Why is this interesting? - The Medical Espionage Edition

On intelligence, strategy, and the value of a cure

Colin here. When you think about high-stakes, state-sponsored espionage, the usual tropes come to mind: nuclear secrets, military R&D, corporate M&A. But research medicine isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Yet. 

As the world has been ravaged by COVID, the race for the cure, and any research or data that could lead to it, has been propelled to the front of the list in terms of intelligence-gathering priorities. Aspen Institute staff writer Zack Dorfman, one of the sharpest minds on the intelligence beat, recently joined Axios and came out with a very interesting report that got a bit buried in the news that is rightfully dominating the world right now. 

According to his newsletter Codebook, “U.S. officials recently announced an uptick in Chinese-government affiliated hackers targeting medical research and other facilities in the United States for data on a potential COVID-19 cure or effective treatments to combat the virus.” 

In May, The FBI issued a public bulletin calling out foreign actors for targeting, “US pharmaceutical, medical, and biological research facilities to acquire or manipulate sensitive information, to include COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research amid the evolving

global pandemic.” 

Why is this interesting?

This should not surprise. As Dorfman notes, intelligence and espionage are ways countries further their strategic and tactical objectives. And it’s hard to think of a more strategic objective than a COVID vaccine. We tend to think about the first-order benefits of the vaccine, mainly healthy people, and stabilized economies. But vaccines also represent a superpower in terms of business, diplomacy, and strategic alliances. It is something that could, very quickly, re-align the world along certain lines. 

Here’s how Dorfman unpacks it:

The country that’s first with a vaccine will, in theory, benefit immensely. Elections may be won or lost because of it. Industries and entire economies hang in the balance. Social stability may depend on vaccine access.

There are also subtler benefits of a vaccine: the soft power accrued to whoever develops and shares it internationally, as well as the potential profits from what should be a global, compulsory, vaccination campaign — and one that may be required at regular intervals, like a flu shot.

According to reporting from the Times, it isn’t just China and Russia behind the cyber actions.  “More than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses. Even American allies like South Korea and nations that do not typically stand out for their cyber abilities, like Vietnam, have suddenly redirected their state-run hackers to focus on virus-related information, according to private security firms.” 

The tensions here are obvious. From a research standpoint, international cooperation will help arrive at a solution sooner. But who arrives at a vaccine finish line first will undoubtedly be a seismic strategic advantage. (CJN)

Newsletter of the Day:

Thanks to a tip from WITI contributor Edith Zimmerman (EZ), we’ve been obsessed with The Browser. It regularly surfaces great reads that somehow elude my radar elsewhere, which makes it incredibly vital. Also, their audio editor, Caroline Crampton, recently did an MMD for us, which you should go read if you missed it! (CJN)

Quick Links:

  • An interesting company called Zipline, delivering medicine via drone to remote/underserved areas (CJN)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier &Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Pandemic Strategy Edition

On containment models, Cambodia, and early mask adoption

Colin here. Part of understanding COVID at the deepest level will require learning from different containment models and doing our best to understand how/why they worked. Sweden, once hailed as a leader, is now having second thoughts. 

Sweden’s top epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has admitted his strategy to fight COVID resulted in too many deaths, after persuading his country to avoid a strict lockdown. “If we were to encounter the same illness with the same knowledge that we have today, I think our response would land somewhere in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done,” Anders Tegnell said in an interview with Swedish Radio.

And in an example of what should have been a disaster that wasn’t: Cambodia. In an earlier WITI, we also covered the politics between Cambodia and China, as the Prime Minister of Cambodia let an entire cruise ship of passengers off early in the crisis. Predictably, this seemed to portend the worst. 

However, according to an opinion piece in the Nikkei Asian Review, this isn’t the case.

Cambodia had confirmed a total of 122 cases of COVID-19 in its population of 16 million by April 12, after which no new cases were reported for five weeks until three in late May. All of those 122 patients have recovered.

