Twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore

April 9th, 2020

Had he been asked in late 2019 what would eventually break American global dominance, Razib Khan would have said the rise of China:

My thinking, pre-pandemic, was that the psychic shock of America’s eventual demotion might trigger cultural and political turmoil, as the nation would find itself forced into a reckoning. Then came 2020. The true shock to our civilization has come not from our own self-image but from nature itself. Western elites were clearly not prepared for this turn, a shattering of our conceit that reality is ours to create. In the U.S., bickering about an appropriate official name for Covid-19, along with a sequence of bureaucratic blunders that led to dire shortages of diagnostic testing and medical gear, highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. In a strange turn of events, twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore, absorbed in intricate intrigues at court to advance their careers while European gunboats prowl the waterways.

The politicians who govern us and the media who tell us how the world “really is” acted as if the basics of economic well-being would be an everlasting bounty. Economists, those apex predators of social science, marshaled the evidence for efficiencies and gains in productivity due to trade and international supply chains. “Just in time” inventories reduced waste and made modern retail a lean, mean prosperity machine. Plentitude wasn’t some miracle achieved through hard work and focused attention; it was our birthright, a steady-state condition of the universe that we inhabited. A global pandemic wasted no time in making a mockery of many of these late twentieth-century assumptions. All our efficiencies melted away in the face of a man-made depression. Perhaps the world was never what we presumed it to be.

In January, empirical evidence from Wuhan should have caused alarm for anyone who bothered to look closely. Epidemiological frameworks are some of the most well understood theoretical systems in population biology, so the high average number of secondary cases was immediately worrisome to scientists, statisticians, and physicians. The WHO, the CDC, and independent observers hoped that Covid-19 would be slowed by the same factors that slowed and contained SARS and MERS in the past, but there was no guarantee. By late January, a small but vocal group of epidemiologists and infectious-disease specialists, along with an eclectic array of Silicon Valley figures, had begun raising the alarm. But these worries failed to gain broader traction in the U.S. media and political landscape for much of February. The media seemed more anxious about the possibility of anti-Asian racism than the threat of a deadly pandemic.

Scenes that played out in Wuhan were repeated with eerily specific similarity in Lombardy in March, and then in New York shortly thereafter. Despite the reality that we live in a world where China’s economic and geopolitical heft looms large, American elites, nursing a twentieth-century hangover, haven’t updated their understanding of the world. China may be remote, alien, and exotic, but it was too easy to dismiss the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan as sui generis. In a global age, we have become too parochial as a nation, held captive by our own particular history.

Too many of our elites lack the most basic analytical tools to understand the threats that we face from nature.

[...]

Now Covid-19 has thrust the untamed physical world back into our line of vision. It has brought post-materialist, twenty-first-century humanity face to face with one of the species’ deepest and most atavistic fears: pestilence and plague. The disease will not be defined away. It is not a social construction or interpretation. It is immune to critique or public shaming on social media. Covid-19 will not be “cancelled.”

[...]

For decades, scientists and thinkers have warned that our twentieth-century victories against infectious disease could be merely a pause. Covid-19 has brought this prophecy to life. Rather than attend to internecine arguments about the ideal marginal tax rate or the gendered nature of the English language, we need to face outward and confront a real foe. The American elite must stop treating science like inscrutable magic that provides its bounty automatically. Science and engineering are instruments that grant us insight and mastery only through massive investments of time, energy, and will.

We must acknowledge the importance of mastering reality if we are to survive and flourish as a civilization. Otherwise, governing and media elites’ lack of basic scientific and statistical literacy will doom us to fly blind in the face of future natural disasters. Our only hope is to turn our backs on an era where our only leaders are business executives and lawyers. Data journalism cannot remain a niche; it deserves to occupy a prominent spot on any editorial board. Scientists and engineers must step outside of their laboratories and make their voices heard in the halls of power. They must become part of the establishment that they once had the luxury of viewing chiefly as a source of funding and institutional support.

