The resilient children had an internal locus of control

Wednesday, 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.

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

Monday, 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.)

Modern meteorology was born 60 years ago

Saturday, 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?

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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.

You just need to turn off the central air conditioning

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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.

In fact, the model does a very good job

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Peter Turchin presents a variant of a standard epidemiological model, known as SIRD (so named for the first letters of the variables it tracks: the numbers of Susceptible, Infected, Recovered, and Dead), applied to South Korea’s Covid-19 epidemic:

We want to make sure that the model does a good job approximating a variety of different angles from which an epidemic can be viewed. The next series of charts show whether the model succeeds in this. Points are the actual data, while curves depict model predictions.

Turchin Covid Models for South Korea

In fact, the model does a very good job. This increases our confidence that it has captured the essential mechanisms driving the epidemic. And we only need to add two additional features to the basic SIRD model to do this.

The key parameter in the model is the transmission rate, which determines how fast the disease spreads from the infected population to that of susceptibles. The second important parameter is the detection rate. Both of these parameters changed during the epidemic. As is well known, once the South Korean officials realized that they have an epidemic to deal with, they massively expanded their testing program and imposed vigorous quarantine measures. These measures should have increased the detection rate and decreased the transmission rate. Building these changes into the model, we can estimate when and how much these two rates changed.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

David Quammen’s 2012 book Spillover charts the ecology and spread of “zoonoses,” diseases transmitted between animals and humans, and makes these four points:

Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Zoonotic spillovers will keep coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open.

A tropical forest, with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.

Leave bats, in particular, the hell alone.

He knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

After visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver visits the grand academy of Lagado:

This academy is not an entire single building, but a continuation of several houses on both sides of a street, which growing waste, was purchased and applied to that use.

I was received very kindly by the warden, and went for many days to the academy. Every room has in it one or more projectors; and I believe I could not be in fewer than five hundred rooms.

The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper “to give no offence, which would be highly resented;” and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.

I saw another at work to calcine ice into gunpowder; who likewise showed me a treatise he had written concerning the malleability of fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation; which he justified to me, by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider.

There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.

In another apartment I was highly pleased with a projector who had found a device of ploughing the ground with hogs, to save the charges of ploughs, cattle, and labour. The method is this: in an acre of ground you bury, at six inches distance and eight deep, a quantity of acorns, dates, chestnuts, and other mast or vegetables, whereof these animals are fondest; then you drive six hundred or more of them into the field, where, in a few days, they will root up the whole ground in search of their food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their dung: it is true, upon experiment, they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop. However it is not doubted, that this invention may be capable of great improvement.

I went into another room, where the walls and ceiling were all hung round with cobwebs, except a narrow passage for the artist to go in and out. At my entrance, he called aloud to me, “not to disturb his webs.” He lamented “the fatal mistake the world had been so long in, of using silkworms, while we had such plenty of domestic insects who infinitely excelled the former, because they understood how to weave, as well as spin.” And he proposed further, “that by employing spiders, the charge of dyeing silks should be wholly saved;” whereof I was fully convinced, when he showed me a vast number of flies most beautifully coloured, wherewith he fed his spiders, assuring us “that the webs would take a tincture from them; and as he had them of all hues, he hoped to fit everybody’s fancy, as soon as he could find proper food for the flies, of certain gums, oils, and other glutinous matter, to give a strength and consistence to the threads.”

There was an astronomer, who had undertaken to place a sun-dial upon the great weathercock on the town-house, by adjusting the annual and diurnal motions of the earth and sun, so as to answer and coincide with all accidental turnings of the wind.

I was complaining of a small fit of the colic, upon which my conductor led me into a room where a great physician resided, who was famous for curing that disease, by contrary operations from the same instrument. He had a large pair of bellows, with a long slender muzzle of ivory: this he conveyed eight inches up the anus, and drawing in the wind, he affirmed he could make the guts as lank as a dried bladder. But when the disease was more stubborn and violent, he let in the muzzle while the bellows were full of wind, which he discharged into the body of the patient; then withdrew the instrument to replenish it, clapping his thumb strongly against the orifice of then fundament; and this being repeated three or four times, the adventitious wind would rush out, bringing the noxious along with it, (like water put into a pump), and the patient recovered. I saw him try both experiments upon a dog, but could not discern any effect from the former. After the latter the animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a discharge as was very offensive to me and my companion. The dog died on the spot, and we left the doctor endeavouring to recover him, by the same operation.

I visited many other apartments, but shall not trouble my reader with all the curiosities I observed, being studious of brevity.

