Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 26th, 2020

Why Was It So Hard to Raise the Alarm on the Coronavirus?

leave a comment »

David Wallace-Wells has a column well worth reading in New York. It begins:

A bit before midnight on January 20, a Harvard epidemiologist named Eric Feigl-Ding posted a long, terrifying Twitter thread mostly summarizing, and in a few places contextualizing, a new, pre-publication paper on the infectiousness of the novel coronavirus that had, at the time, forced Wuhan into a total lockdown but had not yet been detected outside of China. The context he added was, mostly, alarmism.

“Holy mother of god,” the thread began, “the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!!” That figure referred to what’s called the reproduction number, or “R0,” of a disease: how many people would be infected by a single sick person. “I really hate to be the epidemiologist who has to admit this, but we are potentially faced with … possibly an unchecked pandemic that the world has not seen since the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that level but we now live in the modern world 🌎 with faster ✈️+ 🚞 than 1918. @WHO and @CDCgov needs to declare public health emergency ASAP!”

The thread has since been deleted, though you can still read a preserved version of it here. It was, for many Americans, if not the first time they had heard of coronavirus, perhaps the first time they had seen a global alarm raised over it. And in doing so, it produced what is by now a sort of predictable backlash: other scientists and science journalists taking issue with it, en masse, pointing out that the paper had not yet been published; that Feigl-Ding’s comparison to the infection rate of SARS was inaccurate; that most estimates of the R0 number were now lower than 3.8. Feigl-Ding’s tweets got more readers than those of his critics’. But those credentialed in epidemiology and public health were much more likely to see the criticism as sober and responsible, Feigl-Ding himself as an irresponsible alarmist, and the impulse to raise alarm a deeply reckless one. An Atlantic story about it was headlined “How to Misinform Yourself About the Coronavirus.”

Two months later, we are, inarguably, in the midst of a global pandemic. It took three months for COVID-19 to reach 100,000 confirmed cases globally; ten more days to reach 200,000; just four more to reach 300,000, and three to reach 400,000. And while the “true” R0 number is hard to pin down in the real world, where it reflects social practices and cultural mores (and can be dramatically reduced by social distancing), an authoritative recent report from the Imperial College (the one that alarmed Boris Johnson enough to back off of his “herd immunity” plan and Donald Trump enough to stop dismissing the coronavirus and start using it to sell himself, laughably, as a wartime president) suggested that the R0 value of COVID-19 could be as high as 3.5 — proposing a likely range of 1.5 to 3.5. Other estimates are as high as 4.08 and above. Those estimates are probably too high, at least by modeling the spread of the virus in a world now belatedly awake to it and taking at least some precautions against it. But the same Imperial College report suggested that even with efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus in the U.S., more than a million Americans may die. In just two months, what sounded like hysteria to scolding experts has become conventional wisdom among even cautious epidemiologists. “We’re looking at something that’s catastrophic on a level that we have not seen for an infectious disease since 1918,” Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia professor projecting the spread of the virus, told the New York Times on Friday. Where had I read that before?

There may be particular questions, in other words, about particular data points and comparisons contained in Feigl-Ding’s rushed thread — though it’s worth pointing out that even in the initial thread, he suggested the true R0 might be closer to 2.5, and in subsequent tweets corrected the other points. And the broad message? The purposeful incitement of public alarm? If the question is whether Feigl-Ding was right to be alarmed by what he was reading, whether alarm was an appropriate response to what we knew even then about the infectiousness and lethality of this disease, and whether it was therefore responsible to induce panic in the public, we can say — with the benefit of hindsight, yes, but also definitively — it was. And if the question is whether, on January 20, the world as a whole should have freaked out considerably more about the coronavirus, initiating emergency planning and launching medical preparation on a war footing immediately, the answer, eight weeks later, is blindingly obvious: Yes, of course we should have, and we would all be in a much better, safer, and probably more prosperous place if we had.

Today, the world is almost a controlled experiment in pandemic response, and the returns are already unmistakable: The nations that . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 7:18 pm

Liebig’s law writ large

leave a comment »

Tim Watkins posts in The Consciousness of Sheep:

New deliveries of eggs to British supermarkets are being snapped up as quickly as the shelf stackers can get them onto the shelves.  At the same time, tons of eggs are going off in warehouses which currently hold massive stocks of food.  The unexpected reason for this situation, we learn from the BBC’s Farming Today programme on Wednesday, is that the UK is currently in the grip of an unanticipated egg carton shortage.  The entire of Europe is supplied by just three egg carton manufacturers.  None is based in Britain; and the nearest one – in Denmark – is closed for the next fortnight.  And so we have warehouses full of eggs and queues of shoppers asking for eggs, but no means of connecting the two.