The resilient children had an internal locus of control

April 8th, 2020

Maria Konnikova — author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — explains how people learn to become resilient — or not:

In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.” Like Garmezy, she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.

What was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that several elements predicted resilience. Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.

[...]

George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that variation might come from. Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently or effectively than others?

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.

[...]

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

Similar work has been done with explanatory styles—the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology: Seligman found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression. The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks

April 7th, 2020

General David Berger became commandant of the Marine Corps on July 11, 2019 and immediately published his Commandant’s Planning Guidance, which laid out his vision for where the Marine Corps needed to go:

Central to Berger’s vision is the ability to operate within an adversary’s (read China’s) bubble of air, missile, and naval power (which the Marine Corps calls the weapons engagement zone, or WEZ). The concept is that the Marine Corps will be a “stand-in force” that will operate within this WEZ, not a stand-off force that must start outside and fight its way in. As the guidance states: “Stand-in forces [are] optimized to operate in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision ‘stand-off capabilities.’”

One requirement to implement this concept is developing “low signature, affordable, and risk worthy platforms” because existing ships and aircraft are the opposite—highly capable but expensive, few, and highly visible.

Another element of the concept is “distributed operations,” the ability of relatively small groups to operate independently rather than as part of a large force, as in previous wars. “We recognize that we must distribute our forces ashore given the growth of adversary precision strike capabilities.” Thus, small Marine forces would deploy around the islands of the first island chain and the South China Sea, each element having the ability to contest the surrounding air and naval space using anti-air and antiship missiles. Collectively, these forces would hem in Chinese forces, prevent them from moving outward, and ultimately, as part of a joint campaign, squeeze them back to the Chinese homeland.

A third element was institutional: the Marine Corps would leave sustained ground combat to the Army and focus on the littorals. Ground wars in the Middle East, North Korea, and Europe would be Army responsibilities.

The final element was political: General Berger judged that defense budgets are likely to be flat for the foreseeable future. “My assumption is flat or declining [budgets], not rising…. If [an increase] happens, great, but this is all built based on flat or declining [budgets].” Thus, unlike in the previous five years, when rising budgets allowed new investment and stable force levels, trade-offs would now be necessary. If the Marine Corps wanted to invest in new capabilities, it had to cut some existing units.

[...]

Maintaining small and vulnerable units deep inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone will be challenging. Even small units need a continuous resupply with fuel and munitions. If that is not possible, or if the Chinese figure out a way to hunt these units down, the concept collapses.

The Wall Street Journal gives its own summary:

The 10-year plan to revamp the Corps, scheduled to be unveiled this week, follows years of classified U.S. wargames that revealed China’s missile and naval forces to be eroding American military advantages in the region.

“China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat,” Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said.

[...]

Among an array of new high-tech programs, the Air Force is developing a hypersonic missile that would travel five times the speed of sound, and has been experimenting with the “loyal wingman,” an unmanned aircraft that would carry bombs and fly in formations with piloted planes.

The Army, which has established a Futures Command to oversee its transformation, tested a cannon at the Yuma Proving Ground earlier this month that fired shells about 40 miles—roughly twice the range of current systems. The Navy, for its part, has been developing tactics to disperse aircraft carrier battle groups to make them a less inviting target for Chinese medium-range missiles, and it is pursuing the development of unmanned submarines and ships.

[...]

The Pentagon’s $705 billion spending request for the 2021 fiscal year includes the largest research-and-development budget in 70 years: nearly $107 billion.

[...]

If war broke out, U.S. officials concluded, China could fire hundreds of missiles at U.S. and allies’ air bases, ports and command centers throughout the Pacific, jam the U.S. military’s GPS, attack American satellite systems and use its air defenses to keep U.S. warplanes at bay.

Russia similarly would use the surface-to-surface missiles, air defenses and antiship missiles deployed in Kaliningrad and on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The [Marines’ Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va.] has run classified wargames such as “Pacific Surprise” and “Ghost Fleet,” which looked at how the Marines might counter the Chinese threat in the decade ahead.

