Dark Matter & Science

Pictured above: dark matter

I don’t have a dog in this fight, and, besides, the math involved is way over my head. My only observation, worth what you paid for it: this dark matter/dark energy stuff strikes me, with my utterly tenuous and superficial grasp of the issues, as a little deus ex machina-ish: Its only observable property is that it perfectly solves the shortcomings of our theories. But, like virtually all astrophysics, it’s fascinating and completely unimportant. Maybe efforts to understand the issues will result in something pertinent or useful someday. Until then, it’s pretty much a fascinating irrelevancy.

I mention this because of something totally excellent I heard on a YouTube video today, on recent developments in this esoteric kerfuffle. Some researchers came up with some observations which challenge the Dark Matter theory:

“Now apparently the authors spent months checking their work, just to make sure it was robust and would stand up to very intense scrutiny because they knew it was going to get that. They checked it for measurement error and systematic error and statistical errors, but by the end of it they just couldn’t deny what they found. You know, even the most die-hard of dark matter fans could not deny what they found.”

Wow. Actual SCIENCE! You mean, you present EVIDENCE after you’ve checked it and checked it and checked it again BECAUSE YOUR PEERS ARE EXPECTED TO CRITICIZE IT? And submitting to that scrutiny and criticism is the price of admittance? D*mn, that’s beautiful!

Now, could we apply the same standards and behaviors to COVID and Global Warming and gender theory, etc.?

Yeah, dream on.

Writing Update?

Can I talk about my humble writing efforts without bringing in the collapse of Western Civilization? Probably not.

So, been doing work, but not getting enough production – research, writing down backstory and character arcs, thinking through plot points, but not actually writing stuff for other people to read. Trying to not get too worked up over it, because a couple stories and the two (three? Is the White Handled Blade the beginning of a novel? Stay tuned…) sure the heck need some serious thoughtsmithing before the wordsmithing can go anywhere.

I’m going to get 1,000 words down on something before I go to bed tonight. That, I can do.

Been writing out some character details arcs, and, due to the nature of the NTSNBN, some family histories as well. I think some of these people need to kill each other. Seriously, I’m setting up some good guys/bad guys/people in the middle dynamics, but only abstractly so far. My evilest character in particular is, I hope, a little sympathetic, at least to the degree that you get why this person acts the way she does. Not going for the ‘misunderstood’ angle at all, this character is very aware of what she’d doing. But, so far, I haven’t though out exactly how she is going to crush people. It’s a little like: if someone pulls a gun in Act 1, somebody better get shot by Act 3. Yet, at the same time, don’t want to telegraph it too bad – it should be a shock when it happens…

That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking through, multiplied by 100. I want to make these stories good, but I also keep reminding myself that getting them done means accepting some imperfection – good and done beats perfect but never done.

I have this theory that, if I can get the ending to the NTSNBN complete, even just in my head, that everything else will come together. Don’t disabuse me. Part of the thoughsmithing is the realization that I wasn’t thinking big enough – there’s got to 20-25 pages of epic disaster before the denouement or it will seem disproportionate.

I think. Like I’ve done this before? But I have read a lot of books…

Astrophysicist discovers numerous multiple star systems ...

In the middle of writing this, I started wondering: if I want my longship to get anywhere inside hundreds of years, it’s (duh) going to have to go to a nearby system. But, leaving out brown dwarves and other minor objects, all the nearby systems, say, within a couple hundred lightyears, are known to some degree. So, if I say my people go to a nearby system with some easily-identifiable characteristics, I should probably see if there is, in fact, a system passably like the one I describe in our near galactic neighborhood…

…hours and hours later, I’ve now read up on dozens of nearby systems, hoping to find one that will work. You might be amazed at the variety of systems within a few hundred lightyears: single, double, triple, multiple star systems, some doing the dance of death with stars well under 1 AU from each other; others with stars 100+ AUs apart whose orbits take millennia to complete. Red giants, white dwarfs, everything in between…. Yet more pages bookmarked, notes taken, time – wasted?


Anyway, got to find some balance. But at least I’m making something like progress here.

Now, onto business: I’m guessing the right move for me is to a) write under a pen name; and b) set up some sort of account – PayPal? – that’s not so obviously traceable back here. I don’t flatter myself that I’m somehow important enough to bother with, but I do wonder how thorough an automated search for badthink might be, and how I’ve committed a whole boatload of pretty definite badthink over the years, in print, right here. It is impossible to overestimate the petty vindictiveness of our self appointed betters, nor the moral orgasms they get persecuting helpless people.

Better safe than sorry, I suppose, although there’s no way I’m safe if somebody really wanted to go after me. But, as I said, that seems pretty unlikely.

On that topic, I now have four protonmail addresses from people who want to be on my mailing list if this blog gets taken down – Thanks. Again, seems remarkably petty and unlikely given my insignificance, but, well, take a look around. I’ll do a general announcement soon.

If Only We Had Known…

Green: for . Red: Against. Even L.A. was only pink.

In California, for reasons that date back a century, the voters can enact laws and, indeed, amend the state constitution directly through the ballot initiative process. Thus, when a proposition amending the constitution is passed, the state constitution is changed. The proposition becomes ‘constitutional’ – enshrined as part of California’s constitution.

Back in 2008, Californians were given a chance to vote on the idea that marriage is something that can only exist between a man and a woman, at least as far as state law goes. Prop 8, which amended the state’s constitution to that effect, passed by 600,000 votes.

Yet, as a result of a ruling by a carefully selected (gay) judge on a carefully crafted lawsuit, Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional. So, follow the head-exploding logic here: an actual part of the state constitution, put there by a fairly decisive majority of the voters, expressly amending the constitution, is ruled *unconstitutional*. Now, there could be problems with an amendment that require clarification, because, frankly, the initiative process does put some pretty poorly thought out or poorly worded stuff to the vote. A judge could say: this part here is unenforceable as written, so we will suspend enforcement until it is clarified. Or: I will apply this range of interpretations according to what I believe the spirit of the law intended until such time, if any, these particular issues are clarified. Or something that recognizes the law is the law.

