Monday 11 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

The seeds of things
Are necessary to support our lives.
By the same token, it is obvious
That all around us noxious particles
Are flying, motes of sickness and of death.

  • Lucretius (50 BCE) — in Rolfe Humphries’s translation.

Who wants to be a Lert?

From the New Yorker


Nice essay by the poet Donald Hall from a 2016 issue of the New Yorker.

At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns…

I’m currently reading A History of Solitude by my friend and former colleague David Vincent. It’s beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I’ve been struggling to find a way to give it the attention it deserves in the midst of the torrent of emails, Zoom conferences and other paraphernalia of the lockdown life. But I’ve now found a solution. A book on solitude needs solitude, so I’m setting aside some time each day, to sit with the book in the garden or somewhere in the house, and without any electronic device within reaching distance.

btw some of the stuff Donald Hall has written for the New Yorker over the years is wonderful. For example, this essay on the poetry of death. And, like me, he loves Peter Porter’s great poem, An Exequy, written after his wife’s death, which was the only poem that consoled me when my beloved Sue died in 2002. Just listen to Ian McEwan reading it at the National Theatre and perhaps you can see why.


Contact-tracing and the NHSx app

Here’s a neat way of conveying a complex idea.

Designing a social-distancing picnic-basket for life after lockdown


Robert Caro writes, and waits, during the Covid-19 outbreak

Lovely AP story about the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, now 84 and hard at work on the fifth and final volume of the five-volume biography.

When asked, inevitably, how soon he will be done with Vol. 5, Caro declines to say directly and give what he calls his standard answer: “It doesn’t matter how long a book takes, what matters is how long a book lasts.” He has received virtually every literary prize, but he savors more private and unexpected tributes, like seeing a young person carrying a copy of one of his books. He then speaks of a recent letter, sent to his literary agent by the fiancee of a judge dying of cancer, that compelled him to respond.

“The fiancee wrote this beautiful letter, saying that my books meant a great deal to him, and that a letter would mean a lot to him,” Caro says. “So I spent a couple of hours composing a letter. I try to answer handwritten letters and I’ve been getting more of them since the pandemic. I used to get mostly emails. Handwritten letters had almost stopped.”

Quarantine diary — Day 51


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Wednesday 29 April, 2020

Quote of the Day

”The best test of a person’s intelligence is their capacity for making a summary”

  • Lytton Strachey

Understanding the virus

It’s a very complicated and (still) poorly-understood organism. The Atlantic has published this really helpful explainer. Sample:

Since the pandemic began, scientists have published more than 7,500 papers on COVID-19. But despite this deluge, “we haven’t seen a lot of huge plot twists,” says Carl Bergstrom, an epidemiologist and a sociologist of science at the University of Washington. The most important, he says, was the realization that people can spread the virus before showing symptoms. But even that insight was slow to dawn. A flawed German study hinted at it in early February, but scientific opinion shifted only after many lines of evidence emerged, including case reports, models showing that most infections are undocumented, and studies indicating that viral levels peak as symptoms appear.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

For example, Stanford University researchers recently made headlines after testing 3,330 volunteers from Santa Clara County for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The team concluded that 2.5 to 4.2 percent of people have already been infected—a proportion much higher than the official count suggests. This, the authors claimed, means that the virus is less deadly than suspected, and that severe lockdowns may be overreactions—views they had previously espoused in opinion pieces. But other scientists, including statisticians, virologists, and disease ecologists, have criticized the study’s methods and the team’s conclusions.

One could write a long piece assessing the Santa Clara study alone, but that would defeat the point: that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19. About 30 similar “serosurveys” have now been released. These and others to come could collectively reveal how many Americans have been infected. Even then, they would have to be weighed against other evidence, including accounts from doctors and nurses in New York or Lombardy, Italy, which clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 can crush health-care systems. The precise magnitude of the virus’s fatality rate is a matter of academic debate. The reality of what it can do to hospitals is not.

It’s a long read, but worth it.

Thanks to Seb Schmoller for spotting it.

