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An (actual) explanation of climate change.

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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” This is a special Friday edition. If someone forwarded you this email, or you found this online, it’s a sign you should subscribe.

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This read: 15 minutes.

One of the most common refrains on the topic of climate change is that it “shouldn’t be a political issue.”

The reason for that, in many people’s eyes, is that it’s purely a scientific issue. Ideally, this ought to be true. The snag is that addressing climate change is a deeply political issue — it’s something that will almost certainly require human action, government intervention, private sector buy-in, and efforts from the global citizenry as a whole. In many cases, it could involve actual lifestyle changes.

Whether you view climate change as a political issue or not is actually irrelevant, because it has become one. That means, as a political journalist, I’ve had to cover it. 

Over the course of my career as a reporter, I’ve actually done quite a bit of work on climate change. I’ve reported on the band of teenagers who sued the U.S. government for its role in allowing climate change, which they argued was an infringement on their liberty. I’ve reported on dozens of pieces of climate change legislation. I’ve reported on candidates — from presidential to local levels — who decided to run on a climate change platform (and how it impacted their races). And I’ve also reported on the climate change skeptics: the politicians, pundits, political donors and energy executives who have argued that the threat of climate change is being vastly overstated by the left.

Photo by Dorothe form PxHere

I’m not a dogmatic person. I’ve changed my mind about all sorts of critical issues over the years, from gun control to the existence of God to UFOs to how to solve our broken immigration crisis. I’ve changed my mind about politicians like Barack Obama and moved my position on hot-button issues like critical race theory. I say this all to note that I’m open: I enjoy being wrong. I find it exhilarating and terrible and fun and ultimately it has always helped me grow.

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And in all this time reporting on this issue, learning about it, engaging with a wide range of views, my perspective has really not moved much. I believe we are witnessing a period of time where humans are causing the Earth to warm; I believe that warming will have catastrophic impacts on the planet that will probably fall to our grandchildren but that we are beginning to witness now; I believe that the issue is complex, but that the science can be easy to follow. I also believe this will be a defining issue — politically, scientifically and globally, in everyday life — for the next 100 years.

Today’s edition is not about the politics of climate change. It’s not about what we should do to address it, or what pieces of legislation are best, or which party is in denial. Instead, as a staff, and with the consultation of climatologists, we’re just going to try to give you a thorough understanding of the scientific issues at hand. We’re going to do something far too few news outlets have done: explain what’s happening, what the science says, what the skeptics say, what we can reasonably infer from all of this, and what we don’t actually know yet.

And since this piece is covering a scientific issue, I collaborated more with the Tangle staff — and outside sources — than I usually do. A few months ago, we added an editor named Ari Weitzman to the team; you may remember that he pushed me to write about American Indian Reservations and supplied the introduction in a previous Friday edition. He also happens to have a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Chicago and a deep interest in climate change. I’d like to thank him, because he did the bulk of the research and prep work for today’s edition: I’ve worked with him to try to make it easier to read, understand, and flesh out the most important points. I’ve also given him a byline on this piece for his work, which is the first time I’ve ever shared a byline in Tangle (we’re growing!).

Since this is a unique edition of Tangle, I’m especially interested in your feedback. And as a reminder, you can always reply to this email to reach me or, if you’re a subscriber, you can leave a comment on the article by clicking the headline of this piece in your email or going to our website, https://www.readtangle.com/

Finally, I encourage you to share today’s piece if you feel inclined. I have made it available to all Tangle readers.

Some basics.

Joseph Fourier was a French mathematician who lived from 1786 to 1830. He isn’t very renowned today, except by scientists and mathematicians. Like many great thinkers, he has a namesake work: Fourier Analysis, which falls under a branch of mathematics called harmonics. However, part of Fourier’s most significant work was his study of heat and conduction. 

In 1824, Fourier wondered about the Earth’s temperature. After conducting a rudimentary analysis, he concluded that the Earth was warmer than it should be given that its only heat source is the sun. Fourier theorized that something must be insulating the planet to prevent heat from the sun from radiating back into space, and proposed that gases in our atmosphere trap and radiate heat back to the surface.

Over the coming century researchers would reaffirm this theory, and today we know this concept as something called the greenhouse effect. 

It’s actually a rather simple idea: The Earth’s atmosphere allows most direct sunlight through, where it is absorbed by the planet and re-emitted back as heat energy. Imagine a strip of asphalt in direct sunlight. When you stand over it, you can feel the heat emanating from the surface. On a planetary scale the Earth is doing the same thing, and some surfaces like exposed rock and asphalt radiate more heat than others like plant cover or ice sheets. A portion of that heat is then insulated by the atmosphere, and reradiated back to the surface. This is a natural process that allows Earth to retain energy from the sun, and regulate its temperature.

We call the gases in our atmosphere that insulate this heat “greenhouse gases.” Here is the technical definition from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):  

“Many chemical compounds present in Earth's atmosphere behave as 'greenhouse gases'. These are gases which allow direct sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach the Earth's surface unimpeded. As the shortwave energy (that in the visible and ultraviolet portion of the spectra) heats the surface, longer-wave (infrared) energy (heat) is reradiated to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases absorb this energy, thereby allowing less heat to escape back to space, and 'trapping' it in the lower atmosphere.”

In other words: greenhouse gases are those that let sunlight (and its energy) through, but then stop that energy and heat from going back into space.

These gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. The EPA’s website is an informative source of information on the wide variations in the energy absorption strength, lifespans in the atmosphere, and sources of all of these gases. Fluorinated gases are very powerful greenhouse gases and can live in the atmosphere for up to 270 years, but they aren’t naturally produced and are emitted from human activities (primarily as aerosols and refrigerants) at a much lower rate than other greenhouse gases. Conversely, carbon dioxide is a much less powerful greenhouse gas, but is produced both through natural process and human activity, and at a much higher rate. 

In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions are roughly five times larger by volume than emissions of all other greenhouse gases combined. Carbon dioxide is also a part of what’s called the global carbon cycle, which we’ll explain in more detail in a second. Generally, the carbon cycle is a process where geochemical and biological events play a role in how carbon dioxide is processed (like, say, by being absorbed into the ocean). This means some excess carbon dioxide will be naturally processed by the planet, while some will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The carbon cycle.

Even though it’s a “less powerful” greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide gets a lot of attention because of the length of time it remains in the atmosphere and the huge volume at which humans emit it. Primarily, climatologists are concerned with carbon dioxide in relation to the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect. As its name suggests, CO2 is a molecule composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. As with methane (CH4: one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms), a more powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted at a much lower rate and lives on in the atmosphere for about a decade, carbon dioxide contains carbon.

One thing you’ll often hear from people skeptical of the threat of climate change is that carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring component of life on Earth. This is the kind of challenge that is both true and misleading: it’s true that carbon dioxide is natural and critical to life. It’s misleading to suggest that means everything is fine if we’re emitting additional millions of tons of it into the atmosphere every year.

As NASA writes, “Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilizations—our economies, our homes, our means of transport—are built on carbon.” Carbon exists naturally in the landmasses of the Earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere. It is also naturally exchanged through these three reservoirs in a process known as the carbon cycle. Over hundreds of millions of years, the balance of carbon in these reservoirs may vary, but the geologic (i.e. occurring over a time scale of millions of years) exchange between them has remained relatively consistent over time. In fact, for the 50 million years prior to 1890, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were dropping, and the planet — with some periodic fluctuations — was cooling

Again: this is an accurate point often made by people skeptical of the dangers of climate change, interpreting real science to come to a misleadingly comfortable position of unconcern (of course, it’s also worth pointing out the obvious: The scientists who are telling us the world has been cooling on a geological scale are also the ones sounding the alarms about climate change). 

Still, as more and more carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution, the carbon cycle has seen one noteworthy change: the exchange of carbon between the ocean and atmosphere has tipped towards the ocean absorbing much more carbon than it is releasing. On one hand, the ocean absorbing as much as a third of global carbon has provided a regulating effect on heating and has prevented extreme warming from occurring over the last 100 years. On the other hand, for the health of ocean life, it’s extremely bad. One of the ways we know that the ocean is absorbing carbon is that it’s acidifying, significantly. From NOAA again

Carbon dioxide, which is naturally in the atmosphere, dissolves into seawater. Water and carbon dioxide combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), a weak acid that breaks (or “dissociates”) into hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-).

Because of human-driven increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is more CO2 dissolving into the ocean. The ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1, which is basic (or alkaline), but as the ocean continues to absorb more CO2, the pH decreases and the ocean becomes more acidic.

Global warming.

The interplay between the greenhouse effect, the lifespan of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the carbon cycle presents a basis for the theory of human-caused (or anthropogenic) global warming. As early as 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested that the global trend of fossil fuel combustion would result in a warming Earth. 

Once again, the theory is fairly direct: more fossil fuels burned means more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the longer it takes the natural carbon cycle to transfer the carbon to the land and ocean, and so it accumulates. The accumulating carbon dioxide enhances the greenhouse effect and results in more heat being contained by the atmosphere. This drives global mean temperatures higher. 

It would take some time for Arrhenius to be proven right. Due to Earth (at a geological scale) being in a cooling phase, the planet’s natural capability for self-regulation, and the sheer magnitude of the process of global climate change, our planet’s global mean temperature would not be observed to dramatically curve upwards until the 1980s. In 1988, The New York Times reported that “temperatures have been rising more or less steadily for much of the last century. But, in the view of some scientists, a sharper rise detected in the 1980s is the most persuasive evidence yet that carbon dioxide and other industrial gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the earth as if it were a greenhouse.”