What is not rationally possible is to declare the constitution unconstitutional. The will of the people as expressed with their votes, not to mention the thousands of hours invested by citizens to get this law on the ballot and passed, were simply set aside. It was more than a partisan ruling that defied any concept of the rule of law. It was a flex, a show of force and contempt, where our self appointed betters showed us deplorable little people just how much our votes mattered to them.

It hardly stopped there: in 2014, Brendan Eich, who was well-respected enough to get appointed CEO of Mozilla, was forced out due to having committed the heinous crime of having given $1,000 to Prop 8, a cause that won handily, and for supporting Republicans.

That most voters agreed with Eich at the time means: these people would do the same to most voters. And, indeed, when I get together with Catholic dads, one topic that often comes up is the need to keep your opinions to yourself at work while simultaneously tolerating having the ‘correct’ views rammed down your throat.

So, now we are being treated to a similar insult and flex: Congress is attempting to impeach a private citizen. The way it works in law: government officials can be impeached; military people can be tried by military courts; private citizens get tried in courts of law. These are constitutional rights – guaranteeing the right to a trail when we private citizens are accused of breaking the law is just exactly the sort of thing you bother having a constitution *for*.

If only we had known that our elected officials can simply change the Constitution at will, when they really, really feel like it!

The real point here: if Trump were to be accused of treason and given a real trial in the civil courts according to established legal practice, the prosecution would have to produce coherent charges and produce evidence, there would be a discovery period, and his team would get to present evidence and make counterarguments, witness would be called to testify under oath – in public, on the record, with normal people watching.

Can’t have that. We will instead, if sanity doesn’t miraculously prevail, have an utterly illegal show trial, where senators shout down and threaten each other and anybody testifying ‘wrong’, and where rules are changed as needed to get the desired result and prevent any counter-evidence from being presented (not that the media would allow us to see it even if the Senate slipped up and let it get said out loud). All law is suspended so that we little can be kept ‘safe’ and in our place.

We have the spectacle of elected officials blatantly violating the Constitution in order to ‘protect’ ‘us’ from somebody violating the Constitution. Somebody is trying to incite insurrection, but it ain’t the most recent former president. Got to follow through on the Reichstag Fire Capital ‘riots’ to complete the congressional purge so that the federal and state purge can proceed efficiently. Then it’s reeducation for the little people.

Well, miracles do sometimes happen.

Note: “The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression (see above), freedom of the press (riiiight), the right of free association and public assembly (gone since March), and the secrecy of the post and telephone (let me check with Siri about this… Yep, gone).” Wow, we’re ahead of the curve! Already lost almost all that – to the applause of millions. Boy, are we ‘safe’.

We Have Always Believed in American Exceptionalism

Remember when the belief that America was not like other countries, but somehow especially blessed and protected, was a shibboleth that marked one out for culling at the next round up? Only deplorable people would ever believe such a stoopid fantasy….

Well, forget that. Nope, that went down the memory hole. We are now required to believe that, unlike every other country on earth now and throughout history, we are immune to:

  • A State-controlled media. Nope, not in America! Just can’t happen. All media – real media, that is – agrees on all particulars and the general sweep of current events and history that has brought us to this, a dawn of a glorious new era where 6′ 200lbs men will be playing women’s hockey and paper masks both trap billions of deadly virons AND pose no health threat when you handle them and throw them in the trash. Among a million other absurdities obvious truths every right-thinking person believes.
  • Election Fraud. Nope, not here, not even possible! All the most intelligent, enlightened, and moral people (as they themselves will tell you) roll their eyes so hard at this, you just KNOW it’s true! Only a rube, an ignoramus, a bad person, would even dare bring up Huey Long, or the Chicago Outfit, or Billy Bulger, or Tammany Hall, or… Only someone truly evil would point out that same Europe at whose feet we should sit and learn – not only do they have flawless, perfect socialized medicine with no downsides whatsoever, but they gave the Lightbringer a Nobel Prize – require IDs to vote, because, well, they have much more experience than us in….uh, never mind.
  • Propaganda. What? Not here in America! Impossible! We are the land of free and open expression, and, besides, way too intelligent, educated, and moral to fall for that sort of nonsense! it’s like advertising: Only rubes buy anything because it appears in an ad or the product is placed in a movie we like. Only pork rinds and Coke are sold that way, to people living in trailers and missing teeth. The advertisements in the shows and magazines we consume have NO EFFECT. AT. ALL. We can’t be swayed by stories repeated and repeated and repeated until they are part of the background noise. Only an evil person would suggest we enlightened Americans have anything to learn from the German intelligentsia, professional classes, lawyers, judges, journalists – who, by the way, were objectively the best educated, most enlightened and, indeed, most moral people the world had ever seen up to that point- who fell right in line with Goebbels’s propaganda campaign. Not the rubes, not the farmers – the smart people. But we’re different, because we’re told we’re different.
  • Totalitarianism. Well, THAT almost happened until the good, intelligent, moral people, for our safety as determined by them, put a stop to freedom of association, freedom of speech, and fair trials. Can’t have the rubes talking among themselves. It’s not safe to hear out the other side when we already KNOW who’s right. But that’s the opposite of totalitarianism, which can’t happen here. Only an evil, crazy person would point out the parallels with many, indeed, EVERY democracy that fell into totalitarianism, via some mix of reigns of terror, military dictatorship, revolution, counterrevolution, and so on. Because, you idiot, that simply can’t happen here.

America is simply different. We make our own rules. We are beyond history, beyond reality, even – everything that is, is spoken into being by our word. Have I mentioned that we are the most intelligent, most enlightened, most moral people the world has ever seen? We are incapable of being fooled, manipulated, herded! We are just the best! America: History’s Chosen People! But totally not in any religious sense – that’s just stupid.

