panic don’t panic

Red alert, day 75. Lockdown, day 65.

Private Eye is doing a good job of covering the pandemic these days, not a surprise for the last investigations-focused news organ left. (Cleverly camouflaged with the cover and center section of humor magazine for twelve year-olds.) Each fortnight’s issue nowadays contains at least two solid pages of news summaries by “M.D.” Lately M.D. has front-loaded the space with the number of deaths and excess deaths, pointing out how Covid affects non-Covid health outcomes as well (delays in visiting the doctor, delays in treatment).

MD themself did not take the threat seriously at first, nor discuss it as sensitively as one might hope:

600 people a year die of flu, 10-13,000 in a bad year.
In the two SARS coronavirus outbreaks between 2002 and 2004, the UK media again went into full throttle “killer virus” mode and yet only four people in the UK were infected, with no deaths. This was largely due to calm, coordinated global public health measures. 

Pandemic infections come and go, and Covid-19 may yet turn out to kill more Brits than seasonal flu does every year. But pandemic panic always causes significant harm, and usually overloads the NHS more than the virus. Yes, it’s exciting that a virus may have come via snakes, bats and pangolins to infect us. Yet it may be less deadly that boring old Influenza A in a bad year. So get a grip and wash your hands: it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself. (MD, Issue 1516 / 21 Feb)

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partial explanations

Red alert, day 74. Lockdown, day 64.

More of Warren Weaver, this time on scientific explanation. Many of us have thought the following, for example when reading bad wall texts in science museums, but Weaver, with the confidence of the mid-century master of the universe, was able to say it in print:

[A]s far as I can see[,] science has only two procedures of “explanation” and they are both, in any strict logical sense, frauds. One of these procedures consists of remarks which really say: “This phenomenon X which puzzles you should no longer do so; for it is closely like a phenomenon Y with which you have long been familiar.” The strange fact is that one need not really understand Y. He only needs to have been familiar with it for a long enough time so that he has the (fuzzy and unanalyzed) conviction that he understands it. 

This is explanation by simile, and it is both strangely satisfying and practically useful. This is what happens when a scientist says, “Radio waves spread out, die off, are interfered with, like the expanding ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond.” This is what happens when a scientist says, “The electrons in an atom revolve around the nucleus as do the planets around the sun.” 

These explanations by simile are not trivial. Not only do they bring the personal satisfaction of one who says, “You know, I didn’t understand that at all before, and now I do”’; they also furnish an important motivation within science as did, in the nineteenth century, the extensive simile comparing electrical quantities and actions with mechanical quantities and actions. But from any fundamental point of view, explanation of this variety, however comforting and useful it may be, is not really explanation. To say that the voltage that “causes” electricity to flow in a wire is like the pressure that causes water to flow in a pipe is very helpful and comforting to a person who is just establishing acquaintance with electricity, and who has for so long seen water flowing in a pipe that he thinks he understands why the pressure causes this; but it is certainly no ultimate explanation.

The second procedure of explanation is very different in character. It is exhibited in pure form in mathematics and theoretical physics. A statement is established by logical derivation from one or more previously established statements. They in turn have been established from a second prior set. One backs down a sort of logical staircase, the statements on each step having been proved by those on the next lower step. If one backs all the way down this stairway he eventually lands on a step which in our modern view does not bear the caption (which Euclid might have written there); “These statements are self-evidently true,” but rather bears the candid caption, “This is as far down as we presently go: the statements on this level are pure assumption.”

So this second kind of explanation, like the first, does not furnish any ultimate explanation. Both kinds, or mixtures of them, end either in the illusion of familiarity that makes one content to drop the effort or the bafflement of pure assumption.

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polarity problems

Red alert, day 73. Lockdown, day 63.