For the Marines, the new Pentagon strategy raised questions about whether it should adapt for a toe-to-toe fight against China or should concentrate on lesser but still challenging dangers.

“The wargames do show that, absent significant change, the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant” in a clash with a “peer competitor,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who succeeded Gen. Berger as the head of that command.

Gen. Berger’s answer was to reconfigure the Corps to focus on a China threat. The Marines would fight within reach of Chinese missiles, planes and naval forces to blunt any aggression. While other services might lob missiles from long range, the Marines, in military parlance, would operate inside “the weapons engagement zone.”

[...]

At the heart of Gen. Berger’s plan is the establishment of new naval expeditionary units—what the Marines call “littoral regiments”—whose mission would be to take on the Chinese navy.

If a military confrontation loomed, the regiments would disperse small teams of Marines, who would rush in sleek landing craft to the tiny islands that dot the South and East China Seas, according to Gen. Berger and other senior Marine officers. Armed with sensor-laden drones that operate in the air, on the sea and underwater, the Marines would target Chinese warships before they ventured into the wider Pacific Ocean. The Marine teams, which could have 50 to 100 personnel, would fire antiship missiles at the Chinese fleet. Targeting data also would be passed to Air Force or Navy units farther away, which would fire longer-range missiles.

To elude retaliatory blows, the Marines would hop from island to island every 48 or 72 hours, relying on a new generation of amphibious ships, which could be piloted remotely. Other Marine teams would operate from U.S. warships with decoy vessels nearby.

Gen. Berger said the wargames showed that the new Marine capabilities and tactics would create “a ton of problems” for the Chinese forces. “It is very difficult for them to counter a distributed naval expeditionary force that is small, that is mobile, but has the capability to reach out and touch you,” he said.

To carry out the strategy, the Marines would deploy new missile batteries, armed drone units and amphibious ships. A major push is being made to ease the logistical burden, such as exploring the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to make spare parts. The strategy requires deeper integration with the Navy, and Marine teams might perform other missions like refueling submarines or sub-hunting planes. While most of the effort to transform the Corps is focused on the Pacific, the Marines would retain other forces to respond to crises world-wide, including floating 2,200-strong Marine expeditionary units

To fund the new capabilities, the Marines will dispense with all of its tanks over the next few years, eliminate its bridge-laying companies and cut back on aviation and howitzers. “We need an Army with lots of tanks,” Gen. Berger said. “We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war.

Ghost Fleet is a reference to the book of the same name, which I’ve discussed a few times.

The 100-yr-old BCG vaccine for TB is being tested against the novel coronavirus

April 6th, 2020

The BCG vaccine has an unusual history:

It was inspired in the 1800s by the observation that milkmaids did not develop tuberculosis. The vaccine is named after its inventors, Dr. Albert Calmette and Dr. Camille Guerin, who developed it in the early 1900s from mycobacterium bovis, a form of tuberculosis that infects cattle.

The scientists cultured bacterial scrapings from cow udders, and continued to culture bovine TB for over a decade until it was weak enough that it no longer caused virulent disease when given to lab animals.

The weakened virus was first used in humans in 1921 and was widely adopted after World War II. Now BCG is primarily used in the developing world and in countries where TB is still prevalent, where it is given to over 100 million babies a year.

Like other vaccines, BCG has a specific target: TB. But evidence accumulating over the past decade suggests the vaccine also has so-called off-target effects, reducing viral illnesses, respiratory infections and sepsis, and appears to bolster the body’s immune system.

The idea is an offshoot of the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that the modern emphasis on cleanliness has deprived children of exposure to germs. The lack of “training” has resulted in weakened immune systems, less able to resist disease.

One of the earliest studies hinting at the broad benefits of BCG vaccination was a randomized trial of 2,320 babies in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, published in 2011, that reported that death rates among low-birth-weight babies were dramatically reduced after vaccination. A follow-up trial reported that infectious-disease mortality rates in low-birth-weight babies who were vaccinated were cut by more than 40%.

