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Music affinity

May 28, 2020

Most people enjoy music. That is why music appreciation is much more common than music competence. Quite unlike with mathematics, as I wrote Monday. But some people enjoy music in the “take it or leave it” fashion that they enjoy watching a juggler or eating roasted chestnuts. While others have a much greater response, and walk around listening to music much of the day. If you’re puzzled that researchers study that difference in response, keep in mind how much of the social and economic world revolves around pursuit of pleasure.

Wondering moss and bumblebee technique

May 27, 2020

Balls of moss travel in flocks on glaciers. Photo right.

And bumblebees erotically nibble plants to encourage quicker blooming. (Cite.) No, of course it’s not the same if you don’t use your own mouth. “Researchers attempted to recreate these bee-bite patterns using metal forceps and a razor, but even then, the damage inflicted by bees boosted flower production more effectively than the scientists could.”

Death and mathematics

May 26, 2020

The US is passing through the sad mark of more than 100,000 dead from Covid-19. This is happening just three months after this disease first claimed lives here, and just weeks after many were proclaiming that the disease is no worse than the usual annual flu, a notion that gained considerable traction among Republicans. Which raises the question: How were those writers so wrong?

Now, this is a new disease. Expert knowledge of it is fragmentary. No one knows how it is going to behave. The summer might bring some welcome respite. It might not. There is significant uncertainty inherent in epidemics. Anyone expecting an expert to foretell its course over the next year is confusing science for fortune telling.

That doesn’t make all opinion equal. Consider this article from AIER at the end of March, claiming, wrongly, that either the infection fatality rate of Covid-19 is less than the annual flu, or a good slice of the US already was then infected. Where that author went wrong is that on any specific day during an epidemic, the number of dead is not the infection fatality rate multiplied by the number infected to date. To be accurate, that calculation must take into account the fact that recent infections will cause most of their deaths later. That difference is greatest early, when the disease is growing rapidly. When that article was published, there were only 1,581 deaths. A mere week later, there would be 7,087. Almost five times as many! Most of the deaths in that subsequent week would be from infections prior.

Even worse is a recent article that pretends to examine the mitigation measures taken by European nations:

In Europe, roughly three groups of countries emerge in terms of fatalities. One group, including the U.K., the Netherlands and Spain, experienced extremely high excess mortality. Another, encompassing Sweden and Switzerland, suffered many more deaths than usual, but significantly less than the first group. Finally, there were countries where deaths remained within a normal range such as Greece and Germany. Yet the data show that the relative strictness of a country’s containment measures had little bearing on its membership in any of the three groups above.

Well, yes. All sorts of things affect the death toll, from how early the virus was circulating in a nation to its demographics and healthcare system. If you want to analyze the effects of mitigation measures, you need to look not at the case or mortality totals, but at their time derivatives relative to when those measures began and ended. The author is looking at the wrong thing and, because of that, her analysis is worthless.

Most anyone who is versed in applying math to a variety of real world problems will understand my criticisms above. Someone who does software modeling of stochastic processes will view the error in the first article as the failure to apply a necessary probability distribution of death subsequent to infection. Someone who has studied signal processing or integral transforms will recognize that as a kind of convolution. I have no idea what terminology is used by epidemiologists for that. I am confident they have similar concepts. It is a common pattern in stochastic processes, and their field includes many mathematically adept folks.

The error in the second article is so basic and wrongheaded it makes an old math teacher want to cry. If Elaine He ever took a course in calculus, that effort was wasted.

“Most anyone who is versed in in applying math to think about a variety of real world problems” excludes, well, most everyone. In that regard, it’s like referring to most anyone who is a violinist. An important difference is that most people who haven’t practiced the violin are reluctant to get up on stage and play it in front of a large, public audience. The world is full of people who seem to think they have some degree of mathematical competence, because they can make Excel spreadsheets and pretty graphs. And they get away with that because of a second difference. Even those of us without musical ability can distinguish between a competent violinist and someone whose playing is painful. Music appreciation is much broader than musical competence. The case is quite different with math. Most people don’t much appreciate it. Discernment between its valid and bogus application is something most people learn only as part of becoming more adept at it.

