maxbarry.com
Thu 11
Mar
2021

Leprosy and Orphans

What Max Reckons

Hi Max, do you think the limited availability of the corona vaccines is beneficial to the acceptance? What do you think the effect would be if someone would, hypothetically, shoot another person trying to get that person’s dose of the vaccine?

jonas

This is a great idea. You have a bright future ahead of you, Jonas, in marketing or as the head of some kind of dystopian government.

So we are talking about a Parmentier stunt. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was an 18th Century French land-owner who managed to convince people to eat potatoes, which had previously been considered to be a fine source of leprosy. It’s not easy to persuade people to eat things that cause leprosy, so let’s take a moment to admire that. Sometimes I hear people arguing that marketing doesn’t really have the power to persuade anyone, and I wish those people could travel back in time and look at French peasants putting perceived leprosy in their mouths.

Anyway, Parmentier hit upon the idea of posting guards all around his potato fields. That way, people thought the ultra-rich were hoarding potatoes for themselves. Then at nights, when the guards were instructed to go to sleep, peasants sneaked into the fields and stole potatoes and ate them. Then they didn’t get leprosy, so the word-of-mouth was good.

Parmentier was also in charge of France’s first compulsory vaccination program, for obvious reasons. If you can convince people to eat leprosy, you are a great person to lead a nationwide program that requires people to let drunk leech-doctors stick them with unwashed needles.

An easily-overlooked aspect of the anti-vax movement, I feel, is that vaccinations involve letting strangers put things you can’t see into your body. I’m strongly in favor of vaccines, but I have to admit, as a general principle, it is indeed a bad idea to let strangers put things you can’t see in your body. So I recognize why some people come at this from that default position.

Today, we have a solid history of the effects of vaccines, and it’s still hard to convince people to get them. In 1805, when doctors liked to try to cure SIDS by removing kids’ teeth, it was probably even tougher. Parmentier didn’t shoot anybody, as far as I’m aware, although it does sound like they vaccinated a lot of orphans up front, or, in marketing speak, initially targeted a low-risk demographic. People weren’t going to miss a few orphans, is what I’m saying.

What I especially like about Parmentier is that he engaged fantasy with fantasy. You think potatoes cause leprosy? Well, actually, they’re at the heart of a wealthy conspiracy. It’s always tempting to combat fantasy with reality, but that’s a loser’s gambit. You can almost never persuade anyone with the truth. But you can get them to believe a better story.

Thu 18
Feb
2021

Banned by Facebook

What Max Reckons This is what happens when I try to post a link to my website on Facebook:

Error saying This post can't be shared: In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.

First, I’d like to say how gratifying it is to finally be taken seriously as a news publication. But the interesting part is how Facebook has responded to an Australian law it doesn’t like by nuking users. Here is the story so far:

  • News companies got sad because it’s harder and harder to make money, even though what they do is arguably more important than ever, and their products are at the heart of a lot of online activity, generating ad revenue for social media companies.
  • The larger Australian media companies had the idea that Google and Facebook should have to pay them for this privilege, and the Australian government, always happy to help out a major media company, so long as it’s supportive, went right ahead and drew up legislation.
  • Google launched a PR and lobbying campaign to argue why this was a terrible idea. Facebook was all silent and mysterious and then yesterday just dropped the hammer on every single site that looked Australian, instantly wiping out the Facebook presence of hospitals, charities, newspapers, bald novelists, and everything in between.
  • The ban is also retrospective, so while all those home-grown 5G conspiracy theory posts are still up, any posts that debunked them by linking to a news site are gone.

I assume this situation is temporary and either Facebook or (more likely) the Australian government will back down. But it’s a fun reminder that there are now basically three companies in the world who control what everyone hears: Facebook, Google, Apple. When they choose to, as Facebook did, they can excise a big chunk of what would otherwise reach your attention, and it’s just gone.

What happened to antitrust? That’s what I want to know. I’m pretty sure we used to be a lot more interested in breaking companies into smaller parts before they reached Godzilla proportions and couldn’t be stopped from doing whatever they liked. I feel like we should have kept doing that.

But I’m glad I’ve maintained this site, even as we all gave up visiting a list of favorite bookmarked sites and switched over to reading whatever the algorithms told us to. If I’d relied on a Facebook page, everything I’d ever posted would be gone.