Other epidemiological studies — including a 25-year study of over 150,000 children in 33 countries — have reported a 40% lower risk of acute lower respiratory tract infections in children who received a BCG vaccine. A study in the elderly found that consecutive BCG vaccinations reduced the incidence of acute upper respiratory tract infections.

A recent review by the World Health Organization concluded that BCG had beneficial “off-target effects,” and recommended doing more trials of the vaccine against a wider range of infections.

[...]

There is little evidence yet that the vaccine will blunt infection with the coronavirus, but a series of clinical trials may answer the question in just months.

On Monday, scientists in Melbourne, Australia, started administering the BCG vaccine or a placebo to thousands of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care workers — the first of several randomized controlled trials intended to test the vaccine’s effectiveness against the coronavirus.

[...]

A clinical trial of 1,000 health care workers began 10 days ago in the Netherlands, said Dr. Mihai Netea, an infectious disease specialist at Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen. Eight hundred health care workers have already signed up. (As in Australia, half of the participants will receive a placebo.)

That works only because demand is typically so steady

April 5th, 2020

The shelves are bare, because the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets, commercial and consumer:

Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock. That’s a huge leap in demand for a product whose supply chain is predicated on the assumption that demand is essentially constant. It’s one that won’t fully subside even when people stop hoarding or panic-buying.

[...]

Talk to anyone in the industry, and they’ll tell you the toilet paper made for the commercial market is a fundamentally different product from the toilet paper you buy in the store. It comes in huge rolls, too big to fit on most home dispensers. The paper itself is thinner and more utilitarian. It comes individually wrapped and is shipped on huge pallets, rather than in brightly branded packs of six or 12.

[...]

Because toilet paper is high volume but low value, the industry runs on extreme efficiency, with mills built to work at full capacity around the clock even in normal times. That works only because demand is typically so steady. If toilet paper manufacturers spend a bunch of money now to refocus on the retail channel, they’ll face the same problem in reverse once people head back to work again.

Other industries face similar challenges:

The CEO of a fruit and vegetable supplier told NPR’s Weekend Edition that schools and restaurants are canceling their banana orders, while grocery stores are selling out and want more. The problem is that the bananas he sells to schools and restaurants are “petite” and sold loose in boxes of 150, whereas grocery store bananas are larger and sold in bunches. Beer companies face a similar challenge converting commercial keg sales to retail cans and bottles.

Modern meteorology was born 60 years ago

April 4th, 2020

Modern meteorology was born 60 years ago, with the launch of the Television InfraRed Observation Satellite, or TIROS-1:

During its 78 days of operation, TIROS-1 successfully monitored Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from space.

First TV Picture from Space

This was a potent moment for the field of meteorology. For the first time, scientists were able to combine space-based observations with physical models of the atmosphere that were just beginning to be run on supercomputers.

After World War II, mathematician John von Neumann led development of a computer to crunch through a set of equations put together by Jule Charney and other scientists. By the mid-1950s, Charney’s group began to produce numerical forecasts on a regular basis.

Tiros_1_instruments

All of a sudden, meteorologists had two incredibly useful tools at their hands. Of course, it would take time for more powerful computers to produce higher-resolution forecasts, and the sensor technology launched on satellites would require decades to improve to the point where spacecraft could collect data for temperature, moisture, and other environmental variables at various levels in the atmosphere.

But by around 1980, the tools of satellite observations and numerical models that could process that data started to mature. Scientists had global satellite coverage, 24 hours a day, and forecasts began to improve dramatically. Today, the fifth day of a five-day forecast on the app on your phone is about as accurate as the next day’s forecast was in 1980.

