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No virus more dangerous than stupid

April 7, 2020

A month before he went into the ICU with pneumonia from Covid-19, commenting on the measures then being started to prevent infection, Boris Johnson said:

I am shaking hands. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.

A Texas woman who claimed the virus is a media driven hoax now has died from it.

Nutters in England are setting cellphone towers ablaze motivated by some conspiracy theory involving Covid-19 and 5G.

A train engineer derailed his locomotive trying to crash the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Mercy, convinced that government measures related to Covid-19 have some ulterior purpose. Instead of rolling your eyes at that, you should look in a mirror, if you think Trump ever has identified a deep state hoax or if ever you gave some sympathy to the conspiracy theories related to Jade Helm or Pizzagate or QAnon.

Late entry: Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s health minister and leader of its United Torah Judaism party, has tested positive after ignoring his own lockdown rules to attend religious gatherings.

The edge test

April 6, 2020

In response to the popularity of Zoom, Skype is going one better, letting people initiate as well as participate in meetings without first registering. I deleted my Skype account when Microsoft acquired the product and was coercing that into a Microsoft account.

WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom all provide what are essentially peer-to-peer services. Messaging and chat and group meetings applications could be designed so that they don’t depend on a central service. Not even on a central registry. They could run entirely on the devices of those who use the application. That would reduce the barrier to use, eliminate some security issues, eliminate all the problems that stem from maintaining a central service, and make the applications more robust against network issues.

So why aren’t these applications, and wide variety of others, designed as true “edge” applications? In part, because that central registry and service is key to their corporate value. That is what investors look at when thinking about how the business might generate income or become a key value to other corporate ecosystems. Skype’s creators became multimillionaires on the basis of the number of people then using it, a number that was known because of its reliance on a central service. “We don’t know how many people use it because it is a true edge application” would have been the message of financial death.

In part, it is engineer habit. Relying on web services is a standard way to create applications these days. We learn how to build certain architectures and fit them to the next purpose. That provides a degree of convenience. It takes a little more thought about identity and routing to do differently.

There is a significant attraction to having applications that are not reliant on a central service. Wouldn’t you like your messaging to keep working when a disaster of some sort takes out a large chunk of communications infrastructure? It is a natural fit for open source software. Riot.im and Matrix seem headed a bit in that direction. At least, regarding application data. But not so much regarding identity and network — the first thing Riot.im wants me to do is create an account, that its service verifies.

I would propose a basic test of a true edge application: Given a few devices that have installed the application but never used it, connected to each other by wifi or other local network, does the application provide its basic service? There is no reason that most applications shouldn’t work in such an environment. And good reason that they should.

If people are learning anything from the current hardship, it should be that the modern world is not immune to disasters that surprise.

Religious transmission and toilet paper

April 3, 2020

The first confirmed Covid-19 case in Washington, DC, is the rector of a large Episcopalian church, who recently had given communion to a few hundred parishioners. Church services are prime spots for respiratory disease transmission, no different in that regard than inside concerts, bars, and rallies. So, it’s tempting to nod one’s head in approval at the large number of churches that are practicing secular prudence and moving services online. And to shake it in disbelief, that the Metropolitan Klimis of Peristeri declares:

The Holy Communion is life. It is a miracle. It is a blasphemy to believe that the virus can be transmitted by receiving Holy Communion.

Mostly, I shrug. There long has been tensions among the religious about how much compromise to make with secular knowledge. That is entirely an argument between the religious, the line drawn on the vagaries of theology, the only rational thing from the secular perspective being not to draw the line. Oh, the high church member says, I’m no snake handler! But why not? If the reason is secular — snakes bite — you don’t count that against what you put on the other side of the line. As to theology, the snake handler is on as firm ground as anyone else.

Italy shut down public masses some weeks past. That likely was an important part of how they bent the curve. Texas governor Abbott just re-opened church services. Jared Woodfill, the attorney who pressed the governor on that argued:

It’s ridiculous — I come into contact with more people at H-E-B than I do at these small churches.

Which makes me wonder if Woodfill actually has been in an HEB lately? The stores restrict the number of shoppers, shoppers stay away from each other, markers maintain distance at checkout, and the only person with whom you’re in contact is the checker, who wears gloves and makes regular use of sanitary wipes and lotions.

HEB limits purchases of toilet paper. Will Oremus, who understands something about business, explains why this epidemic actually is causing hiccups in the supply chain for that:

There’s another, entirely logical explanation for why stores have run out of toilet paper — one that has gone oddly overlooked in the vast majority of media coverage. It has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with supply chains. It helps to explain why stores are still having trouble keeping it in stock, weeks after they started limiting how many a customer could purchase. In short, the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic — not because they’re making more trips to the bathroom, but because they’re making more of them at home.

So if you go to a church service, make sure to hit the head there.

Update: The Guardian writes about the right-wing preachers who are holding church services, virus be damned.

Math and journalism

April 1, 2020

Quick: which has more Covid-19 cases, New Jersey or the United States? Well, that’s not hard. New Jersey is just a small part of the United States, so of course the whole has to have more than the part. Well, what if we compare New Jersey to the rest of the US? That’s only a bit tougher. Given that the disease is spreading throughout the US, the fact that New Jersey has a much smaller population than the other 49 states suggests it will have many fewer cases. Does that mean it is doing better in handling the disease? No. In fact, New Jersey so far is doing worse than the rest of the US.

All this is prelude to something commonly taught in high school math. Many attributes of sets are additive with set union, and so comparison of those properties between sets requires normalization relative to size. The need for that is common when comparing nations or states. If you want to compare the US with Belgium on criminality, economic advancement, religiosity, or alcohol habits, you have to look at statistics such as homicides, or GDP, or church attendance, or gallons consumed per capita. I.e., adjusted for population. Gross figures just tell you that the US is much more populous. (The distinction between extensive and intensive properties applies more broadly, of course, than to groups of people.)

