The Digest #56

Published on January 13, 2021

Dear Readers,

Rational Reflections started at the beginning of 2020 as an experiment to connect with readers on a more frequent and informal basis. The subscriber count now stands at 3,419 readers. 

I plan to continue publishing newsletter issues in 2021 although I’m still deciding on the format and frequency. For now, expect to receive new issues on Wednesdays with brief commentary on two or three subjects of interest. During weeks when I have a number of links to share I will send out another issue on Fridays.

I plan to continue posting longer articles on The Rational Walk throughout the year and I will link to those articles in newsletter issues. I have recently been focusing on completing my series of articles on Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Human Misjudgment. I also plan to review books and write on other topics. 

Thanks for reading!

Vaccine Technology

We are quickly approaching a full year of living with all of the awful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — the deaths, the terrible economic hardship, and the political upheaval — yet it seems likely that we will one day look back on this period as a massive leap forward for medicine. 

Vaccine development has always been a lengthy process and we were warned early in the pandemic that we might not have a vaccine for some time. However, just ten months after the first lockdowns began, more than 29 million doses in 43 countries have been administered. 9.3 million doses have gone into arms in the United States in less than a month since vaccinations began on December 14.

It is difficult for a layman to comprehend the science involved in modern vaccination technology, particularly the mRNA technology that has produced the first vaccines. I found Walter Isaacson’s recent article in Time Magazine enlightening because he takes a broader look at how vaccines have traditionally been developed and how mRNA technology has dramatically improved the speed and targeting of the new vaccines. Isaacson is an incredibly versatile author and will soon publish The Code Breaker, a book covering new vaccine technologies but, more broadly, looking at how related technologies might revolutionize medicine in the years to come.

Vaccines are not without controversy and a significant percentage of Americans have expressed reluctance to take the shots — although the figures vary widely depending on which survey you read. At least for now, however, demand is vastly outstripping supply and that looks likely to continue to be the case for several months.

Free Speech and Section 230

Like most Americans, I was disgusted by what I saw transpiring at the United States Capitol on January 6, a day that will long be remembered as one of national embarrassment and shame. Loud and noisy protests are nothing new in American society and serve an important purpose when it comes to holding our elected representatives to account, but lawlessness, rioting, assault, and vandalism of the most sacred shrine of American democracy is something else entirely. 

The reality that the mayhem was organized and facilitated online is undeniable at this point, with the social media platforms bearing much of the blame.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are not “public squares” in any traditional sense but are for-profit, publicly traded companies that are run for the benefit of stockholders. They have no obligation to citizens at large even as they have become dominant entities in the public discourse. 

In the past, concerns regarding censorship focused on the risk of the government censoring companies or citizens within its jurisdiction. However, we have just witnessed the opposite: Twitter and Facebook have censored government officials — up to and including the President of the United States!

Regardless of whether you believe this action was justified, this is a remarkable development and demonstrates the massive power now held by large technology companies.

For many months, a raging debate has been underway regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 treats internet companies that host user generated content as distributors rather than publishers. It further gives internet companies protection when they voluntarily censor “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

The implications of simply repealing Section 230, a step advocated by the President and many of his allies, would be far-reaching. The discussion regarding Section 230 has become vociferous and confusing and appears to be calcifying along party lines. 

I found it useful to step back and read Section 230: Mend it, Don’t End It written by David Sacks in October 2020. Sacks provides a good summary of the issues and puts forward a solution based on social media companies voluntarily adopting first amendment guidelines rather than attempting to craft their own censorship rules on the fly. Importantly, there is voluminous case law regarding the first amendment and its limits which represent the culmination of hundreds of years of trial-and-error. 

Twitter in particular has long cultivated an image of being “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Whether you support or oppose Twitter’s recent decisions, it is clear that Jack Dorsey and his team no longer believe that it is in their business interests to take a hands-off approach. 

Regardless of the long-term future of social media when it comes to free speech, it is clear that the platforms have become toxic politicized environments in the short run. If you do not like this state of affairs, you have little recourse other than not using the platforms and withdrawing the content you provide. After all, social media companies derive revenue based on selling advertisements against the content you are posting. 

At least for now, count me out of this toxic dystopia. Social media in today’s world is a poor use of time and a massive distraction. I’ll focus on posting content on my own platforms: The Rational Walk and this newsletter.

Richard Overton – America’s Oldest Veteran

Ryan Holiday recently re-posted an article that he originally wrote in 2017 about Richard Overton who, at age 110, held the title of America’s oldest veteran. Holiday came up with nine lessons on life based on his interview of Mr. Overton. One lesson was to know what you enjoy in life, which in Mr. Overton’s case included a dozen cigars a day, drinking whiskey, and eating ice cream every night. 

Richard Overton passed away on December 27, 2018 at the age of 112. After reading Holiday’s article, I found this documentary about Mr. Overton’s life — it is well worth twelve minutes of your day.

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The Digest #56
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