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The support for anthropogenic factors causing global warming requires data on a large scale — which we have. One of the most iconic visualizations of such data has come from Charles David Keeling’s observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which he began making in 1958 and whose observatory is still gathering data to this day. The Keeling Curve, as it’s widely known, is a chart that demonstrates the increase of atmospheric concentration of carbon over time. It looks like this:

Since 1958, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased from 320 parts per million (ppm is on the Y-axis in the above chart) to 420 ppm. The Keeling Curve also demonstrates annual seasonal variability of atmospheric carbon, which had previously only been theorized. Since the large majority of plant life on Earth is in the northern hemisphere, plants will be “breathing” more in the summer — emitting more oxygen and absorbing more CO2. See how the curve on the graph has a jagged, saw-tooth pattern? That pattern confirmed the seasonal variability theory to scientists, and that expected pattern reinforces the reliability of the data from Mauna Loa.

Further, with recent advances in technology, we have been able to accurately read carbon concentrations in the atmosphere through studying samples called ice cores retrieved from ice sheets and glaciers. When we take the Mauna Loa observations and append them to the hundreds of thousands of years of ice core data, the atmospheric concentration of carbon over time looks like this:

The data speaks for itself. And given what it shows us, it appears impossible to refute Arrhenius’s theory that human beings have measurably increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

As we’d expect, given this concentration of carbon dioxide, Earth’s global mean temperature has been increasing for over a century, with a particularly sharp increase in the 1980’s. Geologically, however, Earth is far from the hottest it has ever been, which is demonstrated in this chart:

Without ice core data to extend back hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth was so hot that there were no glaciers or ice caps, it is hard to get an accurate understanding of the level of carbon in the atmosphere at that time. Through a new methodology that uses seismic tomography, however, scientists in the Netherlands believe that the carbon dioxide concentration was about twice as much as it is today — which supports the understanding that atmospheric carbon drives global temperatures.

Additionally, it is important to think about the scale represented in the temperature graph above. The entirety of the ice core data we have corresponds to the extreme right-hand portion of the chart — the part above the letter “y” in the word “Today” on the x-axis. The wide fluctuations in global temperature shown above to have occured over thousands to millions of years are due to a combination of complex factors. Over a period of a hundred years, however, an increase of a few degrees Fahrenheit sticks out. It is notable, and likely due to a singular cause. During one such major increase marked above, the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a massive atmospheric carbon spike accompanied an observed acidification of the ocean, again reinforcing our understanding of the carbon cycle and temperatures.

The causal relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature increase that was theorized in 1896 and demonstrated during the PETM is being demonstrated again now. Since atmospheric carbon began increasing in 1880, global mean temperatures have risen over a degree Celsius (about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).


The data indicate a clear trend in increasing temperatures starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day. Since climate change theorists have long understood the connection between carbon dioxide and global temperature, there has been no shortage of models that have attempted to forecast future temperatures. One good way to challenge the anthropogenic warming theory, and evaluate if it is correct, is to look at the performance of the models that assume human-caused warming. In a metastudy performed by NASA that evaluated 17 warming models from 1970 to 2007, the research team found that 14 fit observed data, with 10 “closely matching observations.”

And what are models forecasting now? Current warming will create future warming

This forecasted increase is due to a process called a positive feedback loop, which is a process whose outputs increase its inputs, thereby causing the process to accelerate. Positive feedback loops can happen in different ways, but here are a few concerning ones that we’ve already observed: 

  • More heat means a higher concentration of water vapor can be trapped in the atmosphere. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, which means more warming, which means more water vapor in the atmosphere.

  • The ice caps and glaciers reflect sunlight back into space, so it can’t be absorbed and reradiated back as infrared light to be trapped by the gases in our atmosphere. This helps keep the planet cool. But as global temperatures get warmer, the ice caps melt, meaning less sunlight is reflected back... which means more sunlight is absorbed and radiated as heat, which means more melting.

  • Methane and carbon dioxide are trapped in permafrost — soil that remains frozen all year round. There is a lot of carbon stored in permafrost in the Siberian and Canadian tundras, for example. Higher temperatures mean melting permafrost, which means more carbon released into the atmosphere, which means more permafrost melting even faster.

It isn’t all bad news, though. There are actually a few negative feedback loops, too, all of which are projected to help regulate the warming process. 

  • Warming means more evaporation, which means more cloud cover. Clouds reflect sunlight back into space, which decreases warming.

  • The hotter the earth gets, the faster it radiates heat out to space. The faster heat is lost by the planet, the more slowly its warming occurs.

  • Human behavior causes emissions that cause warming, which humans notice and use to evaluate their own behavior. This evaluation causes less emissions… we hope.

In general, scientific models are projecting a two-to-five degree celsius increase in global mean temperatures between now and 2100. The largest unknown factors are the natural variations in Earth’s carbon cycle and how much intervention humans will be able and willing to take. However, due to the positive feedback loops that have already started, even extreme intervention is not likely to be enough to prevent some warming.

To put it another way, warming itself is a cause of warming. If our actions are left unchecked and we go about “business-as-usual,” the effects of warming will themselves be the leading cause of warming; at which point it will be too late for action. If those feedback loops become self-sustaining, there will be little we can do to prevent a “Hothouse Earth” and the resulting catastrophic effects.

Climate change.

“Global warming” is the general understanding that the Earth is getting hotter, and the implication and informed consensus is that human activity is driving that increase. “Climate change” refers to all the other effects, like the ocean acidification described above, that the global mean temperature increase will cause. These effects include changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts and heatwaves, a longer growing season, stronger hurricanes, and drastic sea level rise.

“Climate change” is mostly used as an umbrella term to refer to any changes to Earth’s climate that are caused primarily by the increase of atmospheric carbon from human beings, but the science behind it is based primarily on the understanding of anthropogenic warming.

Part of understanding climate change is grasping the magnitude and consequences of the climate’s changes to all life on Earth. The Earth itself has gone through hot phases before, and life on Earth will find a way to continue. However, biodiversity and stable environments, factors that human life on Earth depend on, will be greatly stressed. In fact, based on the warming we’ve already experienced, biodiversity is already being stressed. And since the planet has never experienced warming this quickly before, we don’t really know how such a sudden change to global climate will continue to affect life on Earth.

We know it won’t be a good thing, though. According to the journal Health Affairs, should temperatures increase by 1.5°C, a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that “of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates, six percent of insects and eight percent of plants would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C the percents double to triple. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss.” This will mean loss of habitable and arable land, which in turn mean mass migrations and decreased food production, which in turn mean human death and catastrophe at a scale that is hard to predict or imagine.


There has been doubt and skepticism leveled against climate change and global warming for as long as the terms have existed. Criticism over forecasting models and their performances have generally been in good faith, but theoretical criticisms of climate change are in many ways not much more reasonable than challenging Earth’s roundness. We actually have a very good understanding of what’s going on. And, as it happens, many of the loudest, most well-funded skeptics of climate change have either reversed course or been outed for pushing propaganda in order to boost their own profits (see: executives in the energy industries and the politicians they bankroll). 

Some of the most popular skeptic responses are as follows:

  1. All energy on Earth comes from the sun, so all changes in heat are due to the sun.

  2. The climate has changed before; it’s a natural process.

  3. Earth has been hotter before, so it’s not going to be destroyed.

  4. The Earth is getting warmer, but humans aren’t causing it.

  5. The Earth is getting warmer, but it won’t cause dire effects.

  6. There actually isn’t a scientific consensus about climate change.

  7. The temperature data isn’t reliable.

  8. Actually, the Earth is getting cooler.

Some of these points are not very strong. Most, like carbon dioxide being essential to life or the fact that the Earth is currently in a cooling cycle, are based on sound facts at their roots but fall apart under scrutiny. The popular science site skepticalscience.com provides more discussion and detail in response to these claims, and I encourage those interested to visit that website, but these are the basic rebuttals:

  1. A change in energy coming into Earth is due to the sun, a change in energy retained is not.

  2. Climate change may be a natural process, but it is not an exclusively natural process.

  3. The Earth won’t be destroyed, but that isn’t the concern. The concern is that the livable area for eight billion people will be greatly reduced and countless species on the Earth will be destroyed, which will be catastrophic.

  4. Humans are increasing greenhouse gases, which increases global temperature, which causes climate change.

  5. The effects are not disastrous at the moment, but we are only just beginning to see the dire effects of climate change.

  6. There is a consensus.

  7. The data is reliable.

  8. It is true that on a geological scale, the Earth had been cooling. For the past 100 years, however, the Earth has been warming. If anything, the fact that the Earth is warming as quickly as it is in the midst of this geologic cooling trend bolsters the argument that we’re living through anthropogenic warming. 

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Now what?

As I said in the beginning, this issue is not about telling you what can be done or what should be done or whose politics are right. Some people who believe climate change is a global threat have suggested very half-baked, self-defeating and ineffective solutions. Some people who have staked out political positions that are skeptical of the threat of climate change have simultaneously embraced solutions that may help control it for reasons other than fear of the climate crisis. The politics of all this, unlike the science, are not at all simple.

Others have seemingly lost their patience. David Archer, a professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago who Ari studied under, is an expert in the carbon cycle and climate. He is also a contributor to RealClimate.org, “a commentary site on climate science by climate scientists.”

We asked him which projections appeared most accurate in his view. “So far we’re following the worst-case ‘business-as-usual’ scenario,” he said in an email. “So doomsday people have been right.”

We asked him what individuals can do, given that some of the major greenhouse gas emitters are corporations. “Not much,” he told us. 

