Covid Cup Colour Commentary

Random blog posts about the pandemic.

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May 27: Belated Headlines

Well, finally. So they did have "100k" stories planned, they just don't use Worldometers.info after all; they use some more conservative report summaries that took another day or so to be sure. Commendable!

The NYT story has an odd construction in it, that it's more deaths than every conflict "since the Korean War" - it's actually just a few thousand short of including the whole Korean War, as my "102,636" below indicates. But no matter; it's all, obviously, a story about nothing but an otherwise-meaningless round number statistic. Which is many percent short of accuracy, as the "excess deaths" numbers strongly hint.

It's confirmed today that the low reported-death statistics on the weekend suffered from reporting delays; today's number on worldometers is already as high as the previous two days combined, and there's hours of reporting to go.

That means my notional 102,636 number will be hit (on worldometers, at least) early tomorrow. I suspect it will pass unnoticed; they can't put two "we've just passed a noteworthy number" stories so close together. Possibly in a week, the 116K for WW1 will get a story.

Since they have too few stories of a good response happening, they probably see their job as to keep printing alarming stories in hopes of stimulating one at last.

Canada, incidentally, can't do these stories. We lost too few in other wars (516 in Korea) to be a shocking number to compare to, and far too many in WW1 (68K) and WW2 (48K) to ever reach those in this pandemic. Thankfully. Even more thankfully, we don't require "scary numbers" to get our governments to act with political courage.


May 27: New News

This is the "news" for spring 2020: the news is that nobody died of COVID-19 in BC yesterday. It's the first such day in a long time, so now the lack of dying is news.

COVID-19 deaths in countries that didn't protect their care homes - and I believe that is all of them - have a "long tail". The dying fight for their lives on ventilators for a month before succumbing. So the wave, in terms of infections, is over weeks before the dying stops.

The deaths in care homes are something like 80% of all of them in Canada. In BC, perhaps even more so: apparently the average age at death of a BC victim is 86.

The problem with fighting a virus is that people need to be respectful of it - scared of it, frankly - when there's no deaths in the news to keep reminding you of the ridiculous-sounding fact of an invisible threat.

It's almost a test of imagination; you have to be able to continue to imagine your neighbours a concern, when they don't look scary. Well, the test has now begun in earnest.


May 25-May 26: Worldometer Watch

I'm just testing my theory that journalists are generally watching "worldometers.info" for their cue to start doing stories about "100,000 dead". Now, they've been doing stories that have some other topic, like "golfing as the US approaches 100,000 dead", for some days now. But the slightly-comical business of all the Vietnam-themed headlines hitting the wires in minutes of each other, has me wondering if it'll happen again today. So, I will hit REFRESH on both worldometers, and the google news search on "100,000 dead" this afternoon.

12:04 PM PDT: Worldometers.info: 99,636. News: still just yesterday's stories with the "as the US approaches" construction.

13:55 PM PDT: Worldometers.info: 99,739. News: unchanged

15:04 PM PDT: Worldometers.info: 99,754. News: unchanged
This is weird; only 454 deaths reported by now; the reports from the USA dropped all weekend, from 1300 to 1000 to 617 yesterday, easily attributed to paperwork staff not working the long weekend. Today, their Memorial Day, even more must be off work than on Sunday? It's not the nature of this statistic to suddenly drop by half. (Ask Italy.) Tomorrow and Wednesday should produce a "spike" in reports, delayed.
15:37 PM PDT: Worldometers.info: 99,771. News: unchanged.

16:37 PM PDT: Worldometers.info: 99,804. News: unchanged.
Maybe not today! There are so few deaths being reported that it won't get to 100,000, at this rate, today - and I'd thought it would be late yesterday. I dare not hope the deaths are actually dropping that much in one weekend; it's more likely late reporting. Which will make for a spike tomorrow morning that'll carry it over 100,000 in time for the morning news. It's already too late today to catch the 6PM news out east.


Reporting Stops Overnight
08:58 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 99,930. News: unchanged.
Good grief, it seems I can start again this morning. Worldometers has started up again, and it didn't immediately take it past the round number, so the newsies can again start the watch during publication hours. All of the stories run the "As US approaches" phrase, probably using up the story they had pre-written for the occasion. The contrast with the golfing and so forth is the usual hook.

09:19 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 99,987. News: changed but not claiming 100K.
The google search "twitched" a bit - a few new stories. But none saying the number had been passed. At the very least, there is no source of US statistics that journalists use, that is "ahead" of worldometers in the reports. And with the number about to come up, I confess this is a dumb way to pass time. It's just curiousity about how journalists work; this is nothing to do with the actual pandemic. Everybody knows we hit 100,000 days, even weeks ago, but can't confirm the count officially.

09:27 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 99,997. News: unchanged from 9:19.

09:31 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 100,021. News: unchanged from 5 minutes ago.
OK, worldometers changed. If it's like Vietnam, the google search should start changing in the next half hour or so. I'd be glad to be proven wrong, of course, but pre-written journalism is definitely a Thing.

10:20 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 100,041. News: CTV just published a new article still using "as US closes in on..." in the headline. CTV, at least, does not use Worldometers, or, at least, wasn't waiting for the exact moment. And nobody has yet published a "100,000 hit" story. My faith is starting to be restored.

10:52 AM PDT: Worldometers.info 100,090. News: Salon just published the first post-100,000 headline...but it's just a new headline on an existing story about Memorial Day.
I'm pleased to find my assumption was wrong. Perhaps even the Vietnam publication times were a coincidence, that the number was hit when they were going to publish anyway. Or, perhaps, they just "used up" all those stories by putting "approaches" in the lede and headline and got off for Memorial Day. It's nice to have your worst assumptions about lazy journalism debunked.

Anyway, I'm calling off the "watch", with relief.


May 25: Where's My Test?

It hit me a few days ago, when I got a haircut: your own "end of lockdown" is whenever you can do the thing YOU want. If you're upset you can't do "X", then getting "X" is your end. Some of us have little interest in hitting a bar or restaurant, but want their symphony nights back. My need for a haircut was getting serious when the barbershop re-opened, had buzzed me in 15 minutes, and my lockdown was over. Lining up at the grocery isn't annoying enough to qualify: let's face it, retirees are lightly touched by a lockdown.

This is another check-in with the "canada testing plan" google. Today finds that Ontario, perhaps galvanized by rising case count as they re-open, has put out an aggressive one, including rules that would let just about anybody willing to claim "they've been exposed" to get one.

Which is getting very close to something I want, and I suspect a few million want, but hate to bring it up: a test just to quiet my fears. It's not fear of the disease, but of giving it. I'd badly like to go visit my mother-in-law; my wife, even more so, obviously. But, Dora is 88, and it wouldn't do to take the smallest chance. We'd been thinking of putting in a week or more of even-more-serious isolation, just stock up on groceries and avoid everybody in the parks and streets by four metres, whatever. Combined with an ever-lower probability of infection as our local case-count drops, it would probably be duly-diligent enough by some point in June.

But an actual test, some days into that, would be a comfort. It would also be testing somebody with odds of 0.1% or less being positive, exactly what they didn't want to waste tests upon. It would be physical medical resources spent on mental health, on anxiety. The state would probably have to do a couple of hundred thousand of them to save a single life. The value is in providing people with the courage to do their personal definition of "re-open": see Mom. It would expend millions of test-kits if my concern is as widespread as I suspect. But, it's a valid national value, although the epidemiologists will have to grit their teeth at the "waste" the psychologists approve of. Waste? We have a rich civilization. It spent $500M on fidget spinners in 2017.

Most news stories lean on how people are eager to do their own "re-open" activity; not enough, perhaps, on how many are eager...but afraid.

PS: I want extra credit for not starting the headline with "Dude".


May 24: Why The Right Loves These Miracle Cures

Sigh. We thought we'd disposed of chloroquine. Study after study showed it offers little help to compensate for side effects. Including death. As for offering prophylaxis, where taking it prevents getting sick to start with, a lupus patient that's been taking it for years just went positive. So much for that.

There are now a rash of articles calling this a right-wing drug. It's not just in America; that's Jair Bolsonaro's own description, from South America's new fascist government (in all but name). The Guardian calls it "The Triumph of Right-Wing Quackery", and The Independent goes further to say that "The Far Right Depends on Snake Oil". And everybody is noting that HCQ (my own abbreviation) is basically a conspiracy theory, with conspiracy theories being constant on the right lately, so it's a "right-wing thing" because they love a good conspiracy to suppress a "cure".

It all doesn't sit right. Conspiracy theories can catch on with the left, as well; the Kennedy Assassination went on for decades. Michael Moore's new movie may have commmitted some major sins, but it was dead right about one basic fact. Many on the environmental left have accepted various miracle cure ideas for the environment; "cures" that don't remotely meet the test of cost-benefit ratios that would allow them to power a civilization. (Not for debate in a COVID-19 blog; read your Vaclav Smil.)

I've read exactly one article that made sense to me in this regard. The theory hasn't come up from another writer, so I'm pleased to recommend "Behind the right's obsession with a miracle cure" by Amanda Marcotte of Salon, seven weeks back. The sub-head summarizes it as a "deep rooted hostility to public health".

Or, more fully:

The hope that there's a hard-to-get miracle cure that will save them speaks directly to the poisonous social Darwinism that guides modern conservatism. It reflects deep hostility to the very concept of a shared public good and a fierce attachment to a racialized ideology of individualism that treats public goods such as health care as things to be hoarded by those with the privilege, money and status to do so.

Conservative ideology simply doesn't allow for the possibility that anything, including pandemic management, is best managed with a "we're all in this together" mentality. Instead they're drawn to this fantasy that there's a Platinum Member COVID-19 status that can be purchased, which will allow them to opt out of the suffering of the plebeian class that has to quarantine or risk sickness and death.

That totally rings a bell with all the most unpleasant conversations I've had with right-wing viewpoints over the years. I wrote in my "Christian Virus" post, below, about all standing equal before the "judgement" of COVID-19. The phrase chosen, because I've never thought the extreme end of the right-wing was fond of us all standing equal before God's judgement, either - they often lean to churches that promise special treatment in that regard for their members alone.

It's kind of like Obama being President of the United States; it's just an intolerable thought that must be escaped, if only with a fantasy about Kenya; the notion that we have to take care of the least among us, because the survival of ultra-right octogenarians like Rupert Murdoch, Charles Koch, and Sheldon Adelson suddenly depends on homeless people and illegal-immigrant meatpackers not being infected... is also intolerable. There has to be a dodge, a way out.

The drug may be cheap, democratic, you'd think. Except that no drug could be cheap if billions needed many doses in a matter of months. It would become exclusive and expensive very quickly. So, even a cheap drug does fit Marcotte's theory: they're so desperate to believe they can get special treatment, they're fantasizing it.

It does move one from contempt to pity. For a moment.


May 23: The Automatic News Cycle

More of a followup to yesterday's, I could have included this in the same topic.We've become used to "news" having a "news cycle", which is relentlessly gamed by everybody seeking our attention. Half of our news is staged events, in one way or another: timed announcements, opening ceremonies, demonstrations. Even the Iraq War was timed for the news cycle, the White House advertising campaign to sell it with lies delayed to September because "You don't introduce new products in August".

Boris Johnson,
Watching Ferguson's Presentation:
Surprise!

To a degree, it's all "fake news", however truthful: the presentation has been staged for maximum effect. News items that hava no thoughtful presenters, say, the factoid that "Wage Theft is Bigger Than All Other Theft" (like bank robberies, store and gas stations, etc, all combined), remain almost unknown.

The pandemic is a real news story in that the news just shows up by surprise, can't be controlled easily, is always big enough to grab attention. (Unlike wage theft.) It's like an enemy in war; our plans don't survive contact with it, causing surprise events that just come by themselves. It provides an automatic news cycle, stories showing up unforced. It's when our leaders are surprised that we can see how good they are at their real jobs. They would prefer the job of being actors on a stage, their own script, and the script of their opponent, already known. When surprised, they tend to go into hiding, like my cat.


May 22: 102,636

I might as well get this bet laid down today, while my worldometer is still at 96,683 confirmed dead. (worldometers.info is the offical "scorekeeper" for this blog. Other sources will be ignored to preserve my sanity.)

As when I predicted an outpouring of journalistic hooks on the Vietnam War casualty number, and found numerous articles where they hit the "publish" button all in the same hour, there's a spate of articles that will be written today for a quick one-button publish on the weekend. Likely Sunday, unless there's delays in reporting, the five zeros will roll up, as the USA hits 100,000 dead. The timing should be perfect for the Sunday Evening News.

In the spirit of Wanna Bet, I will bet, not on the pandemic but on the journalism. I bet I am not the only person to note the number 102,636. There's another place that reporters go for quick, reasonably impartial factoids, the Wikipedia. I went there to United States Military Casualties of War. (That's a count with a long history of disputes, as the survivors fight to ensure their lost are included. So, below, I note "58,320" as the count on the Vietnam Wall. That wikipedia page actually lists 58,209. But waving aside a quarter of a percent disputed, I'll go with wikipedia.)

I added up all the numbers since WW2, starting with 51 lost in the Chinese Civil War, 1945-1950, ending with the war in Afghanistan (2,216 and counting) and the "Raid on Yemen" in 2017, one death. It came to 102,636. Mostly, that's Vietnam (58K), plus Korea (36K), plus the War On Terror (7K).

Whatever the alternate source reporters use, it'll be within a few hundred, and occur next Tuesday, most likely. So I'm betting on a story or two with headlines or opening paragraphs like 'The US has now lost more citizens to the pandemic than to all the wars since World War Two.'

There's another coming up a week or two after that: "more than" 116,516 lost in World War One, that's a good headline.

Or, possibly, there will be stories at 125,325 - the total casualties between the Civil War and the start of WW2. With luck, the USA will not reach 167,013 - the total US War casualties if you just subtract the Civil War and WW2. But reporters will be able to play puzzle games with the spreadsheet, if they need headlines like "Worse than WW1 plus Korea" (at 153,032).

It all depends on what kind of statement a journalist thinks will make a good hook, as they watch the numbers roll by. It's hard to make a story out of a number, unless it's round, or has a familiar historical reference. The problem with all this, of course, is that they're reporting numbers. Lives turned into statistics.

There's no chance of them not making it, at least, to the WW1 number of 116,516. Let's hope it doesn't become a whole Korea worse than that.