I had hitherto seen only one side of the academy, the other being appropriated to the advancers of speculative learning, of whom I shall say something, when I have mentioned one illustrious person more, who is called among them “the universal artist.” He told us “he had been thirty years employing his thoughts for the improvement of human life.” He had two large rooms full of wonderful curiosities, and fifty men at work. Some were condensing air into a dry tangible substance, by extracting the nitre, and letting the aqueous or fluid particles percolate; others softening marble, for pillows and pin-cushions; others petrifying the hoofs of a living horse, to preserve them from foundering. The artist himself was at that time busy upon two great designs; the first, to sow land with chaff, wherein he affirmed the true seminal virtue to be contained, as he demonstrated by several experiments, which I was not skilful enough to comprehend. The other was, by a certain composition of gums, minerals, and vegetables, outwardly applied, to prevent the growth of wool upon two young lambs; and he hoped, in a reasonable time to propagate the breed of naked sheep, all over the kingdom.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

We next went to the school of languages, where three professors sat in consultation upon improving that of their own country.

The first project was, to shorten discourse, by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because, in reality, all things imaginable are but norms.

The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, “that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.” And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.

But for short conversations, a man may carry implements in his pockets, and under his arms, enough to supply him; and in his house, he cannot be at a loss. Therefore the room where company meet who practise this art, is full of all things, ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.

Another great advantage proposed by this invention was, that it would serve as a universal language, to be understood in all civilised nations, whose goods and utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their uses might easily be comprehended. And thus ambassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign princes, or ministers of state, to whose tongues they were utter strangers.

I was at the mathematical school, where the master taught his pupils after a method scarce imaginable to us in Europe. The proposition, and demonstration, were fairly written on a thin wafer, with ink composed of a cephalic tincture. This, the student was to swallow upon a fasting stomach, and for three days following, eat nothing but bread and water. As the wafer digested, the tincture mounted to his brain, bearing the proposition along with it. But the success has not hitherto been answerable, partly by some error in the quantum or composition, and partly by the perverseness of lads, to whom this bolus is so nauseous, that they generally steal aside, and discharge it upwards, before it can operate; neither have they been yet persuaded to use so long an abstinence, as the prescription requires.

As few as 14% of people in Wuhan with early coronavirus infections were being detected

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

The chance of someone with symptomatic Covid-19 in Wuhan dying varied by age:

For those aged 15 to 44, the fatality rate was 0.5%, though it might have been as low as 0.1% or as high as 1.3%. For people 45 to 64, the fatality rate was also 0.5%, with a possible low of 0.2% and a possible high of 1.1%. For those over 64, it was 2.7%, with a low and high estimate of 1.5% and 4.7%.

The chance of serious illness from coronavirus infection in younger people was so low, the scientists estimate a fatality rate of zero.

As physicians and researchers have seen since the start of the outbreak, many infected people never become sick. As few as 14% of people in Wuhan with early coronavirus infections were being detected, said epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, who led a study published on Monday in Science on undocumented coronavirus infections.

Surgical masks prevent infection

Saturday, March 14th, 2020

Thomas Talhelm, Associate Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, founded Smart Air, “a social enterprise to help people in China breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers,” and he decided to look at N95 masks versus surgical masks:

Scientists tested this question by randomly assigning over 2,000 nurses to wear N95 or surgical masks. Then they tracked how many of them caught the flu.

[...]

Differences weren’t significant, although surgical mask users actually had slightly lower infection rates.

[...]

Researchers in Canada randomly assigned 446 nurses to wear N95 or surgical masks during a few months of cold and flu seasons (September to December). Then they tracked how many got the flu or a cold.

Again, no significant difference! Both masks performed just as well at preventing the transmission of the viruses. Twenty percent of nurses wearing surgical masks got sick versus 22% wearing N95 masks.

[...]

Researchers in Australia studied parents taking care of their children, who were sick with the flu.

[...]

In raw percentages, 17% of all participants got sick versus 5% among surgical masks and 4% wearing N95 masks.

[...]

Bottom line: There’s scientific evidence finding that (1) masks prevent flu infection and (2) surgical masks prevent infection of viruses like the coronavirus (Covid-19), as well as more sophisticated N95 masks.