I had always assumed that spy satellites used TV cameras, but the first spy satellites used film:

The Corona satellites used special 70 millimeter film with a 24-inch (610 mm) focal length camera.[7] Manufactured by Eastman Kodak, the film was initially 0.0003 inches (7.6 ?m) thick, with a resolution of 170 lines per 0.04 inches (1.0 mm) of film.[8][9] The contrast was 2-to-1.[8] (By comparison, the best aerial photography film produced in World War II could produce just 50 lines per mm (1250 per inch) of film.)[8] The acetate-based film was later replaced with a polyester-based film stock that was more durable in Earth orbit.[10] The amount of film carried by the satellites varied over time. Initially, each satellite carried 8,000 feet (2,400 m) of film for each camera, for a total of 16,000 feet (4,900 m) of film.[8] But a reduction in the thickness of the film stock allowed more film to be carried.[10] In the fifth generation, the amount of film carried was doubled to 16,000 feet (4,900 m) of film for each camera for a total of 32,000 feet (9,800 m) of film. This was accomplished by a reduction in film thickness and with additional film capsules.[11] Most of the film shot was black and white. Infrared film was used on mission 1104, and color film on missions 1105 and 1008. Color film proved to have lower resolution, and so was never used again.[12]

The cameras were manufactured by the Itek Corporation.[13] A 12-inch (30 cm), f/5 triplet lens was designed for the cameras.[14] Each lens was 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter.[8] They were quite similar to the Tessar lenses developed in Germany by Zeiss.[15] The cameras themselves were initially 5 feet (1.5 m) long, but later extended to 9 feet (2.7 m) in length.[16] Beginning with the KH-4 satellites, these lenses were replaced with Petzval f/3.5 lens.[12] The lenses were panoramic, and moved through a 70° arc perpendicular to the direction of the orbit.[8] A panoramic lens was chosen because it could obtain a wider image. Although the best resolution was only obtained in the center of the image, this could be overcome by having the camera sweep automatically (“reciprocate”) back and forth across 70° of arc.[17] The lens on the camera was constantly rotating, to counteract the blurring effect of the satellite moving over the planet.[12]

The first Corona satellites had a single camera, but a two-camera system was quickly implemented.[18] The front camera was tilted 15° aft, and the rear camera tilted 15° forward, so that a stereoscopic image could be obtained.[8] Later in the program, the satellite employed three cameras.[18] The third camera was employed to take “index” photographs of the objects being stereographically filmed.[19] The J-3 camera system, first deployed in 1967, placed the camera in a drum. This “rotator camera” (or drum) moved back and forth, eliminating the need to move the camera itself on a reciprocating mechanism.[20] The drum permitted the use of up to two filters and as many as four different exposure slits, greatly improving the variability of images that Corona could take.[21] The first cameras could resolve images on the ground down to 40 feet (12 m) in diameter. Improvements in the imaging system were rapid, and the KH-3 missions could see objects 10 feet (3.0 m) in diameter. Later missions would be able to resolve objects just 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter.[22] A single mission was completed with a 1 foot (0.30 m) resolution but the limited field of view was determined to be detrimental to the mission.[citation needed] 3 feet (0.91 m) resolution was found to be the optimum resolution for quality of image and field of view.

[...]

Film was retrieved from orbit via a reentry capsule (nicknamed “film bucket”), designed by General Electric, which separated from the satellite and fell to Earth.[30] After the fierce heat of reentry was over, the heat shield surrounding the vehicle was jettisoned at 60,000 feet (18 km) and parachutes deployed.[31] The capsule was intended to be caught in mid-air by a passing airplane[32] towing an airborne claw which would then winch it aboard, or it could land at sea.[33] A salt plug in the base would dissolve after two days, allowing the capsule to sink if it was not picked up by the United States Navy.[34] After Reuters reported on a reentry vehicle’s accidental landing and discovery by Venezuelan farmers in mid-1964, capsules were no longer labeled “SECRET” but offered a reward in eight languages for their return to the United States.[35] Beginning with flight number 69, a two-capsule system was employed.[24] This also allowed the satellite to go into passive (or “zombie”) mode, shutting down for as many as 21 days before taking images again.[11] Beginning in 1963, another improvement was “Lifeboat”, a battery-powered system that allowed for ejection and recovery of the capsule in case power failed.[36][37] The film was processed at Eastman Kodak’s Hawkeye facility in Rochester, New York.[38]

How many lives is hospitalization saving in the pandemic?