May 21: Name Change: Covid Cup Colour Commentary

I never liked the pun "Covid Up", which depends on pronouncing it with a soft "O"...which nobody does. Also, it was gross. Since I started this by getting mesmerized by the Worldometers web site, and since that worthy has now ascended to global fame , allowing everybody to follow along on my original "Covid Cup" essay's proposal to judge nations by their deaths-per-capita, I have decided to push the grim sports metaphor to the limit and call this "Colour Commentary", as the sportscasters say. And the name is "CCCC" for short.


May 21: Testing Plan Update #1

I've given the "canada test plan" google a week off from mention here. It's really time to check in, because I saw the barbershop open yesterday. One barber had a mask, the other not, as if this were a fashion choice. (It crossed my mind that I should get a cut immediately, before he became positive. I'll go back today and see if somebody tuned him up about the mask.)

A check of the federal site indicated progress from 1,203,512 tests to 1,377,196 over a week: not even 25,000 per day, that is, not half enough.

But Saskatchewan, who hardly had any cases to start with, has a plan! Which takes care of less than 10% of the country. I can only report the google search did not come up with stories from Alberta, Manitoba, the Maritimes.

With BC, I checked the Sun and Province, and the only mention of "testing" at all provides a hint for where to complain: "Canada Offers To Lend Provinces Aid in Boosting Testing" in The Province, reminding that the Provincial health systems have to actually do this, the feds "just" hand them money and tools.

A specific google on "Alberta Testing Plan" found bold claims to double testing back on May 6, but no new announcements.

What's bothering me about the journalism is the lack of stories even trying to explain this. We could understand better if there were stories about how hard it is to train contact-tracers, or how the test kits are coming but the labs are still setting up assembly lines to greatly increase throughput, or whatever. There's be zero follow-up on Paul Hebert, the insect biologist with the idea for automating testing. I suppose that one week is too little for progress there, but an announcment that a provincial system was going to move on his suggestion would have been very welcome.

Which brings us to Ontario. Google can bring up dozens of stories, of course, but the summarization here was about all the reading I could stand. Their case loads actually just went up. They aren't near the testing they want. And Doug Ford, who of course cannot do COVID-19 tests, is reduced to beating his breast and screaming at the people who can, and aren't.

I believe we are now in week three of Doug Ford being "shocked". There's two problems here, for Doug Ford:

  1. He's the guy that was systematically deconstructing the civil service in general, and health care in particular.
  2. Doug Ford is always shouting and pounding tables; it's kind of his default mental posture. So doing it more, even for weeks on end, doesn't affect people much. It's like an abusive home where Dad beats you whether he's happy or sad, so why try to cheer him up?
He's going to need a lot of cheering up later, I suspect. He's not going to be able to blame the health care people for this.

Of course, Ontario may not look bad, compared to Quebec. There's no sign of news from Quebec at all. Probably for the best. I expect only bad news from Quebec this spring.


May 20: No Soap

As we consider our many grave problems, take a moment to reflect on how others have it. I was purusing this Guardian article about the plague in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their system is so poor, they probably don't know how many cases they have, really - there are only 50 confirmed deaths, all in the capital, Kinshasa. Interviewing a local volunteer whose husband had just died of it (no ventilator), this set me back:

When we had discussed coronavirus, she saidthe disease is caused by not washing your hands with soap and water. She wasn't surprised that she and her husband contracted it, as they have no clean water in the house and used charcoal ash instead of soap, which she could not afford.

She was also admitted to hospital and died. Again, there were no ventilators.

My Mom and Dad had some kid-scaring stories about deprivation - as a coal-miner's kid in the Depression, of wartime rationing. But our worst days, 80 years back, did not include the inability to afford soap. World War One caused great domestic hardship and poverty, too, but the 1918 pandemic was not made worse by the unaffordability of soap.

So spare a thought of charity for the Congo & surrounding areas, but also for people in New York who cannot afford soap. Or, at least, the people keeping them in jail cannot afford soap. Which is odd, because they can afford a jail, and nightsticks and tasers and jailer stuff.

At the start, prisoners in America were simply told they could get soap at marked-up prices in the commissary; no free soap. Then, the infamous worst of the lot, Riker's, handed everybody a free bar of soap! But more were apparently not forthcoming. Soap is again scarce at Riker's. Why? Too much money?

They're apparently being issued those little, one-ounce bars of soap you get in motels, and I'm sure it's not the luxury brands. The cheapest I could find worked out to 8 cents per bar, for 0.8 ounces, or ten cents an ounce. We're talking about less than a buck a month.

It's possible that this is just massive incompetence and indifference, including indifference to the lives of the guards, not just the inmates; but you have to wonder if it's again the best essay of recent years coming true: The Cruelty is the Point.


May 19: Little Will Change Permanently, Unless It Was Already

I'm getting a little tired of all these articles about what will change permanently. Most of them strike me as wishful thinking. I already covered that my own wishful thinking - I'd be one of those fuzzy do-gooders that wishes we had a society more equal and kind - shows no signs of happening, in my April 29 post, "Inertia". Sorry, fellow commies, but Jagmeet Singh is not burning up the polls, and "Inertia" noted that the first weeks of pandemic did not save the campaign of Bernie Sanders, nor has subsequent economic catastrophe triggered calls to revive it.

What will change permanently, are things that were already headed that way anyway. We were probably headed for more work-from-home as the technology improved and as people got used to it, and as old people uncomfortable with it, die off.

(Actually, everything that kills older people, who are still running things, is helpful for change; but in the "still running things" years under 70-ish, it won't kill enough of us to make much difference. Sorry.)

The pandemic will hustle the change along, but every teleworker I know (and I did months of it, the year before retirement) finds it more difficult than having personal access to co-workers. A lot of people will gladly flock back to the office. Above all, you can bump into the boss at the office and get some facetime. You cannot "bump into" him online. That alone is enough.

So we'll head back to the office, mostly, but there will be a permanent residual; the transition to more, if not all, telework, was happening very slowly; it's five years since I did those months of it, and it had progressed but little in my workplace. The transition will skip ahead ten years.

Some of the "spiritual" changes noted in the Politico article I just linked strike me as low comedy, however. "Less polarization"? "A Return to Faith in Experts"? "Less Individualism"? Oh, man, the author must be so young. When oldsters were that young, we thought that Baby Boomers were a whole new species of humanity, raised in the shadow of the Bomb, all educated to high school and many past that for the first time...our generation was going to eliminate war. And all injustice. Now, we're the demographic heart of the Tea Party, who sent our kids off to Iraq by the million.

Read this article from The Onion, just post-9/11 about "A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again", how we could never again give a crap about Britney Spears or other celebrity "dramas" after real drama had traumatized us. We invented the Kardashians to care about a few years later, which upped both the "stupid" and the "bullshit" of "stupid bullshit" to staggering levels. (At least Britney can sing and dance.)

Everything will snap back that wasn't changing anyway; some things may take years. The American reputation isn't irreparably harmed, because it wasn't by Iraq and torture, including torture of allied citizens (like ours). You can feel in every word from world leaders that they want to get back to good relations with the US again and dismiss recent upsets to the fog of history.

This is not a whole new world. It's still the old one, always changing, and this year a little faster. Yes, every crisis is an opportunity, and changes can be pushed along, a few can be started that wouldn't have for years. I hope we can push some good ones. It would be foolish, however, to expect your dreams, Green and New they may be, to come true.


May 18: Science That's Politically Incorrect

I haven't brooked the term "political correctness" since I read the masterful take-down of the very concept by Moria Weigel at The Guardian. Wiegel gives the whole history of where the term came from, and how well-funded lecturers and writers have been promoting the concept since about 1990. They usually give examples from the Ivy League universities they themselves come from, of comically tortured word-usage that never caught on. They carefully never point out that most of "PC" has been to make casual racist insults, like the "N-word", into obscenities that are treated like "F-word", when people used to say them all the time.

Everybody should read that link, but Weigel actually never gets into an admittedly minor gripe I have about the term: they aren't talking about politics. Politics is a process for deciding what laws and regulations should be enforced by the powers-that-be, the ones with guns on their hips. It is just one part of "culture", which is everything we do, every attitude we hold. What is called "politically" incorrect is almost always not a political issue: there's no law against saying the N-word; it's just become very offensive. It's a cultural shift, not political.

Certainly, some activists that push new terms are trying to change the culture: they're trying to make people uncomfortable with being offensive to those in a weak societal position, who can't fight back. (And they can't: black people tried once to make "whitey" an insult, but it never caught on.)

The anti-PC dare not complain, however, that it's cultural. They can't say "I'd say black people are lazy, but that's culturally offensive these days"; that's an admission of guilt, as "culturally offensive" means most (decent) people agree on it. But ending with "...but that's politically incorrect these days", is an accusation that everybody knows it's really true, they're just forcing you to repeat the lie that it isn't. Weigel notes that it's a wonderfully compact insult, claiming two lies with just two words. The second implicit claim, that a political, not cultural, agenda is being prosecuted, is usually unsupported; there's no regulation, public spending, or law, at issue.

Today, however, we have some actual, provable, scientific truths that cannot be responded to without actions that are politically very difficult. People must be harmed; vast amounts of money lost; public, rather than private, actions and spending must be done. It's almost intolerable for some politicians. It shouldn't be: culturally, sacrificing to protect the old, sick, and weak is one of our strongest values, our highest heroism. It's very much the politics of public spending, and public regulation of business, that finds the idea, shall we say, offensive. These truths need to be found incorrect, or those people's politics... are not the politics we need right now.

So, accepting the pandemic and the painfully expensive measures to fight it is not scientifically incorrect, and not culturally incorrect, but it actually is, literally, politically incorrect.


May 17: The Decision To Use Politics

I brought up the notion of betting on pandemic outcomes yesterday to introduce a little-known science fiction author. Marc Stiegler kept a career going in IT as he wrote several SF books over the last four decades, promoting a very libertarian point of view in most of them. One of his libertarian ideas from his 1999 book, "Earthweb", concerned using what we'd now call "crowdsourced opinions" in the form of bets. His "castpoints" were web sites where political solutions would be bet upon, and authorities used the bets to decide policy.

Like a lot of libertarian ideas, these intrigued science fiction fans, but never seem to come up as real-world solutions. The neareast thing we have to "castpoints" are still just, well, polls.

Stiegler's most-radical idea, for me, however, was in his earlier book, "David's Sling" which imagined a war with Russia (caused, of course, by weak liberals not showing enough military resolution...yes, just low comedy today). Stiegler solved this with the ultimate "smart weapons", which look a lot like our modern drones. His were the ultimate "smart weapons", not needing outside direction, pure automatons that decide whom to bomb by algorithm. As we found out, even human-directed drones with careful rules of engagement kill innocents nearly half the time; so, another bad prediction.

The truly radical idea wasn't drones in 1999, though, it was a contention one character offers at the start of the book: scientists should decide when politicians are allowed to decide a public issue. His point is superficially very attractive, it goes like this:

There are three broad classes of decision-making: science, politics, and force. You can call a decision "scientific" when it has a clearly-provable correct answer. Should we buy or lease, which is cheapest? Will the cancer respond better to chemotherapy or radiation? Should I rotate my tires? We ask an accountant, a doctor, or a car mechanic, and get an answer they can show is best.

If there is no way to be sure which solution is best overall - nearly always the case in really complex, multi-variable decisions affecting very different people - when experts shrug and say that there are various answers with their own merits, none clearly best - then "politics", is where we go. That's with "politics" very broadly, meaning whichever solution gets the most agreement from the most people affected, keeps conflict to a minimum.

When "politics" - as that broadly defined, fails to find an answer, humans may fall to fighting each other, and whomever beats the other into halting protests, gets it their way.

As long as Stiegler keeps the three categories very broadly, I can't find a logical fault in that. He goes on to point out that it is widely agreed that a huge step forward in human culture happened when we made it possible for the politicians to decide when to use force, rather than the warriors (renamed as "kings" after their win), who naturally prefer force if it will work, deciding whether they'll use negotiation.

Democracy has meaning only when the army can't take over any time, as in Egypt recently. With warriors in the thrones, we were left hoping for "good kings", like Don Corleone, who ended the mob war, but often got "bad kings", like Sonny, who tried solving everything with another hit. Democracies, where the generals obey the civilian masters invariably, are far more stable, and ultimately, prosperous.

A Stiegler character therefore opined that the world would be that much better again, after achieving the use of force being a political decision, would happen if the use of politics were to be a scientific decision. The experts relevant to a question must throw up their hands and admit it's too complicated for one clear answer, before the politicians are even brought into the room.

Wouldn't that have been nice in this pandemic? The best-achieving nations have been the ones that effectively did that by their politicians turning to public health officers and following their advice strictly. The worst are the polities where every word from the scientists has been filtered though a screen of political needs.

I am not joining Stiegler's proposal, which he never takes past the "use of politics should be a scientific decision" concept. Putting any "Council of Scientists"... or whatever ... in charge of any public money or power would instantly politicize who got on the Council. Never happen.

We need a better set of "norms", that's all. We need every politician to be humble about his expertise on every science, to gladly turn to advisory bodies that serve many politicians across their careers, bodies chosen for their own humility as well as expertise. Many countries have this. Most of the provinces of Canada included...once the pandemic started. Before it started, scientific examinations of care-homes (a topic I'll be back to) recommended their improvement over and over and over, for decades, and were ignored. Our "norms" on respect for science are still not high enough. Just ask any climatologist! If they were in charge, we'd have done a lot more about carbon long ago.

People should start asking this question of politicians when they run. This time, their disrespect for science cost many lives. Lives were saved in proportion to how much respect they started to show when the going got tough.

Coming up at our next election: "Sir, is it one of your campaign promises that if a public health officer, or environmental officer, recommends actions that will hurt you politically, you'll follow them anyway?"

Wouldn't it be nice, if they actually did?


May 16: Wanna Bet?

There seems to be one every day, but today's is the "question" of whether a vaccine will take several months, or at least a year.

Not just finding it, and being sure of it, but a hundred million doses into our arms by Christmas? A tall order indeed. We all know the gap between announcement of any product and a hundred million copies in stores. It's not measured in weeks.

So I have TWO excellent reasons for believing the experts on this "controversy":

  1. It's in accord with all the history I have lived through or read about;
  2. They're experts.
Only an idiot would believe in an amateur over an expert, the way only an idiot would bet on an amateur sportsman, over a professional. Betting on the politicians here is like betting on the star of your office pick-up basketball team to dunk on LeBron James.

Alas, the world is well-supplied with idiots who would actually bet on their political idol over a professional. I propose that we smarter people take their money.

Betting is one sport that can continue right now, most of it has already moved online. I already had the execrable taste to propose a notional "Covid Cup" for those with the lowest deaths per capita; why not go whole hawg and propose betting on Pandemic Performance?