En passant. There’s been a torrent of research papers on the virus since the crisis broke. Some of this is making it way through the peer-review vetting process of traditional scientific journals. But an awful lot of it is winding up on so-called ‘preprint’ servers, where (more or less) anyone can publish anything that bears a superficial resemblance to ‘scientific’ or scholarly work. These preprint archives have their uses, and peer-reviewing isn’t perfect. But when mainstream media sees an unreviewed preprint and then draws sensational conclusions from it, then that only makes things worse.

Julie Pfeiffer of UT Southwestern, who is an editor at the Journal of Virology, says that she and her colleagues have been flooded with submitted papers, most of which are so obviously poor that they haven’t even been sent out for review. “They shouldn’t be published anywhere,” she says, “and then they end up [on a preprint site].” Some come from nonscientists who have cobbled together a poor mathematical model; others come from actual virologists who have suddenly pivoted to studying coronaviruses and “are submitting work they never normally would in a rush to be first,” Pfeiffer says. “Some people are genuinely trying to help, but there’s also a huge amount of opportunism.”

From Private Lives to Public Memory

Absorbing conversation on Lapham’s Quarterly about the 1918 flu pandemic with the historian Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds Of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

It’s fascinating for all kinds of reasons, of which the first is that 1918 was the last time that the US and Europe went through something akin to our current crisis. Lots of differences, of course, but also similarities. For example:

In general, the common pattern was a lot of community commitment, and folks nationwide stepped up to do the right thing. You hear stories of schoolteachers whose school districts were closed down and were asked to serve as volunteer nurses instead. In an email from a colleague this week, I learned the story of schoolteacher who spent the pandemic holding the hands of the dying in an emergency ward. And that kind of story is not unusual. People formed soup kitchens, they helped in the emergency hospitals, they delivered food, they ran temporary orphanages to take care of children whose parents were ill. So again and again you see people doing really heroic things to help one another. And this is an era in which, because they can’t identify the virus, and they don’t really have the same kind of understanding of personal protective equipment we do now, those who offered that kind of help were often putting their own lives at risk. Across the country you see examples of communities really stepping up and of individuals stepping up to be their best selves, of being what Rebecca Solnit describes as part of “a paradise built in hell”: this idea that we can be our best selves in the midst of a catastrophe and that that’s actually a common reaction for human beings. You see that a great deal in 1918.

The private and public lives of Albert Einstein

Lovely review article in the TLS by P.D. Smith of five books about Einstein’s life, relationships and experiences. Includes lots I hadn’t known. Including this:

On September 9, 1933, something spooked Einstein, who was by then living in exile in Belgium. Apparently fearing for his life, he travelled alone to England at short notice. Einstein turned to Oliver Locker-Lampson, whom he had met on an earlier visit, for protection. A Conservative Member of Parliament and decorated former soldier, Locker-Lampson was “an impulsive romantic” and, according to Robinson, Einstein clearly liked the “commander’s can-do, gung-ho personality”.

Locker-Lampson took Einstein to his thatched holiday hut in Norfolk. In what sounds like an episode of Dad’s Army, he armed locals with shotguns to protect Einstein from Nazi assassins. Einstein used the “admirable solitude” of the countryside to continue working on his unified field theory, a project which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The sculptor Jacob Epstein came to model him and recalled his “wild hair floating in the wind”, like “the ageing Rembrandt”. His wonderful bronze bust of the scientist is in the Tate Gallery.

Dominic Cummings: the plot thickens

From this morning’s Politico London newsletter:

Lockdown story of the morning: Irresistible scoop from Bloomberg News’ Alex Morales, who reports that Dominic Cummings did indeed heavily influence the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers at a crucial meeting last month. Morales speaks to two sources who say Cummings “played far more than a bystander’s role at a crucial SAGE meeting on March 18,” five days before Britain went into lockdown. Yikes. Guardian readers will be frothing at the mouth to learn that Cummings checks notes “asked why a lockdown was not being imposed sooner, swayed the discussion toward faster action, and made clear he thought pubs and restaurants should be closed within two days.” Oh.

OK, OK: It will of course concern an awful lot of people if an unelected history graduate with zero science expertise is swaying our most eminent scientists on their crucial advice to the government. Downing Street has repeatedly denied Cummings in any way influenced the committee, and this was backed up on the record at the weekend by one of its members, Professor Neil Ferguson. We may never know for sure, but certainly Cummings’ position as described should not come as a surprise — the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported last month that Cummings swung heavily and forcefully behind a strict lockdown once scientists modeled the vast loss of life associated with the initial ‘herd immunity’ plan.