We asked him about efforts to reduce carbon footprints and the electric car revolution, which he described — in broad terms — as little more than “symbolic.” 

We asked him, globally, what actions could be taken — actions that are achievable — to obtain the lower end of climate change projections. “I’m not optimistic,” he said simply.

I don’t share all this to be a doomsayer or depressing, only to tell the truth as I see it. Archer’s skepticism is that of one man — an expert and a professor, who has seemingly experienced the frustration of screaming into the void for many years. Lots of experts share Archer’s skepticism. Lots of other experts believe we still have time, that technological advances and political will can answer the call. I share that belief myself. 

Two months into the coronavirus pandemic, I expressed optimism that we would witness the fastest production of safe and effective vaccines ever, largely because there was so much will and money behind it. I was right, happily. Not because I’m smart, but because I recognize that humans are an incredible, unstoppable, unbelievably clever and resourceful species when our backs are against the wall.

The problem with this issue is that far too many people don’t believe our backs are against the wall. My hope is that this newsletter can play some small part in convincing a few more people that they are. 

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9 days ago
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The Texas abortion bill.

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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.”

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The Texas abortion law. Plus, a question about decriminalizing drugs.

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash


You’ve been hearing a lot from me about Afghanistan. Tomorrow, in a subscribers only edition, we’ll be publishing a piece from Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American author who submitted a really compelling piece to us about the last few weeks in Afghanistan. To receive it, you need to be a subscriber. You can do that here:

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Quick hits.

  1. Tropical storm Ida battered the northeast, and at least 9 people died in flooding in the New York region. (The floods)

  2. A Colorado grand jury has indicted three police officers and two paramedics who were involved in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was placed in a carotid hold and then injected with ketamine while in police custody. (The story)

  3. Covid-19-era federal jobless benefits are set to expire on September 6, and the Biden administration has told states to use emergency coronavirus funds if they want to provide additional benefits to their unemployed. (The end)

  4. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) has been appointed vice chair of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack at the capitol. (The announcement)

  5. A bankruptcy judge has approved a settlement to dissolve OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. (The ruling)

What D.C. is talking about.

Texas. Yesterday, a divided Supreme Court allowed a new Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks to remain in place. It is the most restrictive abortion law passed in America since abortions became legal nearly 50 years ago. The bill prohibits abortions once medical professionals can say there is “a detectable fetal heartbeat,” but this detection includes embryonic cardiac activity that happens around six weeks — often before a woman knows she is pregnant (these bills are colloquially referred to as “heartbeat bills,” however, opponents of the bill have argued this language is misleading because an embryo isn’t deemed a fetus until the 11th week of pregnancy, and the detectable activity is not always an actual heartbeat). There are exemptions in the bill for medical emergencies but no exemption for rape or incest.

The court’s ruling is not a final order on the bill’s constitutionality, but it will at least temporarily allow the law to go into effect — marking a major turning point in the battle over abortion rights. At least 12 other states have enacted bans on abortion in early stages of pregnancy, but all have been blocked from going into effect. Previously, the high court has not allowed states to ban abortions until after a fetus is able to live outside the womb, which is usually around 22-24 weeks. The unsigned order came down on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the three liberal justices in dissent.

The Texas Heartbeat Act, also known as SB 8, is particularly unique — and appears to have been successful in avoiding the same fate as other bills — because it calls for a novel enforcement scheme. In an effort to avoid being struck down by the court, the crafters of the law delegated enforcement to private parties instead of state officials. Under the law, any person in Texas can sue someone in the state who is alleged to have performed or aided in an abortion, and a successful suit can earn the plaintiff $10,000 in damages per abortion (the woman getting the abortion cannot be sued).

Critics described this mechanism as a bounty for private groups to sue abortion providers, but because state officials are banned from enforcing the law, their lawyers have argued that abortion providers weren’t entitled to an emergency order blocking it. That defense, along with the fact abortion providers are asking the court to rule on issues lower courts have not yet addressed, seems to have favored the state of Texas — at least for the moment. In the court’s majority opinion, it said abortion providers “raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue,” but that continuing litigation raised “complex and novel” questions about legal procedure that undercut the providers’ request to halt the ban.

Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the bill “is a breathtaking act of defiance — of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas.” The Supreme Court is set to hear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in the coming term, which begins in October.

We have covered abortion in previous issues here and here.

Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the right and left. Then my take.

What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of this bill, though some are concerned about how long it will be until it’s struck down by a judge.

In his Substack newsletter, Erick-Woods Erickson tried to summarize how we got here.

“The abortion providers in Texas sued a Texas judge and county court clerk and others in an attempt to cast as wide of a net as possible to challenge the Texas Fetal Heartbeat Law that bans abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected,” Woods wrote. “The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case. It was denied. They appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit denied the abortion providers' request to hold a quick hearing on the law before it could take effect. The result is that they had to file an emergency application with Sam Alito. Sam Alito chose to do nothing. The result is that the Texas law goes into effect. There will be court hearings. I'm sure a progressive judge will issue an injunction of some kind. But right now in Texas, abortions must cease when a child's heart develops in utero.

“I did not expect the Supreme Court to allow the Texas pro-life law to proceed, but they’ve done just that,” he said in a follow-up shortly after the court’s decision. “In a 5-4 decision overnight, the Supreme Court is allowing the Texas law to proceed pending current litigation. Just as notable, while John Roberts would have stopped the law from proceeding for now given the novel and new type of enforcement mechanism, Roberts patently refused to join the four liberal justices in saying the law is unconstitutional because it violated Roe and Casey… For now, the Supreme Court is allowing Texas’s law to proceed in large part because it allows private rights of action, none of which have actually been taken yet so there is nothing to deal with.”

In The National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis said the outcome was the “product of the legal strategy” pursued by the abortion providers: “waiting to challenge the Texas statute and then rushing to the Supreme Court at the eleventh hour.”

“But the outraged reaction from abortion supporters to the Texas law’s being allowed to take effect is a helpful insight into what we might expect to witness if the Court does its job and reverses the decades of legal inanity propping up the shambles of Roe,” she said, before citing some reactions from the left. “Planned Parenthood described the present situation like this: ‘Because starting today, the majority of people in Texas seeking an abortion will be denied the care they need because of politicians trying to control their bodies and their personal decisions.’

“Of course, the ‘care they need’ here refers to a procedure that intentionally ends the life of an unborn child,” DeSanctis wrote. “And rather than controlling people’s bodies and decisions, politicians are seeking to regulate a procedure that, again, intentionally ends the life of an unborn child. That Planned Parenthood disguises this reality in euphemisms is, as ever, especially telling… Contrary to this rhetoric, it’s important to note that the law in Texas imposes no criminal penalties, and none of its civil provisions apply to a woman who seeks or obtains an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But that fact is impossible to locate among nearly any media coverage, let alone in the rhetoric of abortion-rights groups.”

In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe celebrated the news.

“In Texas, the feminist Left is freaking out over a ban on abortions after six weeks of gestation taking effect,” she wrote. “Despite the fact that pregnancies can be ascertained with home tests before a missed period, and even though that six-week embryo has a detectable heartbeat and functional brain stem, Woko Haram would have you believe that this is oppression tantamount to the Taliban. So here's a piece of advice for all of them: If you plan to have sex and you wish not to become pregnant, get some birth control. For most women in the United States, it is free.

“Even if you refuse the pill, the patch, the shot, the IUD, an over-the-counter condom, or any other pregnancy prophylactic, most pharmacies, and even some delivery apps, sell emergency contraceptives without a prescription,” Lowe wrote. “Women in America seeking family planning resources have it better than any of their counterparts on the planet today or in human history. The state either funds or mandates dozens of varieties of free contraception. Even if those fail, hospitals provide Plan B for free… You are not oppressed, and Texas's new law is not an excuse to start pretending you are.”

What the left is saying.

The left is vehemently opposed to the legislation, saying it violates Supreme Court precedent and opens the door for abortion providers to be harassed.

“There’s a sinister brilliance to the way this whole thing has gone down,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times. “Texas fashioned an abortion prohibition whose bizarre, crowdsourced enforcement mechanism gave conservative courts a pretext not to enjoin it despite its conflict with Roe… Pregnant women themselves are exempt, but anyone who helps them, including clinic staff, friends and family, nonprofits that help fund abortions, and even taxi drivers can be held liable. If the people who file lawsuits win, they’re entitled to attorney’s fees and at least $10,000. If they lose, they’re out nothing but whatever it cost to bring the suits, because defendants can’t recoup their attorney’s fees.

“It is also an outgrowth of a Republican Party that increasingly encourages vigilantism,” she wrote. “Today’s G.O.P. made a hero out of Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man charged with killing two people during protests against police violence in Kenosha, Wis. Leading Republicans speak of the Jan. 6 insurgents, who tried to stop the certification of an election, as martyrs and political prisoners… The Texas law should be seen in this context. It deputizes abortion opponents to harass their enemies. Texas Right to Life has already launched a ‘whistle-blower’ website where people can submit anonymous tips.”

In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern said the court just “overturned” Roe v. Wade in the most cowardly manner imaginable.”

“The decision renders almost all abortions in Texas illegal for the first time since 1973.” he wrote. “Although the majority did not say these words exactly, the upshot of Wednesday’s decision is undeniable: The Supreme Court has abandoned the constitutional right to abortion. Roe is no longer good law… Random strangers can sue any ‘abettor’ to an abortion anywhere in Texas and collect a minimum of $10,000, plus attorneys’ fees. The act’s language is incredibly broad, encompassing any friend, family member, clergy member, or counselor who facilitates the abortion in any way. Every employee of an abortion clinic, from front-desk staff to doctors, is liable as well. And when an individual successfully sues an abortion provider, the court must permanently shut it down.