Here’s a more durable excerpt from the autobiography of Warren Weaver, the science administrator discussed yesterday. Relevant to studies of qualia and evaluation/Appraisal:

[I have had a lifelong curiosity] about the magnitude of the range of “goodness” possible to various objects or procedures. For example, there are some things (I would offer cheese, whisky, movies, and peanut butter as excellent instances) of which I consider that all examples are good. Some, to be sure, are better than others, and the best can be superb; but none is unacceptably bad.

On the other hand there are interesting objects or procedures which range over a spectacular spectrum of goodness, ranging all the way from unspeakably bad to almost indescribably good. They maximize, as a mathematician would say, the ratio of the goodness of the best examples to the badness of the worst. In this category I would, for instance, place martinis. … These parenthetic remarks are stimulated by the mention, just above, of violin playing. For I think this the ultimate illustration of a procedure with the maximum range from best to worst. I am unable to think of anything more heavenly at its best and more punishing and terrible at its worst.

In my experience, Asian food is pretty much always good, but nouvelle cuisine and technical foods can be horrible. I have only ever eaten these at business lunches and dinners (something I don’t miss about the roaring ’80s and the roaring ’00s), the nadir of which was a celery granita in a Southwark lab food restaurant near the Symbian Foundation.

With films, the experience of immersion in watching large images is generally enjoyable independent of the content, with the exception of forced viewing as in A Clockwork Orange. There is some kind of coherence, even in jump cuts and jerky action. On the other hand, there is something about the stop-and-start quality of musical practice that is excruciating. This is true even of high level musical practice, as I found out from living with conservatory students in New York. The flow is always being interrupted. The same phenomenon is what makes technical problems on Zoom so hard to bear, and also computer problems in general. When I replace this machine, which has 4GB of memory, with one that has 8GB, I too will probably double my brain capacity from not having to wait for buffering.

When you are really starved for reading, all reading material is good (the proverbial cereal box, the value of books in prisons), but as choice increases you can become infinitely demanding. In going through 150 years of newspapers for my PhD work, it was clear that ideas of quality developed with the availability of print. Early 19th century readers got snippets that were often repetitious (five separate stories with essentially the same content rather than a wrap), or else long-winded descriptions and speech transcripts. There were no reporting standards, so we don’t know how much the stories resembled events or in what ways they might have diverged. And it was all the news they had. Now the information has to unroll at exactly the right pace, as well as being efficiently organized for skimming. News features and tabloid news are expected to be emotionally exciting as well.

This passage also reminds me of Lili Loufbourrow’s 2018 essay on the different scales underlying male and female descriptions of sex. Based on medical as well as anecdotal evidence, she suggests the male experience of sex falls into Weaver’s first category – always at least somewhat good – and the female experience into the second. This is a difference theory that explains many problems in law and everyday equity.

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the concord of discord

My lifetime official science fiction convention attendance is probably fewer than 20 events, including three Worldcons, a couple of Readercons, several Finncons and one Eastercon, as well as free single-day cons and day memberships elsewhere. Now I’ve attended two online cons: Flights of Foundry last weekend and Balticon this weekend. Much as I like traveling, it is pretty amazing to be able to go to conventions without arriving exhausted or wrangling train fares, and that is the first great advantage of online cons.

Another good thing is that like a lot of other online events at the moment, attendance was free or asked only a donation – partly because committees don’t have time to integrate proper membership systems into all the other systems that need putting together. This advantage won’t last, except for small ad hoc events.

I circulated an incoherent version of the following notes to other Easterconners in May. Now (2 August) that the reviews of CoNZealand are confirming some observations, I feel confident to revise and post.

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scene of change

Red alert, day 72. Lockdown, day 62. I continue to note the counts for each day in a notebook, and they are still alarming.

Marscon (January, Virginia) now takes the prize for farthest-off cancellation.