I'll lay down a grand on Georgia hitting 2000 dead before Independence Day; two grand on America making it to the 100,000 mark by June 1. Bets like that. Others even more offensive. (Shock is the goal.)

It would be great if the betting process got more people to take experts seriously. Some people just can't evaluate risks to their own lives rationally, which is why you have to make workers obey safety rules; and lots of people hold other people's very lives cheaply. But even they hate to lose bad bets.

If that doesn't work, of course, hey: at least we get to take their money.


May 15: Testing So Bad, Hail Marys are Being Suggested

It's usually in movie scripts that some brilliant but unconventional science is pulled out, late in the third act, to save the day - only when all conventional approaches have failed.

Having finally jumped on Canada's testing issue yesterday, I may camp upon it here until some improvement occurs. (Power brokers tremble: a teeny blog is On Your Case. Now you'll be sorry.) Actually, I'm just drawing clicks to a fine and fascinating Globe and Mail story by Ivan Semeniuk about one doctor's radical suggestion.

I'm going to repeat yesterday's google search every day "canada testing plan", and today, it finally came up with a new link, a few below the ones weeks-old, claiming 60,000 tests by last week. The story admits we're hardly doing 25,000, coming up very short in Ontario and Quebec. Further, that it's not enough testing to safely "re-open".

Both explanation and possible solution are offered by Paul Hebert at U.Guelph. He explains the gene-reading equipment that processes the current "qPCR" test just don't scale up very well. But his equipment does. He uses it to process a million DNA tests a year, just counting species of insects he catches in traps. He's proposed a way to modify it to handle up to 50,000 COVID-19 tests per day, for a buck a test. So we get our test numbers up, along with about a 98% bargain on the cost.

I'll leave the rest of the story to the Globe - there are questions about making this work in practice, but it's certainly heartening - both as a solution to our current problem, and a triumph of Canadian ingenuity that I would suspect we could turn around and give (or sell) to the rest of the world. Wouldn't it be nice.

But still - other countries got their testing numbers up to what they needed without a Hollywood-plot-twist-grade of scientific miracle pulled off. I'd still like to know why we've done so poorly - even if Dr. Hebert saves their Canadian Bacon with his wizardry.


May 14: Raw Data Humbly Submitted: Where the Heck Are the Tests?

I tried punching "canada testing plan" into Google this morning, and the top link was the same one as it has been for three solid weeks: "Canada could soon conduct 60,000 COVID-19 tests per day" in the National Post for April 23rd.

You'd think that three weeks would have brought more news. Or at least, more tests. For a couple of months, I've been saving the page you can find at The Government of Canada Public Health page for the outbreak updates. I just pulled down the last three week's worth, specifically this part of their report:

Then I just put all those numbers for each date into a spreadsheet, giving these graphs for total tests, and by subtraction between days, the daily tests:

Do you see 60,000 on the right graph anywhere? I don't even see 50,000. Or 45,000, though we came close one day. I see no sign of any increase over time.

Are they hoarding test kits, for lack of ideas about whom to test? Lacking contact tracers? It's seven days since we did get a follow-up claim, in the Toronto Star: Canada's Labs Can Now Test 60,000 COVID-19 Cases per day. But do we need to?

Well, duh, yes. I need a test. I need a test, because I'd like to go visit my Mother-In-Law. But did I get the bug just the other day, and am still asymptotic? Testing heavily in workplaces, like barbershops, would allow workplaces to re-open. If we had infinite availability of tests, we could probably do a million a day before people derived no more incremental value from it. We only need to do as few tests as we are, as long as we're locked down.

I'm not even seeing a strategy for that. The news this morning, which kicked off this blog post, is that "anybody with symptoms" can get a test. For a disease where most transmissions may be asymptotic, that strikes me as weak. How about those "essential" workers that are making low wages for high risks? A weekly testing regime would let them know we care.

Those 37 dead NYPD weigh on my mind; weekly (or more) testing for all cops would be good for them, as well. I trust that this has long applied to paramedics.

Public health officers keep saying that you only know the curve has crested and fallen, when looking backwards, after it has happened. Well, that's when we have too much testing: we'll know later, after we conclude we did too many. Let's get there with some stupid levels of over-testing, just to be sure. We're due.


May 13: An Experiment With a C-SPAN Transcript

I admit I didn't watch live, but when I heard that this was an interesting exchange, I watched on YouTube. My internal monologue didn't have as many words, but these are the ideas that crossed my mind while watching.

A great fun thing about YouTube is that you can open up a transcript window and copy/paste, and so, today's literary experiment.

Senator Rand Paul, a true Libertarian and therefore more interesting than most conservatives. They have the consistency of opposing all government action, not turning into socialists the moment military spending comes up. Paul is also a physician, and numerate. His directed reasoning, however, is pretty plain. The trick is not to lie about numbers, but to emphasize the ones that "sound" better.

YouTube Time StampSenator Rand PaulMy Internal Monologue, Watching
00:23Between 18 and 45, the mortality in New York was, The mortality in the United States on 9/11 was just ONE per 100,000.
Eighty of them were police. Speaking of whom, the NYPD now has 37 cops dead.

That's with a small fraction of the city infected; with 50% infected, you'd have another couple of hundred dead cops. Please be plain if you're saying that's OK.

"Cops" is a reference to an earlier post. Obviously, many thousands of New Yorkers under 70 would also die. I just think "cops" is an easy shorthand for "victims you can't even imply are near-death, or socially useless".

00:26uh, 10 out of 100,000.
00:28So, really, we do need to be thinking about that.
00:29We need to, uh,
00:32observe with an open mind what went on in Sweden
00:33where the kids kept going to school.
00:36The mortality per capita in Sweden To be specific, the mortality per capita in Sweden is 343 per million, so far; while lower than all those other countries, it's higher than in the United States, at 254 per million (but rising at 4 per day).

That's easy math: (343-254) X 330 million = 30,000 extra dead people.

The trouble with these kinds of projection-based decisions is that there's no alternative-universe machine to tell us whom the 30,000 would be. We could ask them how unacceptable Sweden's result for the USA would be.

00:38is actually less than France, less than Italy,
00:40less than Spain, less than Belgium,
00:43less than the Netherlands, about the same as Switzerland.
00:45But basically I don't think there's anybody arguing
00:49that what happened in Sweden is an unacceptable result.
00:50I think people are intrigued by it, and we should be.
01:40And the power needs to be dispersed
01:43because people make wrong predictions.
01:45And, really, the history of this, when we look back, There's a problem with crapping on scientists for their inability to make correct predictions, from insufficient information, on-the-fly. You're not really hurting them; you're admitting it's a hard problem even for them.

You're saying: "The problem is SO hard that people with ten years of intensive study, plus 30 more years of daily experience, can only offer a range of predictions that depend on what some known-unknowns are."

And your logic is then: "Therefore, I'm justified in listening to people that have been studying it for ten weeks, and have money reasons for believing the most-positive spins".

I don't believe the Senator suggested that anybody knows more, would be less likely to make those "wrong predictions".

01:47will be of wrong prediction
01:48after wrong prediction after wrong prediction,
01:51starting with, uh, Ferguson in England.
01:54So I think we oughta have a -- a little bit of humility in --
01:57in our, um, belief that we know what's best for the economy.
01:59And as much as I respect you, Doctor Fauci,
02:01I don't think you're the end-all,


May 12: "Bringing China To Heel"

I wondered if that was too sharp a headline, implying I still have the 19th-century mentality towards China shown in the cartoon at left. But, a quick google found it had already been used, by delusional Canadian conservative Diane Francis in the Financial Post a week back. The delusion being that Canada, with the market power of 38 million consumers, nearly a half-percent of the world, can "stand up to China", if only it had a conservative Prime Minister. Like Stephen Harper, here being crapped on by Diane Francis for submissiveness to China in 2014. Maybe not.

Our response to the pandemic does point the way to dealing with China's authoritarian ability to just control trade, to inflict brief internal economic suffering as a strategy to bully other nations. Today, that news is about China not buying Australian beef and barley because Australia wants their COVID-19 response investigated.

The usual script is that China lashes out with trade restrictions that hurt their country, which they can accept, being authoritarians who can just order it. A number of some western country's wealthiest have their business kneecapped, however, and they scream at our politicians, who put on some face-saving measures, but quietly cave.

This dynamic assumes that our "economy" is a Red Queen's Race from Alice in Wonderland, that our businesses must always be running at top speed to just stay in place. Lose income for a few months, default on your debts, a business goes under, a rich man somewhere is ruined. It's the same assumption that has the same businessmen screaming "the economy", now, despite lives at stake.

China's threats are often almost toothless; they can only inflict so much internal economic pain, even with the army to back them up; they depend on picking our most-vulnerable pain points. We can harden up ourselves against such pressures with the same heavy government hand that even our conservatives have now accepted for the pandemic.

If government was able to support business through such trade attacks, we could respond to them with all our economic power, rather than leaving, say, our pork producers to bear the brunt alone.

The second part, however, is that no one trade partner with China, not even the US, can really threaten them with much, alone. The whole world that believes in fair trade and human rights needs to present them a united front.

It's funny how that attitude to both China and Russia used to be conservative gospel in our politics. Now it's our conservative side that has gone all weak in the knees, because China has found their soft underbelly: their greed.

As free nations, we can democratically agree to set aside our greed, take a few economic hits in defense of fair trade and human rights now and then, and show a little more courage and self-sacrifice than that - by sharing the burden.


May 11: On the Upside - "The Economy" Has Survived Much Worse

25% unemployment means that three-quarters of the population is still at work. World War Two promptly dropped the US Depression level of unemployment - some 25%, with over 11 million out of work - down to 10% (5.3 million). But if you regard "in the war" as "unemployed" from the point of view of producing anything useful to consumers, the war itself was as bad as the Depression: 11.6 million in the US forces by 1944, producing zero food, clothing, shelter or manufactured goods.

So the people not-producing now, are about the same number as through most of the Depression AND WW2, over a dozen years of low civilian productivity. When (civilian) unemployment of Depression levels was necessary to "save the country", we took that medicine with good cheer.

I can't say whether we will have decades of good economy afterwards, like we did after the war - paying for the massive government debt to finance it with 90% taxes on high incomes - but I can say that our civilization can do this. We can afford it; the rest is just internal accounting. I'd much rather see a post-WW2 approach to balancing the books over a return to feudalism, but that's going to be a long fight, a mere extension of one already going on.

It's funny that arguments for Universal Basic Income just recently worried that there would not be enough jobs for everybody. The book Bullshit Jobs argued that still more jobs exist, but are not needed, even in the opinion of those doing them.

So, don't be afraid for "the economy". We are "the economy"; and we've been through worse and come out just fine. "The Economy" exists to serve our needs, be they making war or making waffles. If we don't need waffles (or, at least, open waffle houses) right now for our needs, then "the economy" (still just us) doesn't need them. "The Economy" didn't need any more Sherman Tanks after 1945, because it's all about our needs. Focus on the distribution problem, not the production problem. We're a very rich society, and we've got this.


Happy Mother's Day

I don't actually have a COVID-19 hook for this topic, except, obviously, mothers are very, very cautious about risking the precious lives they've brought into the world, so perhaps we need their opinions on pandemic risks.

One thing we could pay attention to is the article up at Mother.ly, that We can't re-open without childcare, so every re-opener in places where the schools are still closed does need to be asked about their plan for that.

In a very similar vein, one might read at NBC news that most of the business that Georgia plans to "re-open" (salons, restaurants, gyms, bowling) have majority female staff of child-raising years: mostly mothers, in other words. Without the childcare, they'll be between a rock and a hard place; even with it, they have to take risks - for their whole family. NBC is calling it A Slap in the Face to Mothers.

One wild comment. Doesn't everybody associate illness and fears of same with Mom? Mom bringing you the soup and tea and being sympathetic? Wouldn't a motherly figure, on news media, be more likely to get people to take good care of themselves and get better? So, I'm just asking: there's been article after article about how women are proving better leaders in a pandemic. Not to diminish for a second the accomplishments of Angela Merkel (perhaps Germany's most-successful leader in my lifetime, before the pandemic) or the amazing Jacinda Ardern, but what if it was mostly because people react to feminine advice, about illness and self-care, with less resentment?

I would not argue that in a peer-reviewed journal. But I'd argue it over a beer. Which I mention because, damn, I'd like to go out for a beer. But Dr. Bonnie Henry told me to stay home, so I kind of have to. It's Dr. Bonnie.


May 9: America Disgraced: But, Hey, They Don't Care

I cracked up laughing, I'm afraid, in the middle of an anguished article by Timothy Egan in the NY Times this morning: "The World is Taking Pity on Us: Will American prestige ever recover?". It hit me that the question was absurd: his audience doesn't care. American liberals might pretend to care about "world opinion", but only for making a rhetorical point against their domestic political opponent; but, the point made, they'd go back to their utter lack of interest.

It was Canadian comedian Mike Myers who stressed this in his excellent book "Canada". Partly memoir, partly homage to his beloved home country. But much of it is about how he spent most of his career in the US, and he was firm about their reactions to Canada: they don't follow Canadian news. At all. They know little about us, and from complete lack of interest.

When you think about it, though, Canada is not being singled out for a snub. American presidential candidates struggled to recall the name of the President of Mexico.

Far more importantly, "world opinion" never formed any significant part of their decisions about the wars in Vietnam or Iraq. The notion that bad feelings might have some actual effect on America for torture never entered their discussions about it. It never crossed the minds of Bush or Obama that leaving the innocent Maher Arar on a terrorist watch list for a decade, after he was decisively shown to be innocent, would affect relations with their largest trading partner. They were right: it equally, never crossed any Canadians' minds either, to stop selling them oil, or stop using Amazon.

I don't believe that Timothy Egan, or any other NY Times columnist, ever wrote a column about Canada's opinions of America, or any other nation's, for that matter. They don't say they don't care, because it's not even a subject they think about.

America has the same relationship to the rest of the world that America's rich have to America's poor. It doesn't bother Jeff Bezos in the slightest that warehouse workers think ill of him.

America's rich are immune to public opinion, unless they have products that can be boycotted. (Which fewer and fewer can, any more; too little competition. I haven't even heard of an Amazon or Facebook boycott called for.) America is just as immune to the anger of the world, and acts like it.

Egan says the world takes pity on them. We'd be better off paying no attention at all; it's easier on us, like shrugging off a loud domestic fight next door as "not our problem". Just turn up the TV.


May 8: OK, "noose" was a joke, but where's BoJo's Resignation?

