Monday Thoughts (yes, the d*mn virus)

I need to post more frequently.

Hope you’re sitting down for this: enshrined in English and American tradition and laws is the idea that it’s not always a good thing to do what the experts tell you to do. This wisdom was hard-earned over centuries, as experts were discovered to be – still sitting down, right? – alas, human beings, subject to all the temptations, all the weaknesses, pride, vanity, greed, and fear that all other people are subject to. Therefore, when really important, life and death decisions come up, we don’t defer to experts.

We call this wisdom ‘the right to trial by a jury of your peers’. We do this, even though there is always a judge and a couple other lawyers, at least, right there in the room, with years of legal training and experience, who know the law far, far better than any of the jurors.

The commoners, the untrained laymen, are made to listen to these experts, certainly, but the decision is ultimately theirs.

Being people, the jurors will sometimes screw up. Being people, so will the judges. But random jurors assembled for a specific job and then dismissed once the job is done are a lot less likely than professional judges to think expertise gives them the right to boss people around.

Perhaps we should generalize this principle a little bit? We could call it representative democracy.

Jury GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

I was sent for comment an article to which I will not link, published 10 days ago, where we little people are told, among other things,

  • Our healthcare system is already collapsing.
  • Countries have two options: either they fight it hard now, or they will suffer a massive epidemic.
  • If they choose the epidemic, hundreds of thousands will die. In some countries, millions.
  • And that might not even eliminate further waves of infections.
  • If we fight hard now, we will curb the deaths.

This piece of blatant propaganda article ends with a call to action:

If you agree with this article and want the US Government to take action, please sign the White House petition to implement a Hammer-and-Dance Suppression strategy.

It begins with an appeal to our herd instincts: all the cool kids are descending into terror, we should, too:

This article follow… with over 40 million views and 30 translations. If you agree with this article, consider signing the corresponding White House petition. Over 30 translations available at the bottom. Running list of endorsements here. Over 10 million views so far.

This masterpiece is suppose to be the work of “normal citizens”:

This article has been the result of a herculean effort by a group of normal citizens working around the clock to find all the relevant research available to structure it into one piece, in case it can help others process all the information that is out there about the coronavirus.

The normal citizen under whose name this work appears has an MBA from Stanford, an engineering degree, and heads up a billion dollar company. Doesn’t everybody? Just your average Joe.

We are presented with a bunch of pretty charts backing up the author’s terrifying claims. These charts are the product of a model. This model. Using this model, the author predicts that around 200 million cases of COVID 19 in the US alone, with around 11M deaths, UNLESS WE TAKE DRASTIC ACTION NOW! While I’m not an epidemiologist nor even a doctor, I am a numbers guy and do know models. So I looked it over, played with the assumptions. Here’s what I found: the model assumes

– that 100% of the US population is susceptible to the virus.  Hmmm – I’ve never heard of an infection to which nobody is immune, even in theory. In practice, we all know people – my wife is one – who get exposed to every bug under the sun (e.g., as a school teacher) and never get sick. So COVID 19 is assumed to be worse, in some sense, than all the other stuff floating around at all times.

– that the CASE fatality rate – 4.5% – is the mortality rate.  This weird, if not dishonest, assumption is also made here, where I go for my only-lightly-cooked data: “*Death Rate = (number of deaths / number of cases) = probability of dying if infected by the virus (%).” This is of course ridiculous, and a freshman-level logic error: your chances of dying if infected by the virus is (number of deaths/number of infected persons). Only in the strictly theoretical case where every single person in the world is tested such that ALL ‘cases’ are known, would the case rate equal the true mortality rate. In the real world, the case rate will be higher, most often much, much higher, than the true mortality rate, as infected people with minor symptoms or no symptoms at all are unlikely to become cases. Such people might vastly outnumber the people who do become cases. There are other problems with this approach as well.