On a Lighter Note: UPDATE

Taking Sunday off from worrying over the current state of post-Weimar Germany our fine nation, at least until I go to Mass and am forced to assume the face diaper of compliance in order to not get our parish fined out of existence…. Let’s talk writing! Huzzah!

“I knew it!!”

A. Now have 6 short stories finished, as in: not going to edit any more unless at an editor’s instruction. Three are bleh, 1 is OK, and 2 I really like. The two I like add up to over 20K words – half a pulp novel’s worth. One, The White Handled Blade, a modern-day Arthurian YA type story that a couple of the Loyal Readers critiqued for me a couple years ago (Thanks again!), is almost begging to be the first part of a series of stories featuring Lynnette Redlands, a 15-year old American living in Wales in the heartlands of Arthurian lore with her older sister Ness and their father, who teaches at a nearby university on a fellowship. They discover, in the words of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart: It’s all real. Adventures ensue.

I’ve lavished a lot of care on a bunch of characters who I now love, seems a shame not to have them do more stuff. Write three more of these roughly the same size, and I’d have something I never dreamed I’d write in a million years: a YA novel(ish) starring a teenage girl. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting…. (Yes, I mixing movie references. Sue me.)

The approach: take one or more of the (very weird) Welch Arthurian stories, and reimagine them in a modern world (yea, real original idea) where the Roundtable still exists – as a standing committee at a small Welch college. Heck, the last story could be fighting the daemons of Diversity – fell, indeed – as they attack the College! Cliffhanger!!

The problem, here, is that while I’m a fan of Mallory, and enjoyed White’s Once and Future King a lot, I’m hardly some sort of Arthurian geek. This whole YA-based on Arthurian legend stuff seems to be a well-trod and highly worked field. Do I run a risk of violating some sort of canon? Not losing sleep over that. The comforting, if absurd, though: maybe I could be the Raymond Chandler of the genre? You know, the bored and highly educated Englishman, who, being a great writer and all, took detective pulps and made them into literature? Ya know? Humor me. Of course, he’d read a bunch in that genre first…

The other is a little fairytale called Seed Music, set in the same universe as my generations ship novel but a couple centuries after the colonists arrive at the Systems. I’m using fairytale in roughly the same sense C.S. Lewis used it to describe That Hideous Strength.

They’re both highly superverse, if that even needs saying.

Of the 4 remaining short stories fragments, two are fairly far along. I should finish them up, on principle. Then there are two others little more than Ideas with a couple pages of text attached; then there’s another folder and a list containing maybe a dozen ideas or very rough sketches. Plenty to work on.

B. Novels, on the other hand… Percolating in the back of my mind for 2-3 decades now is not exactly a story, but a world. Within this world, I’ve come up with ideas for a number of stories, 2 of which I’ve even written. BUT the big framing story, the who, what, how, and why of the whole thing, is not coming together for me.

I’ve mentioned rabbit holes and the hard science vs handwavium issue. I would like whatever science I throw out there to be plausible enough to not take the 1% of my potential readers who care about such things out of the story.

Which brings us to rocket science. I would really like it if my generations ship could, via acceleration to near-light speed and the resulting time dilation, get my colonists where they’re going before the people who set out as children are all dead. Because reasons. One can play with calculators that do the math: pick a distance, plug in an acceleration factor, and they will spit back how long the trip will take from both the on-board (dilated) and home planet view, and what your top speed will be.

Nice. The one I was playing with today also spits out how much fuel you’d need to accelerate and decelerate a ship of specified mass – you must flip your ship and fire your drive for as long as it took to get up to full speed in order not to simply fly by your target system. The more massive the ship, the more fuel you’ll need – and mass is going to be almost equal to fuel for any near-light speed ship.

If your trip takes 100 years, you’ll be firing your engines for a good portion of 100 years. At least, that’s the assumption. I’m going to play with it, to see how long at a given acceleration to reach a speed where the time dilation is enough to keep my young characters alive long enough to arrive at their destination as old people. That’s what I’m concerned with.

Then: how much fuel do I need, which almost translates to: how massive is my ship? In hydrogen fusion, about 0.008% of the mass is converted to energy; in an antimatter reaction, it’s 100%. So, we’d need some sort of antimatter creation thingy that can crank out a lot of the stuff – or something else.

I spent hours reading up on this. Creating antimatter, turns out, is almost trivial if you happen to have a nice big accelerator, and are happy with unimaginably tiny amounts that, with the proper application of superconducting magnets, you can hang onto for about 0.17 seconds before it annihilates itself by contact with regular matter. So, how about this – spit-balling here – you start with millions of gallons of nuclear salt water and a set of nuclear reactors. Some small portion of your reactors’ power is used to get your nuclear salt water drive going, but most of it is used to power accelerators and anti-matter rifles, let’s call them. How it works: (very well, than you) is that the accelerators are bombarding something – the walls of the hollowed out asteroid in which all this is located? – thereby creating a bit of antimatter. That antimatter is captured by magnetic fields that fire it (thus, antimatter rifles), in its microseconds of existence, into the combustion chamber of the nuclear salt water drive. You then have an antimatter drive: the nuclear salt water fuel is replaced by (much, much more efficient) antimatter annihilation. The mass of the ship itself is consumed as raw material as it is superheated and flung out, equal but opposite wise , in the matter/antimatter annihilation.

Hey, it’s *something*, as in: not just a bunch of handwavium. There’s a tiny spec of science in there! No, really! makes it all better.

And (almost) nobody will care.

C. Grabbed a military sci-fi series for $0.99 off Amazon, written by one of those 20 Novels to $50K people, just to see what it was like. Very much Dent, Lester Dent style, full of sound and fury, with the protagonist in a world of hurt by about page 3, which is about as far as I’ve gotten. While I do love me some stories where stuff done blowed up good, I also love me some Canticle for Leibowitz style storytelling – slow-paced, but full of character development and table-setting. Can’t we all just get along?