At the time I lionized Neil Ferguson on April 30th (and compared him to Boris Johnson, with astonishment that Englishmen don't want him hanged), I had no idea that Ferguson was suffering character assassination from the tabloids. For extra icky-ness, they had to harm the woman Ferguson was seeing.

Ferguson resigned, not because he'd really caused a significant risk of transmission, since he went through the symptoms and is now presumptively immune. (Those who say that immunity is not certain mean well, but, crap, we've all had colds and flus, and know that immunity is very, very likely indeed.) No, Ferguson resigned because he knows that he is looked to as a leader, and "by example" is really the only kind of leadership that means anything. So he was setting a bad example, and feels that should cost him his leadership job.

But, wait a minute, Johnson set infinitely worse examples. By far the biggest was his actual policy, obviously. "Setting an example" with personal behaviour can have some effect, but actual policy has literally a million times as large an effect, and Johnson spoke and advocated for a "herd immunity" strategy that would have been several times as costly in lives as Sweden's "partial lockdown" - which has worked badly indeed.

It's almost incidental that Johnson also performed many acts of transmission-theatre, shaking hands and actually telling people to go out. This wasn't furtive, like Ferguson's private life, only outed by an aggressive yellow press; they were as public as possible an invitation to ignore the dangers of contact.

The he admitted he was wrong. Not in so many words, but he reversed course overnight. From watching Ferguson's science presentation, as it happens. But this admission, however implicit, should surely have come with immediate resignation, having misled the public, having been wrong about a matter of utmost mortal consquence. How can Britons have faith in his party after that? His best move for the Party was to resign, as the British system makes it an hour's work for another party leader to take over.

What's weird to me isn't that BoJo didn't do it. What's bizarre is that the country didn't demand it. Or at least his opponents, who hate him so. Britons deserve better, and should demand it.


May 7: The Dead Speak. Well, They Get One Word in Edgewise

The mortality rates across different parts of society have an inverse relationship to how much they are listened to, how often their voices are heard in our public sphere.

The front pages of newspapers, the first ten minutes of newscasts, are filled with the concerns and troubles of the wealthy and powerful, mainly. Journalists struggle (a few of them, not most) to tell the stories of the poor and ethnic groups. And sure enough, they have two and four times the mortality of those who are routinely heard.

The awfulness of work in packing plants has been shown but not well-known, for a long time. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, both the book and the movie, showed how dangerous and stressed a job it is; how only immigrants will work there. We mostly shrugged and turned the page. More recent articles have been about how rough it is to be a warehouse worker.

I suppose what got me onto this today was the reviled offhand comment by a judge in Wisconsin that "Due to the meatpacking, though, that's where the Brown County got the flare. It wasn't just the regular folks in Brown County," . The stories focus on the judge being racist or classist; to me, it just reveals an unconscious, unexamined assumption that most of us make, that we don't have to listen to, or worry about, slaughterhouse workers. If that were not true, conditions in those places would be better. They are not, so we don't. All of us. Cut the judge a break, she's just revealing a symptom of an underlying condition we all suffer from.

We'd rather our purchases all be, what, ten percent, cheaper? Making us all ten percent richer? Rather than know everybody has a job with decent pay and conditions? We'd also like care homes to be, um, affordable.

Nobody is as silent as the care-home residents; many have dementia and can't speak for themselves. The rest find that really old people are not listened to in the first place.

When nobody is listening, you have to shout very loudly. Feudal Japan had a form of ritual suicide called funshi, or "indignation death", a suicide to make a protest. A modern example would be Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight in 2010 to protest autocracy. He didn't get to make a speech, it was just the one word: death.

We didn't pay attention to care homes even with the pandemic descending. We only noticed when the pile of dead bodies got really high. They each got to shout for our attention only once, by dying.

It's nice we're finally paying some attention to long-ignored problems, but the price was high, and there is still no certainty we won't turn the page again when the embarrassment has faded.


May 6: Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

The best thing I've read about "re-opening" showed up the other day in the Washington Post: The metric that could tell us when it's safe to reemerge, by medical school instructors Jeremy Samuel Faust, and Carlos del Rio.

I'd wondered about what the exact criteria would be for knowing the right time to risk more human contacts, but had no idea what to write about it; I didn't know, either. It's so complex. The good doctors here touch my engineer's soul by making it simple: just measure "excess deaths".

As this image from their column shows, just tracking the total death count, from all causes, in an area shows up the virus hitting with a very clear signal above the noise. The criterion wipes away all argument about whether a person clearly dying of multiple underlying conditions for some months counts as a "COVID-19 death" or merely a "death with COVID-19 present", not to mention whether we should count the guy who didn't get medical care for high blood pressure because he was afraid of the hospital. Every death counts.

It is consistent between polities, the leaders unable to affect it by changing the number of tests, or imposing their own definition of "death caused by COVID-19". Perhaps that's why it is liked by both the plutocrat-pandering arch-conservatives of The Economist like it, and also the lefties at The Guardian (article by a statistician).

When you search on this topic, however, the majority of documents discussing "excess deaths" and "covid-19" on one page are from scientific sources: National Institute of Health, The Lancet, the CDC. The top link where I searched was a speech by my public health officer - announcing a study into them.

That officer - Dr. Bonnie Henry - is idolized in the province right now, so that settles it. Let's figure out some criteria numbers for that metric and hold all the provinces to them. Which is good news in the Maritimes and the North, and Saskatchewan.


May 5: Happy Cinco de Mayo! Enjoy the Food.

There's a nice little love letter from Mexico's Ambassador to Canada at ipolitics.ca from the other day. The note celebrates that the need to close borders exempted Canada's temporary foreign worker system, albeit with various protections from transmission. It contrasts well, obviously, with nations whose metaphorical heads are exploding with the dilemma of wanting to hate immigrants, but also being dependent on them.

Well, I'm grateful to Mexican farmers, and Mexican farm workers in Canada, all taking risks that I'm not, just to keep me in food.

That's it for today. Not a deep dive, just a pathetically obvious observation: in times of trouble and peril, it is better to have friends than adversaries, better to cooperate than compete. For Canada, a happy story about how we make friends well, keep them, have a lot of goodwill out there to rely upon in times like this. May the Fifth Column of fascism behind the lines of democracy be outed and shamed by the damage they do to pandemic response.

And, yes, that whole sentence was contrived so it could start with "May the Fifth", just to top yesterday. I had better stop now. You did not deserve that.


May 4: May The Fourth...Bring Wish Fulfillment. But not likely.

It's become impossible to type "May the Fourth" without mentally finishing "...be with you", and whether it seems arrogant, or not, for Disney to declare this "Star Wars Day" to enrich their corporate property, the pun is too compelling to resist. Star Wars Day, it is. (The actual franchise may have run its course, actually, which is fine with me; make some room for new, innovative SF.)

Not a little of our enjoyment of SF is wish-fulfillment: SF heroes generally enjoy Nice Things like magical medical devices that emit some kind of "healing ray" out of 1930s pulps: the audience gets to watch wounds simply vanish, the injury basically shown in reverse-motion video, healing up into unblemished skin before our eyes.

The Golden Age of SF, that same pulp era that Star Wars pays homage to, was a time of everyday miracles changing lives every year, with cars, electric light, aircraft, submarines, telephones, radio, refrigerators, all coming into full use, over a single generation. No wonder they projected forward another few generations and imagined spaceships the size of cities.

The most-miraculous of those miracles, however, was medicine. Surgery went from guesswork, a near-butchery without anaesthetics, to routinely saving lives. Vaccination, above all, would win most votes for the greatest live-saving achievement of the past century. As that link notes, "little more than a century ago, the U.S. infant mortality rate was a staggering 20 percent, and the childhood mortality rate before age five was another disconcerting 20 percent." And then, some guys in white coats waved their hands and talked some weird words, and that was all over. A billion parents' dearest wish, fulfilled.

Here we are, in that Age of Miracles, and people understandably want one more. But, it's cringeworthy, frankly, listening to the advocates of "end the lockdowns", both on the street and in the press briefing room, as they just keep wishing and wishing, very openly and embarrassingly, for some miracle to just make this all go away. They're like toddlers: "make it didn't happen, Daddy". A vaccine that takes weeks instead of more than a year; a treatment that will make it into a non-lethal disease...bring us something, anything, there has to be something to make my wish come true.

No. There doesn't. This is not a science-fiction movie. This is real. Sometimes problems have only hard solutions that take a long time. Sorry.


May 3: If We're So Rich, Why Ain't We Smart?

I can't say enough about the fine data visualization tools at the "ourworldindata.org" web site, click on the graph below to jump there. Note that this is "per million", so compares small and large nations fairly, and is a LOG scale, so that it is showing the USA doing twice as bad as Canada, and Spain ten times worse..but also Greece doing ten times better, and South Africa ten times better again than Greece.

Some of the best responses to the pandemic have been from countries that are startlingly poor. Portugal and especially Greece, the sickest sick men of Europe since the financial crisis, have exemplary results compared to Italy, Spain, UK, France, Belgium and Switzerland. Heck, Greece is way better than wealthiest European, Germany, run by a scientist. They cancelled everything before even one death had been recorded.

This is similar to the touted response of South Africa, which also shut down before it really reached them.

Stop to think about it, this is the same as evacuating a building when you hear the fire alarm, not when you see flames actually reach your floor. It's obvious. But most rich countries did not do it. Taiwan and New Zealand had the best responses, but not because they have the most money.

This isn't really about "smart" in the sense of having good epidemiologists. A quarter-century back, I wrote an essay about the Titanic sinking that got me flown to two speaking engagements, by the US Navy, no less. The crowd agreed that my best line was "It was not a failure of calculation. It was a failure of imagination. They just didn't imagine it could actually happen."

Some of the poorest countries in the world, in Africa, have done amazingly well with almost no resources. Yes, they had the advantage of time; almost nobody travels to them, so they had more warning. But they used the time, whereas the biggest economy of them all famously threw away their own warning time, not believing it could actually happen. Many in Africa had no such delusions, after AIDS and Ebola. So, excerpt from the Financial Times:

Countries had little choice but to act early. Nigeria was already screening airport passengers in February. Rwanda closed its frontiers on March 19. South Africa locked down before it had suffered a single death. In the absence of money, ingenuity rushed in: solar-powered oxygen units in Uganda, rapid tests in Senegal, mask-making textile factories in Kenya.
I'll elaborate on something from April 15: we in rich countries feel invulnerable to most of life's ills, and nobody feels more invulnerable than Americans. The lockdown protesters still don't believe it can really happen to them. Invulnerability lets you get away with being stupid, like being so militarily powerful you don't fear land war in Asia. They came up against hard lessons there, twice, and will get more now.

They didn't learn from the first 58,000 dead in Asian wars-of-choice, forgot how guerilla warfare worked in a single generation, tried again. So, unless they lose a lot more than 100,000 dead to this pandemic, they'll probably feel invulnerable again in about 50 years, and be stupid for the next one as well. I hope we are not. I hope we are smart, like Africans.


May 2: The Lives Being Saved by the Pandemic

The thing about living is, it kills you. People voluntarily take crazy risks all the time, just for a thrill. But far more, people take risks to earn a living, or to get to that job on time. We lose thousands of people per year to motor accidents, many caused by hurry.

The pandemic has cleared the roads of at least half the cars. In most places, especially urban, the accident fatality rate seems to be down less than that, about 40% in France, because the open roads allow more speeding. (In a few polities, especially rural, the death rate has actually gone up; just way down on the whole.)

Those protesting for a herd-immunity strategy talk about people dying from suicide and other "deaths of despair" owing to poverty. A fair reply is that few of them are committing suicide because of shame at inability to contribute; it's money. Give them a social safety net, and most of those suicides will disappear. But, on top of that, we have to subtract from the deaths that lockdown does cause, the deaths it prevents. No, not the COVID-19 deaths, the:

  • Traffic accidents - nearly 40,000/year in the US, perhaps 15,000 not happening;
  • Workplace fatalities: no workplace, no fatality. About 5,000 per year, surely 1000 not happening. (I only shave off 20% because I think most are in those "essential" jobs; fishing is more dangerous by far than policing.)
  • Murder: the crime rate seems to have, roughly, halved. Much more in some places, less in others; but for argument, let's put in half of the USA's 15,000 murders, and round down to 7000 saved.
That's 27,000 right there, for the USA at least, with its higher rates of crime, injuries, and every other bad thing, versus Canada. I'm sure a little thought about all the ways that being out in the world can get you killed would let me round up to 30,000. Time for the big conclusion with the italics and boldface:

The suicide rate would have to triple to make lockdown a net-killer even without COVID-19! To live our lives, we risk death every day from a dozen causes. A pause in the activities of life actually saves lives on its own.

Update, May 23: Some early stats are in, and it looks like a 20% drop in traffic deaths, 80% in drownings.


May 1: The Value of my Face Mask

Just back from the store, where I wore a "mask" inside, or, rather, a thin silk scarf folded over a few times. It's worthless as as mask, technically. I'm sure aerosols and indeed droplets could saunter right through it, either direction.

But I think the real value of a face mask is how conscious it makes me of my own breathing, normally something you hardly notice. My every exhalation steams up my glasses a bit, making me annoyed and very aware that I'm exhaling moisture. Which reminds me, 20 times a minute, that everybody else is also exhaling moisture, near me. We're all little steamboats, toot, toot.

So I navigate Safeway like the whole place was toxic; stick to business, be aware of every person around you (since about a quarter of the people at Safeway are behaving as if bumping into me is no worry), and dodge.

Interestingly, this value of a face mask is degraded if you wear it all the time and get used to it. So I just wear it in stores while getting stuff there. (The term "shopping" isn't really right; that connotes leisure.) I pull it off once away from the entrance, and go back to just avoiding people by over 2 metres, on the street.

Another value of a face mask, however bad as a filter, is the same as my exaggerated avoidance of people on sidewalks (I go out onto the road): performative. Human beings pick up behaviour cues from all around them. The more you act as if people were plutonium, the more everybody will feel some pressure to do the same.

There's talk of some opening-up moves soon, and I don't want to screw that up.


April 30: Where is Neil Ferguson's Knighthood? (And BoJo's Noose?)

This is mostly a "best example" for my previous post about society having too much inertia to change dramatically, even from a pandemic. One would think that Boris Johnson of the UK would currently be hanging from a lamppost; and Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College would be taking a minute from his workaholic schedule to preen over his knighthood. One man nearly got half a million Britons killed; the other saved them.

It was just early March when Boris was not merely pretending the virus would go away, like the American administration engaging in bizarre denial; he was advocating "herd immunity", a deliberate strategy to not just stay open, but encourage spread to speed the day when the "herd" as a whole would be over the hump.