– that each infected person will in turn infect another 2.5 people on average. This is known as the R0 of a disease. Now, if you knew how many people were infected at some point in time, and knew when the first infection took place, you could back into this number more or less. Lacking that basic data, which we do lack, this number is basically pulled out of thin air.

I stopped after doing some what-iffing with just these three assumptions. The percentage of people susceptible and the R0 seem to me to be functions of each other to a large extent. The first acts as a cap to the total number of infections – you’ll never get more than everybody infected – while the second is more of a speed thing when coupled with another variable, the numbers of days an infected person is contagious. Together, these variables determine how many infections will occur.

The model is highly sensitive to the fatality rate and the R0. As R0 approaches 1, the epidemic collapses – the spread is so slow as to be invisible, as each person infected infects only one person before recovering or dying. Similarly, reducing the death rate from the ridiculous 4.5% to a more believable rate of 0.5% (correction – I mistyped .05 instead of 0.5 when first posted. Meant 0.5%) or less, and the number of dead falls rapidly. Do both these things, and the projected US deaths fall under from 11 million to a few hundred thousand. Assume that only a relatively small percentage of people are actually susceptible to the virus – on the Diamond Princess, only 18% of the passengers and crew got the disease, even though they were crammed together on a cruise ship for days – and the ceiling for infection falls. (I initially thought it might be so simple as to reduce the total number of infections by 82%, but that doesn’t sound right on reflection.)

In other words, take extreme numbers as inputs, and the model will dutifully spit bad extreme numbers as output. Use more realistic inputs, get much less panicky outputs.

Yet the article treats the extreme case as gospel, and so makes exactly the sort of dramatic claims using emotional language that is the hallmark of anti-science:

  • Our healthcare system is already collapsing. No, it’s not. “Collapsing” is a scare word. What is happening: hospitals in New York City and a few places in Northern Italy have more COVID 19 patients requiring hospitalization than capacity. Resource allocation problems, while real and a potential tragedy for some patients, is not ‘collapsing’. In a few weeks, the issue will pass, based on what happened in Wuhan (which has your basic totalitarian communist socialized medicine situation. Healthcare is not fungible.)
  • Countries have two options: either they fight it hard now, or they will suffer a massive epidemic. Classic Trolly Car Problem forced binary. First, assume outcomes are known – either A or B (and not C through Z) will, not might, happen; then, install a switch: You get to choose! Between A or B! In reality, Japan and Sweden chose a slightly modified A – and nothing much happened; South Korea chose B-Lite, and nothing much happened. Italy and New York City chose A then B by way of some other letters, and it got bad, although not nearly as bad as the article implies, and it’s already getting better – the trends are down in both those places; peak infections are, if not already past, are anticipated to be so within a week or two.
  • If they choose the epidemic, hundreds of thousands will die. In some countries, millions. Not really. See above.
  • And that might not even eliminate further waves of infections. We have the god-like ability to stop future infections? I understand the logic here, but disagree with how much agency we grant to people versus nature doing what nature does. The article give us much more agency here than prudence would dictate.
  • If we fight hard now, we will curb the deaths. Well, some places fighting hard, after the fashion laid out in the article, such as where I live, and there’s nothing like an epidemic here. Some places, such as Japan, hardly did anything at all, have been infected longer than the US – and have 54 total deaths, in a population of 125M that skews old. Magic? Other places seem to have different experiences all over the board. Maybe it depends on other variables? Maybe this model assumes a homogeneity that doesn’t exist in reality?

Ultimately, models are only as useful as their ability to produce useful predictions. You test models against reality, not the other way around, and – this is the hard part – do not give models much standing until and unless they’ve proven useful. The question with this model, as with any model: has reality backed it up? Are things turning out as predicted?

Pretty much ‘no’. As it is now, it looks likely that total COVID 19 deaths in America may peak not at 11M, not 100K, but more like 10K. Unless all hell breaks loose somewhere here outside the hotspots of NYC/Newark, Washington state, Luisiana and three spots in California, total deaths may not hit even half that.