Slightly more seriously, the story starts with Our Hero already in a tough spot, and engaging in playful banter with her crew, and getting out of it by blowing the living heck out of some aliens. Like, by paragraph 3. Then, we have some exposition, some by way of telling us what people are doing, some just flat out ‘here’s how it works’ sections. More banter to establish the heroine as a Tough Broad with a sketchy past, who takes no guff and has trouble with authority. Then, disaster #2 – oh, no! How do we get out of this?

Judging by this very short sample, the writing is perfectly workman-like and functional. Dude can write, in other words. And, if I picked up a book expecting Mil-SF action, I’m getting what I paid for. So, there’s that, and that ain’t nothing. There’s probably a bigger audience for it than there would be for the more – introspective? complicated? amateurish? – stuff I like to write.

Basically, setting the obvious disparity of talent and skill aside, on a conscious level, I want to be a blend of Cordwainer Smith, Heinlein (from his non-dirty-old-man period) and maybe Mike Flynn? Capturing wild ideas, adding some action, but allowing room for some love of history and melancholy to occasionally shine through?

The muse, however, goes where she may, and fights against the goad. I’m probably the worst judge of what I’m actually doing.

Finally, need to make sure I don’t let a day go by where I don’t write something new, in addition to whatever rewrites and research I may fell compelled to do. All this is stuff I should have learned 45 years ago. Better late than never. As a friend pointed out, if I start now, by the time I’m 82, I will have been at it for 20 years!

D. The Caboose, our youngest, is trying in this time of (insert lighter description of our current time than any I can come up with), to reach the rank of Eagle Scout. Since the bulk of normal, healthy activities that might otherwise occupy a Scout’s time are banned or severely circumscribed, he’s working on some cooking activities. His troop, which of course can’t meet in real life, are holding virtual ‘Chopped’ style cooking contests.

While as a contest it doesn’t really work – how are you judging food you can’t taste? – as dinner it is excellent. A couple nights ago, our 16 year old prepared a dinner of pork tenderloin roast on a bed of wild rice covered in a savory cranberry sauce, with creamed spinach on the side.

It was really yummy. The cranberry sauce, for which he sautéed onions and herbs, then added and reduced chicken stock & red wine, then added fresh cranberries, was way good, prefect on the pork. The spinach – well, as son pointed out, any recipe that starts with melting a cube of butter its pretty likely to be good.

As the youngest by quite a bit – 6.5 years – he had older siblings cooking around him while he grew up, which, as sometimes happens, seems to have unconsciously disinclined him to cook himself. Now that his siblings are not around much anymore and he’s a little older, he’s following in their cook/foodie footsteps.

And we get to enjoy it.

Slow on the Uptake

Although I receive constant reminders of my profound ignorance of almost everything from this little thing we like to call ‘reality’, nonetheless I’m having a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment. My head keeps spinning with frustration over the level of scientific and historical illiteracy evident everywhere, the level of functional innumeracy, when, obviously, those are mere symptoms. People have been screaming the name of the real problem from the rooftops for centuries. I have even heard it, and acknowledged it. Repeatedly.

Few Americans have have any understanding of science or history, no grasp of what a set of numbers might mean, because few Americans have any grasp of reality. Not merely no grasp on the particulars any one of us receives moment by moment through our senses – although even that is clearly lacking – but no grasp of the general principle that there even is an objective reality that doesn’t care how you feel about it.

Somehow, I keep forgetting this grim fact, and waste my time gathering evidence and shaping arguments, as if evidence and arguments will convince anybody except the tiny fraction of people willing to be convinced – OF ANYTHING.

Memento Mori – not just a good idea. It used to be that death, a very real thing that a) happens to everyone, and b) clearly doesn’t care how you feel about it, put some sort of cap or lid on our fantasies. At the very least, even those convinced of their own immortality would (eventually, gratifyingly) die. Reality got the last word, and, more important here, everybody knew reality got the last word.

Now? Death, where is thy sting? Hiding out in nursing homes, hospices, homeless encampments, third world countries – places YOU don’t have to see it or worry about it. This partly explains the freak-out over the d*mn virus: people refuse to consider exactly WHO is dying of this thing. An easily identifiable population sharing one critical trait: they are already dying of something else. That’s why they’re in nursing homes in the first place. But we are not allowed to consider this factor, instead, on the off chance anybody notices the age distribution, it’s sweet, welcoming grandmas who we are killing if we go maskless, or get together with friends, or open a restaurant, or support the wrong political candidate. Which grandma would that be? The comparatively vigorous grandma out gardening in the yard every day? Or, perhaps, the grandma who been stuck in a nursing home, where she will be lying in bed with soaps on the flat screen, drifting in and out of coherence, unable to take care of even her most basic needs, for the last few months of her life?

Have any of these people ever been to a nursing home?

Without any real experience of death in their lives, except as a horrible wrong thing that we need the government to protect us from, the last real tether to reality has been broken.

As I written before (perhaps ad nauseum), I learned a lot from getting to know a large variety of families from very different backgrounds through the school and church. My own families, while closer and experienced in more detail, don’t work as well, in the fish-describing-water sense. One thing that I noticed many times: the family story. Two examples:

I was once having dinner with this ‘blended’ family. The sisters of the mother to two out of the three children were also there. They were discussing an incident from their childhood where one of them got hurt on a trampoline. At one point, they all became, again, little girls: one of them explained that no one was to blame for the accident, and the other two nodded and spoke in agreement. It was clearly a critical part of the story that they all agree on the explanation of where the blame lay, and that this was not the first time this issue had arisen.