Yesterday, in the NYT, David Leonhardt published an article based on a graph, copied right. That graph shows unnormalized Covid-19 cases, comparing the US to Italy, Spain, and China. The far better graph is the first one in this post, with a log scale and normalized data. There, it is clear that the US so far is following the trajectory of Italy, lagging by two weeks. (Click on either to enlarge it.) That better graph shows our growth rate may be starting a decline, something visible because of the log scale. We need to stay vigilant in the current measures if we want to see our curve bend as much as Italy’s has. There is no guarantee that it will, but neither at this point does the data show we will do worse. For good visualization of Covid-19 data, updated daily, I like the site 91-divoc.com, where that first graph was made.

One can opine whether following Italy’s course is failure, because we didn’t do more earlier and had more warning than they, or success, because they seem at last to be getting a handle on this. One can argue from differences between our cultures that we won’t be as successful as Italy. But it is simply a wrong reading of the data to say, as Leonhardt does, that the US so far is doing much worse than Italy. Spain, in fact, has the scarier trajectory at this point in time. You can tell that by looking at the first graph. The second fools you.

Leonhardt’s graph is misleading. It should be forgotten. The NYT should issue a retraction. And Leonhardt should write a letter of apology to his alma mater.

Many pundits make a mess of technical subjects because they never took a math class beyond the minimum required for a non-technical degree. If you never have studied statistics and worked with technical data, you lack the tools to think about epidemiology or the risks of vaccines or the efficacy of drugs. Thinking you have some insight because of articles you have read in quack sites like Natural News or in political outlets is like thinking you are capable of flying a plane because you have folded some paper ones.

Leonhardt doesn’t have that excuse. According to his bio, he has a degree in applied math. So his education isn’t lacking. He just seems not to use it. For shame.

In the tropics

March 31, 2020

Having found a host in dogs, guinea worm is proving more stubborn than recently thought. The groups working to eliminate it are now predicting quite some years yet. Alas, I wish we could reach the point that we were reliably eliminating an old disease for every new one that appeared.

I never have visited anywhere near Wallace’s line, however it is drawn. Some trip, I would like to visit habitats on either side of it.

Foresight: the good, the bad, the ugly

March 30, 2020

HEB was planning for the current epidemic even while the Trump administration was in denial. Schwarzenegger gives praise.

This administration was shelving past plans, even while infectious disease scientists continued to point to the threat.

Ed Yong looks at the longer-term prospects. Now that the disease truly is pandemic, he is quite right to write off his first scenario. My suspicion is the mixture between the second and third scenarios will vary by nation and region:

There are three possible endgames: one that’s very unlikely, one that’s very dangerous, and one that’s very long. The first is that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given how widespread the coronavirus pandemic is, and how badly many countries are faring, the odds of worldwide synchronous control seem vanishingly small. The second is that the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hosts. This “herd immunity” scenario would be quick, and thus tempting. But it would also come at a terrible cost: SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible and fatal than the flu, and it would likely leave behind many millions of corpses and a trail of devastated health systems. The United Kingdom initially seemed to consider this herd-immunity strategy, before backtracking when models revealed the dire consequences. The U.S. now seems to be considering it too. The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

The notion that we can avoid an economic toll simply by lifting federal government efforts to dampen the disease is based on a skewed model of the trade-offs:

“Look, I’m an economist and I am gruesomely comfortable with putting a value on a life,” says Jason Furman, who teaches economic policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and served as chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Obama. “If it costs one hundred million dollars to save a life, and we have a limited budget, it may not be not worth it. But I think the right model right now isn’t that you’re trading lives off against better economic performance. It’s that if you don’t save those lives, you might have even worse economic performance.” The true choice, Furman argues, is this: You can suppress the virus now and deal with a terrible economy six months from now, or you can wait two more months to suppress the virus, find yourself forced into yet more extreme quarantine measures because the virus is pervasive and the death toll overwhelming, and find yourself in an even more horrendous economy on the other side.

The US is having to take fairly harsh measures now, precisely because we so long delayed a serious response. What we’re doing now may more delay the tsunami than flatten it. Greg Laden explains why even that is important. Some of the right seem to think if we had just ignored this, business would proceed into the future as normal. I fear soon enough we will see why that is fantasy. Fauci’s predictions of two hundred thousand dead merely projects the current trends forward, assuming we manage to reach a peak soon. Yesterday we had 2,000 dead. Twenty-one days ago, we had 21.

There is no wishing this away. It will last longer than most now are thinking. We need resolve, not Pollyannish optimism, genuine concern, not greed, good sense, not short-term thinking, honesty, not bullshit.

“Aspirational projection”

March 27, 2020

“Aspirational projection” is the kind of phrase that the politic engineer or scientist learns to use instead of, say, “bullshit absurdity,” when referencing what his boss has said. Despite the fact that Fauci must have a good deal of political acumen and the backing of important politicians to work at the level he does, and though his role now is vital to Americans’ health, my suspicion is that he will not last many more months in it.

There are two things to note about what Trump has said about the coronavirus, business, and Easter. The first is that it is a much larger departure from reality than the lie for which Republicans always ding Obama. Yet now, they are silent. The second is that silence is expected, as it is just one of the many lies that Trump has emitted this week, his nose having to hover above the aspiring projection like a cow’s tail.

As of today, Texas is in the middle of the road in controlling this virus, still on an exponential growth path. See the graph, right, plotted on a logarithmic scale. We are not yet doing better than other states. I hope we start to see some flattening of that curve by Easter. Most of my social activities have been cancelled, alas but necessary.

Brazil’s populist president is almost as bad as ours.