Despite having a weak health care system and being a resource-limited country, Cambodia has surprisingly emerged as a COVID-19 success story, while much richer Singapore is now battling a second wave of infections. So what is behind Cambodia's apparent success?

First, Cambodia's response strategy has turned out to be effective, at least for now. The country has performed around 16,000 tests since January and has conducted extensive contact tracing. It temporarily shut down borders to foreigners, especially those from the West, closed schools, universities and entertainment venues across the country, banned domestic travel for one week, canceled new year celebrations and quarantined more than 15,000 garment workers. The effectiveness of all these measures perhaps lies in the fact that they were adopted quickly and early in the pandemic.

Why is this interesting? 

It’s too early to tell which were the winning strategies. In conversations with several, African-based entrepreneurs and hoteliers, they seemed to think that learnings from Ebola (and the protocols) have seemed to help some countries on the continent. In fact, they postulate that some of the increased sanitary measures in COVID may help lower the future spread of other diseases. 

This would match the experience of South Korea after MERS:

When South Korea faced MERS in 2015, a stumbling response led to political support for dramatically broadening the country’s infectious-disease law. The state won powers to target at-risk individuals or groups for testing, treatment and isolation. Now, as a result, detailed case information gets posted on government websites or text-messaged to individuals from the affected neighborhoods, sometimes within hours.

Japan has also emerged as a country that has handled the epidemic well so far. Many ascribe this to innate cultural factors: wearing masks to protect others, and adhering to government decrees. Indeed, given its proximity to China, many people started hand sanitizing and wearing masks before any official guidance. But the country also took a number of other measures that may have ultimately helped it. According to the FT:

Japan used a particular approach to contact tracing. “Most other countries adopted what we call prospective tracing,” said Shigeru Omi, head of the expert panel advising Mr Abe on the virus. “The cluster-based approach uses thorough retrospective contact tracing to identify common sources of infection.”

In prospective tracing, the close contacts of a Covid-19 case are monitored so they can be quarantined if they show symptoms. Japan’s approach also tries to find out where they were infected, be it a nightclub or a hospital, and then monitor people who visited that site.

Four out of five coronavirus patients do not infect anyone else, so Dr Omi said that finding the superspreaders was a more efficient way to control the disease.

Photo: Reuters

While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the measures that worked most effectively, some combination of tactics has clearly proven successful at keeping the virus at bay. As the world prepares for the possibility of a second wave later this year, access to tests and nuanced analysis of protocols will hopefully help countries realign their approach and iterate. (CJN

Newspaper of the Day:

New York is under curfew. And while the New York Times says the last time that happened is 1945, the curfew they’re referring to seems specific to the closing of bars and other “entertainment establishments.” The last curfew I can find that resembles this one was two years prior in 1943, after a white police officer shot a black off-duty soldier. Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor at the time, put all of Harlem under lockdown. The image below from the New York Times archive is what appeared on the front page of the paper on August 2, 1943. (NRB)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Paradigm Edition

On ideas, science, and large-scale shifts in understanding

Noah here. The models we use to understand the world can be wrong for a variety of reasons. They can be too simple or too complicated, rely on data that may not exist or be correct, or just be a fundamental misunderstanding of how whatever it is they’re trying to model actually works. There’s also a whole class of models that are now widely understood to be wrong but at some point were believed to be right. In science, for instance, some of the most famous minds were ultimately shown to be mistaken in their thinking. They’re often celebrated for their breakthroughs, but the paradigm they relied on has long since been left behind. 

While most scientists we encounter in textbooks were focused on things like quarks and Plancks, there is a whole field of philosophy devoted to understanding the impacts and methods of science. Two of the more well known in the field are Karl Popper, who famously argued that what makes science science is its ability to be falsified, and Thomas Kuhn, who explored how scientific ideas emerge and the importance of paradigms on our understanding of them.

Why is this interesting?