Three authentic historical WWI infantry combat helmets were acquired for blast testing

Saturday, March 14th, 2020

Helmets on Hybrid III Head in Test SetupAt the start of the Great War, helmets were not standard equipment for any of the Allied or Central Powers, but they were quickly adopted once it become clear that over fifty per cent of fatalities occurred due to shrapnel or artillery shell fragments, often striking the head:

In 1915, France was the first nation in WWI to equip soldiers with steel helmets, utilizing the M15 Adrian helmet, named after the design by General Adrian. Inventor John L. Brodie addressed the British need for head protection in late 1915 with a helmet design aimed at shrapnel protection while focusing on ease of manufactur­ing. Other nations also used the Brodie helmet, including the United States when they joined the war in late 1917. After extensive testing of Allied helmets, the Stahlhelm (translation: steel helmet) was rolled out to German soldiers at the start of 1916.

These helmets were designed to protect against fragments, not the primary blast of the high explosive:

Three authentic historical WWI infantry combat helmets including the original lining, were acquired for blast testing: an M15 (1915 model) Adrian Helmet used by the French Army (denoted FRC), an M1916 Stahlhelm used by the Imperial German Army (denoted GER), and an M1917 Brodie Helmet used by the U.S. Army (based on the M1915 British design and denoted AMR). The M1917 Brodie Helmet was manufactured by the Columbian Enameling and Stamping Company (Terre Haute, IN, USA). The Advanced Combat Helmet, the current combat helmet used by the U.S. Army, was included (size large, denoted ACH) for comparison to current combat helmets. A ‘no helmet’ bare head case was used as a control (denoted BAR).

[...]

The dummy head was faced downwards, and the center of the head was aligned with the open end of a cylindrical blast tube (schematic in Fig 3). This orientation and blast exposure simulate an overhead blast scenario, as would have been common in trench warfare due to artillery shells exploding above trenches.

[...]

An interesting result from these experiments is the blast protective effect provided by the French Adrian helmet, which had a lower crown pressure than all other helmets, despite being manufactured using similar materials as the Stahlhelm and Brodie Helmet, with a thinner helmet wall (Table 1). This result might stem from the deflector crest along the midline of the helmet (Fig 1a). Specifically added with overhead shrapnel in mind, this feature of the helmet could deflect the shock wave off to the side of the head, rather than allow shockwave impingement onto a more planar surface seen in the other helmets. The crest also provides an added first layer for shock wave reflection before reflecting a second time off the helmet itself. The crown pressure sensor used in the measurements was located under the deflector crest and may have experienced a decreased peak pressure because of this. Further studies are needed to see if surface geometry manipulation or helmet attachments may augment the protective capabilities of helmets against blast exposure.

Peak pressures measured in locations other than the crown of the head were much lower because of measurement at an orientation incident to the blast wave and being partly or completely covered by the helmets. In these locations, the Adrian helmet did not provide the same protective advantage seen at the crown. Pressure attenuation was seemingly determined by the width of the brim and/or coverage of the helmet (Fig 2). At the ear, the small brim and limited coverage of the Adrian helmet resulted in higher pressures than the other helmets (Fig 11d), with a corresponding increased risk in eardrum damage (Fig 12). The ACH, without a brim as seen in the historical helmets, had increased pressures at the eye (Fig 11c) but provided similar protection at the other measurement locations.

While ballistic protection provided by helmets has increased significantly since WWI and saved many lives, the results found here suggest that the ACH did not perform quantitatively or qualitatively better than the historical helmets, and performed worse than the Adrian helmet for overhead primary blast at the crown of the head. On the other hand, while ballistic protection has been an active focus in combat helmets design, protection from primary blast has not been an important design element, and the level of protection from primary blast from all of the helmets tested is large compared with the bare head.

There is no substitute for victory

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

For weeks, the coronavirus news has been paralyzingly bad, Steve Sailer reminds us, but there might be light at the end of the tunnel — at least if we take action:

It now is conceivable that an aggressive response in America could not merely “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve” of this exponentially growing outbreak, but crush it altogether. America’s aim should not be moderation of the epidemic, but its eradication.

Our goal should be not just to lose more slowly and gracefully, but to win.

The most sophisticated idea back in February was that the best we could hope for was to spread out the incidence of infection over enough months to avoid the apocalyptic scenario in which America’s medical system is overwhelmed and exhausted doctors must make triage decisions between treating COVID-19 victims and, say, heart attack victims.

University of Washington biologist Carl T. Bergstrom developed this useful hypothetical graph below (which he specifies is “freely available for any use under the CC-BY-2.0 license”) to get across the idea of how slowing the spread can lessen the chances that your loved one will be turned away by the hospital.

Lower and Delay the Epidemic Peak

In Bergstrom’s graph, the horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is the number of cases at any one point. Under uncontrolled transmission (the graph’s red curve) of the new coronavirus in the United States, it’s almost inevitable that our approximately 95,000 intensive care unit (ICU) beds would be filled, followed by the rest of the hospital beds in the country. Hospitals in northern Italy may be approaching this dire situation now.