This seems, no doubt, utterly trivial, but you had to be there. These three professional women’s whole demeaners and even voices changed, for the brief moment it took to make sure they all agreed to the story. It was clearly very important to them that they agreed, and had been since the time of the incident. This made me wonder what had actually happened. There’s lots more to this picture, mostly centering around how this family also shared a story about how the damage to the children of divorce could be mitigated if not eliminated if all the adults behaved properly. Reality suggested otherwise, in this case.

Next, a tragically more common experience: there was a family with two mutually exclusive stories, one in which divorce was no big deal, and that the one parent acting as if he’d been betrayed was just being a big baby, and that the kids needed to get over it. The other story was, obviously, that this husband had been blindsided and betrayed by an act of wanton, petty selfishness, an act that damaged his and their children’s lives.

Because the stories were incompatible, the kids were forced by the mother to pick one. If they even acknowledged any validity at all of dad’s story, they were cut out of mom’s life. So siblings start by losing their family, then move on to losing each other as they are forced to pick. The price of acceptance was never contradicting the story.

And on and on – once you see this, you can’t unsee it. This buy-the-story-as-the-price-of-membership shibboleth is EVERYWHERE in human lives. At a very base emotional level, we stupid, crazy, damaged humans need our stories, and even more, need our tribes. To belong to the family, and, by extension, the tribe, there are tales we must accept. Comparing those tales to objective reality is suicide in most cases. So we simply don’t – some abstract notion of truth simply can’t prevail over the immediate, visceral need to belong.

The incessant ad hominem attacks on dissenters is exactly this: if you disagree with the story, you are not a part of the tribe or family – and that is problem! No vitriol or imaginative effort is spared in describing the evil that lurks in the hearts of – take your pick: climate change deniers, Trump voters, people who don’t ‘believe’ (note the word choice) that lockdowns are absolutely necessary and are saving millions of lives. Truth? What is that? We just need to know: are you of our tribe, or not?

At least the Yanomami are upfront about it: if you don’t speak our language, you are not human. But we’re certainly gaining ground on this front. Ah, progress!

Brazil's Highest Mountains: The Lone Guards of the Amazon ...
If only our self-appointed betters would embrace Yanomami fashion sense as well. That would be an improvement.

Scientific Paper Format: Some Stuff to Know

One problem with science for many people is that it’s boring. I find it fascinating, but many people, if they don’t just snooze or walk off, think you’re being a pedant if you want to talk about how, exactly, the scientific sausage is made and what, exactly, can be reasonably concluded from it. Too bad – you want to talk science, you’ve got to talk details and methods, rules and honesty. You have to know how to throw to play baseball, how to knit to knit sweaters, how to speak Swahili to talk to somebody in Swahili. If you want to talk science, but can’t or won’t do the required work, tough. Have the integrity to bow out.

I bow out when the math gets too heavy or the methodology too technical for me to follow. That actually doesn’t happen too often in real life, as the issues are generally earlier in the process. It’s also true that, in popular culture, it is rarely the case that disputes about science are about the validity of advanced probabilistic analysis or the inner workings of a linear accelerator. For example, I haven’t looked at the stochastic aspects of Ferguson’s COVID model, and probably would find them difficult to understand, and so have nothing to say about them in and of themselves. The problem isn’t the fancy math, it’s the use of models as if they provide definitive evidence, and the misuse of the actual evidence by that model.

Sorry about that, just needed to get that off my chest. Onward: Like almost everything I know, I developed an understanding of the structure of scientific papers by – sitting down? – reading scientific papers. Crazy, huh? Goes a little something like this, with plenty of variation:

  • Abstract: quick summary of the question you’re addressing, the methods and data sources you used, and your conclusions.
  • Methods: How you did it. The what, when, how of your approach. More detail on your method, including info on your data sources, and controls used to eliminate or reduce problems.
  • Conclusions: What you learned.
  • Discussion: What does it all mean? More important, this is where you should talk about issues with the study: limitations, possible criticism, places where important things have not been figured out.
  • References: This is where you acknowledge the work of others you used to get your study done. Important from a social perspective; all but meaningless from a scientific perspective. I.e., the evidence does the talking with no regard to the prestige of other studies. But its bad form to fail to acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders you’re standing.

Something like that. Most of the time, my reading stops with the Abstract: from such a summary, you can generally easily tell if the study says what the press are saying it says, and, often, tell whether the researcher has a clue about what he is doing. It is from reading abstracts that I propose my general rule: if you heard about it on the news, it’s wrong, by which I mean that either the reporter misrepresented what the study was claiming, the research itself was hopelessly flawed, or both. The first, that the reporter didn’t understand it, is almost always true.

Here’s a description of a proper scientific study format I just found with 30 seconds of searching:

Title–subject and what aspect of the subject was studied.

Abstract–summary of paper: The main reason for the study, the primary results, the main conclusions

Introduction–why the study was undertaken

Methods and Materials–how the study was undertaken

Results–what was found

Discussion–why these results could be significant (what the reasons might be for the patterns found or not found)

from Colorado State University

So, more or less, what I just described. Problem: an indespensible part is not expressed clearly: “what the reasons might be for the patterns found or not found.” Weak. What you want, instead, is – back to the well – what Feynman describes:

…if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. 

From that 1974 CalTech commencement address again.

