want to be able to access those cash holdings on short notice and without penalty. (Last week I described some of my struggles over using the Plaid financial app which manages the bank-BlockFi interface, but I was able to get past that).

All in all, BlockFi is boring in a good way. All I want to do is make steady money, with minimal distraction. Here is a listing of the interest rates paid for holdings of Bitcoin and Ethereum:

BlockFi only pays significant interest for smaller holdings of these coins. (We will discuss the reason for this seemingly odd policy in a future blog post; it is basically an outcome of BlockFi’s conservative financial practices).

For Bitcoin, the interest rate is 4.5% for up to 0.10 BTC, which at today’s prices is about $4,700. After that, the interest plummets to 1%, and to a mere 0.10% for more than 0.35 BTC (about $16,000). There is a similar pattern for Ethereum. If your goal is to hold large amounts of these coins and earn substantial interest on them, there are probably better platforms than BlockFi.

However, the interest picture is brighter for the stablecoins. The biggest U.S.-based stablecoin is USD Coin (USDC), which is backed by significant institutions. Gemini Dollar (GUSD) is smaller, but also takes great pains to garner trust. Its issuer, Gemini, operates under the regulatory oversight of the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS). It boasts, “The Gemini Dollar is fully backed at a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar. The number of Gemini dollar tokens in circulation is equal to the number of U.S. dollars held at a bank in the United States, and the system is insured with pass-through FDIC deposit insurance as a preventative measure against money laundering, theft, and other illicit activities.” GUSD is the “native” currency within BlockFi, though users can easily exchange it for other coins. At this point I am holding just GUSD, though if I put in more funds, I would plan to partially diversify into USDC. Besides being much bigger, USDC now runs on multiple platforms, whereas GUSD is limited to Ethereum; if Ethereum finally does switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake, it may be more subject to outages or hacking, so it would be nice to not be totally dependent on Ethereum.

For these two stablecoins, BlockFi currently pays 9% interest on holdings up to $40,000, and a respectable 8% on larger holdings:

A complete list of BlockFi interest rates (which change from time to time) is here.

The alert reader may at this point object, “Hey, you are losing most of the purported benefits of blockchain cryptocurrencies – – without holding the coins in your own wallet, you don’t actually own them, so you are back dependent on The System. Moreover, those stablecoins are centrally managed, not deliberately decentralized like Bitcoin and Ethereum. You are treating this like a plain bank account!”

My reply is, “Yes, I am treating it like a plain bank account – – but an account that pays me 9% interest, with no drama.” That is exactly what I wanted.

I’m Excited about a New World’s Fair

Everyone who attended the recent Emergent Ventures Unconference is excited. Craig Palsson is excited about the primal branding of the unconference. My co-blogger Mike Makowsky is excited about Plascrete (I was too! We listened to that pitch simultaneously).

I was most excited about the New World’s Fair. This is Cameron Weise’s project, for which he won an EV grant (see all the winners). I have always been interested in the history of World’s Fairs (though probably not as much as my wife). And they still exist, in a sense. There are still World Expos every few years, but as Cameron will tell you, these have mostly turned into “nation branding” exercises, promoting the host nation itself and whatever other countries set up their own exhibits.

But today, World Expos are not about promoting science, technology, and the future, as many World’s Fairs of the past did. And aren’t there already technological conferences, such as the Consumer Electronics Show (now just CES)? Yes, there are. And these are great. But they aren’t serving the same role as World’s Fairs used too.

This is the gap that Cameron Wiese is stepping into. I don’t know exactly what it will look like (he has lots of ideas!), nor exactly when it will happen. But I will be following his project closely, and you should too.

In the conclusion to his e-book The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen presents a solution to the stagnation: “Raise the social status of scientists.” I think a New World’s Fair would go a long way towards do this.

Starship: Quantity has a Quality of its own

If the SpaceX Starship ends up working as planned, it will do the same things our rockets do now, but at one one-hundredth the price. In an inspiring blog post, Casey Handmer argues that even people within the industry have yet to appreciate the qualitatively different opportunities that this price drop would enable:

By refilling in LEO, a fully loaded deep space Starship can transport >100 T of bulk cargo anywhere in the solar system, including the surface of the Moon or Mars, for <$100m per Starship. Starship is intended to be able to transport a million tonnes of cargo to the surface of Mars in just ten launch windows, in addition to serving other incidental destinations, such as maintaining the Starlink constellation or building a big base at the Lunar south pole.