Trained as a physicist, Kuhn’s big epiphany, and subsequent exit from the field in favor of philosophy, came from reading Aristotle as a graduate student. He was stumped by the great thinker’s poor grasp of both observational and theoretical science. “Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics,” Kuhn wrote in 1981, “but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well.” But how could that be? Aristotle is indisputably one of the greatest thinkers to ever walk the earth, with contributions in logic, physics, astronomy, geology, ethics, and just about any other field you could name. The young Kuhn searched for some kind of explanation that could help make sense of the seemingly impossible gulf between the Greek sage’s impact and his grasp of the basics. The light bulb went off while staring out his window. Suddenly he was struck by the fact that Aristotle’s world, all the way down to the words he used to describe his science, was fundamentally different than the one Kuhn inhabited in 1947. That world, of course, was one that operated within the bounds of Newton’s Laws of Motion, which had ruled physics since their introduction in the late-1600s.

Kuhn said that revolutionary changes, like the one Newton brought, “involve discoveries that cannot be accommodated within the concepts in use before they were made.” He called these revolutionary changes paradigms in his 1968 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and explained that they fundamentally shape every aspect of how we think about the world. “Like the transition to Newton’s Laws of motion, they involved not only changes in Laws of nature but also changes in the criteria by which some terms in those laws attached to nature.” 

A simplified version of Kuhn’s model from a 1997 HBS Working Paper by Clayton Christensen titled “Competitive Advantage: Whence It Came, and Where It Went”

Science, in other words, is not just some kind of linear march forward with knowledge building on itself, but rather, it is defined by the introduction of new paradigms that reset each age’s agenda alongside its metaphors, theories, and models. The introduction of a paradigm begins the work of “normal science”, which Kuhn controversially suggested was more about “puzzle-solving” than questioning the revolution in any significant way. "Normal science,” the philosopher Ian Hacking writes in the preface to the new edition of Structure, “does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover."

In proffering this theory of science, Kuhn was describing a meta-model for how knowledge proceeds. We live within a framework of understanding, building it upwards and outwards with new knowledge. As we explore, we find anomalies, squashing them by extending the foundational model until enough build up that there’s no choice but to shift to a new paradigm. (NRB)

Podcast of the Day: 

Courier, the UK-based business publication, has a solid podcast that discusses the ins and outs of small business, particularly the challenges and creativity presented in Covid. It is deftly hosted by friend of WITI Danny Giacopelli, who is an incredibly engaging host. I made a cameo to talk about travel on this episode, but worth subscribing to all of them with your podcast app of choice. (CJN

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Today Edition

On racism, history, and America

Noah here. One of the rules of WITI is that we stay away from domestic politics. If you know us, you’ll know it’s not because we aren’t interested, but because we believe there are better places to find thoughts on the day-to-day machinations of our country’s government. 

What’s happening right now obviously transcends that rule. I agree with those protesting. It’s clear we need radical change if we ever hope to unravel the systemic racism that is tightly woven into so many parts of American society and government, particularly the police. I also recognize that as a white man, I can never have the depth of perspective required to properly articulate what it's like to live in this country while black. 

So, in the open-minded, curious, and collaborative spirit of WITI, I thought it was best to do the thing we’ve been doing since we started: sharing some of the most affecting articles I’ve read on race in America, the great majority of them from black writers. This is most definitely not meant to be a syllabus, but rather a list of articles that have most shaped my view on how America works and doesn’t work for a great many people, and how deeply embedded racism is in this country. The list obviously has holes and isn’t even comprehensive to my own reading. But these are the pieces I have either shared most with others or continue to come back to my mind months or years later.

As always, I would welcome your thoughts and contributions by simply replying to this email or leaving a comment. We are also always looking for more contributors, particularly ones who are not white men, if you’re interested please get in touch and we will share the contributor’s guide.