With that in mind, let’s look at the Discussion section of the paper referenced yesterday, Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, by Age and Race and Ethnicity — United States, January 26–October 3, 2020, where, ideally, you’d want to ‘discuss’ the issues Feynman brings out. Here is the relevant section:

The findings in this report are subject to at least five limitations. First, the weighting of provisional NVSS mortality data might not fully account for reporting lags, particularly in recent weeks. Estimated numbers of deaths in the most recent weeks are likely underestimated and will increase as more data become available. Second, there is uncertainty associated with the models used to generate the expected numbers of deaths in a given week. A range of values for excess death estimates is provided elsewhere (7), but these ranges might not reflect all of the sources of uncertainty, such as the completeness of provisional data. Third, different methods or models for estimating the expected numbers of deaths might lead to different results. Estimates of the number or percentage of deaths above average levels by race/ethnicity and age reported here might not sum to the total numbers of excess deaths reported elsewhere, which might have been estimated using different methodologies. Fourth, using the average numbers of deaths from past years might underestimate the total expected numbers because of population growth or aging, or because of increasing trends in certain causes such as drug overdose mortality. Finally, estimates of excess deaths attributed to COVID-19 might underestimate the actual number directly attributable to COVID-19, because deaths from other causes might represent misclassified COVID-19–related deaths or deaths indirectly caused by the pandemic. Specifically, deaths from circulatory diseases, Alzheimer disease and dementia, and respiratory diseases have increased in 2020 relative to past years (7), and it is unclear to what extent these represent misclassified COVID-19 deaths or deaths indirectly related to the pandemic (e.g., because of disruptions in health care access or utilization).

Despite these limitations, however, this report demonstrates important trends and demographic patterns in excess deaths that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. These results provide more information about deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic and inform public health messaging and mitigation efforts focused on the prevention of infection and mortality directly or indirectly associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the elimination of health inequities. CDC continues to recommend the use of masks, frequent handwashing, and maintenance of social distancing to prevent COVID-19.†††

(It’s also customary to plead for more money suggest further research is needed at this point in the paper. )

Let’s give them credit: the authors did mention (but not elaborate on the degree to which this is important) that the method used to estimate expected deaths will affect the results (point 3) and that (point 4) their method – averaging weekly deaths over the last 5 years – “might (might?) underestimate the total expected numbers” due to factors that don’t include ignoring the obvious trend over that same 5 year period. But hey, they did in fact mention possible issues in the process of dismissing them without argument.

Notice anything missing here? Hint: the authors lead and conclude with “limitations” that might cause their numbers to be understated, but stop there. Any discussion of how the numbers might be *overstating* the issue, and to what degree? As if no one anywhere has pointed out any possible lacks or flaws in the methods or data sources that might lean against the conclusions? Did they ask anybody? Like, other people in their own organization? These people, for example? Here, from the CDC’s website, is a study titled: Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Just the first thing that came up when I searched “CDC stress study.” Here’s the Summary:

What is already known about this topic?

Communities have faced mental health challenges related to COVID-19–associated morbidity, mortality, and mitigation activities.

What is added by this report?

During June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.

What are the implications for public health practice?

The public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions. Community-level efforts, including health communication strategies, should prioritize young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers.

Ignoring the egregious problems with this second study except to say it’s a classic “I’ve got a hammer – massive intervention in people’s lives in the name of health – so every problem is a nail requiring massive intervention in people’s lives” we simply note: the CDC has for a long time been aware that stress is a health problem which sometimes kills people.

Yet the excess morbidity study doesn’t see fit to mention the possibility that, in addition to COVID, stress is also killing people, nor take the next obvious step and ask: what sort of people is stress likely to kill? And then map that to the data. Nope.

Conclusion: Lysenkoism. The authors can’t even acknowledge the possibility lockdowns (and masks!) might just cause some deaths someplace? That massive increases in stress levels brought about by the mitigations efforts themselves and incessant fear mongering might have some effect? The desired result was known, the study was written to conform to that result, and factors that might steer away from the desired result are simply ignored.

Discussion: I could be wrong. Tell me how.

Math is Sometimes Hard-ish: Tracking Down Some Base COVID Numbers

Readers of this blog possibly recall that, early in this Covidiocy, I, as a numbers/analysis/model builder guy, wanted to see the total number of deaths at the end-of-the-year versus projected deaths, because that way, it would be possible to put a box around the total number of deaths *from* COVID versus deaths attributed to the virus, or, as the CDC puts it, deaths ‘involving’ the virus. One can never, in statistical analyses of any complexity, come to the ‘real’ number in which one has something like certainty – once you’ve got a lot of moving parts, you’ve introduced too much uncertainty. In this case, the CDC will end up with something like 3 million death certificates this year. Each of these certificates will have been filled out by a fallible human being. Most deaths in this and any year involve elderly very sick people with lots of health problems, so that a huge number, I’d guess the vast bulk, of ’causes of death’ involve judgement calls by the doctor or coroner, such that attributing a death to COVID is in many cases inescapably uncertain.

Let me take 2 examples from my own life: my father died of pneumonia. He got it in a nursing home, which he was in due to a series of strokes leading to dementia. The strokes were preceded over the years by a number of hear attacks. He was 88 years old, so, in my last conversation with his doctor, I was told that he was experiencing a general collapse of his systems – he was old, and sick, and his body was simply shutting down.

So, what would a layman say he died of? What does a doctor put on a death cert?

My sister had severe, crippling arthritis for decades. She also spent the first half of her life morbidly obese and smoked. She thinned and stopped smoking in her 40s. She had to take immunosuppressants for her arthritis if she were to do so much as stand up. After decades of this, she developed cancer, which eventually killed her. One’s body’s ability to fight off cancers is severely damaged by years of immunosuppressants, and so cancer is very common among those being treated for severe arthritis. She was 73.

So, what killed her? What goes on the death certificate?

CDC rules, which are designed to facilitate compilation of statistics, require the medical person filling out the death certificate to put something down according to pre-specified categories. ‘Old Age’ isn’t one of the categories. There’s a part 1, which lists whatever the attending physician thinks the immediate causes of death were, and a part 2, which lists contributing causes. As explained here.

The way the CDC collects statistics off death certs is a species of forced ranking, a very dubious statistical practice. ‘Old age’ and ‘I don’t know’ are not categories; the doctor may be stone certain or highly doubtful of the cause of death, but the system records everything as if it is known – both cases come off as certain, once they hit the database: only yes or no answers allowed. Over-certainty is enforced by the very mechanisms used to collect the data.