If we can flatten the curve enough to follow the blue curve, the total number of cases wouldn’t be all that much different than under the unconstrained red curve, with both curves relying upon herd immunity to eventually reduce new cases to zero; but the total number of deaths from the pandemic under the slower trajectory will be much less because there would always be almost enough hospital capacity for everyone.

But slowing the spread, while a valid idea, is still a depressing goal, especially because the economic costs of the kind of social shutdowns imposed in China, and now in Italy, are no doubt enormous. The hope of flattening the curve reminds me of the dreary sports cliché that goes back at least to O.J. Simpson in 1968, “You can’t stop O.J., you can only hope to contain him.”

So, fighting a long, drawn-out war of attrition with COVID-19 has yet to galvanize the public or its leadership. Lots of Americans seem at present to be thinking: “Eh, just let it run amok and let’s get it over with.” But they don’t yet realize how awful the peak would be when the health care system overloads.

[...]

Via heroic shutdown measures (basically, confining most of the population of this huge city to their apartments), the Chinese cut the R0 in Wuhan by more than an order of magnitude down to 0.32. New infections fell by almost 95%.

[...]

In other words, the effort it takes to flatten the curve is almost as great as it takes to win outright.

No longer should the goal be a well-played defeat. As Cochran sums up by quoting Douglas MacArthur:

There is no substitute for victory.

You will be ridiculed as an extremist or an alarmist

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

We don’t yet know the full ramifications of the novel coronavirus:

But three crucial facts have become clear in the first months of this extraordinary global event. And what they add up to is not an invocation to stay calm, as so many politicians around the globe are incessantly suggesting; it is, on the contrary, the case for changing our behavior in radical ways—right now.

The first fact is that, at least in the initial stages, documented cases of COVID-19 seem to increase in exponential fashion. On the 23rd of January, China’s Hubei province, which contains the city of Wuhan, had 444 confirmed COVID-19 cases. A week later, by the 30th of January, it had 4,903 cases. Another week later, by the 6th of February, it had 22,112.

The same story is now playing out in other countries around the world. Italy had 62 identified cases of COVID-19 on the 22nd of February. It had 888 cases by the 29th of February, and 4,636 by the 6th of March.

Because the United States has been extremely sluggish in testing patients for the coronavirus, the official tally of 604 likely represents a fraction of the real caseload. But even if we take this number at face value, it suggests that we should prepare to have up to 10 times as many cases a week from today, and up to 100 times as many cases two weeks from today.

The second fact is that this disease is deadlier than the flu, to which the honestly ill-informed and the wantonly irresponsible insist on comparing it. Early guesstimates, made before data were widely available, suggested that the fatality rate for the coronavirus might wind up being about 1 percent. If that guess proves true, the coronavirus is 10 times as deadly as the flu.

But there is reason to fear that the fatality rate could be much higher. According to the World Health Organization, the current case fatality rate—a common measure of what portion of confirmed patients die from a particular disease—stands at 3.4 percent. This figure could be an overstatement, because mild cases of the disease are less likely to be diagnosed. Or it could be an understatement, because many patients have already been diagnosed with the virus but have not yet recovered (and may still die).

[...]

Meanwhile, the news from Italy, another country with a highly developed medical system, has so far been shockingly bad. In the affluent region of Lombardy, for example, there have been 7,375 confirmed cases of the virus as of Sunday. Of these patients, 622 had recovered, 366 had died, and the majority were still sick. Even under the highly implausible assumption that all of the still-sick make a full recovery, this would suggest a case fatality rate of 5 percent—significantly higher, not lower, than in China.

The third fact is that so far only one measure has been effective against the coronavirus: extreme social distancing.

[...]

As the [1918 flu] was spreading, Wilmer Krusen, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, allowed a huge parade to take place on September 28; some 200,000 people marched. In the following days and weeks, the bodies piled up in the city’s morgues. By the end of the season, 12,000 residents had died.

In St. Louis, a public-health commissioner named Max Starkloff decided to shut the city down. Ignoring the objections of influential businessmen, he closed the city’s schools, bars, cinemas, and sporting events. Thanks to his bold and unpopular actions, the per capita fatality rate in St. Louis was half that of Philadelphia. (In total, roughly 1,700 people died from influenza in St Louis.)

[...]

For a few days, while none of your peers are taking the same steps, moving classes online or canceling campaign events will seem profoundly odd. People are going to get angry. You will be ridiculed as an extremist or an alarmist. But it is still the right thing to do.