Britain does not have a meaningful regional level of government, like American states and our provinces; their pandemic response is entirely national. America was stumbling into a disaster at their federal level, but the states would have asserted lockdowns and testing, as they have mostly had to anyway, even if their feds had not seen Ferguson's model. (It was also was applied to America. It was Ferguson's team that predicted that famous 2.2 million deaths possible, not Americans; but the presentation turned the Americans around the same night. Surely "The PowerPoint that saved 2.5 million" will be coming to Netflix documentaries next year.)

Without a middle level of government for Britons to turn to, Johnson could well have prosecuted a "keep everything open, especially schools" strategy, for the whole nation...and the estimate was 510,000 dead that way. It seems unbelievable that he would get credit for changing his mind, when he should be in jail - or on that lamppost - for even speaking aloud his first idea. That he isn't, I think, proves my point: society is a supertanker that takes a long time to turn more than a few degrees to either the right or the left. The difficulty turning to the right has saved us from fascism so far, despite decades of hard work by fascists (who call themselves something else, of course) to bring it back. Alas, it will now keep us from turning more than a few degrees to the left, or to any kind of populist rage. Lucky Boris.


April 29: Inertia

If you've wanted to see change for a long time and are impatient for it, crises seem like this big opportunity for change (Scientific American). Some of my own writing below, about visible statistics, exceptional inequality, and Christianity, all reflect a hope that the societal failures spotlighted by death will be remedied.

It would be better to prepare for disappointment. More likely, one, at the most two, major changes will be put over the top by this "help" - and they'll be the ones that were nearly here anyway. (If this doesn't make universal health insurance an American reality, I can't even.)

The people coming out of quarantine are still the same bunch that went in. In Canada, Liberals and Conservatives are still pretty much in the same place in the polls. There's no massive groundswell of support for the NDP. Hey, we'll get better regulation on our care homes for a couple of decades before standards slip again.

In the States, the presidential challenger is ahead several percent in the polls, but one would think that tens-of-percent would be more believable...not since the virus, but since Charlottesville; after the drink-bleach advice, you'd think, 80/20. I'm sure the pandemic performance will shift their voting by as much as ten percent, but revolutionary changes? No. The "democratic socialist" group within their Congress may expand, by, oh, several members, but not enough to more than tweak legislation a bit.

That's the word: tweaks. We'll get tweaks. Care homes. The pandemic departments will be lavishly supplied, of course, not for the many decades that will elapse before there's another pandemic, probably, but a few. (I doubt the American health care will include dental or eyeglasses: sorry, Bernie.) I bet they can undo some tax cuts, but I would not bet they can raise taxes back to pre-Reagan levels to support social services.

No universal basic income, except maybe in Spain, where the need has been more clear through over a decade of "the crisis" already. I wouldn't bet even odds on all those "essential" minimum-wage workers getting more than minimum wage, or unions. I give them 30%.

There may be some climate action, to the extent of my electric vehicles boost theory, and a little infrastructure work, building the grid and some wind turbines..again, things that were already coming and will move faster with a boost. I strongly doubt that any non-starters will become starters.

So, social activists: pick your battles; pick the ones that seem so obvious to you that they need no more help. It's better to assume they've only had a little help from this.


April 28: Man, Totally Called That One

After my "Vietnam Headline" prediction, for today, the US death rate, at least as quoted by "worldometers.info" promptly dropped from nearly 2000/day down to about 1200; this was a statistically surprising drop, leaving me shaking my head that I should ever try to predict a pandemic even a few days ahead. I could hardly "cheer on" American patients to get back to dying just so that I could make an accurate prediction, obviously.

However, today, the death rate ticked back up again - already 1,885 as I write at 4PM PDT - and passed that "58,320" mark about an hour ago. Wow, were the journalists of America ever waiting for that exact instant to hit the POST button on their Vietnam-themed stories. Get a load of the google news search on "vietnam" a few minutes back, at left.

Look at the times the stories were posted: 1 hour ago, 50 minutes ago, 45 minutes ago...all SIX stories within 40 minutes of the number being reached. They were just waiting to pounce on the moment. I can only hope they were not cheering on the dying, so as to publish and knock off for the day.

Without reading any of the stories at left, I can still recommend the one to read: the one by Nick Turse in The Intercept. Not only is The Intercept one of the best reads out there these days, but Nick is the author of "Kill Anything That Moves", the most truthful, and therefore terrible, book on Vietnam.


April 27: Foxnewspeak

In "1984", George Orwell invented "newspeak", the intentionally-limited language ("doubleplusgood" instead of "excellent") that was supposed to lose words every year, constricting possible topics ever more tightly.

Everybody noted when Fox had the "we have always been at war with Eastasia" (virus) moment several weeks back, when the "hoax" became a "crisis" overnight. I noted just a few posts below when it became impossible to find the word "chloroquine" on their main web page, after weeks of obsessing on it.

Well, several new words have been "vapourized", as Orwell would say, today, including:

  • bleach
  • disinfectant
  • inject
  • cleaning
  • solution
  • internal
  • sunshine
The term "briefing" appears only the once, as part of their standard template, where one web page section is called "The Daily Briefing". The word "briefing" does not appear on any copy. Those White House Briefings that had better ratings than Monday Night Football... have been vapourized.


April 27: The Obvious Next Tesla Ad

Even with my nonexistent skills and only the most basic image editor, this didn't take five minutes:

Seriously, if we, who live in relatively clean-air cities, find these images a devastating sell for electric vehicles, how is it playing in cities where the air is actually that bad? How long before these cities start pushing for laws to charge you $100 per month to run an internal-combustion engine, versus nothing for an EV? The case for it couldn't be stronger: the internal-combustion engines are as obviously making the city dirty as somebody who throws their trash out the window.

It's weird, now that I think of it, that the local nature of car pollution has been ignored by climate activists trying to focus on the "global" nature of the issue. If you can convince cities to put a surcharge on their pollution, the car market would have to change faster than it has been.

Well, these images have done their work for them. These will surely spur sales of EVs and perhaps get every city switching to electric buses, and electric city-services vehicles. (It's hard to claim range anxiety in a waterworks half-ton, an ambulance, or a police cruiser that never cracks 100 km per day.) Then, cities could move on to charging all the commercial vehicles, everything used in construction and delivery, a premium for fouling the city air.

But the air will remain filthy because of commuter vehicles. The memory of these days will linger, though. Consumers discovered the London congestion fee was a great thing; as the air clears, they'll come to feel the same about the air-pollution fee.

In his essential book, A Thousand Barrels a Second, Dr. Peter Tertzakian noted that it takes over 20 years to "change out" the North American vehicle fleet; it's not just the cost, the car factories can only run so fast. It's a 2006 book, and we could presumably have been half-way there by now, if we'd started in 2010 producing nothing but EVs; we are in fact at 1%. But viruses aren't the only thing that grow exponentially; we all now understand how ideas can "go viral", and the EV idea just got a huge push. We still could use another major improvement in batteries, but even with what we've got, the formerly-fantastic idea of all new vehicle production going electric may be just a few years away.


April 26: R>G - How Convenient. Thanks for Saving That Up. We'll Just Take It, Now. Thanks.

'r>g'
was the terse final statement from a huge study by Thomas Piketty a few years back, "Capital in the 21st Century" that the overall returns from major investments (r) was greater than the overall growth of the economy (g). In this age where nearly everybody finally gets exponential functions, it should mean something devastating. Since both r and g are growth exponents, so is "r-g", the exponentially-increasing rate at which stored piles of money come to take over the economy, until the money-piles pretty much own everything. Including the politicians.

That the politicans are owned by the money-piles is most-easily proven by what Vox journalist Matt Yglesias explained about the Panama Papers: that if these tiny "sovereign" Caribbean nations were conspiring to undermine pharmaceutical or Blu-Ray copyrights by pumping out cheap medicines or movies, they'd be shut down by diplomatic or financial pressure within weeks. They aren't, because tax-theft is winked at by politicians, some of whom are involved.

But if we need a pile of several trillion dollars to run civil society with for some months, and would rather not indebt two generations to those banks (see below) to raise the bridge money, I think we all know where to find such a pile.

Quite a lot of that pile of money is outright proceeds of foul crimes. A larger share is proceeds of that genteel, white-collar, but equally destructive crime of tax fraud. And the largest share is legal "tax avoidance"...but shouldn't ever have been legal. As the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer put it about NSA spying, "the deeper scandal is what's legal".

The money in the tax havens is particularly easy to discuss confiscating. As with the cruise industry flagging all their ships to Panama (hey, Panama again, funny coincidence!!) then asking for America-funded bailouts, you get little sympathy if you abandon your country.

So, this being a blog and not a respected publication, I'd like to skip all the legal stuff and just advocate that America simply take it. Militarily. As Madeleine Albright once screamed at Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?".

Sure, it's illegal under American law to prosecute aggressive war without UN Security Council permission - but that's been a dead letter since Iraq. So just send in the fleets, conquer all the tax havens and loot their banks, medieval style. It gets around all that tedious legal wrangling over drug-lords vs tax-cheats vs tax-avoiders. All of it spoils of war. Done. Hey, if you're going to be one of Ayn Rand's "looters", just be honest about it.

Only America can do this; only America has that insanely-overbuilt military. But Canada and every other nation would profit, long-term, because the tax havens would shut down forever. What's the point in piling up your money outside the taxman's influence if you're handing 100% of it to the gunboats?

As for all that r>g money piled up inside law-abiding, tax-having countries, that's a stroke of the pen. Just add a zero to that 2% wealth tax of Elizabeth Warren's for one year. Or two. They'd still have 60% of everything over $50 million, whereas the tax-shelterers would lose it all.

The obvious danger here is that governments would then become that Ayn Rand nightmare of "looters", sucking up those money piles for every minor government program and waste, after the crisis. That was assumed to be true of democracy itself. But the rich got richer and our society continued to resemble feudalism despite all that democracy, so I'm sanguine about it.

With a little luck, the wealthy would just stop trying to dodge tax laws, accept that money gets harder and harder to accumulate as your pile gets larger. Right now it gets easier and easier to get richer as you get richer.

Hey, even my gunboat economics aren't as bad as The Terror; the rich not only get to keep their heads, but the first $50 million and most of the rest. Except the tax-dodgers. Screw 'em; they're criminals.

Will any of this happen? Nah. These ideas might work economically, but even the pandemic isn't making them come closer politically. The "military conquest" notion is pure satire, obviously; if America really wanted that money, it could do it by pure pressure, with only the most-oblique hints of actual violence. But even that is not remotely going to happen. We can take a look at that in a future post.


April 25: Everybody Takes A Hit But The Banks?

I'm just writing my provincial and federal representatives to ask about whether they will save 70,000 animals at the Vancouver Aquarium, which, despite laying off all staff but the ones keeping them alive, and $600K in recent donations, is weeks away from destitution. In part, the aquarium just put all memberships into a "time machine", where your renewal date is extended by a day for every day they remain closed.

I mention, "time machine", because it was a great phrase used in the article by the inhumanly productive Derek Thompson of The Atlantic: The Four Rules of Pandemic Economics, where Rule #2 (after "lives vs the economy is a false choice", the absolute #1), is "Build Companies a Time Machine". Businesses need to have all their books teleported to the future point where they can restart their moneymaking, unharmed by the passage of time. The economist interviewed mentioned "anything - grants, cheap loans, debt relief - that would allow companies to shift their expenses to the future". I'm not hearing the "debt relief" part in the news, though.

The grants and cheap-loans solutions are just moving their private debt to public debt. We're so rich (as a society) that the government really can just print a lot of money and use it to basically keep us all going for a short period, with only modest inflation. But everybody is taking a hit here, nearly every business is hurting. The public solution means we all share the pain, everybody...except the banks. The aquarium, facing bankruptcy, can lose even more to provide a "time machine" to customers, but banks can't?

The most-regulated and controlled business, the one that owes its existence to the government bailouts so recently, is the one that can't be told to take a hit?

I don't remotely know enough about this subject to discuss it in detail. But any who's played with their mortgage on a spreadsheet knows that plugging in "zero interest" is exactly a "time machine" in finance; the clock stops on your loan.

I'm not saying every loan. All these bailouts need tailoring. It might require a case-by-case application.

I'm bringing it up because there's a lot of really radical things happening. Just not a proposal that the banks themselves should suffer by a penny, at least not at the hands of government; instead, government should give everybody money so they can hand it on to banks.

Many loans will go bad anyway, and that will hurt the banks too. Honestly, they should be looking at enforced zero-interest proposals as the lesser of two evils.

I suspect they don't want to set the precedent.

That was also my lesser of two radical proposals. Up tomorrow, the "eat the rich" idea.


April 24: Coming Tuesday: The Vietnam War Headline

I knew this headline was coming last night, with the April 23 total coming in well over 49,000. The death rate, for a few days at a time, is predictable enough that I can write the next one, due Monday, or Tuesday: "U.S. Death Toll Surpasses Vietnam War". There are 58,320 names on The Vietnam Memorial Wall. At over 2000 per day, the US will have 52,000 tonight, over 56,000 Sunday night, and "hit the wall" (number) late Monday or early Tuesday.

I wonder if there will be a letter of condolences coming from Ho Chi Minh City, something about sympathy for those killed by American arrogance and ignorance.

Probably not.


April 24: Pandemic == Year Zero?

I somewhat enjoyed a web-broadcast talk between Linda Wood of the National Observer and Noam Chomsky yesterday. Dr. Chomsky was in his usual form, quietly pointing out that bailout money was going to airlines that recently profited by exactly the same amount, and handed it all to their stock owners in buybacks; meanwhile, little guys with little power were being tossed into destitution. Yes, the world is a fallen place, only somewhat improved from the days when Game of Thrones was a documentary, and it needs a lot of major changes to be fair and fully productive. But now?

There's a widespread perception, almost entirely on the left, that this crisis == political opportunity; that the pandemic, by highlighting all the iniquities that were so obvious to Noam Chomsky and his readers already, is the perfect time for major changes. The questions to Chomsky and Wood were almost entirely along that line: what does the New World look like: Green New Deal; universal health care and even income; perhaps a Global World Order, "USA 2.0", etc.

I'm all in favour of a better world, though what I'll be pointing out in future post(s), as with my April 9 post, is that there's no sign of it coming. My question today is whether they are even that great an idea - this year. The pandemic is a huge civilizational stress. But nothing is more stressful, in personal life or at society-scale, than change. Is a time of stress a time to take on more?