Nothing like the author’s B scenario took place; his predictions even if we did the full fascist lockdown on the day his article was published was for far more deaths than that.

All this ignores the elephant in the room: COVID 19 doesn’t seem to kill anybody – the death total so far is of all deaths where the deceased has or is even suspected to have the infection, regardless of any other conditions. There are only a handful of cases worldwide where some seemingly healthy person in the prime of life got infected and died without any other underlying ailments. The prudent thing would be to wonder if there wasn’t something else going on even in those unusual cases, rather than assigning all deaths where COVID 19 was involved or suspected as epidemic deaths.

This epidemic is 100% propaganda. All around the world, those in love with centralized control have been suffering setbacks; here was an opportunity to reassert themselves that could not be passed up. Plus, the incoherent babbling of Biden and the criminal activities of his son, among other unpleasantries, have been driven from the ‘news’. Just the way the chips fall, I suppose.

Flu & Religious Arguments

Wrote up a long post on the current Epic Death Flu of Death We’re All Gonna Die!, but decided enough is enough. Go read Briggs, if you want to see what I think, only said better & by a more qualified person; as far as the machinations of our self proclaimed betters to destroy the economy before the next election, and their no-longer-unrequited love of fascism, just so long as it’s *their* fascism, see Severian.

So green! So fresh and inviting!

What I’ll contribute, if you want to call it that, is instead the following observation: the panic is driven entirely by religious arguments, specifically, the sort of arguments used during the Reformation and its ongoing aftermath. Bear with me, this might be helpful.

When an old-school Lutheran, say, such as Luther himself, argued that we are saved by faith alone, he could back up that claim with any number of passages from Paul’s letters saying pretty much exactly that. When confronted with the greater number of passages saying that we will be judged by our works, not only found in James but also in the Gospel parables and elsewhere, our traditional Lutheran explains them away: nothing is allowed to throw any shade on the obvious, clearly-stated dogma of Paul, compared to which – in his mind, at least – these other claims are mere trifles.

His interlocutor will next try to undermine his certainty about Paul’s claims, noting the context: Paul is talking to Jewish converts about the works of Jewish law, and arguing against the position that meticulous observation of those laws, and, in particular, such observation by gentile converts to Christianity, is indispensable to salvation. Faith ‘alone’ – a phrase never uttered by Paul – isn’t what Paul is talking about, but rather the idea that the works required, for example, by the Pharisee’s glosses on Scripture have any value in themselves. As he put it in Titus:

10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain…..  Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.

Titus 1:10-16

It would seem, at least to someone not already committed to the Solas, that there’s a lot of room for interpretation in what Paul says to silence “the circumcision group.” For example, that faith and works, analogously to soul and body, never exist separately except in theoretical analysis. Thus, just as the soul finds its ultimate reality in its expression in the body of which it is the substantial form, faith isn’t fully real and cannot grow without works. It’s both/and, not either or. Or so the argument goes.

But – and here’s the point of all this – no argument will be allowed which does not grant primacy to the (advocate’s understanding of the) favored passages from Paul. They are so *clear* that any failure to acknowledge their perspicuity is nothing other than conclusive evidence of the depravity of anyone making such a denial.

And that’s the end of that argument. Nothing is left but the name calling.

This is not to suggest that there isn’t an argument for Sola Fide, only that the argument as usually presented in my experience, and as presented by Luther himself, is a circular Kafka trap: not accepting it is proof you’re simply too depraved to get it.

Thus, those who think the Kung Flu is like the worst epidemic ever, totally justifying anything the government might want to do so long as it saves even *1* life, are convinced that those of us who want to consider the contrary evidence and, most infuriating of all, refuse to panic, are simply eeeevil, too depraved to see the clear truth. Wuhan and Northern Italy are their Scripture; Japan, Germany, and the Diamond Princess are passages to be explained away, and relying on them proves, dammit, that you are out to get us all killed, ought to be silenced, at the very least.