April 3rd, 2020

Do we have evidence that hospitalization of COVID19 patients is actually saving significant numbers of lives?

I’ve now seen multiple studies suggesting that up to 80 or 90 percent of patients who end up on ventilators ultimately die. At this point, I guess there’s no way to know if the other 10 percent would have lived without the ventilators. From what I can tell, most other hospitalized patients are getting supplemental oxygen, IV fluids and antibiotics. I have not seen any evidence on the effectiveness of these treatments. Many of those patients live, but we don’t know whether they would have recovered without hospitalization. It would obviously be impossible to do a RCT on that at the moment.

Answering the question about the efficacy of hospitalization would seem to be critical, though, since, as best I can tell, the main justification for shutting down society now is to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed — especially the supply of ventilators. If our hospitals are overwhelmed, not only COVID19 patients, but others with treatable injuries/diseases might die. But if hospitalization is not actually saving COVID19 patients in large numbers, then all the costly social interventions we are implementing now are mostly just delaying the spread of infection.

Journalists would be better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead

April 2nd, 2020

As February turned to March, T. Greer realized he needed a better understanding of epidemics and disaster response:

It was clear to me then that the coronavirus was going to blow up in my own country, that I was going to be voicing opinions about it, and that in consequence I had a responsibility to inform myself as well as I could within the constraints of my budget and schedule. I wanted a stronger grounding in the history and past examples of American disaster response and the basics of epidemiology. Towards that end I bought about ten books, seven of which I have now finished. I do not have time to review them at all length, but I can provide some capsule-reviews for people who are interested in reading more on these topics themselves.

Christian McMillen’s Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction and Marta Wayne and Benjamin Bolker’s Infectious Disease: A Very Short Introduction are both excellent little primers. I am an unabashed fan of the Very Short Introduction series. Their basic idea is to find a noted expert in topic X and have them write an accessible-yet-intelligent 100-150 page introduction of their topic of expertise. Many journalists and commentators who spend several hours trawling Wikipedia whenever a new topic hits the news cycle would be far better served by picking up a $6 Kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead. These two books are oddly complimentary: McMillen is a historian, and his Very Short Introduction is focused on the social history of past pandemics. Wayne and Bolker are an ecologist and geneticist, respectively, and their focus is on modeling the dynamics of disease growth. McMillen devotes chapters to the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, and AIDS; Wayne and Bolker also provide 20-page summaries of various diseases, their case studies being influenza, HIV, cholera, malaria, and Bd (the fungal disease wiping out many of the world’s amphibious populations). Together the two books provide a solid introduction to how various types of diseases work and the history of human attempts to treat or contain them.

The coronavirus economy lives on in suspense, not free fall

April 1st, 2020

The economy today lives in suspense, not free-fall , Vernon L. Smith suggests:

Not all markets, however, are born equal. Laboratory experiments for goods that cannot be re-traded easily converge to their predicted supply-and-demand equilibrium under conditions of strictly private dispersed information. Their counterpart in the economy, markets for nondurable consumer goods, are a rock of stability. Moreover, these markets are very large, constituting 75% of private product (gross domestic product less government expenditures).

In sharp contrast, laboratory studies of asset markets persistently yield price bubbles in environments with perfect information on fundamental value. Moreover, experiments prove that this propensity to bubble is precisely and only because the items are re-tradable. These studies helped us to understand why all market economic instability arises from durable goods markets, especially housing-mortgage markets, as we have seen in the Great Recession and in the Depression when house prices fell against mortgage debt, plunging households into negative equity. Homeowners, living in houses worth less than what they owe the bank do not feel buoyantly prosperous. The experiments also helped us to understand why security markets are so volatile, but are not a fundamental source of instability, like housing, because securities market loans are short-term callable loans, investor balance sheets are marked steadily to market as prices decline, and there is no build-up of negative equity to dampen long-term expectations.