There's absolutely an argument for it when a change that gets us through the pandemic. Say, a revised system of unemployment-insurance, combined with actual guaranteed minimum income of some sort, will have to be implemented - and will be seen as more efficient and moral than our current welfare system, so will be kept. The universal health care that has been long, long coming down south will finally get over the top.

The old 1930's strategy of infrastructure building during depression, this time with green energy infrastructure, is certainly time-tested! Imagine how enthused a civil engineer is over the prospect of finally fixing all the damn roads and broken pipes, getting that smart supergrid, and pouring a new terawatt or six of green power into it.

But revolutionary changes not tied to the current problem make me highly suspicious. They smack too much of the French Revolution's "Year One", referenced by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 180 years later as "Year Zero". Both complete societal re-designs ended in madness, mass murder, counter-revolution and war. It's the kind of prospect that turns the most ardent progressive into a literal conservative, wary of more than one change at a time.

Tomorrow, I'm going to toss out a few truly radical ideas - I've been reading SF all my life, after all. Perhaps contemplating those will clarify why there's no visible majority for radical change.


April 23: The Relevant Statistics

A question from a reader the other day set me aback; mostly because, wait, I have readers? Plural? But also, because he asked about whether it was not more relevant to track hospitalizations and ICU crowding levels, rather than merely "cases" that can mean very little...since so many cases have few symptoms. ("Case counts" in Italy, with its old population, means something more dire than in India, where most cases hit people under 35, see below.)

It really hit me, because that's been understood for a long time. Even in local news, we were impressed by Global's Keith Baldry, their legislative reporter, who zeroed in on hospital and ICU numbers as being the only relevant statistic, for him to report. Keith was shrugging at "case counts" and "positive test numbers" back in early March, and advising his fans to watch those ICU admissions. I never did find out where the source data was, because Keith tracked it for me, he was on the job. But where is it for every other health region?

If a local reporter who mostly covers the BC legislative sniping rather than health-and-science, had that nailed right off, why are major national news people still so focused on easy-to-get, but not-very-useful, statistics?

I have found web site that can be used; it just tracks information as a dashboard, does no journalistic interpretation. It proudly notes all the important news sources that cite it. It's covidtracking.com, and it is, alas, only for the States. However, as the States are about to go into "interesting times", for pandemic statistics, this month, it may be the place to visit. Best of all, it not only has 50 of these on the dashboard:

...but you can download these stats for all 50 states into your spreadsheet or other favourite tool. What even this report is missing is the context of available ICU beds or ventilators or whatever resource. It's not hard to add the basic population of each state to your spreadsheet, however, so the relative troubles of each state can be seen...and compared to New York of a week ago, when resources were very stretched.

I'll have to look into the problem, if only to keep my spreadsheet skills up.

Frustrating not to find the equivalent for Canada. CTV news is doing a lovely dashboard, but it's all about the cases, and the ultimate deaths, the other easy-to-get number. Except from care homes with six bodies piled up in the rec room and five in the pottery shop.


April 22: Chloroquine? What's That?

Day two of being able to go to the Fox News web site, hit "CTRL-F" on my browser to search the text on the page, type "chloroquine", and get "zero results". Following a study in Brazil that was terminated when 11 patients died, and then a French study finding more deaths and no benefit, the word simply vanished from their front page. A search on it found a mention in one story the other day, and the basic story from the day before that about the lack of benefits, then silence.

This is not unique to Fox News; all that's really special about them is the sheer speed at which they pull the about-face.

The New York Times and the Washington Post still employ most of the columnists who found the 2002 White House sales pitch for the Iraq War, as believable as Fox found the recent White House sales pitch for chloroquine. That particular quack medication - for the troubles of the Middle East - was enthusiastically pitched as a real game-changer, too. Instead of patience and resources for healing, war would be the quick solution to the lack of civilized behaviour there. Turns out that war, too, actually does less good, and causes more inadvertent deaths, than its enthusiasts mentioned at the start of the treatment.

Unlike the mercifully-quick drug studies, the failure of the war played out over a many years. At first they stuggled to explain how a few tweaks would perfect it. But after about a dozen repetitions of Thomas Friedman's "the next six months are crucial" line, they gradually fell silent on the subject.

And all were hounded from the profession, like doctors who'd peddled a fake medicine would be sanctioned by their professional organization? Hah. No. Journalists don't have one. Or any behaviour in common with professions that do have one.

Now David Frum and George Packer remain among the Atlantic's most-printed writers (just on other subjects), happily kept on by war enthusiast Jeffrey Goldberg. Fred Hiatt, after choosing 27 editorials in favour of the War Treatment for Iraq and only two against, is still picking out op-ed writers for the Post, including Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin, still writing daily - if not about past mistakes, ever.

The Times, of course, uniquely apologized for its credulous coverage. Then it went right back to doing the same thing with the next wars.

So, don't just hate Fox News for promoting a tantalizing solution just because it:
(a) came from a position of high authority,
(b) fit a much-desired narrative of having power over a problem, and
(c) seized upon slender evidence while ignoring red flags.

Hate the others who've done the same, got hundreds of thousands of people killed, and got away with it, because it took longer for their wildly-overoptimistic credulity to be exposed.


April 21: Public and Private Servants

What's the difference between Amazon and a Post Office? The Post Office is there for you. They serve the public trust, have no other agenda. Amazon exists to produce returns on its stock, full stop.

Amazon is pursuing that lately by extending its shutdown in France , where it played hardball when told to only provide essential services. Amazon's claim was that it wasn't sure what those were, and couldn't risk a fine, so, safer to shut down entirely.

Hard to believe. If it made a good-faith effort; communicated its list of proposed essentials back to the law and asked for feedback; and asked for warnings and a chance to comply should there be concerns, was the government really about to fine them? Was a fine really so much more expensive than total shutdown? For a competitor in a free market, the shutdown probably wouldn't make sense.

It's a completely believable move for a near-monopoly, however; assuming that it would be a critial step in the "supply chain" for millions right now, it likely figures that France will just cave - and let them sell anything they want, expose their workers to any risk the Amazon board deems profitable.

Postal services, which are usually the more-affordable shipping option, and most-common resort of the poorer customers, don't have the option to play hardball; they serve the public trust. That's the difference.


April 20: T.I.C. (This is Canada. We're better. (Much))

As Canada scratches its collective head over the baffling mass-murder yesterday, which wiped other news from the page, a topic-focused blog can do what we do, duly note news that others missed about covid. Vancouver had one of those protests about lockdown. It was very reassuring. Out of 2.5 million people in the lower mainland, about 25 showed up, one Canadian in 100,000 ... and were courteously escorted by police.

Also, the complete lack of political-party signs, confederate flags, automatic weapons, and general American stupidity and racism were hugely reassuring. This is Canada. Still.

Yes, my headline may seem off, since we also just duplicated one of America's worst pathologies, the crazed-gunman-who-was-such-a-nice-quiet-guy story. I guess I'm clinging to the fact that for us, it was the worst in history, and the second worst was 30 years ago. So, even there, we're still better. Much. Not that "lack of mass murders" is some competitive sport, any more than my Covid Cup is a real game. It's more of a question being posed: the two nations have so much in common; what makes us so different?

While nobody even noticed the Vancouver protest, it's arguably the larger story. The American protesters may get more people killed than the Nova Scotia gunman - even if they don't succeed! The protests alone may cause enough infections that the second-and-third-order infections from those, will rise into the thousands, and thus kill dozens. That's the magnitude of this pandemic: it just throws all those shooter stories into the shade, measured by body count. The most minor bumps in a pandemic "curve" are bigger than a major shooting.


April 19: T.I.A. (This Is America)

The pandemic has had me recently breaking an effort to improve my mental health, the way it's been making people over-bake and over-eat carbs. I've been following American news a lot. The awful exponential mathematics, applied to their large population and sped along by incompetent response, are piling up eye-popping death rates.

But my very first writing attempt, November 2016, was "Breaking Up With America", about how I had to stop that. For my mental health, I needed to consign that country to the same box we all keep benighted nations like Nigeria or Somalia in, where you can't afford to get upset when you see headlines about ninety dead in a riot over "witches".

While America may have many admirable people, the news from there is just too relentlessly bad, for most of my life, and almost entirely self-inflicted pain. It's just too hard on outsiders to cheer for their good guys, and then see them unable to raise a protest march over war or torture.

Still, interest in America crept up on me recently, until, of course, the news was about Americans demonstrating to get older Americans, like their supposedly-revered war vets, killed. The same war vets noted yesterday, the ones that endured several years of sub-minimum-wage army employment, and food rationing, to save Europeans.

That was the reminder I needed. It's like the much-repeated phrase that became the theme of the film "Blood Diamond", "This is Africa". It's a sigh of resignation that it's foolish to try to fix Africa: the place has too many people taking advantage of anybody who tries to Do Good. Does saving lives require sacrifice? Protest the sacrifice as an Assault on Freedom, for pure political gain.

It's hard to consign news from Michigan into the same place I keep headlines about slaughter in Iraq, or mass graves found in Mexico, but it's the only way to keep my head on straight.

The news in Canada, British Columbia in particular, is diametrically opposed. Despite wide and close contacts with China (six flights a day to/fro YVR), we're one of the best-off places to be right now. It's time to focus on good news; the source of the bad news has no interest in our opinions, and doesn't want any help.


April 18: A Confession of Trolling

I claim I blog to halt my terrible habit of newspaper comments. The old "write a big essay" blogging on the brander.ca main page did not do that, but this write-something-short-every-day approach is working. Mostly.

Today I couldn't help it; locked-down too long reading stupidity in the news, I guess. I saw in the National Post that the writers, tentatively, and the comments-writers, voraciously, were joining in on the "end the lockdown" rhetoric.

Impulsively, I trolled. I have no excuse. Trolling is of course the preparation of deliberately-inflammatory material, just to sit back smirking while the victims cry their outrage. People who lean to extreme right-wing views tend to worship the past; today is always a fallen state - Dad's generation were better people. Today, liberal weenie-ness and sensitivity makes us less strong. It's easy enough to use against them whenever they complain about almost anything. So here's my comment in the National Post column about how Canada should "wish Sweden well" in their experiment with partially open businesses.

We've become very weak sisters compared to the Greatest Generation. My parents talked with feeling about the near-complete loss of civilian production during WW2, the food rationing, the drives for scrap metal. Then there was serving in the Army - five years at 50 cents an hour, came out with zero savings with half his 20s lost. (And no skills, if "Loading trucks" doesn't count.)

All this was to save lives in Europe; Canada could have just stayed out of it, as the USA did for nearly 3 years, making money while the rest of us were spending ourselves broke on war production.

And yet, the 30 years after the war were the most expansive and prosperous of all time, when income inequality dropped and dropped because wages were so good.

The people wanting to just surrender to the virus and say "Kill grandma, kill my wife maybe, just don't take my job" wouldn't have lasted long against the Nazis.

It's a trolling failure, so far. I got two thumbs-up and a "well said", when I'd hoped for 97 thumbs-down and several angry replies. Damn.

Postscript: Failure and "Success"

The C19-related post was an utter trolling failure. I over-did my argument, I guess, no right-wing nutbars took the bait; I ended up with a few more thumbs-up.

But there was success later in the day; skipping the details because that topic was about oil companies robbing the public by leaving it to us to clean up abandoned oil wells, I again set two conservative tropes against each other: oil (pro) vs "people who dodge their commitments and debts and leave the rest of us to pay for them" (anti). This turned out very satisfyingly, for a troll: it was the top of a chain of 47 replies, that quickly wandered into other topics, with everybody insulting each other. Trolls find this entertaining.

I found it awful; it's a sick talent, trolling, like having a talent for a cutting insult that really gets under somebody's skin. Or it's basically the same talent. Maybe doing that will cure me entirely of the National Post comments section, which would be very good for my mental health.


April 17: Canada Place, Five Blocks West, Same Day

A contrast to yesterday's pictures of the Downtown East Side. Just blocks away, where "those people" would probably be hassled by police if they bothered anybody for spare change, the place is properly deserted, when it is normally a throng of tourists and restaurant customers.

The Fairmont Hotel is closed. And a few more blocks west, a nice group of not-desperate people have found a way to enjoy a park that would not make Dr. Bonnie Henry (or cops) frown at them.


It's great to see, but the contrast is so jarring. I'm watching local news a lot lately, and just not seeing the problem acknowledged, much less addressed.

You'd think it would be obvious that the cops should be encouraging the DTES people to spread out the places they hang out in all day - even provide free services for them at Canada Place and parks and nearby blocks where the stores are all closed anyway (normally they'd complain bitterly).

I suspect that they haven't even thought of this idea; it's too much in the DNA to assume those people need to be corralled away from "decent folk" like the nice kids above. The kids would leave if that park filled up with DTES residents, even safely-spaced ones under watchful police eyes. Worse, people who were not so uncomfortable around them might start heading out to new DTES hang-out areas for socializing (and drug purchase) if their situation were made safe and pleasant by police oversight. It's always simplest to just ignore this one problem, always has been.

Except this year.


April 16: A Careful Walk Through Vancouver's Downtown East Side

The Downtown East Side, the DTES, home of Canada's best "poverty porn", where journalists can easily snap photos of human sorrow and pain. I passed through it the other day, hoping the Army/Navy store was still open where I could pick up a few things (nope). Crazily, I checked whether the door in the alley was still open..which involved going down an alley where in the space of 45 seconds I passed one guy sleeping in an alley, another relieving himself on the dumpster across from it, and a third guy behind the next dumpster, just pushing the plunger home on the hypo in his arm. This is pretty normal for half a dozen alleys in the DTES.

But the other thing that caught me was the different social distancing. It wasn't completely absent; there were a few masks, and people did seem to keep an extra half-metre of distance - but nothing like what we should all be doing. The pandemic is going to hit this community hard. Higher risk of transmission, and half of them have an underlying condition.

Hastings street is a busy commercial street just a few blocks away. When you get to this gathering place at a corner beside Gastown, you've hit the DTES.

Just across the street a half-block east is an informal street market.

Various wares spread out on blankets dot the next few blocks up. It's where people sit all day, whether from lack of a house, or because their "house" is a room about 8x10.

And then these last shots are just Hastings street in those longitudes, busy with foot traffic.

(At least this guy has the right attitude.)


I'm not intending to provide more of that poverty porn here, just document that devoting a lot of attention to keeping people spaced at 2m in Stanley Park is probably not the best use of resources. These people have been left to shift for themselves for decades, and we're still doing it. Only this time, their infections are going to come back to haunt the rest of us.

The cops must understand this is a greater problem than strollers on the seawall. But their problem is unchanged: We have nowhere else for them to go. Nobody wants these people spreading out into more space, other neighbourhoods. They've always been concentrated into these few blocks. Yet another thing that never really worked well, exposed as a public health problem for all of us, no longer just a "their problem" for them alone.