“Texas Republicans devised this convoluted scheme to avoid judicial review of their ban, which blatantly violates binding Supreme Court precedent protecting the right to abortion before viability (around 23 weeks),” Stern wrote. “Abortion providers tried to work around Republicans’ scheme by suing the judges and clerks tasked with executing the ban, as well as an individual who indicated that he would sue an abortion ‘abettor.’ Nonetheless, the majority claimed that these providers failed to make a ‘strong showing’ that their legal arguments against SB 8 would be ‘likely to succeed on the merits,’ complaining about the ‘complex and novel antecedent procedural questions’ of the case. After months spent rewriting the court’s own rules by awarding themselves the power to intervene in cases that present all manner of ‘novel’ legal questions—including COVID restrictions and the eviction moratorium—the conservative majority decided it was powerless to halt a direct attack on Roe. And it did so with a thinly reasoned one-paragraph order handed down in the dead of night.”

In The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri criticized the hypocrisy of “freedom” in Texas.

“Let me explain!” she wrote. “Here in Texas, your body is your own, and the government is not going to interfere. We respect you as an individual much too much. We believe you should have total bodily freedom — to carry a firearm (basically a body part; has ‘arm’ in it) or breathe infectiously on a stranger. That’s why there are no mask mandates, just this new six-week abortion ban: because we don’t want the government to interfere with people’s lives, ever, except the minor degree to which someone’s life is interfered with by having to carry a fetus to term inside themself. Which is barely an inconvenience at all.

“We believe in freedom,” Petri wrote. “Your fist must stop where my nose starts, the Alamo, pew pew, etc. Except this one minor thing that is obviously not a big deal, where you have to use your body to build another body from whole cloth, give it eyeballs and a circulatory system, undergo months and months of creeping bodily horror as your torso becomes unrecognizable to you, familiar smells become off-putting, and the recently fired ‘Jeopardy!’ man threatens your livelihood, and then at the end of this process you have a human being for whom you have to arrange a life. Compare that minor, barely palpable discomfort with the shocking, invasive horror of placing a damp strip of fabric across your nose when you enter a business establishment for three to five minutes. I shudder just imagining it.”

My take.

Newsflash: we’re not going to solve the abortion debate here, however magical this newsletter is. I’m also not just going to punt for fear of upsetting people, either. There is obviously a debate about the ethical nature of abortion. As a reader put it to me recently, even the most die-hard, pro-choice advocate would agree that once a child is born, it has a right to live. And if you draw a line to the moment before conception, there is obviously no life whose rights need to be considered. So somewhere between those two points, things change for many people. But I actually don’t think that is a debate we need to resolve for this issue (there’s my partial punt: you can read past coverage here and here).

When examining Supreme Court rulings in Tangle — or the law in general — I usually go through a few different stages. The first is the standard sniff test: does this law feel right? And I’ll be honest with you, few pieces of legislation have failed the sniff test for me as badly as this one does. A bill that allows a random person in Texas to sue a doctor in Texas for providing an abortion to a woman at six weeks? Or a cab driver for taking her there? And to have a potential financial incentive of at least $10,000 of damages if they manage to win that lawsuit? Even if the woman was raped? Any one of these things on its own would be enough to set off my alarms — together they’re horrifying.

The second thing I do is try to put away my feelings and examine the process. In this case, it looks like the abortion providers just got bulldozed by the state. In the legal sense, they appear to have been outmaneuvered: the crafting of the law was cunning in achieving its end, and the providers waited weeks to act on it, then clearly got caught flat-footed. Because of how the law was crafted, and because no provider has been sued, the court can’t yet declare it unconstitutional. However you want to cut it, it appears the abortion providers expected a different outcome from the court and were not prepared for this moment.

The third thing I try to do is cut through the legal jargon and complexity of these rulings — of which, in this case, there is a lot — and just try to simplify what’s happening. In that regard, the bill again looks pretty absurd. The precedent in this country, right now, is Roe. Roe makes it clear abortion is, at minimum, legal until a fetus is viable, usually at about 23 weeks. Yet in our second most populous state, most abortions — perhaps more than 85 percent — and many well before viability, are now illegal. Anyone who “abets” in that abortion could face financial ruin, and any citizen can make thousands of dollars by successfully suing one of those abettors. Worse, it appears they can do so with impunity, as the sued have little legal recourse to recover lost earnings or legal fees. As Stern wrote, precedent is only precedent if the court enforces it, and in this case, they haven’t. It’s head spinning.

Now, I know what many pro-lifers are thinking: Roe v. Wade is a ridiculous judicial overreach in the first place, and if you want abortion to be legal you should go and pass a Constitutional amendment or law to make it so. But that argument is actually irrelevant here. The fact is Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, is the precedent, and should be enforced. Legally. Until it no longer is the precedent, this bill is just as ridiculous as it looks.

This brings me to my final point: this all looks bad to me in a vacuum, but it’s made even worse by the fact there is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade coming in the next term this October — one that will include oral arguments, a full robust debate, and opinions from the justices on how and why they are making their rulings. If the court is going to strike down Roe v. Wade and allow states to craft their own abortion laws, that’s how they should do it. Given the stakes of this topic, it’s the minimum we deserve from our Supreme Court. Instead, we essentially have them throwing their hands up and saying they don’t know what to do, so they’ll allow a law that clearly violates constitutional precedent to go into effect by default.

I understand that for the millions of Americans who view abortion as murder, this is a day to celebrate, because who cares if ending the systematic killing of babies requires some quirky judicial maneuvering? I also know that many of those Americans have genuine, well-intentioned and empathetic motivations for that position. But this is a truly dangerous, litigious bill that is going to create chaos in Texas and, worse, create financial incentives for frivolous lawsuits, to say nothing of the impact on women and healthcare providers across the state. For me, something like this doesn’t — and shouldn’t — pass that basic sniff test.

Your questions, answered.

Q: There's a growing wave of drug decriminalization efforts in the United States, as well as some more fringe pushes for full legalization. You've written before about how you don't believe in the efficacy of prohibition, but what sort of system do you think we should move to going forward?

— Bryan, Chicago, IL

Tangle: Generally speaking, I would say basically everything I can think of should be decriminalized. I don’t say that because I want more people using drugs — just the opposite. I’m not talking about legal opioids like heroin or percocet that someone can buy at a dispensary as you can now buy cannabis in Colorado. But it seems clear to me that imprisoning people for drug use and possession is counterproductive.

Drug dealing is a different conversation, and I’m not totally sure my opinion is fully formed there. Do I want the dealers who sold my high school friends heroin to go to jail after seeing so many of them ruin their lives or die? Yes. I do. Am I certain that putting those people in prison would make the world safer? No. I’m not.

It’s also true, though, that decriminalization can lead to legalization and then make many dangerous drugs easier to access. Alcohol and tobacco, for instance, destroy lives and ruin public health every day. Making them legal has made them more accessible, and the cost to public health has been tremendous. Our society is attached to alcohol and tobacco, but they are objectively horrible for us and are great financial and health burdens on the country as a whole (they’re also, of course, big profit centers).

That’s why decriminalizing a drug — as a starting point — seems wise to me. We know that keeping something illegal, or threatening a prison sentence for using it, does not reduce its use. We know that legalizing a drug, and allowing the sale and regulation and taxation of it, can increase its use. So as a baseline, decriminalizing something so people aren’t being thrown in jail for what they put in their bodies seems good. Legalizing something is a larger conversation that requires a drug-specific debate.

Not many people have news sources they trust. If you’ve been enjoying Tangle, please consider helping solve this problem by spreading the word. You can email Tangle to friends by clicking here.

A story that matters.

Around 15 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been thrown away in the U.S. since March, according to a new NBC investigation. The 15.1 million doses wasted is likely an undercount, according to government data obtained by NBC News. “Four national pharmacy chains reported more than 1 million wasted doses each,” according to the report. “Walgreens reported the most waste of any pharmacy, state or other vaccine provider, with nearly 2.6 million wasted doses. CVS reported 2.3 million wasted doses, while Walmart reported 1.6 million and Rite Aid reported 1.1 million.” While the reasons for discarding the doses are not listed, common issues have included cracked vials, malfunctioning freezers, and more doses in a vial than people who want to take them. NBC has the story.


  • 85%. The estimated number of abortions that happen after 6 weeks of pregnancy in Texas.

  • 54,741. The number of abortions that took place in Texas in 2020, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

  • 40. The number of abortion clinics in Texas in 2013.

  • 24. The number of abortion clinics in Texas today.

  • 166,080. The average number of new Covid-19 cases in America every day for the last week.

  • 210, 816. The number of new Covid-19 cases recorded in America yesterday.

From a reader…

Sometimes I ask readers to tell me how they would pitch subscribing to Tangle to other people. Here is what one reader said:

I used to get stressed out reading the news and trying to stay "informed" and up-to-date on everything. Now I read this one informative newsletter every day and get a good grasp of what is top in the news, as well as a smattering of smaller updates, special interest stories/links, and stats. Each day they take the top story and explain what each side is saying about it, as well as a little summary/editorial on it. Tangle is FREE Monday-Thursday, but you should send them your $5/month for the Friday editions anyway. We need to support efforts to keep the news balanced, informative, and stress-free.

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Have a nice day.