The problem stems from something that has plagued the UK government from the very start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – a combination of a weak state and blind faith in the power of the private sector to respond to crises.  When the original British pandemic plan (allowing the population to be infected in order to develop “herd immunity”) collapsed at the end of February (after models showed that it would result in critical infrastructure being overwhelmed) the UK government attempted to do in weeks what should have been done in months.  Responding to public pressure, government was led inexorably down the road to the current lock-down of all but essential activity; including the closure of all non-food retail, restaurants, hotels and schools.  That this was unplanned is born out in the current confusion about who is and who is not a “key worker,” with the result that public transport was jam packed with commuters on Monday morning despite government orders to stay at home.

Half of the food eaten in Britain in the years before the current SARS-CoV-2 World Tour was consumed outside the home.  In effect, we had two parallel food distribution chains – a wholesale chain for catering industries and a domestic chain for food sold directly to the public.  When the order was given to shut down the schools, restaurants and other wholesale consumers, there was no mechanism in place to divert food supplies from that chain into the domestic chain.  As a result, shortages which had already developed, as the public correctly anticipated the current lockdown, were exacerbated as the 50 percent who usually ate out took to the supermarkets in search of alternatives.  Meanwhile, wholesale food supplies are stuck in warehouses because the packaging used for bulk supply to caterers cannot be used by supermarkets.  An increase in supermarket packaging supplies would help… but, as Farming Today reported, the factory is closed for a fortnight.

A shortage of egg cartons is an example of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which holds that a complex system fails at its weakest point.  There are plenty of chickens laying plenty of eggs, there are plenty of trucks to deliver them and there is more than enough space on the shelves for them.  But the absence of those small cardboard containers is enough to bring the entire system to a halt.  Taken in isolation, this would be a problem hardly worth mentioning.  In normal circumstances, the private sector is indeed far better than a centralised state at rapidly responding.  But these are anything but normal circumstances.  As Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University explains in a BBC interview:

“’It is like a web of stretched rubber bands… ‘if one breaks then it knocks on through the system’.”

The danger for an economy which is currently in a supply and demand freefall worse than anything witnessed in 2008 or 1929 is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 3:51 pm

The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse

leave a comment »

Branko Milanovic, Senior Scholar at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the CUNY Graduate Center and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics, writes in Foreign Affairs:

As of March 2020, the entire world is affected by an evil with which it is incapable of dealing effectively and regarding whose duration no one can make any serious predictions. The economic repercussions of the novel coronavirus pandemic must not be understood as an ordinary problem that macroeconomics can solve or alleviate. Rather, the world could be witnessing a fundamental shift in the very nature of the global economy.

The immediate crisis is one of both supply and demand. Supply is falling because companies are closing down or reducing their workloads to protect workers from contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Lower interest rates can’t make up the shortfall from workers who are not going to work—just as, if a factory were bombed in a war, a lower interest rate would not conjure up lost supply the following day, week, or month.

The supply shock is exacerbated by a decrease in demand due to the fact that people are locked in, and many of the goods and services they used to consume are no longer available. If you shut countries off and stop air traffic, no amount of demand and price management will make people fly. If people are afraid or forbidden to go to restaurants or public events because of the likelihood of getting infected, demand management might at most have a very tiny effect—and not necessarily the most desirable one, from the point of view of public health.

The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency. That movement is not inevitable. If national governments can control or overcome the current crisis within the next six months or a year, the world would likely return to the path of globalization, even if some of the assumptions that undergirded it (for example, very taut production chains with just-in-time deliveries) might have to be revised.

But if the crisis continues, globalization could unravel. The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it, and the continuing fear of another epidemic may motivate calls for national self-sufficiency. In this sense, economic interests and legitimate health worries could dovetail. Even a seemingly small requirement—for instance, that everyone who enters a country needs to present, in addition to a passport and a visa, a health certificate—would constitute an obstacle to the return to the old globalized way, given how many millions of people would normally travel.

That process of unraveling might be, in its essence, similar to the unraveling of the global ecumene that happened with the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire into a multitude of self-sufficient demesnes between the fourth and the sixth centuries. In the resulting economy, . . .

Continue reading.