I believe the economy today lives in suspense, not free-fall. The pandemic will pass; public health institutions have been a model of forthright dissemination of information on the spread of this disease and sanitary procedures to minimize its impact. It’s the citizenry that has been unruly for a time. Supply chains will refill and stabilize quickly, as the pandemic passes, securities markets will recover, and growth will continue to reduce poverty everywhere. Homes are more valuable than ever as a haven of safe and secure living. Provided that we continue to buy them with some of our own money, homes will be part of a secure future.

I have ascended to the third order of magnitude

March 31st, 2020

I have ascended to the third order of magnitude. I have 1,000 Twitter followers:

Isegoria 1,000 Followers

Lone Rick and Morty

March 29th, 2020

The new Rick and Morty Samurai & Shogun short is an homage to classic samurai movies — and hyper-derivative anime, as well:

The “classic” it borrows most from is (or was) known in English as Shogun Assassin:

Now it’s known as Lone Wolf and Cub.

We would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else

March 29th, 2020

Years ago, back in 2004, Anthony Daniels (perhaps better known as Theodore Dalrymple) picked up a book by André Maurois, published in 1931, called L’Amerique Inattendue. Maurois, who had taken a position teaching French literature at Princeton, preferred the character of the Americans in adversity to that in triumphal materialistic optimism:

I felt distinctly uncomfortable while reading Maurois. I am no economist and am not qualified to opine on economic affairs. Yet we seem to me to have been conducting ourselves in Britain as if the present economic climate will continue forever, regardless of what we do, as if there were no tomorrow, or at least no tomorrow that might be very different from today. On the one hand, our boom requires that we spend, or it comes to an end; on the other, we shall have nothing for our old age if we do.

Our public life is frivolous, but frivolous without gaiety. It is also earnest without being serious. The Chancellor, Mr Brown, warned us recently of the threat that China and India posed to our prosperity. We cannot compete with those countries in cost of labour, of course; but their success is based not just on cheap labour, but on a powerful combination of cheap labour and an educational system that is far more serious than ours. While we — that is to say, the government of which Mr Brown is a prominent member — are so obsessed with supposed social justice that we are prepared to tolerate any degree of mediocrity, India and China foster talent in a very Darwinian fashion, in the hope and expectation that everyone will benefit in the long run. Before long, there will be nothing that we can do better than they.

At the same time, we have destroyed, or at least undermined, all forms of social solidarity other than handouts from the state. If ever there should be a serious downturn in our economic fortunes, which would not be unprecedented in history after all, we would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else. Widespread social, or rather antisocial, disturbances might very well result.

By the time I had finished Maurois’s forgotten but suggestive little book, I was almost trembling with fear.

You just need to turn off the central air conditioning

March 27th, 2020

The cordon sanitaire that began around Wuhan and two nearby cities on Jan. 23 helped slow the virus’s transmission to other parts of China, but didn’t really stop it in Wuhan itself:

Instead, the virus kept spreading among family members in homes, in large part because hospitals were too overwhelmed to handle all the patients, according to doctors and patients there.

What really turned the tide in Wuhan was a shift after Feb. 2 to a more aggressive and systematic quarantine regime whereby suspected or mild cases—and even healthy close contacts of confirmed cases—were sent to makeshift hospitals and temporary quarantine centers.

The tactics required turning hundreds of hotels, schools and other places into quarantine centers, as well as building two new hospitals and creating 14 temporary ones in public buildings. It also underscored the importance of coronavirus testing capacity, which local authorities say was expanded from 200 tests a day in late January to 7,000 daily by mid-February.

[...]

In New York City, federal authorities plan to set up mobile hospitals, with a total capacity of 1,000 beds, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. New York has also been looking into converting entire hotels into hospitals, but it is unclear how many beds will be made available.

Zhang Jinnong, head of the emergency department at Wuhan’s Xiehe Hospital, said the most important thing was to separate the infected from the healthy, and recommended hotels as quarantine centers where people could be isolated in separate rooms.