Two other points:

We see the horror of Trolley Car Problem logic lurking everywhere here. It’s A or B, and A saves millions while B condemns those millions to death. Don’t fall for it! Just as in the original faux reasoning used in the example from which this abomination gets its name, this sort of thinking first forces a universe of options down into only one choice, then insists outcomes are certain when they are all but completely unknown. We don’t know the man in the alley or the people on the tracks won’t see the trolley car coming and simply get out of the way; we don’t know if there is a conductor asleep at the switch who just might wake up if we made a bunch of noise; we don’t know these or a hundred other things which always – ALWAYS – make the outcomes of our decisions UNKNOWABLE.

Everything we do is a more or less educated guess, as far as what, if any, lives will be saved. It’s always a balancing act. Decreased economic activity kills people, too, a notion our Left seems congenitally disinclined to understand, but which is nonetheless completely obvious upon inspection. So, make good decisions, knowing it’s a trade off, seeking some less bad and essentially unknowable outcome that is largely independent of anything we may do.

Finally, people talk as if the government has this giant epidemic mitigation dial they can just turn all the way to ‘0 deaths’ if they want – do enough, and nobody dies; do anything less, and the government (specifically, the President) is now responsible for anyone who dies. Projection, meet hubris, at Daddy Issues junction.

Flash Fiction: Unwanted

“Let’s just do it, man.”

That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.

What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?

We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.

“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”

Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.

But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!

“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.

I was impressed.

“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.

If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.

“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.

“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.

“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.

“Why her? She’s a pain.”

“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”

Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.

The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.

It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.

I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”

“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.

Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”

The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.

“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.

“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”

Pause. “2146. April.”

“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?

“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”

“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”

The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.

Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.

“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.

“What the hell’s a Chevy?”

At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.

“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”

“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”

“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”

“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”

“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”

“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”

Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.

“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”

“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”

Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”

Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”

“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”

“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”

“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”

In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.

We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.

Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.

It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.


Such a cool word. Chesterton uses it in Manalive (1912) to describe the stuff Innocent Smith carries with him in his large yellow Gladstone bag; A. Merritt uses it to refer to all the science gear Dr. Walter T. Goodwin is having lugged across the Himalayas in the Metal Monster (1920). These are the only 2 occasions I can recall ever having seen this lovely word, used by two English masters of the English language writing a century ago. Impedimenta carries both the meaning of the tools essential for a job, and something that weighs one down on a journey.

Edwardian 'Gladstone' Bag in Long-Grain Leather at 1stdibs
Gladstone bag. Not yellow. I want one.

I prefer reading books written in English that are at least 75 years old; 100 is better. While American written English was much better back then as well, late 19th/early 20th century English English is like a dip in a cool stream, bracing and refreshing. Even when I disagree with what the author is saying, the language allows me to think I’m engaged with a civilized, clear mind, someone I could argue with over a pint and leave good fellows well met.

This is, perhaps, an expression of what might be called my intellectual impedimenta, that collection of information and habits that are the tools I lug around with me to do the work of trying to understand things.

I hardly consider myself an expert on politics and history (insofar as those two things can be separated), barely and hesitantly championing any truly political positions, yet, with a small bookcase worth of history and politics under my hat, it seems I’m depressingly far more qualified than 99% of folks. Few if any people are qualified to hold strong political opinions about much of anything. The very idea that we are fit to propose or vote on grand, sweeping programs is absurd. I am well aware that I’m not one of the few if any; about the only sweeping program I’m willing to back is the effort to sweep more things down to a local level, where real people can take action on things we have some chance of understanding.

We are told, on the one hand, that voting is a sacred civic duty; we are even instructed to do something the Founding Fathers never dreamt to impose on us: decide who the parties should run for President, or even what Senators should represent our state. In America, not having the ‘right’ to vote makes one sub-human, or at least sub-adult. Voting has been elevated to the one pure definition of complete personhood.