Video of a cow outside New Orleans is going viral after it was found in a tree in the wake of Hurricane Ida. The cow was discovered in a tree in Florissant, Louisiana, east of New Orleans, in the Louisiana bayou. Rescue workers rushed to the unusual scene and successfully got the cow down, who presumably ended up in the tree thanks to the winds of Hurricane Ida — which were the fifth fastest ever recorded for a hurricane as it made landfall in the U.S. (USA Today

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Long COVID: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

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Like everyone else, I'm trying to figure out how cautious I should be around COVID. It seems like the most important concern for young vaccinated people like myself is the risk of Long COVID symptoms, so I spent a while trying to figure out what those were.

My basic conclusion is that everyone else is right, that news stories on this phenomenon seem remarkably good, and that there's not much we know for sure beyond the simple summary you've probably already heard. Insofar as anything surprised me, it was how bad the worst-case scenario would be.

Here are some of the basic things I found:

1. Long COVID is probably a lot of different things, some of which are boring and obvious, others of which are still kind of mysterious.

First, people with severe COVID that lands them in the ICU have long-lasting symptoms in multiple organ systems. This isn't surprising, and should be considered in the context of post-ICU syndrome. Basically, if anything makes you sick enough to land in the ICU, your body is going to be pretty scarred by the illness (and maybe also by the inevitable side effects of intensive care), and this will last a long time and cause many problems. EG if you’re bedridden for many weeks, your muscles waste away, and then it takes a long time for them to recover and you feel weak and fragile until you do. Or if your lungs stop working and you need mechanical ventilation, your lungs might be pretty weak for a while, and other parts of your body might not get quite the amount of oxygen they’re used to and might get damaged in a way that takes a long time to recover. There’s a similar problem where if you are sufficiently old and frail, any illness will take you down a level of functioning and you might not be able to get up a level again. See for example this article discussing how about 1/5 of elderly flu patients have “persistent functional decline” and may never regain their pre-flu level of functioning.

Second, even in young people with milder cases, COVID can sometimes cause lung damage. If you get lung damage, you’ll have at least breathing problems, and maybe other problems. Your lungs will probably heal eventually, but some kinds of lung healing cause permanent scarring; this can present as shortness of breath on exertion, or become a problem later after other lung injuries.

Third, there’s lots of persistent dysosmia and dysgeusia (inability to smell or taste). I think this one is just damage to the nasal passages, plus maybe olfactory neurons accidentally over-adjusting to this damage and forgetting to readjust once you’re better.

Fourth, COVID can probably cause a post-viral syndrome including fatigue. Post-viral syndromes are poorly understood, but might involve something like the immune system being dysregulated and staying in “fight mode” long after the virus is gone. “Chronic fatigue syndrome” is probably something like this, although this is still really controversial.

Fifth, maybe some long COVID is psychosomatic. People hate when doctors bring up the possibility of psychosomatic conditions, and I won’t deny that we tend to overuse the “psychosomatic” diagnosis like it’s going out of style - but some things really are psychosomatic. Chronic Lyme disease (“Long Lyme” rolls off the tongue nicely) is basically universally considered 100% psychosomatic by the medical establishment, although now that I’m thinking about it I wonder if maybe we should be less sure. Lots of people act like psychosomatic = not a real problem. Unfortunately, having a symptom for psychosomatic reasons sucks just as much as having it for any other reason. Sometimes it sucks more, because nobody takes you seriously. I’ll discuss the argument around psychosomatic symptoms more later.

2. The prevalence of Long COVID after a mild non-hospital-level case is probably somewhere around 20%, but some of this is pretty mild.

Giving a percent estimate is kind of meaningless, because it requires a binary yes-no decision on whether or not someone’s symptoms qualify as “long COVID”. Studies that ask “do you think you have long COVID?” tend to get low numbers, presumably because people don’t think their (mild) residual symptoms qualify. Studies that ask “do you have any of the following symptoms?” get higher numbers.

Good studies include a control group who test negative for COVID, to see how many of them have symptoms that would qualify them as “long COVID” if they’d had the disease. Then they subtract the percent of control patients who have symptoms from the number of COVID patients who have symptoms, and assume the difference is caused by Long COVID. While this is better than not doing this, it leaves open the possibility of recall bias, where people who just had COVID are more likely to think a certain symptom is relevant / worth reporting, because they know Long COVID is a thing. There’s also the possibility that people who get COVID are sicker in other ways (eg older, more comorbidities) than people who don’t, which would mean they would have more other symptoms regardless of Long COVID. Some of these studies try to control for this; none can control perfectly.

There’s also high risk of selection bias. Some percent of people with COVID (~30%?) don’t know they had it, and will not volunteer for any of these studies. These people are mostly not severe, meaning that studies that exclude them will overestimate COVID severity. Some, but not all of these studies check seroprevalence to avoid this issue.

That having been said:

Logue et al say that after ~6 months, 33% of outpatients (ie patients who didn't have to go to the hospital for COVID) had at least one persistent symptom, compared to only 5% of people in the control group (what does it mean for the control group to have persistent symptoms? Presumably they had trouble breathing / fatigue / muscle aches / etc for some reason other than COVID - there's a certain base rate of all of these problems and apparently in this study it's 5%).

The British Office of National Statistics looks at people with a confirmed COVID test three months ago, and finds that 14% report having Long COVID symptoms, compared to 2% of a COVID-less control group. This is substantially lower than the earlier study, which found 33% at 6 months. Probably this is because the previous one asked about a bunch of symptoms, whereas this one just asked “Are you having Long COVID?” Lots of people who had some minor symptom or other might not have made the connection, or might have thought that their symptom didn’t qualify for a full diagnosis.

Haverfall et al in Sweden found that 26% of people with previous non-hospital-grade COVID, and 9% of a control group, reported long COVID-esque symptoms after 2 months. After 8 months, this was down to 15% and 3%. I’m not sure why the control group decreased; maybe it was about symptoms that had lasted the whole time, and not point prevalence? Anyway, this was similar methodology to the Logue study, but finds a somewhat lower prevalence. Maybe this is because this study was on healthcare workers, who are generally high-functioning people and who probably did a good job treating their COVID infections? I don’t know, but a lot of these things are really sensitive to how you ask questions and I don’t find the small difference too mysterious.

Sudre et al got data from some kind of UK COVID app with four million users. They chose 4,000 who met various criteria and asked them about long COVID symptoms. 13% reported symptoms after a month, and 2% after three months. This is a lot less than the other studies, so what’s up? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the exclusion criteria, as shown in Supplementary Table 2. When they look at everyone regardless of criteria, they find an estimate centered in the mid 20s, and then the criteria gradually pick away at that. One especially relevant one is that they have no gap in symptom reporting; maybe if you have chronic fatigue, you’re less likely to use an app regularly. But the three month data is still surprising.

Thompson et al get data from a UK longitudinal study. Their headline finding is that between 7.8% and 17% of patients seem to show at least one Long COVID symptom. But they have no control group, so probably it is lower than this. Also, only 1.2% to 4.8% of people say their Long COVID symptoms “impact normal functioning”, which means a lot of people must have some annoying lingering symptoms that don’t really bother them that much.

3. The most common symptoms are breathing problems, issues with taste/smell, and fatigue + other cognitive problems.

From Logue; most of these patients were 6 months post-COVID at followup:

From Haverfall:

Just looking at Haverfall, the fatigue looks kind of fake - little worse in the exposures than the controls. Other studies don’t really show this pattern.

And behold the mother of all COVID symptom persistence studies, Amin-Chowdhury et al:

AC&E act as if this is reassuring - their conclusion starts with “most persistent symptoms reported following mild COVID-19 were equally common in cases
and controls” - but it really isn’t. Not only does this 8-month-out sample find high levels of the expected problems (fatigue/smell/taste/breathing), but it finds some unexpected ones too. Cases are likelier than controls to have cognitive problems and weird neurological issues. One flaw in this analysis is that it didn’t ask for premorbid functioning, so you can tell a story where unhealthy people are more likely to get COVID than healthy ones (maybe they’re stuck in crowded care homes? Maybe they put less effort into staying healthy in general?) But I don’t think this story is true - how come obviously plausibly COVID linked things (like smell problems) are significant, and obviously-not-COVID-linked things like diarrhea aren’t?

One thing this study does reassure me about is mental health. A lot of people claim that long COVID involves various mental health sequelae. This study comes out pretty strongly against it. Sure, lots of COVID patients are depressed - but so are equally many controls. The age of COVID is just a depressing time. In fact, it’s kind of weird that you can get this much fatigue, brain fog, etc without an increase in depression diagnoses.

4. Sometimes problems go away after a few months, other times they don’t

This British graph suggests that almost all symptoms are gone after 100 days, which is a lot more optimistic than our studies above.

Uncertain endpoint

This is supposedly . . . also the British Office of National Statistics (source). Why are their two graphs so different? My guess is that the top one is a preliminary version without very many patients who had COVID for longer than 12 weeks, and used some sort of model which just assumed numbers there (notice how the confidence intervals widen). The second graph better fits the studies above and is probably the real one.

That’s too bad, because the second graph says that about half of people who have long COVID symptoms after five weeks will still have them after four months. And that graph doesn’t look like it’s planning on falling much further. This kind of matches Haverfall’s study, which found a decrease of a little less than half between two and eight months. There is a very long tail of cases which are not getting better in a reasonable amount of time.

The most likely symptom to last a long time is anosmia, followed by fatigue.