Mon 18
Jan
2021

2017-2020: Well That Could Have Been Worse

What Max Reckons I don’t want to be that guy, but honestly, I feel those Trump years could have been worse. They weren’t great, obviously. Not as as good as they would have been if the President had been, say, a random person you pulled off the street. With a random person, you’d have good odds of drawing someone who wasn’t a narcissistic liar with no sense of empathy. So that would be better.

Given the person we did have, I think we got out of that one okay. By “we,” I mean the world. And that’s mainly because Trump didn’t really care about the rest of the world: He was all about America First. I really thought Trump would be unable to resist invading another country, since that’s an excellent, time-proven way to reap some personal benefits while pushing the costs onto other people, a tactic businesspeople especially enjoy. Somewhere around half of all business activity, in my opinion, is about genuinely creating value, while the other half is about gaming the system in order to capture profits while pushing costs onto somebody else.

One of the most shocking things I ever saw was the US after 9/11 transforming into a scary militaristic vengeance machine with no patience for concepts that had previously seemed to be core values, like tolerance and dissent. That was disturbing: watching TV networks and newspapers line up behind the White House like good soldiers, and cheerlead the invasion of an unrelated country. So I’m happy Trump didn’t try to lead a return to that.

Instead, all his enemies were domestic, and he attacked them so crudely and blatantly that they were able to rally and defend themselves, and may even be able to grow back stronger, like an immune system after an inoculation. I’ve always liked how Americans have so many principles, or at least lay claim to them—not at all like Australians, who will roll with whatever seems to make the most practical sense at the time—and 2017-2020 was a great time for putting principles to the test, and finding out who had them, and what they really were.

Therefore, I have to say, as someone who half-expects the world to fall into a corpo-anarchist apocalypse any day now, that definitely could have been worse. I didn’t like the 2017 tax cuts (more inequality, bringing forward the day when the common people begin guillotining the capital classes), the COVID bungling, and the continued breeding of alt-right brain viruses, which don’t just affect the US but also get exported to the rest of the world and spawn things like this:

Make Australia Great

Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

But nobody got nuked, no-one got sucked into an international conflict that will drag on for ten years, and we all got a good look at what’s actually happening in social media, which might have otherwise bubbled away quietly until it was permanently entrenched.

So that’s pretty good.

Wed 07
Oct
2020

And Then There Were Deaths or Whatever

What Max Reckons One thing I haven’t figured out yet about this pandemic is why we’re okay with so many deaths. Not in the sense of “what is wrong with people,” even though, you know, what is wrong with people. But I try to make sense of the world, and this has been very surprising to me, this sudden blandness toward the idea of masses of people dropping dead from a mystery virus.

That isn’t something I would have anticipated, if I had been writing a book about people dropping dead from a mystery virus: everyone going very rationalist about it. In my experience, people are very twitchy about the idea of dropping dead from something. Especially something that’s new and mysterious and you can’t do much to stop it. That ticks quite a few boxes on the list of things that makes human beings freak right the heck out.

I definitely expected more fear and fewer people calmly arguing that it isn’t actually that many deaths if you compare it to five or ten years worth of influenza, and anyway, you have to die of something, sooner or later, and who knows, it might not even be as deadly as they say.

I’m not saying this is wrong, necessarily. It just feels like an inexplicable, planet-wide rescaling of what makes us hysterical. Because for a long time, it hasn’t required much to make us hysterical. We’ve been ready to overreact to very slim threats.

So what’s going on? There are probably a few factors in play—it surely helps that older people are disproportionately affected, and there are identity politics mixed up now—but maybe it’s simply that we’ve grown tired of it. Because I do remember us taking it more seriously in the beginning. But humans recalibrate. You can get used to anything, I read, in an awesome short story about a man who’s sent to Hell (I forget the title), so maybe you get used to this, too.

Thu 10
Sep
2020

The Real Conspiracy

What Max Reckons Boy there are a lot of conspiracy theories out there. It seems like nowadays people will pick up any half-baked idea and turn it into a conspiracy. That’s how it seems. But that’s what they want you to think. In fact, these conspiracy theories are being developed and seeded by a secret network of powerful forces.

I know what you’re thinking: That sounds like a conspiracy theory. Exactly. You see the brilliance of it. If you’re the kind of person who buys into conspiracy theories, you’re lost to the 5G and Bill Gates insanity. But if you’re not, you’re ignorant to the real conspiracy, which is to spread conspiracy theories.