That may be why media outlets seem to have no check on publishing mathematical rubbish. In March and April, quite a few were pushing their usual writers on economics and business to try their hand at epidemiology. What often stood out about the result was not its ignorance of biology — though that sometimes too was on display — but that so much of the math was bad. The articles above are but two of many. Those articles get read and circulated by readers, some of whom are quite smart and well-meaning, except that they have a large void when it comes to math, and think wrongly that such an article is making a valid point. Some may fail to recognize that its math is crucial to that point. Some may wrongly believe that media outlets and political “think” tanks have some safeguards on the math their writers practice. I fear many simply fail to allow for their own inability to understand that math and spot wrong turns it makes.

Cicero’s discovery of Archimedes’s tomb has been the topic of a surprising number of artworks, such as the 1766 Venetian engraving shown. The tomb was marked by a sphere and a cylinder, reflecting Archimedes’s famous theorem about the surface and volume ratios of those.

Turtles and alligators

May 21, 2020

This is looking to be a good year for turtle nesting on Padre Island and the adjacent barrier islands north and south. Alas, due to the ongoing epidemic, the park service will not invite the public to see the releases of the baby turtles this summer.

Port Aransas may relocate some of its alligators, because people keep feeding them and teaching them bad habits. Please, don’t feed the gators. And not the gulls, either.

Travel in a time of pandemic

May 20, 2020

Quarantine and other travel restrictions due to Covid-19 have made travel difficult. Most of us with travel plans have just put them off. That’s more difficult for those who were some months into a year-long cruise when the pandemic struck. And some will travel from necessity.

Those claiming that quarantines and similar restrictions constitute tyranny are, for the most part, making a rather silly argument. Governments long have exercised such measures to limit spread of disease. Those measures often fail at their purpose, but aren’t commonly steps toward authoritarian rule. My friend in American Samoa has no good words for that island’s government. However bad it is, let’s hope it keeps that island one of the few communities on earth free from Covid-19.

While I am not paranoid about quarantines, I am a bit stunned that the US government has stopped issuing passports. That is not part of quarantine measures, and has nothing to do with slowing disease spread. Assuming they are willing to suffer travel restrictions at destination nations, it remains each American’s right to travel abroad. Courts have recognized that right even in times of war. More, the passport is one of the few national IDs available to every citizen, useful for everything from domestic flights to opening bank accounts. People should get them long before they plan to travel, and keep them active. This should be an ideal time for the passport office to clear any backlog, and for Americans to think ahead and get that essential piece of identification. Instead, this administration has shut the door. Why?

Photo shows a British passport issued four centuries back. US law regarding a citizen’s right to a passport seems a mess (pdf). Let’s hope that is made more liberal and regular in the future.

Labor, money, sailors, and bars

May 19, 2020

Most cruise ships strike me as little more than floating hotels and casinos. They are staffed largely by hospitality workers. Thousands of whom now are stuck aboard empty ships circling the waters off Florida, unable to leave because of the various quarantine restrictions. And they’re getting little or no pay:

U.S. labor laws do not apply to cruise ship workers as the companies and ships are registered abroad. The International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations, recommends that cruise companies pay crew members at least sick wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the crew are quarantined on land or on a ship. But according to crew, that isn’t always happening. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, and Disney Cruise Line crew who are no longer working on board say they are not getting paid. Royal Caribbean crew say they’re receiving $400 per month. Carnival Cruise Line crew say they are being paid 60 days past the end of their contract. Crew on other Carnival Corp. brand ships, like Princess Cruises, say they are not being paid.

The crew on cargo ships are facing some of the same difficulties in getting back ashore. But those ships still are carrying goods, the crew essentially forced into extra long stints. While they suffer being trapped aboard, like the crew on the cruise ships above, they at least are working and getting paid. Even paid a bonus:

So the 27-year-old former Royal Navy warfare officer has been stuck onboard as the ship criss-crosses the ocean from Qatar to Turkey and France and back. The 34-man crew, from the Philippines, India, Russia and Ireland, have had their pay increased by 50%, but they just want to go home. “We are still loading, sailing and discharging our cargo. But in the back of our minds, we are starting to realise: we are trapped. People are essentially prisoners,” he said. “There is no way to get off the ship.”