“You just need to turn off the central air conditioning,” he said.

[...]

South Korea, which has tested more people than any other country, originally tried to hospitalize all confirmed cases. But as wards became overloaded, from March 1 it divided coronavirus patients into four categories: asymptomatic, mild, severe and critical.

Only severe and critical cases were hospitalized, while mild and asymptomatic cases were placed in makeshift hospitals known as “residential treatment facilities.”

In Singapore, all suspected cases have been isolated in hospitals, while close contacts of confirmed cases have been systematically tracked and quarantined in government-run facilities or at home.

[...]

Another critical factor was the deployment to Wuhan of thousands of extra doctors and nurses from elsewhere in China. Among them was Meng Xinke, a doctor from the intensive care department of the No. 2 People’s Hospital in Shenzhen.

He arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 9 and was put to work in an exhibition center newly transformed into a makeshift hospital with 40 doctors and 1,461 beds, for confirmed mild coronavirus cases. Separating milder cases “is a great way to save resources,” he said, adding that five doctors were able to look after 400 patients during each shift.

His daily routine included checking patients’ vital signs, giving them medication, conducting tests, and identifying those developing severe symptoms. After about two weeks, he said, his team noticed that about 10%-15% of patients discharged from some makeshift hospitals were later testing positive again—a possible indication they hadn’t fully cleared the virus.

On Feb. 22, Wuhan required all discharged patients to go to quarantine sites for another two weeks instead of heading home.

It’s just a very fancy and expensive surgical mask

March 26th, 2020

Is it true that the public won’t be able to use N95 respirators correctly? Yes, Scott Alexander says:

I remember my respirator training, the last time I worked in a hospital. They gave the standard two minute explanation, made you put the respirator on, and then made you go underneath a hood where they squirted some aerosolized sugar solution. If you could smell the sugar, your respirator was leaky and you failed. I tried so hard and I failed so many times. It was embarrassing and I hated it.

I’m naturally clumsy and always bad at that kind of thing. Some people were able to listen to the two minute explanation and then pass right away. Those kinds of people could probably also listen to a two minute YouTube explanation and be fine. So I don’t want to claim it’s impossible or requires lots of specialized background knowledge. It’s just a slightly difficult physical skill you have to get right.

Bunyan et al, 2013, Respiratory And Facial Protection: A Critical Review Of Recent Literature, discusses this in more depth. They review some of the same studies we reviewed earlier, showing no benefit of N95 respirators over surgical masks for health care workers in most situations. This doesn’t make much theoretical sense – the respirators should win hands down.

The most likely explanation is: doctors aren’t much better at using respirators than anyone else. In a California study of tuberculosis precautions, 65% of health care workers used their respirators incorrectly. That’s little better than the general public, who have a 76% failure rate.

[...]

Is a poorly-fitting N95 respirator better than nothing? The reviewed studies suggest that at that point it’s just a very fancy and expensive surgical mask.

N95 versus KN95

March 26th, 2020

3M has a recent technical bulletin that spells out the subtle differences in filtering facepiece respirator classes, such as FFP2, KN95, and N95 — and the differences are very, very subtle. Namely, the N95 masks that are out of stock across the country are indistinguishable from the KN95 masks that are sitting on the shelves, but the N95 masks are certified for use in the US medical system, and the KN95 masks are certified for use in China:

This document is only intended to help clarify some key similarities between such references, specifically to the following FFR performance standards:

  • N95 (United States NIOSH-42CFR84)
  • FFP2 (Europe EN 149-2001)
  • KN95 (China GB2626-2006)
  • P2 (Australia/New Zealand AS/NZA 1716:2012)
  • Korea 1st class (Korea KMOEL – 2017-64)
  • DS (Japan JMHLW-Notification 214, 2018)

As shown in the following summary table, respirators certified as meeting these standards can be expected to function very similarly to one another, based on the performance requirements stated in the standards and confirmed during conformity testing.

N95 Masks versus Comparables