This is why the CDC numbers list deaths ‘involving’ COVID: if COVID shows up on the death certificate, some guy at the CDC is going to enter that into their systems, and some data analyst is going to query that data, and what he’s going to get is every death where COVID appears on the death cert in either part 1 or 2. So: answering the question ‘how many people died *of* COVID in 2020 is simply not answerable from the available data in any but a very general sense. What we don’t know and cannot reasonably assume includes:

  • Were the rules consistently applied across time and space? Did a doctor in New York in early April, a coroner in Nebraska in June, and a doctor in California in November each apply the rules in the same way? There are reasons to suspect not.
  • Did the rules, and how people understood them, stay the same? Again, rules were changed at least a couple times.
  • Did the doctor correctly characterize the role COVID played in the deceased death? I.e., did the person die *of* Sudden Acute Respiratory distress or complications thereof, or was he simply diagnosed with COVID while dying of something else? Or did – what I think happens, but hey, I can’t be sure – a very sick person catch something very much like the flu that pushed them over the edge?

Note here that I’m assuming no pressure, no panic, just people trying to do a very difficult job.

All this is to say: the upper limit to the number of COVID deaths will be the number of people who died in 2020 above the number of people who would have died anyway. If, say, 2.93 million US deaths were expected in 2020, and 3.03 deaths occurred, then, at most, 100,000 people died of COVID.

More or less. There are some other factors that could affect this, which range, in my expert opinion, from unlikely to far fetched. These other possible factors more or less come down to the following: that the lockdowns and masks or some other factors (e.g., people being extra careful this year about washing their hands) reduced overall deaths from other causes to the point where COVID deaths could be much higher and yet still not push the overall death totals higher.

Offsetting this claim would be the more plausible claim that the stress of lockdowns, job loss, constant abject terror, and deferred or skipped medical treatment due to these other factors would cause a significant number of additional deaths in themselves. These are, I think, the most stressful times since the end of WWII.

Putting it algebraically:

Actual deaths – expected deaths – additional non-COVID deaths + non-COVID deaths prevented by lockdowns, etc. = COVID deaths.

Thus, for example:

  • 3,030,000 actual deaths MINUS
  • 2,930,000 expected deaths MINUS (100,000)
  • 150,000 additional Non-COVID deaths PLUS (-50,000)
  • 100,000 Non-COVID deaths prevented EQUALS (50,000)
  • COVID Deaths

So, in this example, the maximum number of deaths caused by COVID is 50,000.

I stress that the only numbers at all certain here are the total number of 2020 deaths and the projected number of 2020 deaths. While the CDC does in fact keep track of excess deaths by category, so that it is in theory possible to come up with an Additional Non-COVID Deaths number or even lives saved via, for example, reduced traffic fatalities because people drove less, that number will suffer from the same uncertainty as the COVID deaths numbers themselves: they will represent whatever the attending physician or coroner put on the death cert. This uncertainty can be mitigated to some extent, but not eliminated. The number of lives saved from non-COVID death by COVID is even more speculative, to put it generously. We’ll get into this later in the analysis.

The whole point of this exercise is to focus attention on the numbers we do know with some confident, that are less subject to human judgment and error, and acknowledge that other numbers are inescapably uncertain, and will always have a large element of human judgement involved in them.

The next challenge is getting those numbers together. Two should be easy in theory: total 2020 deaths should be available soon; projected 2020 deaths are what we’ll look at now. The other numbers – non-COVID excess deaths and non-COVID lives saved – are going to take some work.

Thanks to reader daledykes who sent me this link, which pointed me to this CDC document, which explains something I’ve long wondered over: how can the UN/WHO projections for 2020 US deaths – .888/100K – be materially different from the CDC’s estimate – .858/100K? As I’ve observed here, the UN estimates looks very much like the projection of existing trends: there’s an obvious upward trend to death rates in the US over the last few years, one would imagine corresponding to an aging population? Or? My attempts to decipher the CDC’s numbers – admittedly, I didn’t spend a ton of time on it – led me to conclude that they were doing some fancy adjusting somewhere, because it wasn’t extrapolating from the trend obvious in the UN data.

And here’s the explanation:

Weekly numbers of deaths by age group (0–24, 25–44, 45–64, 65–74, 75–84, and ≥85 years) and race/ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino [Hispanic], non-Hispanic White [White], non-Hispanic Black or African American [Black], non-Hispanic Asian [Asian], non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native [AI/AN], and other/unknown race/ethnicity, which included non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic multiracial, and unknown) were used to examine the difference between the weekly number of deaths occurring in 2020 and the average number occurring in the same week during 2015–2019. These values were used to calculate an average percentage change in 2020 (i.e., above or below average compared with past years), over the period of analysis, by age group and race and Hispanic ethnicity.

Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, by Age and Race and Ethnicity — United States, January 26–October 3, 2020

Instead of following the obvious trendline, the CDC instead uses an average over the previous 5 years. The difference between the .888/100k and the .858/100k results in a built-in number of excess deaths of just under 100K.

I saw no explanation of this decision. The analysts, who would have been fired from any non-government job for proposing such a nonsensical and unneeded ‘adjustment’ to projected numbers upon which life and death decisions will partly be made, simply choses to use a lower number – the average of the previous 5 years – rather than a higher number – the extrapolation of an obvious trend. Sure, an aging (or not) population, a different mix of subpopulations, or perhaps some other reasonable idea, might cause someone to propose deviating from the trend. I would say – as a freaking EXPERT in this sort of thing – that the uncertainty in any of of these numbers probably dwarfs any possible value in making such adjustments. It’s an estimate. Go simple, so that people looking at your numbers are clear on what you’re doing. Clarity is valuable over the illusion of greater ‘accuracy’ created by geeky adjustments.