On the other hand, many if not most of us don’t often, if ever, vote; election days are not even national holidays. We get a voter pamphlet and sample ballot, pre-digested information assembled by people we assume know better than us what’s going on, which few of us study for more than a few minutes. Then we fill out a multiple-choice quiz just like all the tests we took in school. Our ‘leaders’ tell us what the right answers are. Team A or Team B? Chocolate or vanilla? Few could tell you what, in terms of policy or goals, we are voting for, in anything other than content-free platitudes, let alone describe how the mechanisms of politics could achieve the goals. We just know we don’t trust the other team.

(Put the two together: if voting determines our personhood, and voting is a trivial exercise in crowd control that most voting-age people skip at least some of the time, just how valuable is our person in the eyes of the state? How does the value of Homo electoribus compare to the value of a child of God? Who is doing the valuing?)

In Manalive (review soon, I hope) Chesterton has his Irish lawyer Michael Moon argue against a brace of officious doctors in their efforts to have the highly eccentric Innocent Smith dragged before a magistrate and committed:

It is true that there’s too much official and indirect power. Often and often the thing a whole nation can’t settle is just the thing a family could settle. Scores of young criminals have been fined and sent to jail when they ought to have been thrashed and sent to bed. Scores of men, I am sure, have had a lifetime at Hanwell when they only wanted a week at Brighton. 

Chesterton, Manalive

Next: I don’t really know much math, but I do seem to have that math intuition, if that’s what it is, that allows some people to spot unreasonable numbers on inspection: like orders of magnitude off outputs, given the inputs, as we saw with reporters imagining Bloomberg, by spending $500M on his election bid, somehow spent a million dollars per American. Or that medical industry profits could pay for universal health care.

Or that a few thousand people sadly dying out of a Chinese population of more than a billion people means we’re all going to die! I mean, die soon, rather than eventually.

Here’s a little less obvious a case, explained by the admirable Mike Flynn. He presents an elegant example of the problem of very accurate but not perfect testing done over a huge number of people. Basically, small errors, such as false positives only 5% of the time, will mean 50,000 false positives when a million people are tested. If the infection rate is low – and, right now, the infection rate for the dreaded Kung Flu is pretty low – then the number of false positives can be in the same neighborhood as the number of people actually infected. The infection rate will be overstated because it will be confused with the ‘tested positive’ numbers, which include all the false positives. So, mass testing will tend to significantly overstate the number of people infected, even if the accuracy – the sensitivity – of the test is 95%.

And then there are false negatives, too. Mr. Flynn explains it all much better. The real take-away is that numbers need to be understood; measurements are ‘facts’, meaning, ‘things made’ and most definitely do not speak for themselves. One of my favorite examples is butterflies. A few years back, it was reported that a certain butterfly population had fallen some ridiculously accurate percentage, something like 73.6%. Because of this, we were assured we were all doomed unless we committed to Do Something Right Now.

It all begins to fall apart as soon as you ask: how do you count millions of butterflies? One by one? How do you know you didn’t miss a whole bunch? Slightly, but only slightly, more subtle: how do you determine the normal range of butterfly population fluctuations? Unless you can count them, and count them for years and years, through thick and thin, how can you know that it doesn’t just so happens that, some years, there are lots more butterflies than other years?

You don’t need much more than that to start getting more than a little suspicious of an awful lot of what passes for Science! these days.

Links & Weather & SciFi (oh my!)

Yep, no school or economics today. instead:

Item 1: William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, has built an interesting model of viral outbreaks over time, and mapped the coronavirus outbreak against it. Here’s his Update III. Bottom line: recognizing that all statistical analysis is conditional on the quality of the data (among other things) and that some parties (China) might not be telling the exact truth, it looks like this is pretty much a typical viral outbreak, worse than some, not as bad as others.