How fragile is our closely interlinked just-in-time global economy? I think we’re about to find out.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 3:45 pm

The unlisted: how people without an address are stripped of their basic rights

leave a comment »

I really like the Tiny Homes initiative seen in several locales as a means of giving the homeless a residence — and a street address. Examples: in Calgary; in Kansas City; and all over. And those initiative are important. Deirdre Mask writes in the Guardian:

In some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes. Let me give you a moment to think about that. The city council is congress to the mayor’s president. Its 51 members monitor the country’s largest school system and police force, and decide land use for one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Its budget is larger than most states’, its population bigger than all but 11 states. On top of that, New York’s streets have largely been named or numbered since the 19th century, with some street names, such as Stuyvesant and the Bowery, dating from when Manhattan was little more than a Dutch trading station.

And yet, I’ll say it again: in some years, more than 40% of all local laws passed by the New York City council have been street name changes. . .

My street address obsession began when I learned for the first time that most households in the world don’t have street addresses. Addresses, the Universal Postal Union argues, are one of the cheapest ways to lift people out of poverty, facilitating access to credit, voting rights and worldwide markets. But this is not just a problem in the developing world. I learned that even parts of the rural US don’t have street addresses.

West Virginia has tackled a decades-long project to name and number its streets. Until 1991, few people outside of West Virginia’s small cities had any street address at all. Then the state caught Verizon inflating its rates and, as part of an unusual settlement, the company agreed to pay $15m (£12.4m) to, quite literally, put West Virginians on the map.

For generations, people had navigated West Virginia in creative ways. Directions are delivered in paragraphs. Look for the white church, the stone church, the brick church, the old elementary school, the old post office, the old sewing factory, the wide turn, the big mural, the tattoo parlour, the drive-in restaurant, the dumpster painted like a cow, the pickup truck in the middle of the field. But, of course, if you live here, you probably don’t need directions; along the dirt lanes that wind through valleys and dry riverbeds, everyone knows everyone else anyway.

Emergency services have rallied for more formal ways of finding people. Close your eyes and try to explain where your house is without using your address. Now try it again, but this time pretend you’re having a stroke. Paramedics rushed to a house in West Virginia described as having chickens out front, only to see that every house had chickens out front. Along those lanes, I was told, people come out on their porches and wave at strangers, so paramedics couldn’t tell who was being friendly and who was flagging them down. Ron Serino, a firefighter in Northfork (population 429) explained how he would tell frantic callers to listen for the blare of the truck’s siren. A game of hide-and-seek would then wind its way through the serpentine hollows. “Getting hotter?” he would ask over the phone. “Getting closer?”

Many streets in rural West Virginia have rural route numbers assigned by the post office, but those numbers aren’t on any map. As one 911 official has said: “We don’t know where that stuff is at.”

Naming one street is hardly a challenge, but how do you go about naming thousands? When I met him, Nick Keller was the soft-spoken addressing coordinator for McDowell County. His office had initially hired a contractor in Vermont to do the addressing, but that effort collapsed and the company left behind hundreds of yellow slips of paper assigning addresses that Keller couldn’t connect to actual houses. (I heard that West Virginia residents, with coal as their primary livelihood, wouldn’t answer a call from a Vermont area code, fearing environmentalists.)

Many people in West Virginia really didn’t want addresses. Sometimes, they just didn’t like their new street name. (A farmer in neighboring Virginia was enraged after his street was named after the banker who denied his grandfather a loan in the Depression.) But often it’s not the particular name, but the naming itself. Everyone knows everyone else, the protesters said again and again. When a 33-year-old man died of an asthma attack after the ambulance got lost, his mother told the newspaper: “All they had to do was stop and ask somebody where we lived.” (Her directions to outsiders? “Coopers ball field, first road on the left, take a sharp right hand turn up the mountain.”) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes

Human crap

leave a comment »

Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security at Stanford Universityand affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation, the Department of History and the Department of Anthropology, writes in Aeon:

We are turning the world inside-out. Massive mining operations rip into rock, unearthing lithium, coltan and hundreds of other minerals to feed our gargantuan appetite for electronic stuff. Sand dredged from riverbeds and ocean floors becomes concrete; so far, there’s enough to cover the globe in a 2mm-thick shell. Oil sucked up from the seabed powers locomotion and manufacturing, and serves as the chemical base for our plasticised lives. We could easily wrap our concrete replica in plastic wrap.