How likely are these to last forever vs. get better in a few years? We’ve only had a year and a half of COVID, but we can make guesses based on other postviral syndromes. Lee et al do this work with 63 patients over three years, and find:

There’s a lot going on here. First of all, how come the severe hyposmia group starts with about the same scores as the mild-to-moderate group? I think because they classified severity objectively, and this is measuring subjective scores? Anyhow, almost everyone improves over this time period, but not everyone reaches normality (defined as a score of 80 or above). This is kind of useless because the study doesn’t tell us how much of this improvement was the first year vs. the second and so on, so we don’t know if improvements petered off or will continue forever. It does mention that people with followup longer than 2 years did better than people with shorter followup than that, but honestly I can’t conclude anything useful from this and there are no better studies.

What about fatigue? It turns out that chronic fatigue syndrome patients care a lot about this question and so there are great data. From ME-Pedia:

This is terrible. Recovery rates in the single digit percentages over the space of years. You would think at least some patients would get placebo recoveries, or forget how it felt to be well, or otherwise Lizardman themselves into fake complacency, but no. This is f@#$ing awful.

Maybe COVID won’t be this bad? One ray of hope comes from this Australian study, where doctors record the rates of recovery from postviral fatigue after various rare diseases they encounter (Epstein-Barr, Q fever, Ross River virus). They find that 35% of these patients have postviral fatigue after six weeks, but only 12% after six months, and 9% after twelve months. This sounds a lot better than chronic fatigue.

In fact, these people do the kind of weird task of figuring out how bad different diagnostic labels for fatigue are, even though some might argue that all the labels refer to the same underlying reality. They find an official diagnosis of “CFS/ME” (chronic fatigue / myalgic encephalitis) is much worse than “postviral fatigue”. Using the weird measure of “days per year of followup with diagnosis” (I’m not sure I fully understand their reasoning for why this is good), they find a median length of 80 for CFS/ME vs. 0 for PVF (…huh?). Using the more comprehensible measure of percent who still complain of fatigue after 7-12 months, they find it’s 24% vs. 10% (which super contradicts the above study saying that basically nobody with a CFS/ME diagnosis ever recovers). My guess is that this study had much lower criteria for a CFS/ME diagnosis (some doctor diagnosed it and put it on the insurance records) compared to the ones above (some specialist confirmed it by official criteria). The conclusion I draw is that, while official CFS/ME is horrible and hopeless, there are a lot of things that unofficially look kind of chronic-fatigue-ish which have pretty good prognoses. Since there’s no good reason to think post-COVID fatigue is official CFS/ME as opposed to just some chronic-ish fatigue-ish thing, probably it will have a better prognosis, more like weird Australian viruses.

…which we still don’t know, because AFAICT nobody has done any good studies on postviral fatigue lasting more than a year.

5. Psychosomatic symptoms probably aren’t the majority of long COVID.

I mean, I’m not seeing too many people claiming that they are. There are a lot more people worried that someone else might be claiming that, than people actually making the claim. Still, the Wall Street Journal opinion section is always up for slathering itself in glue and rolling around in a haystack until it becomes the straw man everyone else warned you about, and they do have an article on The Dubious Origins Of Long COVID.

They point out that long COVID was first thrust into the public consciousness in surveys run by Body Politic, who self-describe as “a queer feminist wellness collective merging the personal and the political”. I agree this is a weird source for something to come from, but Hans Asperger was a Nazi and I still use his diagnosis, so I probably have to accept these people’s as well.

More relevantly, WSJ points out that many of the people complaining of Long COVID symptoms test negative for COVID, or at least never tested positive. This complaint conflates the fact that not everyone was able to get a COVID test at all, with the fact that sometimes you get the acute COVID test after you’ve recovered from acute COVID and it’s negative, with the fact that COVID tests don’t have a 100% success rate, with the fact that yeah, okay, some people who didn’t have COVID are probably imagining Long COVID symptoms. I feel like some of the case-control studies above, which clearly show that seropositive people have higher rates of Long COVID than seronegative people, are pretty convincing here.

But also - the people with lung scarring clearly have lung scarring, and most of them have weird x-rays consistent with lung scarring. If you have lung scarring, then you have trouble breathing, you’re fatigued, and you probably have lots of other stuff downstream of that. The people with smell/taste disturbances clearly have smell/taste disturbances, testable with the stupidly named but scientifically venerable Sniffin Sticks test - and also, who even cares enough to make up olfactory problems? Fatigue and brain fog are the only symptoms here that can’t be easily objectively confirmed, and, well, do you think those Australians who got infected with Q fever and had twelve months of postviral fatigue are faking? What about all those post-Epstein Barr fatigue people? Lots of viruses cause postviral fatigue, it’s not really surprising that COVID should also.

(WSJ also spends a while arguing that CFS/ME is just a psychiatric disorder, which I think is not really in keeping with the best recent evidence. Also, as a psychiatrist, I’m very against this conclusion, mostly because if it were true, then people would expect me to cure CFS/ME patients.)

One point WSJ didn’t bring up but could have was that most Long COVID patients are women. Probably this is somewhere between 60 and 80% - I suspect on the lower end of this, because I think women are more likely to talk about these kinds of things than men, and much more likely to eg join Facebook groups. This is noteworthy, because women are traditionally more prone to psychosomatic illnesses - so much that the ancients attributed these to the uterus and called them hysteria (note shared root with eg “hysterectomy”). Women are about 2x as likely to get diagnosed with panic disorder, anxiety disorders, phobias, etc, about 2.5x as likely to get chronic Lyme disease, widely regarded as an entirely psychosomatic condition, and 3-5x more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. So the female preponderance is suspicious.

But women are also somewhere between 2x and 4x more likely to get autoimmune disorders than men (it varies by disorder - the ratio for Sjogren’s is as high as 16x). There are some pretty crazy hypotheses for why this is - for example, maybe women’s immune systems are permanently upregulated to be prepared for attempts by the placenta to secrete immune-downregulating chemicals during pregnancy, as part of the creepy shadow war between mother and fetus to regulate the maternal environment. I don’t know, do you have a better idea? Anyway, women have more autoimmune issues and more upregulated immune systems, so if there was any good way to assess gender ratio in true postviral fatigue excluding all psychosomatic cases, that would probably be female-biased too.

Probably some Long COVID cases are psychosomatic just like some cases of anything are psychosomatic, but I don’t see too many signs that this is too important in explaining the phenomenon.

…and please allow me a moment of preachiness here.

Chronic fatigue sounds really fake to anyone who doesn’t have it. I think this is because it’s related to willpower. Willpower itself would sound fake to anyone who didn’t have to worry about it. “Oh, so you can go partying with your friends whenever you want, but as soon as it comes time to write a ten page report, your ‘lack of willpower’ prevents you from doing it? A likely story!” Still, all of us (except Bryan Caplan) recognize how real and important willpower is - how having more of it is better than having less of it, and how some condition that caused you to have pathologically little of it would be a huge disaster.

In the comments section to the rough draft of this post, CJ wrote:

I will say - I was one of those types of men to scoff with skepticism at people claiming to have chronic fatigue and the like. I would have called those people lazy and would have been adamant they were faking it or feeling like crap because of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Unfortunately I have learned the hard way the severity of neurological conditions, what it feels like to have brain fog, what chronic fatigue feels like, and how difficult it can be to communicate neurological symptoms to others. I now start from a position of listening to people who are willing to open up about their symptoms and trust that they are being honest. There are millions of people suffering in silence with untreated and undiagnosed disorders - those people are not all faking it or just dealing with psychosomatic conditions. I would recommend Jennifer Brea's documentary, Unrest. Thank you for shedding some light on the subject.

Heron added:

I second the suggestion to watch 'Unrest,' and to consider the many unseen ill whose symptoms are deemed to be imagined. Until this last year, I had little patience with, and doubted, people who I saw as hypochondriacs. Then I became the thing I hated.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Long COVID do have similarities from what I've read, since becoming ill in August 2020. At that time, here in Northern Ireland, there was scant availability of COVID tests; after spending three days trying to get hold of one, (by which time I'd stopped teaching my post-grad online classes & I haven't worked since) I became too ill to do anything. I figured if this was COVID I'd gotten off lightly, mostly constant severe headache, inability to think, a new experience of fatigue, high temperature, insomnia, hypersomnia, paresthesia, no smell or taste etc Debilitated but not dead. Except for the fact that I still have the aforementioned symptoms a year on and whilst they fluctuate in type and severity, the fatigue, headaches and cognitive difficulties are real. A brain scan, an appointment for brain and spinal MRIs (waiting lists, even when going private [as NHS has 3-8 yr waiting lists here in NI] are lengthy), rare virtual doctors and neurologists suggest my ailments constitute a post-viral thing, maybe Long C, they can offer nothing but pills for pain. There is no test for ME/CFS yet, nor a Long C test, symptoms and presentation are so varied. Given a widespread lack of knowledge and resources regarding these ailments, you're on your own. Maybe I've developed ME, I certainly have post-exertional malaise which my very prominent neurologist hadn't heard of. Looking at the history of ME/CFS* and a dearth of research surrounding it, I hope that rather than dismiss the lives of sufferers of this or the long-lasting aftermath of COVID, that those experiencing such difficulties will be heard and learnt from. I only understood when I had no alternative.

I don’t think I ever actively pooh-poohed CFS, but like everyone else who encountered it, I underestimated just how bad it was until I met some patients with the condition. It is real and really bad. For whatever reason it is hard to think about and take seriously, but it really is as bad as people say.


6. Long COVID is probably rare in children

This matters a lot, because children are (currently) ineligible for the vaccine, and also likely to encounter the virus at school. But children usually have mild cases of COVID and don’t die from it, so it’s tempting to just not worry about them. But if they could get Long COVID, that would make it much less tempting.