Second, and more importantly, shoehorning Cassini 2.0 or Mars Direct into Starship fails to adequately exploit the capabilities of the launch system. Not to pick on Cassini or Mars Direct, but both of these missions were designed with inherent constraints that are not relevant to Starship. In fact, all space missions whether robotic or crewed, historical or planned, have been designed with constraints that are not relevant to Starship. 

What does this mean? Historically, mission/system design has been grievously afflicted by absurdly harsh mass constraints, since launch costs to LEO are as high as $10,000/kg and single launches cost hundreds of millions. This in turn affects schedule, cost structure, volume, material choices, labor, power, thermal, guidance/navigation/control, and every other aspect of the mission. Entire design languages and heuristics are reinforced, at the generational level, in service of avoiding negative consequences of excess mass. As a result, spacecraft built before Starship are a bit like steel weapons made before the industrial revolution. Enormously expensive as a result of embodying a lot of meticulous labor, but ultimately severely limited compared to post-industrial possibilities. 

Starship obliterates the mass constraint and every last vestige of cultural baggage that constraint has gouged into the minds of spacecraft designers. There are still constraints, as always, but their design consequences are, at present, completely unexplored. We need a team of economists to rederive the relative elasticities of various design choices and boil them down to a new set of design heuristics for space system production oriented towards maximizing volume of production.

As they say, read they whole thing, especially the part about space tractors. I leave you with one final quote:

It is time to raise the scope of our ambition and think much bigger

Zuckerberg Wants to Suck You into His Metaverse

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been making a lot of noise in the past few months about the “metaverse”, and now has changed his company’s name from Facebook to “Meta Platforms” (MVRS on the NASDAQ). What, you may ask, is the metaverse?

The term itself has been around for a while. Wikipedia defines it as, ”The metaverse is an iteration of the Internet part of shared virtual reality, often as a form of social media. The metaverse in a broader sense may not only refer to virtual worlds operated by social media companies but the entire spectrum of augmented reality.” In the near term, it will to be embodied by people wearing headsets with Augmented Reality (AR) goggles (with little projector screens in front of your eyes) connected over the internet to other people wearing AR googles. Instead of seeing people on flat screens (think Zoom calls), both you and they will seem to be in the same room, interacting with each other in 3-D. You and they will each be represented by digitally constructed avatars. Eventually your body would have various sensors attached to it to convey your position and motions, and your sense of touch for objects you are handling. For instance, this just in:

Together with scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, artificial intelligence researchers at Meta created a deformable plastic “skin” less than 3 millimeters thick….When the skin comes into contact with another surface, the magnetic field from the embedded particles changes. The sensor records the change in magnetic flux, before feeding the data to some AI software, which attempts to understand the force or touch that has been applied.

Zuckerberg gave a presentation on October 28 touting his company’s pivot.  In his words:

The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse….When you play a game with your friends, you’ll feel like you’re right there together in a different world, not just on your computer by yourself. And when you’re in a meeting in the metaverse, it’ll feel like you’re right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen. That’s what we mean by an embodied internet. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences.  You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their face expressions. You’ll see their body language. Maybe figure out if they’re actually holding a winning hand…

Next, there are avatars, and that’s how we’re going to represent ourselves in the metaverse. Avatars will be as common as profile pictures today, but instead of a static image, they’re going to be living 3D representations of you, your expressions, your gestures that are going to make interactions much richer than anything that’s possible online today. You’ll probably have a photo realistic avatar for work, a stylized one for hanging out and maybe even a fantasy one for gaming. You’re going to have a wardrobe of virtual clothes for different occasions designed by different creators and from different apps and experiences.

Beyond avatars, there is your home space. You’re going to be able to design it to look the way you want, maybe put up your own pictures and videos and store your digital goods. You’re going to be able to invite people over, play games and hang out. You’ll also even have a home office where you can work…

We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.

The reactions to all this I have seen on the internet have not been particularly positive. Some suggest that this is largely a publicity stunt to deflect attention from recent revelations of hypocritical and harmful decisions by Facebook management. The Guardian scoffs:

First came the Facebook papers, a series of blockbuster reports in the Wall Street Journal based on a cache of internal documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower.