Inverting the planet is messy. Retrieving all those minerals requires boring through tonnes of what the mining industry refers to as ‘sterile material’ – a revealing term for matter it perceives as purely obstructive, without use, infertile in every way. A typical 14 karat gold chain leaves one tonne of waste rock in South Africa. Obtaining the lithium that fuels cellphones and Teslas means drilling through fragile beds of salt, magnesium and potassium high in the Chilean Andes, producing piles and pools of discarded materials. More than 12,000 oil spills have defiled the Niger Delta. All this and more, so much more, from extraction alone.

Earth-systems scientists portray these processes with hockey-stick curves. Starting in the second half of the 20th century, their disturbing asymptotic graphs show a ‘great acceleration’ in the squandering of planetary materials. Some exponential increases can be measured directly, such as those for carbon dioxide or methane; others require extrapolation, like what’s left behind by dam building or motorised transport. Either way, the result is clear. Materials and molecules discarded in the course of planetary inversion do not disappear – instead, they move around, rising into the atmosphere, spreading out across once-fertile soils, seeping into waterways. We are worlding our waste.

Humans have always produced discards. But discards become waste only if they aren’t metabolised in a meaningful way. Consider the stuff emitted by our bodies on a more or less daily basis: pee and poop. Many societies have thrived by deploying, rather than discarding, human faeces. Pre-industrial Japan monetised excreta; as the historian Susan Hanley writes, in Osaka, ‘the rights to faecal matter … belonged to the owner of the building, whereas the urine belonged to the tenants’. For 4,000 years, China sustained an agricultural system using human stool as fertiliser. In the early 20th century, more than 180 million tonnes of human manure were collected annually in the Far East, according to estimates made in 1911 by the soil scientist F H King – amounting to 450 kilos per person per year, and enriching the soil with more than 1 million tonnes of nitrogen, 376,000 tonnes of potassium and 150,000 tonnes of phosphorus.

Admittedly, King might have overestimated: those figures equate to 1.2 kilos (2.6 pounds) of poop per person per day, which seems like a lot. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dismiss his subsequent comment:

Man [by which King meant white settler American men] is the most extravagant accelerator of waste the world has ever endured. His withering blight has fallen upon every living thing within his reach, himself not excepted; and his besom of destruction in the uncontrolled hands of a generation has swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate …

That was just over 100 years ago. Prophetic? Not really: King drew his conclusions from observations. Better to read this as yet another ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you’ from a scientist.

Yet pooping can be pleasurable as well as practical. The 16th-century French author François Rabelais wrote not just about the gluttonous delights of food ingestion, but also of the ecstasy of its evacuation. Responding to his father’s question about how he stayed clean, the five-year old Gargantua of Rabelais’s fiction offered up a long list of options he’d tried, ranging from neckerchiefs to nettles. None could compare to his top choice, though:

I say and maintain that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers and wipe-breeches, there is none in this world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs … You will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down, and of the temperate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut and the rest of the inwards … even to the regions of the heart and brains … The felicity of the heroes and demigods in the Elysian fields, consisteth [n]either in their AsphodelAmbrosia, or Nectar, but in this: … that they wipe their tails with the necks of a goose.

A startling image, very much of its time. Today, we might take it as an allegory for the relentless pursuit of comfort and pleasure, weirdly resonant with the contemporary affordances of modern middle-class existence. Three-ply ultra-soft toilet paper offers a facsimile of this Rabelaisian downiness, while capitalist infrastructures enable poopers to treat all of it – faeces and wipes alike – as disposable. Just flush it all away. Don’t think about where it goes. No need to wash the goose.

Disposing of dung is historically and culturally contingent. For a time, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Daily life, Environment, Science

Tagged with

Handling groceries and takeout foods safely during the pandemic

with 2 comments

UPDATE: The video below is bogus. See this Twitter thread

For a good video on food-handling safety, watch the one in this post on Serious Eats.  /update

[Video that was in this post has been removed: bogus advice]

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 8:36 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Medical, Video

Tagged with

Phoenix Solstice and the vintage white Bakelite Merkur slant

with 5 comments

I’m having problems with the lighting, as you can see. I’ll get it sorted in time.

In the meantime, Ifeel like a cheering shave was needed, so I returned to Solstice. The Solar Flare seems the appropriate brush to use, and in keeping with the color scheme and the desire for comfort, the white bakelite slant seemed a good choice — and indeed, it did a wonderful job (as it always does). Good lather, fine shave, fragrant aftershave: a good start.

And I have a new post on Meidum, pandemic-related.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2020 at 8:00 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: