Alberto's weekly email: potlatch, coronavirus, and more! 🚀

Hi All,

What I am reading 📚

I just picked up the second book of my 2020 reading list, “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” by René Girard. I was scared that it would be too dense and written in a boring and formal style but I was mistaken. It takes the form of an interview between two psycho-analysts and Girard. It is still very dense (it is a book about anthropology and religion after all) and I’ve been reading slowly looking things up and learning as I go.

One of the first things that stood out in my reading, was the concept of a potlatch—“a gift-giving feast” practiced by certain indigenous of North America in which the hosting family gives away goods to other members of the community as a way to show and ascertain their social rank and power— used by Girard as a way to describe a “destructive” form of mimetic theory. Needless to say, I’m writing extensive notes about what I learn that I hope to share with you.

Nerd Corner 😷 (Coronavirus edition)

Unless you have been living under a rock, you should be aware of the Global Emergency posed by the spread of the "Wuhan Coronavirus” (2019-nCov), a newly discovered virus, probably transmitted from animals to humans and first detected in China’s Wuhan province. While the virus doesn’t pose an immediate threat in the US, it is worth knowing more about the disease and how it might spread.

What we Know

  • Coronaviruses are nothing new. They were first discovered in the 1960s. These viruses mostly affect mammals and birds. Other than the 2019-nCov, other famous coronaviruses include MERS and SARS, also respiratory diseases that were first transmitted from animals and caused global emergencies in 2012 and 2002.

  • The first 2019-nCov case was reported in Wuhan, China in 2019. It likely originated from a single infected animal. But it is not yet clear if this is correct, the links between the first cases and Wuhan’s seafood market are not very accurate.

  • The virus is still spreading very fast, with more than 17,000 confirmed cases in China and with cases in more than 22 other countries. You can track its progress in this interactive map put together by researchers at John Hopkins University.

  • The virus seems to be resilient, it can survive a few hours outside a host but doesn’t travel far through the air.

The Precautionary Principle

Pandemics are nothing new. All throughout history the world has seen its share of rapidly spreading deadly diseases. For example, the Black Death killed an estimated 75 million people in the 1300s. While the world is much better prepared to tackle new and mysterious diseases than it was 700 years ago, there are still a lot of risks.

First, there are still many unknowns about the virus and its R0 value, the average number of people that an infected person will infect, is not yet clear. Scientists are still crunching numbers and are pointing to an R0 between 2 and 5. This means that each infected people, on average, will infect between 2 and 5 other people. Second, the world has never been more connected than today, and the outbreak started just weeks before the Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday in China.

If left unchecked, this combination of a high infection rate and a hyper-connected world can prove disastrous for us all. Luckily, the Chinese government seems to be reacting fast and enforcing a lockdown in the most affected areas in an effort to control the spread. And, more importantly for the rest of the world, most countries seem to be correctly applying the precautionary principle. In the face of uncertainty and lack of evidence about the virus, the best we can do is avoid travel to China and cut all connections while the outbreak lasts, no matter how bad and shocking this might sound. This is exactly what the US and other countries announced a few days ago.

Finally, if you’d like to follow the outbreak, I found this YouTube video very clear. The author is posting updates every day which is very nice. And, if you want to understand a bit more about the importance of the precautionary principle, this short paper by Joseph Norman et al., is worth reading.

Cool Finds 🤯

  • Cruise ships are an exaggeration in all senses. Just check out this video of meal-prepping in the world’s biggest cruise ship to get a sense of the scale we are talking about.

  • To my surprise, it seems that Americans like to go to Libraries. As this Gallup report shows, “visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far”.

  • In his “Tech in 2020” presentation, Benedict Evans tries to give us a glimpse of what tech might look like in the coming years: like all other technologies, smartphones went from revolutionary to a staple product, so one big question is, What’s next?

Before you go 😎

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Until next week,