Me? I would have used the past 5 years to get an average weekly distribution of deaths, then apply the .888 factor to that distribution, to get estimated weekly projected deaths, then compare actual weekly deaths to those numbers to determine an excess. Esasy-peasy, and CLEAR.

Here’s a graph from the numbers:

CDC uses per 10K, which is why the decimal place shifted. Using OpenDocs spreadsheet, with which I am not familiar. Could have made this pretty in Excel, but the point should be clear.

To be clear: if deaths followed the simple trend obvious from the above data, the CDC would, according to their methodology, record 100K excess deaths. There’s 100K excess deaths built into the calculations.

It’s not just that we now need to reduce any 2020 excess death numbers coming out of the CDC by 100K, it’s that only a fool would trust their analysis of anything after seeing this level of incompetence (to be generous).

Conclusion: I’m going with the UN/trendline numbers going forward.

I’d be happy to hear any critiques of this analysis and methodology. Next, I’ll try to get to the bottom of total 2020 deaths.

ADDENDUM: One other critical piece: what was the population of the US in 2020? I’ve been using 330M. 2020 Census shows 332,601,000. 15 minutes of searching didn’t turn up what number the CDC is using. It should be obvious that since all these death rates are being applied to some base number in order to produce expectations, it would behoove the report to state what that number is. But it doesn’t, unless I missed it. I recall – for what that’s worth – seeing a 326M number during one of my earlier forays into the CDC numbers (I need to start copying down EVERYTHING), but can’t confirm. If the numbers were -not saying they are, just hypothetically here – off by that 6M, that’s off by 6 * 100,000 * 8,880 deaths – 53,280. In other words, we’d be reducing the excess by another 50K. I’ll keep looking.


Note: I have C. S. Lewis’s level of interest and knowledge of day to day politics. Despite having written so much of what might be called political observation, Lewis didn’t know who his own local representatives were. In a like manner, I typically concern myself (for whatever that’s worth) with big picture, long term stuff, but am hardly someone you’d go to for tactical stuff. That said:

I think if Trump can be said to have made a fatal error, it would be underestimating the level of M.A.D. * among our elites. That’s certainly what the rapid, simultaneous folding of so many of his political ‘supporters’ looks like. The swamp creatures were very reluctantly willing to back Trump as long as his presence in office provided some degree of protection from retribution. Their constituents demanded it, so they put on a show.

BUT – if people high enough in the racket started going down, all those public officials further down or one or two levels up from the target suspect all the sudden were guaranteed M.A.D. Imagine someone on Dragon Lady’s team gets caught dead to rights in something seriously illegal, say, selling out to China or having people killed, and manages to avoid getting Epsteined. Even if that guy doesn’t make like a canary, the implications of being associated with him will be bad. (This, BTW, is why control of the FBI is so critical. Crimes are not outed when investigations just don’t happen.)

If this seems far-fetched, look at the career of J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI was set up as a temporary step to deal with the organized crime that flowered under Prohibition. You all get *why* they needed Untouchables? Because so many people, and some important people, and local cops, and local judges, and so on, weren’t about to stop drinking just because some Puritanical Karens had gotten a law passed. It quickly became a religious war: those who thought it was their sacred right to use the force of the state to fix other people’s problems, versus ‘scofflaws.’

Scofflaw Was Created for a Contest

In 1924, a wealthy Massachusetts Prohibitionist named Delcevare King sponsored a contest in which he asked participants to coin an appropriate word to mean “a lawless drinker.” King sought a word that would cast violators of Prohibition laws in a light of shame. Two respondents came up independently with the winning word: scofflaw, formed by combining the verb scoff and the noun law. Henry Dale and Kate Butler, also of Massachusetts, split King’s $200 prize. Improbably, despite some early scoffing from language critics, scofflaw managed to pick up steam in English and expand to a meaning that went beyond its Prohibition roots, referring to one who violates any law, not just laws related to drinking.

From Merriam-Webster:

The FBI needed to keep their investigations secret, because if very many people knew, a scofflaw was likely to be among them. Once you throw in an Al Capone or three, who provides key links in the black market supple chain, makes a lot of money doing it, and doesn’t shy away from using force to protect his interests, you will need Untouchables, men who can’t easily be bribed or blackmailed. Every local cop, every local judge, every mayor, alderman, or civic leader was at least potentially a weak link, a scofflaw who would, at best, thwart your investigation, or, at worst, get you killed.

BUUUT – now you’ve set up a Bureau that conducts secret investigations. What could possibly go wrong? J. Edgar Hoover, founder and until his death in 1972, director of the FBI, liked his position of power. The Oracle Wikipedia states:

Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI,[2] and to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power and was in a position to intimidate and threaten others, including multiple sitting presidents of the United States.

“…in a position to intimidate and threaten others, including multiple sitting presidents of the United States.” Got that? A federal employee used his access to information and a large, sophisticated investigative apparatus set up to be outside the ready review of anybody to, essentially, blackmail *sitting Presidents*. In other words: MAD: he goes down, you go down. That’s how Hoover managed to keep his position until his death; that’s what Trump was up against.

Of course, after Hoover died and all this stuff came out, Congress, at the urging of the President, abolished the FBI, citing the obvious threat to democracy that having a bureau with huge, secret investigative powers inevitably presents.

Ha ha ha, I’d slay me, except I’m already slain, having made the same joke about Fred Roti a couple posts ago. Nope, hearing were held, a little muted outrage was expressed -and the people in power under J. Edgar kept right on keeping on, for the most part, and the FBI continued growing in power to this day. I wonder how they pulled that off? You want a definition and poster boy for what sane people mean by the Deep State? There it is.

In a sense, Biden is their Incitatus .

*n For you youngsters: Mutually Assured Destruction, the strategy (successfully) followed during the Cold War and mocked in Dr. Strangelove, of making sure all the nuclear powers understood that there was no way any one of them could strike hard enough to prevent a counterstrike from destroying them.