April 15: Could We Get Used To This?

A week ago, in a post about "visible statistics" I passed on my brother's credit to Dr. Peter M. Sandman for the observation that if statistics like "smoking killing 300,000 per year in the US" were made visible by happening all in one day in one city, they'd be intolerable. Bruce took a course based on Sandman's work. He offered a corallary that set me back for a few days, but I've got to accept it: these visible statistics become invisible again, become an accepted part of life, if they stop being novel. If another plague came every year and killed a few hundred thousand people, we'd eventually shrug that life has risks and try to get on with it.

Sandman's formula is that "Risk= Hazard + Outrage" ... and "outrage" is a necessarily a temporary emotion.

Modern medicine and especially vaccines have given us such a sense of invulnerability. One American-born friend of mine observed that nobody on the planet feels quite so much invulnerability as Americans, protected by their money, their own continent, and their gigantic military. They actually start wars on purpose, knowing that for them, it's just a TV show, with foreigners doing 99% of the dying. That may relate to why they've shown the most resistance to a lockdown: it's hard for them to believe this risk is real.

We now get outraged at things that previous generations would have shrugged at. A difference we have with the 1918 pandemic is that a fair fraction of our victims, in the age before antibiotics, heart stents, blood pressure medication, and insulin...were already dead of something else; they never made it to 80 to start with. We expect those care-home patients to have those last few years, and are outraged at the loss. As for 40-ish parents of young kids dying of disease, busy doctors in the middle of life, New York Cops, that's just crazy talk. But it used to be more common, and people endured it.

Not everybody today has that sense of invulnerability, that outrage at the very idea their lives are at risk. Those with the roughest lives also tend to risk-taking behaviour, and that includes behaviour that will get them infected. Most of the time, we just shrug and let them have lives of risk, injury, disease and early mortality; but in the age of the Christian Virus, we are pushed by our own self-interest to lower their risk, to lower ours.

Since their lives leave them with little capacity for outrage at a new risk, we have to be outraged on their behalf.

Peter Sandman's excellent paper on "Responding to Community Outrage" is a bit tangential to the current crisis, but relevant, and an excellent read.


April 14: "Never in living memory?" Ahem.

Admittedly, not in my memory, at age 61; true enough, nobody under 65 does remember. My older brothers do, though the younger, just barely. He was four going on five during the terrible polio summer of 1956. The same closed theatres and swimming pools. The terror for parents was great: unlike COVID-19, which barely touches children, polio actually preferred them. It was also called "infantile paralysis"; not that older people (like President FDR, decades earlier) were spared.

My brother wrote me "What I most remember is Shannon next door who was my age and we played together every day - then suddenly she was gone and I wasn't allowed outside. Forget when or why the family moved ... They came back for a visit years later and there she was with this withered leg in an iron brace...And Howard Tilley [father of the family across the alley] in an iron lung for two years, then in a wheelchair for his remaining days."

The mercy that COVID-19 extends to children is a bright spot in 2020, that can perhaps only be appreciated by the generation of polio survivors. It's frankly bizarre to me that polio articles have not been in the news, so few that Bruce's age and up have been irritated by this "Never our living memory" phrase they keep hearing.

The 1956 Polio summer was especially bitter, in a way: the vaccine had been developed in 1955. I just missed the anniversary here on the blog: the day Bruce wrote me was 65 years since the April 12, 1955 announcement that it had been successfully tested. I wouldn't have missed it if a campaign to make it a national holiday had succeeded. Salk gave the patent away for free, campaigned for mandatory vaccination, claimed that public health was a "moral committment". The only problem was distributing it in time, and both Shannon and Mr. Tilley missed being saved by the time that took.

(Off-topic, April 14 is an anniversay: The Titanic went down 108 years ago today. I always notice because I wrote that essay 25 years ago.)

Dr. Salk's free gift to the world should shame every anti-vaxxer, of course, not that we need any more reasons to pity and condemn them. His lack of interest in money should of course also shame any politician working to monetize and indeed monopolize a vaccine for COVID-19.. Bastards.

I'd never thought of a dividing line between my age group and my brothers, less than seven years senior. But everybody born after 1956 is part of a new world, where disease epidemics are not one of a parent's greatest terrors. Infectious diseases do still kill or injure many children, but in nothing like the numbers they used to, before vaccines. They are one of the greatest inventions of all time, and living in their era is a greater privilege than any of our jets, our electronics, our communications. Only those who remember the times when polio stalked the neighbourhood, serial-killing, really appreciate them fully. If COVID-19 brings that appreciation to a new generation, it will have that silver lining, at least.


April 13: Playful Distancing

I'm on my run, and burst out of Stanley Park to the English Bay beach, the bike and pedestrian pathways so much in the news lately when patient photographers capture moments when people are too close together (which they mostly are not).

It's true enough at the moment, though, people mostly several metres apart, but occasionally closer as they pass each other. I circle wide around a couple not keeping to the right, going far left up on the grass; but then there's an oncoming couple and I have to dive right across the pathway at a 45 degree angle, going to the path edge like the last ten centimetres of it was a plank bridging two buildings, and stay just outside their Death Zone.

Then two people are each walking singly, one far right, the other far left; this just leaves a 4-metre gap between them, measured by the diagonal, and I, desperate, accelerate to dash through the thin Safe Zone outside their killer radiation.

Killer radiation?

Hey, anything can be a game if you play it so. Even social distancing. Is there a kid who never jumped from furniture to furniture, "terrified" of a single toe hitting the carpet, because they're playing "The Floor Is Lava".

My runs are more fun now, and safe, because I'm playing my own running game:

People Are Plutonium.


April 12: New Hand-washing Song

Na na na, nah,
Na na na, naaaah,
Coronavirus
Goodbye.

The soap's dissolving
Your oily coating
Without protection
You will die, Die, DIE!

Na na na, nah,
Na na na, naaaah,
Coronavirus
Goodbye.

It actually runs a little long, but nobody will mind. People love singing this song to the Opposition. Mostly, adults don't need this stuff; but I think kids, the bloodthirsty little Fortnight Fans, will love it.


April 12: The China Virus Warning

There's this obvious logical flaw in the complaint that the rest of the world was not kept well-informed by China about the new virus problem.

The complaint, per se, is perfectly correct. They could have warned us in mid-December, they did not until January 21. Simple fact. They were, of course, the first to suffer for it, their denial of reality cost them thousands of lives.

But, hey, you know who had NO warning at all, zip, nada, zero? China!

So, if your country's story with COVID-19 is more depressing than that of Hubei province, you can hardly blame it on lack of warning. Hubei had less.

My "Covid Cup" formulation has nations judged on their casualties per million population. China, like America and Canada, really has separate responses, curves, and stories for each of its federation of provinces. The story there is really just about Hubei province, the only part locked down - so, not 1.2 billion people, really just 58.5 million. Their 3339 deaths come to a score of 57 per million. America just hit 62. (Canada will reach 57 at about 2100 deaths, which we seem doomed to hit in around two weeks.)

We would all have had a month more to prepare if China had been honest. We would also have had another month to prepare if we'd all started working hard on January 22. After all the years of warning, after the Hollywood movie in 2011, there was no excuse not to assume the worst immediately. So divide your complaints between China, and your own government, at least equally.


April 11: The Christian Virus

The hurricane blows, brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
It feels like the world's gonna change
And we'll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be all right
-Springsteen

On Easter weekend, consider the Christian Virus. The Christian Virus crosses degrees of separation; it brings together the rich with the homeless and the prisoners in jail. Wealth is no innoculation before it. Should 80-something billionaires contract it, they will stand before its judgement on an equal footing with beggars. And they could contract it, easily enough.

Your cleaner has a family, who have friends, who have families...that work in a jail. Or a grocery. Or a hospital. Or are homeless. Three degrees of separation is two weeks travel for the Christian Virus.

So suddenly problems for the poor and downtrodden are on the front-burner. They had been discussed at leisure, over decades. Great concerns were always expressed that help might cause moral hazards, and costs of helping the unworthy. Now, there is a Massive Effort to get the Los Angeles homeless into hotels. The country that imprisons more of its population that any other is letting out the ones whose confinement never served much judicial purpose.

There's no actual Christianity in the sudden concern. The virus has simply created new situation where the health and safety of the humblest and the worst among us are necessary to our own, and where the ability of the powerful to insulate themselves from the rest of us is diminished.

The virus is like Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, making human beings care for their fellows, to promote their own welfare. It turns out that threatening us with two weeks of Worst Flu Ever, plus a mere 1% chance of dying, works better than threats of Eternal Damnation. Quite bluntly, the virus is doing Christianity's job better than the religion itself ever did.

Every time something terrible happens, it's generally claimed that it is all part of a Great Plan too large for our tiny human minds to see. Perhaps this time, we're being given a hint.


Good Friday, April 10: America The Exceptional

Before I started putting all my C19 posts in one long file, I did a separate post as The Covid Cup: America Will Finish At Bottom of the Major League.

I wrote that before reviewing my own photographs of Spain, below, that mirror behaviour in Italy, France and Switzerland, not to mention my sight of the Italian Age Pyramid, again below; perhaps these factors will put Italy in the cellar of the "major league". But the USA is certainly looking to take the cake for "dumb, bad response".

The US has long been noted for its exceptionalism. Not just the political kind; I mean the cultural attribute that makes it stand out from all other industrialized nations: its freakishly high income inequality. The image at top left has only one nation labeled, and I've shrunk it sharply, because it only says one thing: for their income level, the United States have the highest income inequality by far. That, alone, would let you predict that their encounter with a health-and-social-coordination challenge will be the worst. That factor predicts nearly every other bad social outcome. There's a whole book full of proof.

The book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, has been out for over ten years, has only been shown to be more-true all that time.

It's ironic, today, that the authors are epidemiologists, were just sorting through statistics for correlations that might be causes - and they found that income inequality correlates with nearly every measure of societal success: health, crime, marriage success, drug consumption, violence, teen pregnancy...you name it, societies with less inequality have better statistics of every kind.

The data drills down internally, too: most likely, the states with the highest income inequality will be the states with the most dead; even the counties and cities.

It's not just during a crisis that it costs lives to ignore the epidemiologists; America has been losing tens of thousands of people to the Grim Reaper, per year, for a long time, and from highly preventable causes. The reasons are many, but they all fall out from the cultural attitudes that make them so sanguine about purchasing prosperity upon the backs of others.

Which leaves me repeating my message from yesterday: COVID is merely highlighting a lot of existing problems that we all, (but America especially), have always studiously ignored. I'd like to think this will see problems like income inequality addressed, but I'm pessimistic. From long practice, we are very, very good at ignoring problems of poverty and race and pollution. America, exceptionally so.


April 9: Of Course, Everything is NOT Different Now

We heard all this "everything is different now" after 9/11. But the USA doubled down on all the things that caused 9/11, if you ask me. If the USA had conducted itself so that it was now loved and respected across the Middle East, man, that would have been different.

Ditto, the financial collapse: responded to in ways that made banks bigger, richer, and income inequality even greater. Revolution was more visibly-brewing then, but it's like the old maxim: people overestimate short-term effects and understimate long-term effects.

If you want proof that "nothing changed" (overnight), look at the end of the Sanders campaign. If COVID-19 had really changed everybody's minds about everything from the overwhelming importance of universal medical care, to regulating Wall St. and assuring basic income supports, then there was still room for everybody to say so by giving Sanders 90% of the vote in Wisconsin, and all the primary votes after that, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and making "Our Revolution" an actual revolution.

Hah. If that were about to happen, we'd have known in 2018, because there wouldn't have been "AOC and The Squad", there would have been 10 AOCs and fifty in that "squad". That would have told you a revolution was at hand. (An entirely legal one involving congressional voting patterns.)

There is probably a revolution brewing, and the near-certainty is that the political outcomes from the pandemic will be so rotten, that they will push that revolution along. The deeper dive, for me, is from history professor Rebecca Spang and her Atlantic article The Revolution is Under Way Already. Real revolution is deep change in the outlook of a whole people, a statistical thing. Gay marriage and cannabis legalization were jokes, until they suddenly weren't, because support crossed the 50% line, with neither sea-change championed by any charismatic leader.

Sanders has been part of a real revolution, which is being pointed out by many pundits: that he was a single-digit-popularity weirdo a few years ago, and now he came that close to power, without taking a penny from the large donors, a unique and unprecedented accomplishment. But he was a symptom of the real change, growing slowly in the people.

The American pandemic response will be terrible, I'm sure. Income inequality will increase, large corporations and banks will become richer and less-accountable, the safety net will not feel safe. This is not just because of the executive, but the congress. The real revolution will be the election of a very different-looking congress. When that giant "Squad" arrives, and the pandemic may finally do it, that'll be the revolution. Not one guy.


April 8: Visible Statistics

COVID-19 continues to highlight all the things we were already doing wrong. From stressed medical systems, to stressed finances for the huge number that were not ready for a $400 expense. Solid statistics have shown for decades that air pollution costs millions of lives around the globe (sound familiar?), except every year. Coal smoke alone was fingered for 100,000, as much as 24,000 in the USA. The stats were solid because death rates "from asthma", from "heart attack", "from COPD" were significantly higher downwind of coal plants, fingering the smoke as an assistant killer.

Now, with a lung-searing disease circling the globe, a past life in polluted air may doom you if you catch it, when your twin raised in the mountains will live.

The 100,000 a year have been invisible statistics: visible to statisticians, but the public just reads the figure in the paper, as here, and it comes without an emotional impact. My brother Bruce said it best, over dinner years ago: "Three hundred thousand people per year die from smoking in America. If they all died on one day in Chicago, smoking would be illegal the next day." (Bruce has just written to tell me to properly attribute it to Peter Sandman.)

COVID-19 does something like that. At first, its just statistics, the invisible kind about increased mortality in nursing homes; then suddenly a thousand people die on one day in New York. (That'll probably be about the end of this week; 731 yesterday, but 779 as I write at noon EDT.)

The invisible statistics tell us not to be surprised to find out that public leaders are actually just as indifferent to the deaths of tens of thousands of their own countrymen, as they shrugged at dead Arabs in their overseas wars. They always were. Harvard estimated that America's lack of universal health insurance cost 45,000 lives per year. Every year. But they died of a hundred different things, and the common factor shortening their odds of making it was unseen. Same withAfrican-American mortality, always there but now highlighted. It's grimly certain that Indigenous Canadian statistics for COVID will also come out.

