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There’s no going back

March 26, 2020

One of the curiosities in physics is how to account for the fact that time has (or seems to have?) a direction. The reason that can be a puzzle is that all of the fundamental trajectory laws — Newton’s, Maxwell’s, Einstein’s, and even the Schrödinger equation — are all time symmetric. Of course, they all are differential equations, on real or complex manifolds. And the thing about numbers is that they are arbitrarily fine. No matter how small an open interval is, it is mathematically equivalent to the entire. Real space and time, we suspect, are not like that. Below the Planck length, things get messy. So it is interesting that a dynamic system as simple as three massive black holes, initial state differences smaller than a Planck length can cause large divergence. (Cite.)

Corruption plain

March 25, 2020

The corruption to Congressmen holding stakes in individual companies is not that they, more informed than the average bear, sell their stock just before an epidemic causes a bear market. Rather, it is that their interest in specific companies will bias their political decisions. Even if a congressman who holds large amounts of Lockheed does not write law specifically benefiting Lockheed, they will because of that become biased toward defense, and specifically toward the more high tech side of that. They may not even be aware of their bias, developing such entirely unconsciously as a consequence of reading news about Lockheed. Simply holding the stock influences their attention which over time shifts their views. Now, yes, everyone has a history and everyone is biased. But there is no reason to allow ongoing conflicts of interest in those who run government.

It is hard to imagine more plain conflict of interest, one that makes the US now look like a banana Republic, than its president making decisions about international trade and epidemic measures, while two of his sons run his real estate and hospitality business.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is introducing legislation that would ban congressmen from holding stock in individual companies. That would be a step in the right direction. It is unclear to me whether the prohibition proposed covers just publicly traded companies, or also privately held ones. It needs to include the latter. More, it should apply not just to congressmen, but to all high level federal officials, including to all federal judges, and especially to the president and his appointees. Alas, it has no chance of being passed while Republicans hold the senate and while Trump is president.

Richard Epstein last week projected that coronavirus infections worldwide would peek at a million. I think he is off by at least an order of magnitude. Who knows how much their peculiar financial interests plays a role when conservative politicians take that projection as a touchpoint?

Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled “Coronavirus Perspective,” that plays down the extent of the spread and the threat. The article, published last week, had predicted that deaths would peak at 500, the milestone surpassed Monday.

Hypothesis, testing, fire, and comedy

March 24, 2020

There is speculation that a history of taking ACE inhibitors and ARBs causes the lungs to express more ACE2 receptors, which increases the risk of more severe disease from infection by Covid-19, since that virus binds to those receptors. It makes sense and fits certain patterns of how the disease behaves. Don’t stop taking your prescribed medicine! 1) So far, this is just speculation. Speculation usually is wrong. 2) Even if it pans out, stopping your medicine won’t undo your history or change your risk. 3) You should never play your own doctor. With that caveat, were I on any of those medicines, I would up the rigor with which I protect myself from this infection.

WHO is coordinating rapid testing of four promising drug combinations for patients hospitalized from coronavirus. Let’s hope one or more turn out to be golden.

In 1665, London had a large outbreak of the plague, killing hundreds of thousands. The following year, London burned to the ground. Historic calamities can make modern ones seem tame.

Things that make your eyes roll: 1) This interview with Anthony Fauci is almost surreal, yet perfectly fitted to the circumstance under which he works. 2) The CDC had a doctor inside China whose role was to monitor the outbreak of new diseases there. Just months before the Covid-19 outbreak, the Trump administration eliminated that office. 3) Defending its elimination of the epidemic response team in 2018, one of Trump’s guys says no worry, its function was moved to my directorate. That defense is full of holes and misdirection.

Update: Lepore on plague novels.

Substance and bull

March 23, 2020

Read David Ho on the biology of Covid-19 and the state of the epidemic. I suspect when we look back at the missteps made, one of the more salient will be our failure to start antibody testing sooner here, and that this will stand as understatement:

We need point-of-care tests. Those kinds of tests are available for HIV and for many other diseases; you use a finger stick, drop the blood on a small device, and have a readout in 15 minutes. These tests measure antibody response to the virus and are extremely useful. Yet we don’t have a single test licensed in the U.S. In China, in South Korea, and in Europe, those tests are used. The manufacturer for this rapid test is producing a million a day. It’s there. But in the name of protecting the public, the FDA has moved very, very slowly. That delay, in my view, has caused more harm than good.

The release of Sherlock based tests is good. But we still need antibody testing. Ho does not predict the future path of the disease. 538 reports on a survey of expert predictions. You would be correct to come away from that article full of uncertainty. Prepare for weeks or months more of it.

Now, for the bull. Polls show how effective right-wing media in the US was at dismissing the risk of the coronavirus early this year:

Gallup’s poll, conducted between March 3 and 13, found that only 42% of Republicans were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about the virus. In comparison, 73% of Democrats expressed that level of concern.

Of course, if you see no reason to worry, you think the media that were saying differently were exaggerating the risk:

Pew Research, which conducted its survey from March 10 to 16, found that 83% of Republicans who consumed only a diet of outlets with right-leaning audiences believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. That number was 30% higher than Democrats who consumed only outlets with left-leaning audiences. More specifically, Pew Research found that 79% of people who said they turned to Fox News for their news believed the media had exaggerated the risks of the virus.

Fox News just did a rather astonishing volte-face. Anyone who thinks the journalists there are embarrassed by that, or that their audience might start to question an outlet that makes an unhinted gybe of that sort, little understands how propaganda works.

The intermediate axis effect

March 18, 2020

Watching someone talk is a slow way of learning. Most videos are little more than that, and aren’t worth watching. But I enjoyed this one on the rotational behavior of oddly shaped rigid bodies. Like tennis rackets. It’s not too surprising if you have studied mechanics and know about eigenvectors and principal axes. The context and intuitive explanation are nice. And in this time of uncertainty, it’s nice to know the earth is stable and isn’t going to flip on its axis! (The magnetic pole is another story.)

They had a thing for mammoth bones

March 17, 2020

This site sounds more like a processing center than any kind of ritual structure or domicile. Things were different 22,000 years past.

The young, the old, and the deplorable

March 16, 2020

Candace Owens, a right-wing pundit, says the Covid-19 coronavirus is no great concern, because those it kills are mostly the old.

The elderly also are a favorite target of conmen. The BBC tracked down some of the thieves in India who run phone scams. One of them explained:

We used to target the old people. … There are many old people in the US who don’t have families, are alone and are disabled, so it’s very easy to trick them.

Next to the old and senile, a conman’s favorite prey is the young and stupid. Those are the usual victims of pyramid schemes, fraudulent universities, and the quick loan industry.

A healthy culture nourishes and educates the young, protects the old who are losing their capacities, and wrings the necks of conmen. Those of us in our good, middle years shoulder some of the burden for doing all of that. Even when it benefits the young and the old who are not our own relatives, some who are not even known to us. Alas, Americans now live in a culture where a large fraction idolize the conman.