Quarantine diary — Day 39


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Bill Gates on the coming pandemic

Excellent article by him in the New England Journal of Medicine. Sample:

In any crisis, leaders have two equally important responsibilities: solve the immediate problem and keep it from happening again. The Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. We need to save lives now while also improving the way we respond to outbreaks in general. The first point is more pressing, but the second has crucial long-term consequences.

The long-term challenge — improving our ability to respond to outbreaks — isn’t new. Global health experts have been saying for years that another pandemic whose speed and severity rivaled those of the 1918 influenza epidemic was a matter not of if but of when. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed substantial resources in recent years to helping the world prepare for such a scenario.

Now we also face an immediate crisis. In the past week, Covid-19 has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about. I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise.

There are two reasons that Covid-19 is such a threat. First, it can kill healthy adults in addition to elderly people with existing health problems. The data so far suggest that the virus has a case fatality risk around 1%; this rate would make it many times more severe than typical seasonal influenza, putting it somewhere between the 1957 influenza pandemic (0.6%) and the 1918 influenza pandemic (2%).

Second, Covid-19 is transmitted quite efficiently. The average infected person spreads the disease to two or three others — an exponential rate of increase. There is also strong evidence that it can be transmitted by people who are just mildly ill or even presymptomatic.3 That means Covid-19 will be much harder to contain than the Middle East respiratory syndrome or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which were spread much less efficiently and only by symptomatic people. In fact, Covid-19 has already caused 10 times as many cases as SARS in a quarter of the time.

Note the “once-in-a-century pathogen” point.

Smoke signals and COVID-19

In a terrific blog post Jacob Falkovich cites a famous psychology experiment:

Most people sitting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other people in the room seem unperturbed, almost everyone will stay put. That is the result of a famous experiment from the 1960s and its replications — people will sit and nervously look around at their peers for 20 minutes even as the thick smoke starts obscuring their vision.

He then goes on to show how this human frailty might explain why the general public (as distinct from epidemiologists) was so slow to appreciate the risk from the virus.

The coronavirus was identified on January 7th and spread outside China by January 13th. American media ran some stories about how you should worry about the seasonal flu instead. The markets didn’t budge. Rationalist Twitter started tweeting excitedly about R0 and supply chains.

Over the next two weeks Chinese COVID cases kept climbing at 60%/day reaching 17,000 by February 2nd. Cases were confirmed in Europe and the US. The WHO declared a global emergency. The former FDA commissioner explained why a law technicality made it illegal for US hospitals to test people for coronavirus, implying that we have no actual idea how many Americans have contracted the disease. Everyone mostly ignored him including all major media publications, and equity markets hit an all time high. By this point several Rationalists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere started seriously prepping for a pandemic and canceling large gatherings.

On February 13th, Vox published a story mocking people in Silicon Valley for worrying about COVID-19. The article contained multiple factual mistakes about the virus and the opinions of public health experts.

On the 17th, Eliezer asked how markets should react to an obvious looming pandemic. Most people agreed that the markets should freak out and aren’t. Most people decided to trust the markets over their own judgment. As an avowed efficient marketeer who hasn’t made an active stock trade in a decade, I stared at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buying respirators and beans.

By the 21st, the pandemic and its concomitant fears hit everywhere from Iran to Italy while in the US thousands of people were asked to self-quarantine. Most elected officials in the US seemed utterly unaware that anything was happening. CNN ran a front page story about the real enemies being racism and the seasonal flu.

This week the spell began to lift at last. The stock market tumbled 7%. WaPo squeezed out one more story about racism before confirming that the virus is spreading among Americans with no links to Wuhan and that’s scary. Trump decided to throw his vice president under the coronavirus bus, finally admitting that it’s a thing that the government is aware of.

And Rationalist Twitter asked: what the fuck is wrong with everyone who is not on Rationalist Twitter?

Great post. It’s also about public understanding (or lack thereof) and journalistic (in)capacity.