Onto the links …

Today’s Links:

  • The whole 1619 Project was amazing, but I was particularly moved by Nikole Hannah Jones’ opening piece, Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true. It offered a historical perspective that touched on nearly every major American event of the last four hundred years, extending my understanding of the depths of systemic racism far deeper into every aspect of American history than I had previously understood. Here’s a small bit about World War II: “We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.”

  • Speaking of Nikole Hannah Jones, her piece on choosing a school to send her daughter to in Brooklyn was an excellent look at the realities of segregation in New York City schools, something I leaned on heavily as I thought about where to send my own daughter to kindergarten in the same borough.

  • More recently I found this piece she wrote in 2015 for ProPublica, Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why. “As far as we could tell, no one had been hurt. The shooter was long gone, and we had seen the back of him for only a second or two. On the other hand, calling the police posed considerable risks. It carried the very real possibility of inviting disrespect, even physical harm. We had seen witnesses treated like suspects, and knew how quickly black people calling the police for help could wind up cuffed in the back of a squad car. Some of us knew of black professionals who’d had guns drawn on them for no reason.”

  • Speaking of having guns drawn on you for no reason, here’s a piece Ty Ahmad Taylor, a friend of mine, wrote in 2014 about all the times he’s been stopped by police.

  • While this isn’t strictly about race, this 2012 n+1 piece about prisons is one I come back to often. It argues, essentially, that we’ve merely shifted crime from our cities to our prisons. “The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.”

  • In a year when we have seen a massive disparity in COVID deaths along racial lines, I have often come back to this 2018 New York Times Magazine piece, Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis. This bit in particular stood out: “In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes ‘fantastical’ biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white.” There’s even some evidence that one of the reasons the black community wasn’t hit as hard by the opioid crisis is because doctors are less likely to prescribe painkillers to black patients.

  • I think I have read almost everything Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic. The Case for Reparations probably sticks out most, though I also often think of his coverage of Obama, particularly My President Was Black and Fear of a Black President.

  • Speaking of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me is one of the few books I’ve read in the last decade that I walked away thinking, “this will be an important book twenty years from now.” It’s a letter from Coates to his son about being black in America. Towards the beginning he explains, “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

  • Speaking of that belief, I spent some time last year digging into the data around the relationship between race and genetics, or rather the lack thereof. It was spurred by this excellent two-and-a-half-hour takedown of The Bell Curve. Which I followed with a bunch of source reading, including this excellent piece on How Heritability Misleads about Race and this 1994 Bell Curve review from NYRB, The Tainted Sources of ‘The Bell Curve’, which rips apart the deeply racist sources Charles Murray cites. 

  • Finally, I’ve been thinking often of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and came back to this piece by Wesley Morris on how “the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies.” In particular, this bit keeps floating around my brain: “Any time a white person comes anywhere close to the rescue of a black person the academy is primed to say, ‘Good for you!,’ whether it’s 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Mississippi Burning,' 'The Blind Side,' or 'The Help.' The year 'Driving Miss Daisy' won those Oscars, Morgan Freeman also had a supporting role in a drama ('Glory') that placed a white Union colonel at its center and was very much in the mix that night. (Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for playing a slave-turned-Union soldier in that movie.) And Spike Lee lost the original screenplay award for 'Do the Right Thing,' his masterpiece about a boiled-over pot of racial animus in Brooklyn. I was 14 then, and the political incongruity that night was impossible not to feel. 'Driving Miss Daisy' and 'Glory' were set in the past and the people who loved them seemed stuck there. The giddy reception for 'Miss Daisy' seemed earnest. But Lee’s movie dramatized a starker truth — we couldn’t all just get along.”

Like I said at the top, this is my list, or at least a portion of it. None of these pieces present answers to how to reform the system as it exists now, but, at least for me, they offered some context to help me try and better understand, empathize, and support in whatever way I can. (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Monday Media Diet with Aisha Speirs

On Robert Caro, Hanoi, and streaming Naples radio

Currently based in Hong Kong, Aisha Speirs (AS) is a longstanding friend of WITI. We met in somewhat hilarious circumstances (outlined below). She has been a writer, editor, and strategist for some of the most interesting brands in the world. When this is all over, I look forward to drinking an ice-cold G&T with her and her husband (also a dear friend) at the Metropole’s Bamboo bar. -Colin (CJN)

Tell us about yourself.