The dam broke wider last week after Haugen shared the documents with a wider consortium of news publications, which have published a slew of stories outlining how Facebook knew its products were stoking real-world violence and aggravating mental health problems, but refused to change them.

Now the regulatory sharks are circling. Haugen recently testified before US and UK lawmakers, heightening calls to hold the company to account.

Facebook, meanwhile, appeared to be living in another universe. Its rebrand to Meta this week has prompted ridicule and incredulity that a company charged with eroding the bedrock of global democracy would venture into a new dimension without apologizing for the havoc it wreaked on this one.

Ouch. Privacy advocates are concerned about the implications of identity theft taken into the 3D domain: imagine some malicious actor sending a realistic avatar of you around cyberspace doing things you would not do. Also, it is widely recognized that too much time on today’s (flat) screens is unhealthy; how would 3D glasses make that better?

Scott Rosenburg at Axios notes some more prosaic shortcomings of Zuck’s beatific vision:

The real you is just sitting in a chair wearing goggles…The video mock-ups of the metaverse Zuckerberg unveiled showed us what remote-presence wizardry might look like from within the 3D dimension. But they omitted the prosaic reality of most current VR… Right now, the metaverse isn’t “embodied” at all. It’s an out-of-body experience where your senses take you somewhere else and leave your body behind on a chair or couch or standing like a blindfolded prisoner…

Today’s headsets mostly block out the “real world” — and sometimes induce wooziness, headaches and even nausea. Why it matters: If you fear screen time atrophies your flesh and cramps your soul or find Zoom drains your energy, wait till you experience metaverse overload….

Virtual-world makers will feel the same incentives to boost engagement and hold onto users’ eyeballs in the metaverse that they have on today’s social platforms.

That could leave us all nostalgic for our current era of screen-blurred vision, misinformation-filled newsfeeds and privacy compromises.

Joy on Books 2021

The non-fiction book for adults I recommend this year is Liberty Power by historian Corey Brooks. If you have ever cared about social justice or affecting change, then wouldn’t you be curious to know how the abolitionists really did it around 1850? How, practically speaking, did a handful of people with moral convictions rid the United States of legal slavery? Abolitionists were striving and scheming to use the newly minted American democratic political system to their advantage even though they were in the minority. One of their big decisions was to start a third political party after they grew frustrated with slavery-complicit Northern Whig politicians. I blogged here about the connection with current politics.

I had a huge gap in my knowledge of American history before reading this book. Nothing that happened between George Washington and the Civil War seemed interesting, until this book created a narrative that I cared enough about to follow. History books might not be the perfect gift for everyone, but I bet no one in your family already has it!

Another book I reviewed earlier is Emily Oster’s The Family Firm, which any parent of young children would probably find helpful if they like research.

When I’m not reading for work, I read to my kids. I strongly recommend, for kids aged 6-12, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This ties into Liberty Power, because the main characters abolish the slave trade on one of the islands they sail to!

Before reading Dawn Treader, you should certainly start with the book that sets up the world, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. I have a tip for younger kids: start reading this book right at the point where Lucy walks into the wardrobe for the first time. Younger kids won’t miss the first few pages that explain how the 4 children came to be in the old house.

For 4yo and 5yo kids, I recommend Aesop’s fables. These are short and self-contained. There are many versions of fable books for kids with good illustrations.

In addition of my specific plug for the Narnia series, I encourage parents to read fantasy with children. I see a lot of children’s books that promote science or STEM-readiness. My son enjoys learning about dinosaurs and nature, however I am certain that he’s learned the most from the conversations we have had about adventure stories.

Reading to your kids is costly in terms of time. We have limited time, so let me make an argument for dropping some of the other competing activities. I speak as someone who professionally teaches hundreds of college students to program. Those games that try to trick 5-year-olds into “programming” are less valuable than reading and discussing fantasy stories.

Inspire them with the story of a ship sailing to unknown islands. Talk about how a lovable band of flawed characters can escape from a clever magician. What your child will need to be able to do when they are 20 is read and comprehend a textbook that explains a totally new technology that no one alive today understands. Then they will need to think of creative ways to apply that technology to real world problems.