Like all effective conspiracies, it has a public part and a secret part. The public part is what we see: the media, including the social media platforms. Good people work for the public part and don’t even realize they’re part of the conspiracy. For that reason, we tend to let the public part off the hook, even when we see them engaged in bad behavior—like spreading conspiracy theories. The problem seems to be confined to a few bad apples. But over time, you might notice the bad apples don’t seem to go away. You’d expect someone with a cart full of apples to want to remove the bad ones. Instead, the bad apples keep getting rewarded. It takes a real firestorm to remove a bad apple, it seems, and even then, most of the time, the replacement is another bad apple.

Because bad apples are the point of the public part. They’re its most essential feature. It’s the good apples who are superfluous. You look at the public part and see mostly good apples, but what they do is largely irrelevant—which you can tell from how they get replaced more often and more easily. They exist for only one reason: because otherwise you’d be able to see that the whole cart is full of bad apples.

Behind this is the secret part. This is a network of the rich and powerful who want to stay that way—or, more realistically, become more so. They’ve collected vast amounts of wealth and influence via family connections and lobbying, but it’s become a tough sell to convince people they need more trickle-down economics and fewer public services when working-class and middle-class incomes have been stuck in a ditch since 1980. For the network, the nightmare is an intelligent, well-educated, reasonable society. That would be the end of them.

So they need new lies. And after test-marketing a few candidates, they came up with a winner: all of them. Anything that sows discord, that makes people confused, ignorant, or angry at someone else. The more conspiracy theories, the better, because the more enemies people have, the smaller the target on the real conspiracy.

I used to get mad at people who believed in conspiracy theories. My thinking was: It’s 2020, you have the internet, learn how to do critical thinking. But that was on the assumption that conspiracy theories were randomly burped into existence, like viruses—as opposed to bio-weapons expertly engineered in a lab somewhere, like other viruses. Now I have a darker view of conspiracy theories and where they come from. They come from the conspiracy. They have a purpose.

Mon 03
Aug
2020

The Masks Are Off

What Max Reckons One unexpected benefit of the pandemic is how easy it is to see who’s a selfish prick. Previously you could really only guess at that. Sure, you could pick up hints from how they were standing, or whether they were in the process of berating serving staff, but you couldn’t be sure. Now, though, at least in my part of the world, where it has become mandatory to wear a mask while out of the house, you can see with just one glance who doesn’t give a crap about their fellow citizens.

For example, today I passed by a woman who had a mask dangling from her chin while holding a coffee. So I could tell that she cared about me a little, but not more than her coffee. Two people who stood on opposite sides of the path while holding dogs on leads cared to avoid breathing all over each other, but not so much about everyone trying to divert around them. The dude who pounded past with no mask, breathing all over everyone, didn’t give a single shit.

I really like how this is so clear. Obviously the selfishness itself isn’t great. We can do without that. But you can’t fix a problem without identifying it, and for that, this mask business is super helpful.

I’m not saying we could fix a lot of societal problems by rounding these people up and firing them into the sun. That would be silly. Accurate. But silly. Because we’re not going to be allowed to do that. Also, you know, once you get into rounding people up, for whatever reason, that has a bad vibe. We don’t want to start with that.

We have to live with these people—even though, clearly, they don’t care much about living with us. But that’s okay; that’s what we’ve always done. Now it’s just clearer who appreciates the social contract and who doesn’t. Which I feel like has been a growing issue: How when you live in a city instead of a village, most of the social penalties for being a selfish prick fall away. A person can successfully avoid the appropriate consequences for being a selfish prick forever, because their bad reputation doesn’t stick with them. But not so much now, when they wear it on their face.

P.S. Seriously, where does this come from? The thing that perplexes me is how kind and generous kids are. Kids are so naturally selfless and empathetic, you have to stop them giving away their stuff. Are we beating this out of them? Or does something happen in the teenage years? Crazy.

P.P.S. Also obviously there are exceptions. For example, some people believe they are fighting a global conspiracy bent on human enslavement. Are these people selfish pricks? Yes, yes, they are. Because it doesn’t take that much to educate yourself. It’s the Information Age. But they are also super misguided, which is probably more relevant to their motivation than the selfishness.

P.P.P.S. About the runner—I ran 15 kilometers on Sunday in a mask. It was fine. I also gave pedestrians a wide berth because I value their health more than my slight inconvenience.

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