This analysis is worth the read merely to see how a philosopher/statistician evaluates data. I’m am grateful to another statistician, Mike Flynn, for having made the point that ‘fact’ comes from ‘factorum’ (or whatever the correct Latin form is) and means: a thing made. Facts most definitely do not speak for themselves; rather, they speak for the assumptions and mechanisms used to create them. Trivial example: it is a fact that water boils at 100C – +/- the accuracy of the thermometer and skill of the observer, measured in a traditionally sanctioned manner (at sea level, under normal atmospheric pressure, etc.) PROVIDED the water is sufficiently pure (as determined by conventional measurements of purity) and so on a so forth.

Dr. Briggs brings out some of the less obvious factors forming the facts, here. I’ll belabor one: diagnoses do not equal incidents. Incidents proceed according to their own logic; diagnoses depend on how and how much testing is being done, and on whom, and on the quality (false positive and negatives abound in many tests). Turns out that, until the first diagnosis, the ratio of infections to diagnoses is infinite; then, the ratio, which can never be known (there will always be undiagnosed cases, usually lots of them!) will be thought to be falling – more and more cases are diagnosed, while the number of infections is – who knows? Eventually, unless we’re all going to die of this, the rate new cases are diagnosed will fall, eventually hitting near zero. Of necessity trailing diagnosis, the number of dead will rise and fall as well. Eventually, everyone with the disease will either die or get better. We can then make a guess as to the mortality rate – but will never know it, because the number of people infected will never be known.

Slightly less obvious: a similar pattern will happen every time the infection spreads to a new area: initially, as tests are administered, the number of diagnoses will rocket upward, only to level off and fall over time. This kind of spreading can mask what’s really going on, as falling numbers of cases and deaths in one area are offset by growing numbers of cases in newer outbreak areas.

IF – and no one, least of all me, will know this until this is all over – the coronavirus acts like any other typical flu-type virus, once the weather gets nice, this outbreak will quickly disappear. Sunlight will kill it, people will get out more and thus provide less opportunity for infection in crowded places, and, in general ‘flu season’ will be over.

IF – again, always conditional on assumptions and information – this coronavirus is nothing unique, the whole outbreak should be over in a few months. Caution is always prudent; panic is always an invitation to the unscrupulous to seize more power.

Item 2: The Great Storm of 1605. Turns out climatologists have coined a name for the once every 100-200 year storms that drown California and the West: ARkStorms. (The ‘AR’ stands for Atmospheric River). Cute, huh? I’ve mentioned this here. Thanks again to Mike Flynn, who first mentioned the Great Storm of ’62 and got me interested.

The last ARkstorm was over the winter of 1861-1862, where it rained for 43 straight days, turned the entire Central Valley into a lake, put Sacramento under 10′ of water for months, turned the entire L.A. basin into a big swampy lake, and otherwise wreaked havoc all across the West and down on into Mexico.

Climatologists and geologists have taken ocean bed cores off the California coast, and found these 100-200 year events that laid down far, far more sediment that is typical. The scary part: back in 1605, it seems there was an ARkStorm that put the 1861-62 one to shame – at least 50% larger.

Wow. That would be bad. And we’re due. This year, however, we’re back to drought gloom and doom after 3 years of near-normal to excellent rain and snow, as we’ve only gotten about 30% of season average so far, when we average about 75% by now. Still need around another 10″ of rain to get to average – unlikely. That this kind of weather – a near completely dry February – happens maybe 30% of the time doesn’t seem to register with some people.

Item 3: There was this excellent sci fi story I read once years ago, where a colony on an earth-like planet named Cygnus (I think) experienced an unprecedented storm, which caused havoc in all sorts of interesting and tragic ways. Of course I can’t find it now, I thought the title was something like After the Storm, but that’s a Hemingway story… Anyway, wonder if the author was thinking of the Great Storm of 1862?

Item 4: If I ever get around to writing more fiction, I’ve got to name a character Hacksilver Smith.