I’m an editor at T Brand, the New York Times’s in-house creative content/brand-marketing studio. I’m based in Hong Kong now and look after APAC from here. I’m originally from London and I lived in New York for several years (where I met CJN after he rescued me from Bill Murray at a bar one night). I started off as a junior editor at Surface, spent a good few years at Monocle, where I was bureau chief in both NY and Hong Kong, and also ventured to the brand side for a little while as the creative director for Potato Head, a hospitality/lifestyle company HQ’d on Bali.

Describe your media diet. 

I’m in the middle of trying to blend into my generation and consume more online. This is the first time I’ve worked somewhere primarily digital. At heart, I still feel more comfortable with print, so it’s a pretty trad diet.

Daily — in print, I read the FT, online it’s the NYT and Guardian — I love the “Today’s Paper” option that the NYT has, as I prefer to read stories in the way I would come across them in print. I will log into Twitter if something’s popping off (e.g. to find out where the tear gas is in HK) but the vast majority of my news comes directly from publishers, rather than social. I listen to the BBC Global News Podcast every morning, as it’s timed well for me to get the latest by Asia morning time. And most days, I’ll also listen to the Daily. BBC Radio 6 keeps me going through the day.

My ability to get past The Talk of The Town in the New Yorker each week has drastically declined since having a child. Thankfully, The Economist is still digestible enough alongside a toddler. And heartbreakingly, I’ve sort of lost my love for monthly mags — maybe because it’s hard to find a great newsstand with independent titles in HK. But The Garden Edit and Luncheon are two titles I’ve really enjoyed recently.

What’s the last great book you read?

Aside from whatever kid crack Julia Donaldson has put out, Robert Caro’s Working was a great recent reminder of how hardcore it is to be a real writer/reporter — something I don’t consider myself to be.

What are you reading now?

I seized the lockdown opportunity to read something both too visually jarring and too heavy (literally) to take on public transport, so I’m making my way through William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich — it’s not chill. I’m also committed to finishing my brilliant friend Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice, which seems to grow in pertinence as these weird weeks go by.

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

Newspaper/weekly news mags — go to the sections/headlines that I know I want to read, drop the rest.

Glossy monthly/new title — flip through front-to-back before choosing what to invest in. I find the ad adjacencies as interesting as the content, especially in this climate.

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

I can name a lot of people we shouldn’t be reading. I hope everyone does read him — but in case not — in times of crisis, I turn to Hitchens. Sentence structure, intelligence, POV, humility, wit, charm, arrogance, and sadness — it’s all there. What a mind.

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

Coffitivity – it’s great for writing. It’s like white noise with personality or background noise without the arseholes.

Plane or train?

I know I should say train, but right now, plane plane plane. I grew up in the industry, so I’ve gone from seeing planes and airports as second homes to being grounded. I miss the romance, I miss the escape and I miss my family — who are far too far away to be reached by train.

What is one place everyone should visit? 

This is an impossible question, there is so much beauty to see. Go back to somewhere you love, as soon as it’s possible to do so because the little hotels and restaurants that you remember will need your money. For me, that may be the Mezzatorre on Ischia, the Metropole in Hanoi, or Jackson Boxer’s perfect Orasay restaurant in Notting Hill.

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into. 

Random cheesy/amazing radio stations in Naples? It started from a deep Lucio Battisti dive a few months ago, when I realized that we weren’t going to make it back to Ischia this summer as planned. I’m trying to make our home feel like an island in the Gulf of Naples — so nearly every night, we have (my husband’s perfect) negronis accompanied by stations called things like Radio Amore and Radio Mille Note. Traveling via internet radio is an amazing thing.

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Aisha (AS)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

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