They may be going stir-crazy. At least, when they do get back home, they will have a nice chunk of change. Part of that difference, of course, is that those ships still are productive. Part is the fact that the crew in the latter case are actual mariners, who know and operate the ship. I would bet the crew on the cruise ships with mariner certifications are getting full pay. Those ships may not be productive, but they still are assets. A bartender on an empty cruise ship is just another obligation. A diesel engineer or deck officer is quite a different matter.

And I have to wonder, if it crosses the mind of any ship line managers that, on land and sea, pay issues and working conditions are among the most common causes of mutiny, often seen as justified? In 1931, the British Royal Navy decided to cut sailors’ pay, leading to the Invergordon mutiny. Which had a darkly comic aftermath:

Paranoia now turned into dark farce. Naval intelligence sent agents to the ports, some posing as radical sailors, looking for agitators. Meanwhile the Communist Party, shocked that they’d missed the mutiny, sent its men to the Portsmouth bars also hunting for radical sailors. There were no radical sailors.

No radical sailors. But the barkeeps were glad for the patronage. I bet more than one sailor got both a communist and an intelligence officer to spot a drink in the same night, not necessarily knowing which was which. And certainly not caring.

Texas bars re-open Friday.

Summer in question

May 18, 2020

My previous post painted a bleak few months ahead. One thing that might change that completely is if Covid-19 proves seasonal, and goes way for the summer, as the flu does. The interesting thing is that not only does no one know the degree to which this disease is seasonal, given that it is new, there also isn’t a good understanding of what makes some diseases so seasonal:

Researchers have speculated that changes in ambient temperature and humidity may make these viruses less viable by affecting their outer proteins and membrane, or by altering how quickly the virus-carrying droplets from mouth and throat evaporate. On the other hand, the change in infection rate might be due to the ways that people change their behavior with the seasons, going from being enclosed in offices and schools to opening windows and spending more time outdoors. (Getting more sunlight, which drives Vitamin D production and might enhance the immune system’s defenses, might play a role, too.) More subtly, it’s also possible that changes in temperature and humidity affect our bodies in ways that make them more or less vulnerable to viral infection.

While the summer free from this disease would be a welcome respite, it doesn’t seem to be doing that. Here in the coastal bend, where it already is high summer, we have had a recent surge in cases. And spread seems to be accelerating in Texas in the last week.

One of the silver bullets that might be developed quicker than a vaccine is a monoclonal antibody treatment. The interesting there is that it would prove a generic approach to infectious disease, much like vaccine development. A process that identifies new pathogens, or new strains of old ones, when they first appear, and then quickly develops monoclonal antibody remedies, essentially replicates at the social level part of what our individual bodies do biologically. That would be a major advance against infectious diseases generally.

One respondent recently said to me that the only importance to an epidemiological model is its ultimate projection of deaths. Which is wrong. No one can predict that at this point, no more than they can what the final score is in a professional football game, when at five minutes of play one team first scores a field goal. For the disease, it depends on what people do, it depends on what governments do, it depends on what treatments are developed and how fast, and it depends on what the disease does. No one knows any of that. The models cannot predict any of that. The models are not meant to prophesy, but to provide mathematical tools for thinking about those possibilities. I hope for a summer respite, and for a monoclonal antibody treatment in the fall, and for a vaccine not long after that. Each of those is dicey. If we get all of those, the US death toll will be quite effectively capped. Perhaps at less than twice what it is now, just ten weeks in. If we get none those nor any other good turns, the death toll could become horrendous.

I worry that many Americans, tired of the various measures taken so far to slow the spread, ready for summer, are thinking this almost is over. My own suspicion is that we still are in the first quarter.

A fishmonger in France had this disease in December, before anyone was looking for it outside China, and before it could have been diagnosed as such. Again, the early history of this disease is not yet known.