Preliminary Evidence On Long COVID In Children sounds like a good paper to draw conclusions from. It says 42.6% of children with COVID experience long-term follow-up symptoms, which would be higher than the rate for adults. But it has no control group, and most of the symptoms it finds don’t seem very COVID-related (eg rashes, constipation). The most common symptom (20%) is insomnia, which better studies in adults fail to associate with real Long COVID. The rate of known long COVID symptoms (eg taste and smell problems) is only about 3-4%, and no higher or lower than anything else. Probably these kids are just having problems at the usual rate and attributing them to their recent COVID.

Blankenburg et al do the correct thing and ask a thousand children about potential symptoms, then compare the number who say yes vs. no among COVID-seropositive and seronegative subjects. They find no difference between the two groups. Both are reporting a lot of insomnia, etc. They reasonably attribute this to pandemics being a stressful event that it’s natural to lose sleep over. This is really reassuring, but it can’t rule out a somewhat rarer syndrome. The authors say that they might miss symptoms with a prevalence of less than 10%, and one of them gives his own personal guess that it’s 1%.

An English team says there’s a Long COVID rate of 4.6% in kids. But there was a 1.7% rate of similar symptoms in the control group of kids who didn’t have COVID, so I think it would be fair to subtract that and end up with 2.9%. And even though the study started with 5000 children, so few of them got COVID, and so few of those got long COVID, that the 2.9% turns out to be about five kids. I don’t really want to update too much based on five kids, especially given the risk of recall bias (ie you might notice / care about your symptoms more if you know you had COVID before getting them).

My overall conclusion here is that long COVID is rarer in children than adults, and may not exist at all. The studies tell us it’s probably somewhere less than 5% of kids, but so far we can’t conclude anything stronger than that.

7. Vaccination probably doesn’t change the per-symptomatic-case risk of Long COVID much

Here’s a complicated Twitter thread about this. Of vaccinated people who got symptomatic COVID, about a third ended up with Long COVID symptoms, the same rate as in unvaccinated people.

Of course, vaccinated people are much less likely to get symptomatic COVID. But even conditional on getting it, they’re still much less likely to go to the hospital, die, etc. It would have been nice if the same was true of getting Long COVID. But it doesn’t look that way.

(all this information is from an online poll by a sketchy group of COVID “survivor” activists. But they wrote up their poll in the scientific paper font, as a PDF and everything, so I say we count it anyway)

This NEJM study wasn’t exactly designed to look for Long COVID in vaccinated people. But they found it anyway, at a rate of 19% after 6 weeks. This also fits within the (wide) range reported for unvaccinated people. They don’t give a symptom breakdown beyond “prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, fatigue, weakness, dyspnea, or myalgia”, which sounds like the usual set.

These studies are pretty weak, and you could argue that given that vaccines decrease the average severity of COVID infection, and infection severity is linked to Long COVID risk, we should have a strong prior on vaccines decreasing Long COVID risk. And just before publishing this, someone sent me this study, which very preliminarily finds vaccines might decrease Long COVID risk by a factor of 2. I think a factor of 2-3 is believable; one of 10 or 20, less so.

Weirdly, there are some claims that vaccines can help relieve symptoms of existing long COVID. Sounds kind of like sympathetic magic to me, but the researcher quoted in the linked article said it might “improve symptoms by eliminating any virus or viral remnants left in the body” or by “rebalancing the immune system”. So yeah, sympathetic magic.

8. Your risk of a terrible long COVID outcome conditional on COVID is probably between a few tenths of a percent and a few percent.

My original calculation went like this:

About 25% of people who get COVID report long COVID symptoms. About half of those go away after a few months, so 12.5% get persistent symptoms. Suppose that half of those cases (totally made-up number) are very mild and not worth worrying about. Then 6.25% of people who get COVID would have serious long-lasting Long COVID symptoms.

After doing that calculation, I read this essay by Matt Bell, who tries to figure out the same thing. He is much more optimistic. He agrees that about half of long COVID cases go away after a few months, but adds another 50% decrease from “few months” to “lifelong”, kind of on priors, admitting there’s not too much positive evidence for this. Then he adds another factor-of-two decrease from vaccination, based on very preliminary studies from the UK. He estimates that someone with my demographics (vaccinated man in his 30s) has a 2% risk of Long COVID conditional on getting COVID at all. Then he divides by five for the true worst case scenario, based on studies showing that a fifth of people with Long COVID report that it affects their daily activities “a lot”. So by his final number, I have an 0.4% chance of getting really terrible long COVID, conditional on getting COVID at all.

My friend AcesoUnderGlass also did a writeup of this, published after I did my first-draft calculation, which seems to be thinking of this very differently, based entirely on hospitalization rates (which of course are very low in vaccinated people our age). She accordingly concludes that risk is very low. I don’t really understand her reasoning here, but I trust her a lot and am working on trying to converge with her on this.

What’s my yearly risk of getting COVID if I try to live a normal life?

This site says only 0.1% of vaccinated Californians have gotten COVID after their vaccination. But vaccination was pretty new when that survey was done, so we might want to take this as a per one-to-two-months estimate. That would mean a risk of 0.5 - 1 percent per year. But not all these people are living normal lives, so my risk might be higher.

MicroCOVID gives me a good sense of how careful I’d have to be to stay within a risk budget of 1% COVID risk per year. When I play around with it, I think I am about 5x - 10x less careful than that, which would mean a risk of about 5%/year.

This tracker suggests my area has recently had about 1 new case per thousand people per week, which would imply 5% per year. But most of those people are probably unvaccinated, so my risk would be significantly lower than that.

I’m going to round all of this off to about 1% - 10% per year of getting a breakthrough COVID case (though obviously this could change if the national picture got better or worse). Combined with the 0.4% to 6.25% risk of getting terrible long COVID conditional on getting COVID, that’s between a 1/150 - 1/25,000 chance of terrible long COVID per year.

How does this compare to other risks? My ordinary risk of death per year, just from being a man in his 30s, is about 1/700 (though this includes drug abusers and stunt pilots, so my real risk might be lower, let’s say 1/1000). Here are some other risks, courtesy of the BMJ:

In this context, I find the 1/150 risk pretty scary and the 1/25,000 risk not scary at all, so, darn, I guess there’s not yet enough data to have a strong sense of how concerned I should be.

9. This is hard to compare to other postviral syndromes

Going into this, I wondered if we might be able to ignore Long COVID. The argument would go like this: all viral diseases have a risk of postviral syndromes. Colds, flus, mono, lots of stuff that’s going around all the time. Lots of people get those postviral syndromes, and either recover or don’t, but either way we don’t make a big deal out of it. Since COVID’s considered “newsworthy” in a way flu isn’t, we obsess over its postviral syndrome even though it’s no worse than anything else’s.

This wouldn’t make Long COVID any less bad, and maybe we would be wrong to not panic more about colds and the flu, but it would at least give us some context and make things feel less scary.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything supporting or opposing this picture. The only relevant study is a meta-analysis by Poole-Wright et al, who (contra nominative determinism) don’t pool the studies by condition, which makes it hard to draw conclusions. I think all of their examples of postviral syndrome after flu are from severe hospitalized cases, so any comparison with COVID would be unfair. Although there do seem to be scattered reports of post-flu problems, they’ve never been formally studied or quantified.

Mononucleosis is an infectious disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, affecting about 1/2000 people per year in developed countries. It has a famously nasty postviral syndrome, which this paper describes as “almost one-half of the group had substantial ongoing symptoms 2 months after onset and… ∼10% had disabling symptoms marked by fatigue lasting ≥ 6 months”.

Flu is as common as COVID, but nobody really talks about it having a significant postviral syndrome so probably it’s not that bad. Mono has a worse postviral syndrome than COVID, but it’s rare enough that it doesn’t cause massive society-wide effects. COVID is right in the middle: more common than mono, and (probably) worse postviral syndrome than flu. I think it’s fair to say that we may not have encountered a condition with this exact combination of risk factors and can’t dismiss it as similar to conditions we currently ignore.

One potential analogue might be the Spanish Flu of 1918. It was an equally widespread pandemic, and seemed to have some kind of postviral syndrome. From TIME:

In what is now Tanzania, to the north, post-viral syndrome has been blamed for triggering the worst famine in a century—the so-called “famine of corms”—after debilitating lethargy prevented flu survivors from planting when the rains came at the end of 1918. “Agriculture suffered particular disruption because, not only did the epidemic coincide with the planting season in some parts of the country, but in others it came at the time for harvesting and sheep-shearing.” Kathleen Brant, who lived on a farm in Taranaki, New Zealand, told Rice, the historian, about the “legion” problems farmers in her district encountered following the pandemic, even though all patients survived: “The effects of loss of production were felt for a long time.”

The 1918 flu seemed to have lots of psychiatric effects: “Norwegian demographer Svenn-Erik Mamelund provided such evidence when he combed the records of psychiatric institutions in his country to show that the average number of admissions showed a seven-fold increase in each of the six years following the pandemic, compared to earlier, non-pandemic years.” Coronavirus doesn’t - the excellent Amin-Chowdhury study above finds nothing. Still, this is the scale of thing I’m worried about.

The worst case scenario here is really really bad. If a few percent of COVID patients get long-term unremitting genuine CFS/ME, that has the potential to overwhelm government welfare budgets and long-term depress the economy. I think there’s a 90% chance the real situation isn’t that bad, but it’s scary that we can’t entirely rule it out. Aside from the somewhat different 1918 case, I don’t think we have any historical experience of dealing with postviral syndromes at this scale.

The medium case scenario is something more like “a few percent of infected people get moderate fatigue, which doesn’t really prevent them from working, and goes away after a few years”. I don’t know whether the level of media attention paid to this would converge on “boring and nobody notices” or “giant disaster”, and I think it would be compatible with either.