If COVID-19 has a silver lining, and it probably doesn't, it's that it's visible statistics haul the invisible ones out into the light for another look. But people will probably forget again.


April 7: A Little Corrective to Overdoing The Predictions

There's lots of predictive effort going on right now, and I'm guiltier than most. In all my theorizing about India or the USA, it's important to remember that this problem is sufficiently complex to be another dismal science like economics: frustratingly close to predictable sometimes, but more often surprising because of some factor not accounted for. When you want science, go to New Scientist magazine, it's always had neutral, measured takes on politicized questions like climate.

Two good articles up now: "Estimates of the Death Toll Have Little Meaning" ...and why.

"Why We Still Don't Know What the Mortality Rate Is" ...contrary to my offering many numbers for each age group. I did stress in that post that the data was just from Wuhan, and had major error bars.

There are going to be other factors than age. The New York Times this morning reports that there's clear data that hospitalizations and deaths are clearly more common in areas that had higher levels of particulate pollution. Which would be very bad in many cities in India and China. And the Times and CNN and others have just all spotted that death rates are way higher for some African-American communities.

Neither of which should be surprising, when you think of it. Death rates for African-Americans from everything are higher. And air pollution is, thinking about it, already known to kill tens of thousands of Americans per year, coal alone is blamed for 100,000 deaths per year around the globe.

(Rant about nuclear being safer, has been deleted. After the Chernobyl documentary, I gave up.)


April 6: Demographics is Pandemic Destiny

Continuing with my apparently-ongoing theme of the age-related mortality of COVID-19, it's valuable to understand that this presumably means the demographic profile of a nation will have a huge effect on its sufferings from the pandemic.

Italy is one of the oldest nations on Earth, with a lot of seniors and comparatively few of the young people who have a small fraction of the death-rate . Look at Italy's last month, and then consider India, with 1.3 billion people and the lowest ratio of doctors, almost nobody about to get a ventilator or even oxygen, much greater difficulty "locking down". You'd tend to conclude they are going to lose at least ten million people, probably more.

The tool for showing a country's demographics is called its "age pyramid", a bar chart with the young people at the bottom and the old at the top - narrow at the top because of population growth and because the old have died off on the way up the pyramid.

Traditionally, one puts a bar-chart for the women on the right, men on the left. It shows how more men than women die off at older ages. At left, you can see the baby-boom bulge from 50-65, the Gen-X baby bust from 35-49, and the baby-boom echo from 25-35.

I enjoyed a lecture from David Foot, of "Boom, Bust, and Echo", some years back, that explained the demographics-is-destiny concept. Quebec wasn't taking Alberta's transfer payments because their politics were defective; they were just older, with way more retirees taking money out of Canada Pension, and fewer young people paying in. Alberta and BC were the youngest provinces. His whole book was about how demographic forces like that were mistaken for political triumphs all the time. (California is wealthy because of liberalism AND Texas is doing well because of conservatism? Both are just young.)

For both Italy and India, I didn't see much difference between the female and male halves of the pyramid, so I just picked the female side for India, and the male side, for Italy, and put them side-by-side for comparison.

To COVID-19, India is not a nation of 1.3 billion prospective victims; it only has a few milion people over the age of 80, only some tens of millions over the age of 65. (Remember to double the numbers you count on one side to add in the opposite sex. Also remember the X-scale on the India side is 20X larger.)

It's funny to say "only", because India's population over age 60 - maybe 120 million - is larger than the whole population of most countries - and they seem doomed to lose literally millions of them if they can't successfully lock-down. Even if so, their overall death rate, divided by those 1.3 billion people, will be a fraction of a percent, probably lower than Italy's, for all their lack of medicine.


April 5: Perhaps Italy Has Already Told Us That It's "Underlying Conditions"

I missed this two weeks ago, when Bloomberg reported that 99% of the dead in Italy had those "underlying conditions", indeed, multiple ones in most cases.

I'm glad to bring this up, because it's likely wrong to pick your age out on the log graph I posted below, spot the percentage mortality, and imagine this is your risk if you start getting a fever. The graph probably more reflects the likelyhood of finding somebody with heart, blood pressure, or diabetes problems. If you have few health problems, your risk is probably a fraction of the number on the graph. Only 0.8% of the dead in Italy had zero previous diseases.

Of course, those of less-advanced age, but some health issues, can be more nervous now, so it's not like the news is good or bad; it's just clarifying.

Back to the South, Margaret Renkl at the New York Times says the South is a "perfect storm" because they have the worst health systems, and the most social/political resistance to a lockdown. Also at the NYT, two doctors double-down on the message in The Atlantic, below. They write that America's existing health problems of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure may kill thousands that otherwise might have made it. They don't mention the South, but The Atlantic noted that these are the issues that are worst there.

In a California study of the 2009 influenza pandemic, people with obesity were twice as likely to be hospitalized compared with the state population. Among those who were hospitalized, the risk of dying was significantly increased for people with severe obesity.
If this describes you, the shut-in is your perfect time for a diet, not comfort food.


April 4: Why Are The Old At More Risk? The South May Tell

I graphed how case mortality for COVID-19 increases exponentially with age, with soothing numbers for 20-somethings. But WHY does this happen? We're told that the immune system gets weaker with age. However, it is also weak for the first five years of life, and children are barely touched by c19. So, is it mostly that age brings ever more of those "underlying conditions"? Heartening news for an 80-something with good health! (Bad for a 40-something without it.)

Some argument for this just appeared in The Atlantic this week. The article, "The Coronavirus's Unique Threat to the South", by Vann R. Newkirk II, shows that those "age-related mortality" figures from the South are different from the Wuhan data quoted by The Lancet in my post below. They're even distinctly higher than other US States.

In Louisiana, people ages 40 to 59 account for 22 percent of all deaths. The same age range in Georgia accounts for 17 percent of all deaths. By comparison, the same age group accounts for only about 10 percent of all deaths in Colorado, and 6 percent of all deaths in Washington State.
The article takes dead aim at underlying conditions for the young in those states for the explanation. "Due to high rates of conditions like lung disease and heart disease and obesity, the people living in these states are at risk if they get the virus," says the head of the Kaiser Family Foundation. The article concludes that "These differences are not innate to southerners; they are the result of policy. Health disparities tend to track both race and poverty... Georgia, and Louisiana all spend less than $25 per person on public health a year, compared with $84 per person in New York."

I'll stop dead, right there. I don't want to be accused, by some centrist, of "unseemly gloating" for pointing out, however quietly and soberly, that any high-social-spender was correct, ever, about anything.

I'll focus on the upside. If you're a senior with generally good health, be of good cheer: your slot in the cemetary may be taken by an obese, hard-drinking, 45-year-old smoker.


April 3: A Modest Suggestion to Explain Spain and Italy

As I write, the agonies of Spain and Italy continue into their second month. France may fare little better. There has been some wonder how they got so bad so fast. I've been traveling to Spain every year or three now for 40 years, and I have a few pictures that may be a partial explanation.

I took them about February 23rd of last year, almost exactly 1 year before Spain's first confirmed case, which is to say, probably after there were hundreds of cases in Madrid that were still asymptomatic but spreading. The weather would have been the same this February: pleasant for strolling.

The three pictures are of one of about a dozen large plazas and squares in central Madrid. Most have heard of the Puerta del Sol, the largest of them, four times this size, and the Plaza Mayor, equally big. They are connected by broad, all-pedestrian corridors connecting them, with shopping and sidewalk cafes. Click on those links for far more examples, but these three are views of the same place in different directions.


(These link to larger versions of the photo)

The Metro sign tells me this is the Plaza del Callao, which isn't even on this map, but it's about the size of the Plaza del Carmen, just south of it and at the middle-top of this map. Everything red on this map would be this full of people on a typical Tuesday night in Madrid. Busier on a weekend night. So you need to multiply this area by all the red you see on the map: tens of thousands of people in close contact, for extended periods, every weeknight. Double it on weekends.

A friend tells me that this culture in Italy is called "La passaggiata" and is common in Greece and Switzerland as well. Switzerland has six times the cases and twelve times the deaths of Canada, per million population.


(Map from openstreetmap.org. Conversion of dull grey to a mix of safety-orange and "hot zone" red by GIMP software)

After meeting in these plazas, chatting for a while, they generally repair to very packed bars and restaurants. The whole red area above, the plazas and all the broad pedestrian boulevards that connect them, must have a density of nearly one person per square metre, every evening, for hours.

Madrid for me was the ultimate friendly, sociable city; I've never been to a place with so much street life that is "vibrant" as our urban planners say when they mean "pedestrian traffic". I suspect it caused a rapid early spread. My relatives there are suffering from the lack of socializing; it's a deep part of the culture.


April 2: GOP Resists Torture

In his book, My Life in Court, the great lawsuit lawyer Louis Nizer commented on one of the most-wrong things about courtroom dramas. (I'm unable to find his exact words, sorry).

He noted that courtroom dramas frequently have a scene where a lying witness is confronted with contradictory information that shows up their lie. In drama, the witness is then demolished, breaks down completely and confesses the truth. In Nizer's experience, most resist caving in the way a tortured soldier might keep silent to the very last shred of his strength.

People have marveled at how resistant the GOP and supporters are to truth about COVID-19. Informed by sober experts? Denial. Confronted by the experience of other countries? We're different. Shown that the start of it is happening just as those experts predicted, and the next 14 days can be forecast with the simplest statistics? Maybe it won't happen.

It's difficult to avoid amusement (very dark humour) as we watch them be tortured by the facts, the body-count battering away the armor around their worldview. They've always been able to simply deny before. But it's hard to deny the existence of a pile of bodies, the way you can deny climate science or economics that take years to play out.

They continue to resist, of course, every concession to the facts followed within hours or minutes by some sort of denial, frequently of their own recent words.

There's no way to enjoy this, but I have to admit I see a silver lining.


Telepaths Fail to Warn President In 2017

New York, April 2, 2020
A group of New York Psychics admitted failure yesterday, having attempted to send a message back through time.

"We gathered in a circle to focus our energies", said Psychic Science spokesman George Kreskin yesterday, "and pushed all our psychic powers into a single message sent three years back in time to the mind of the American president. We tried to warn him about the coming of COVID-19, so that he would have time to prepare."

"We did establish mental contact, but the connection was very poor. We finally kept repeating the term 'COVID' over and over; it was our best shot."

"Unfortunately, all that got through to May of 2017 was the garbled term 'COVFEFE'. Damn."


April 1: Apparently, Blue Lives Don't Matter (to the GOP)

Do you think sacrificing a small number of people - say, those over 70 or with breathing or immunological problems - is a fair trade for rescuing "worthier" people and the economy?

People have been shocked to read of multiple prominent Republican politicians, media, and supporters like Lt. Gov Dan Patrick of Texas, advocating that we sacrifice to COVID-19 all the people it wants to eat, rather than sacrifice "the economy".

It's not clear yet how many trillions the "cure" will cost the economy. Certainly, it will cost the rich far more than the poor. When great losses come from war, for instance, they reduce inequality. But like a war, this will also kill people. Some 2.2 million at worst, and maybe 100,000 at best, according to a British study that converted Boris Johnson last March 13th. So there's over 2 million lives to be saved.

Should we all endure some poverty to save them? Some victims are deemed worthier than others. A dead addict in an alley is barely news, but other victims get extra sympathy. While more than a hundred Americans die every day by violence, only a few make the news. The murder of a police officer in the line of duty is one such death. Let’s talk about those very worthy cops.

As of April 1, it's in the news that over 1400 NYPD officers have already tested positive for COVID-19, and three of them have now died. [Postscript,April 20: 30 cops now.] The force skews young, obviously; most are in the 25-50 age range and early retirement is encouraged, so few are over 60. Less than one percent of them will die if COVID-19 is simply let loose to stalk the entire population.

And not all would even be infected. Maybe 30,000 of the 55,000 NYC police would get the bug; half would have no serious symptoms; fewer than 5,000 would have a severe illness; and, because of youth, under half a percent, most likely - maybe only another hundred officers - would leave hospitals in boxes. (More likely 200; but let's be conservative.)

But the GOP were not just advocating the sacrifice of 100 NYPD officers. I am just using them as a microcosm of Americans aged 25-55.

Data from Wuhan,see below, suggested that COVID-19 kills about 1% of people my age (61), making me the "median age" for dying; I have the same chance as the overall population. Above the age of 80, it's more like 5%. For those under 30, it's as low as 0.03%.

But that's nearly 20,000 of the 44 million in America's 15-24 age group? Under a twentieth of a percent of the college crowd, so only 6,000 kids 18-21. How do you ask America's parents to surrender thousands of children to the flames?

There are 130 million other Americans in the NYPD age profile, so one million of those famous "2.2 million" in the British estimate would be in the prime of life. Barely half would be "useless" (for money-making).

Yes, COVID-19 mostly kills old people, especially the ones who could be killed anyway by the flu or even colds. But allowing it free reign will kill so many people that all age groups would die in droves and masses and piles. Of the more than two million dead, a good million would qualify as "worthy victims" by any measure.

April 1: Your Chance of Dying Grows Exponentially with Age

There was a funny fact about the new mortality figures per decade of age published the other day by the Lancet. The researchers found a sharp age efffect on odds of their case dying from COVID-19.

They grouped the patients by decade of age: 20s, 30s, 40s. I have put their figure for each decade against a single point in the middle, age 25, 35, and so on:

AgeCase Mortality
250.03%
350.08%
450.16%
550.60%
651.90%
754.30%
857.80%

The article graphed these numbers, with huge error bars that indicate we shouldn't treat these as especially accurate:

The numbers kind of jumped out at me, and it's amazing to me how these fine scholars could have missed pointing something out that you can see plainly with the same figures in a semi-log graph:

...the odds grow exponentially. My wife is just 8 years younger (53 vs 61) yet my odds of dying are double what hers are. (Triple if I were 65; I'm interpolating down to 1.3% odds at age 61.)

Even if the numbers themselves turn out to be off, the methodology that produced them was consistent for each age group, so the relationship between the data points will be highly consistent: and the dotted "trend line" that is a straight line on the log graph has an "R-squared" factor, a correlation coefficient, of 0.99 - which is statistician for "Not remotely a coincidence". Whatever your odds, they grow exponentially with age.

Exponential relationships are everywhere, or it would be funny for this factoid to surface, just as millions are having exponentials and semi-log plots explained to them so they can understand that the growth rate of dead bodies:

May appear to be hard to predict, but on a semilog plot, that swooping curve is a straight line that's dead easy to extrapolate:

Those 100,000 deaths are obviously just 12 days away, as long as that line remains straight. We have little data to suggest it won't.


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Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2019. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.