10. Conclusions

1. Long COVID is many different issues without a common mechanism.

2. Some of these are straightforward and not surprising, eg lung scarring and post-ICU syndrome from severe infection, and would happen in any disease of this severity. Others seem to be more like the poorly-understood postviral syndromes associated with several other diseases. While some symptoms may be psychosomatic, most are probably organic.

3 The three major categories of symptoms are straightforward cardiovascular-pulmonary issues, straightforward smell and taste issues, and more mysterious neurological issues.

4 Although these get better with time in some people, in a significant number (maybe ~50% of people who had them at six weeks) they persist for as long as anyone has been able to measure them (a few months in the case of COVID, a year or two in the case of comparable syndromes).

5. Post-COVID fatigue is particularly concerning. This would be very bad if we analogized it to CFS/ME, and still pretty bad if we analogized it to other known postviral syndromes. There is no proof that this always gets better over the long term, although no study has looked at them for more than a few years. Facing postviral fatigue on this scale is a new problem.

6 . Children probably get Long COVID less than adults, probably at a rate of less than 5% of symptomatic cases. But we don’t know how much less, and we can’t rule out that some children get pretty severe symptoms.

7. Although vaccination decreases the risk of symptomatic COVID, it probably doesn’t decrease the risk of Long COVID per symptomatic COVID case by very much, though it might decrease it by a factor of 2-3.

8. Your chance of really bad debilitating lifelong Long COVID, conditional on getting COVID, is probably somewhere between a few tenths of a percent, and a few percent. Your chance per year of getting it by living a normal lifestyle depends on what you consider a normal lifestyle and on the future course of the pandemic. For me, under reasonable assumptions, it’s probably well below one percent.

EDIT: Here are some other people who tried to do this same analysis. I learned about all of these after I wrote the first draft of this, so you can consider the basic thought process here to be independent of them - but I edited some things to account for what I learned from them before writing the final version.

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Why you should care about Zoom’s $85m privacy lawsuit

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Zoom has agreed to pay an $85 million settlement after falsely claiming calls were protected with end-to-end encryption and for handing over people’s data to Facebook and Google without their consent. This is the latest development in a list of privacy and security issues faced by the video platform that we first wrote about back in March 2020.

Why Zoom has agreed to an $85 million settlement

In March 2020, The Intercept reported that Zoom had lied about the encryption used for their video calls. In short, the video communication service claimed that it used end-to-end encryption when it did not. Around the same time, Vice reported that Zoom was also sharing user data with companies, including Facebook and Google, without consent. (Zoom has since fixed these data-sharing practices.)

Zoom also had some major security issues, including default settings that allowed online trolls to take over public calls in an act known as “Zoombombing”, and vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to access people’s webcams. For more information on Zoom’s privacy and security issues, you can read our full breakdown.

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Zoom in November 2020 after The Intercept exposed these holes in Zoom’s service. As a result, Zoom agreed to security improvements and a “prohibition on privacy and security misrepresentations”. Now, on 7 July 2021, Zoom has also agreed to pay an $85 million settlement, including compensation for those who were affected by these security shortcomings. People who are entitled to compensation will receive between just $15 and $25 each if the settlement is approved in court. 

The maximum compensation of $25 doesn’t reflect the extent to which Zoom misled the people who used its services, nor the gravity of the potential consequences of doing so. Is this proposed settlement enough to make tech companies start taking user privacy and security seriously? And what can we do to better protect our data?

Why Zoom’s security measures matter

During the coronavirus pandemic, usage of the video service rocketed, with people increasingly using Zoom for socializing, work, and even healthcare provision.

People who used Zoom believed that no one could access the content of their video conversations except for the people on the call. This isn’t just a breach of users’ trust — in the case of online medical appointments in particular, it may have led practitioners (therapists, for example) and their patients to believe that their sessions were HIPAA compliant when they weren’t. At the extreme end of the spectrum, law enforcement in surveillance-heavy countries could have coerced Zoom to hand over data about its users (for example, information about political activists or journalists) when those users believed it was impossible for Zoom to do so.

What is end-to-end encryption?

With true end-to-end encryption, no one can access your encrypted data except for you and the intended recipient. This means that your data is protected from being seen by the service provider (Zoom in this instance) or anyone with access to their servers.

Learn more about end-to-end encryption

What did Zoom tell its users?

Zoom told its users that their video calls were end-to-end encrypted when actually they were protected by TLS encryption. Zoom generated and stored the keys to its users’ encrypted information on its servers rather than on its users’ devices, meaning anyone with access to those servers could monitor the unencrypted video and audio content of Zoom meetings. These servers are located around the world, often in countries where companies can be forced to share user data with law enforcement organizations.

What’s worse is that, according to the most recent lawsuit, Zoom’s response made it clear that it “knew that it did not use the industry-accepted definition of E2E encryption and had made a conscious decision to use the term ‘end-to-end’ anyway”.

Read more about why end-to-end encryption matters.

What can you do about it?

In this case, there’s not a lot users could have done to better protect their data from easy accessibility, as they were given false information and led to believe their data was end-to-end encrypted. Fortunately, no instances of further data misuse or unauthorized access were reported.

You can request that Zoom delete any and all information they hold on you. Information on your data rights and how to get in contact with Zoom to request they erase your data can be found in their privacy policy. Once you have made the request, follow up to ensure you get confirmation that your data has been removed from their servers.

Another way to protect your data is to never sign in using Facebook. Although it may save you time, it gives Zoom a lot more of your personal data, as well as giving more data to Facebook.

Who can you trust?

The issue is that people were led to believe their data was end-to-end encrypted and weren’t asked for consent before having their data shared with third parties. People who were trying to be careful with their privacy and data could have been misled into sharing more than they would have consented to if they had had all the information.

The Zoom lawsuits have shown that it’s easy for a company to mislead its users about the security precautions they take with their data. The reason privacy-conscious companies, like ProtonMail, are open source and independently audited is so that you do not need to trust us blindly. Anyone can view our code to ensure that it does exactly what we say it does. We also publish the results of our independent audits so you can be sure that our apps have been verified by someone outside of the ProtonMail organization.

ProtonMail is a truly end-to-end encrypted email service. When you send an encrypted email with ProtonMail, no one can see the content of that email except you and your intended recipient. You can sign up for a free ProtonMail account here.

Feel free to share your feedback and questions with us via our official social media channels on Twitter and Reddit.

The post Why you should care about Zoom’s $85m privacy lawsuit appeared first on ProtonMail Blog.

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26 days ago
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Bad Map Projection: The Greenland Special

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The projection for those who think the Mercator projection gives people a distorted idea of how big Greenland is, but a very accurate idea of how big it SHOULD be.
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67 days ago
The projection for those who think the Mercator projection gives people a distorted idea of how big Greenland is, but a very accurate idea of how big it SHOULD be.

Is game depth a confused concept?

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Published on July 17, 2021 12:37 PM GMT

This is just a thought that came to me today, for which I didn't do any literature search. No idea if it's new.

The "depth" of a game is the range of Elo ratings between the best and worst player. Since Elo ratings are connected to win probability (if the difference is 200 points, the stronger player wins 76% of the time), game depth can also be defined as the length of the longest chain of players where each one beats the next e.g. 60% of the time. Games with more depth are supposed to involve more knowledge, strategy, learning and so on. For example, chess has about double the depth of checkers.

But I don't think that's right. Consider these games:

  1. Deca-chess: two players play 10 games of chess against each other, and whoever wins more, wins.

  2. Coin-chess: a three-sided coin is flipped. Heads -> player 1 wins, tails -> player 2 wins, wings -> a game of chess is played and whoever wins wins.

Under the above definition, deca-chess is "deeper" than chess, because the slightly better player has more chance to win the whole match than to win a given game. And coin-chess is more "shallow", because the slightly better player has less of an edge. Even though the amount of knowledge, strategy and learning involved in these games is exactly the same!

The problem isn't just theoretical, it happens with games like poker. Even though poker has a lot of skill, each round has so much randomness that the depth comes out even smaller than checkers. We could introduce repeated rounds like in deca-chess, but how many? It seems arbitrary.

Can the concept of game depth be rescued, made independent from repeated trials and luck? I think yes, by introducing another variable: effort.

Imagine an individual player, let's call him Bob. Have Bob play in a tournament where every match has many rounds, to rule out luck. But in some matches tell Bob to play half-heartedly, and in others tell Bob to use maximum effort. (Ignore the unreality of the hypothetical, I'm trying to make a point.)

By the end of the tournament we'll have all players arranged by skill, and also know which sub-ranges of skill are covered by individual players' ranges of effort. In other words, we'll end up knowing this: "The difference between the worst and best player in the tournament is covered by about N intervals between a player's slack and best effort at each level".

That number N could be used as a new measure of game depth. Under this measure, chess, deca-chess and coin-chess will be equally deep, and checkers will be less deep. Intuitively it makes sense: "the best player surpasses me by about 5x the difference between my slack and my best effort". It lets you feel how much work is ahead of you. (Measuring against the worst player would be less informative, but everyone only cares about their distance to the top, so that's ok.)

The same idea could also work for test scores. I'd be curious to apply it to something like Raven's matrices: draw a histogram with test score as X and number of people as Y, and renormalize the X axis so that a distance of 1 corresponds to the difference between slack and best effort for a typical person at that level. Then when a new person takes the test or plays the game, we match them against a database of previous results, and tell them "ok, you performed at X units of maximum effort from the median person".

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64 days ago
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