The house cleanout in 2018 unearthed many hardback books with lofty titles about science, even more than I knew we had. One of them came back to Ipswich with me: Scene of Change: A Lifetime in American Science by Warren Weaver. Weaver was one of the men like Vannevar Bush who led US technology policy in the years after World War II. Bush, an electrical engineer, was the country’s chief science officer during the war and helped supervise the conversion to peacetime (Cold War) research, notably with the creation of the National Science Foundation, as proposed in his book Science – The Endless Frontier. Weaver, a mathematician who had also studied civil engineering, worked mainly on the private side. He ended up running the Rockefeller Foundation and later moved to the Sloan Foundation. He also coauthored the root text on information theory with Claude Shannon.

Weaver was born in the 1890s, as was Bush, in a small town in Wisconsin. His autobiography contains plenty of evidence of how much life has changed: for example, as a child one of his jobs was to turn the mangle for his mother, and another was to use old newspapers to clean the glass chimneys of kerosene lamps. When he joined the faculty of Cal Tech in 1919, his salary was $1,800 a year, and his rent for a cottage with backyard, ten minutes from the university, was $17.

Coming from an age when so many fields were in their beginnings, publishing was slow, and it was possible to keep up, Weaver was able to become a real generalist. He was obviously thoughtful as well as polymathic. I will post a few choice ramblings on other days. However, the abiding impression of the book is how the small number of “meritocratically” selected men in the American prewar generations – in his case the Lost Generation [1] – had an outsize influence on, well, everything. The robber barons and auto-industrialists had an even more outsized influence. It is no wonder that the Silicon Valley plutes expect the same power after growing up seeing Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, Ford, Sloan etc. plaques on everything. Concentration of power creates vassalage, and the largest part of Weaver’s book consists of accounts of junkets around the world to be feted by local scientists who hoped to get some Rockefeller aid.

The report of the Mexican agricultural programme dates particularly badly. Weaver stresses the need to convince Mexican officials that the American project to change their crops was their idea, and the importance of choosing men who could sell it:

…as is critically true of any project, the scheme would never be any better than its leadership, so we were determined to get the best. We did, as events have clearly proved. J. George Harrar was, at that moment, the head of the department of plant pathology at Washington State College. He had spent several years as professor of botany at the University of Puerto Rico, and both he and his wife were fluent in Spanish. Beside his technical and professional qualifications, George had been a four-letter athlete at Oberlin, and when he eventually became the head of the Mexican-North American agricultural group in Mexico he furnished them leadership at every level – he could run faster, jump a wider stream, dance the samba better, shoot better, and work harder both in the office and in the field than anyone. In tact and courtesy, in skill and knowledge, in his infectious personality, in energy and dedication, he was the ideal leader. That Harrar is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation is but the natural culmination of a plot that some of us schemed in 1941.

No doubt, Harrar was talented and good at his job, but I find this cringey – the assumption that an American should lead the joint project, the assumption that Harrar could be better at Latinx culture than Latinxs, the ableism, the clubbiness, the hero-worship. We are such a long way off here from decolonization, own voices, privilege checking, balance of all kinds. The Harrar generation was still around, though retired, when I entered the workforce.

The Mexico project, as described in the book, involved breeding new grains and standardizing agricultural practices to maximize production. I suspect monocultures, DDT and so forth were involved, as that was the direction in US farming at the time. This is the kind of work we are now looking to undo with crop rotation and diversified farming, indigenous knowledge of additional grain varieties, organic farming and so on. Though in the short term, the extra food was needed.

[1] The Lost Generation were so called because of the Great War caused many to feel unstuck in time (to borrow a phrase from a book about another war). Weaver incidentally was too thin to be regularly drafted in 1917, but on his first sojourn at Cal Tech in 1918, his boss had him posted to the Bureau of Standards and that was his service. The flu pandemic is not mentioned.

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tell me more

Red alert, day 71. Lockdown, day 61.

Friday of spring Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, Helluntai weekend in Finland [1] and Memorial Day weekend in the US. Today I met T in the park for a chat again. There were some other small groups meeting – families, dog walkers, flower sketchers – but quite scattered. Ipswich Borough Council has sent out an e-mail setting out once again the blurry lines for interaction as the weather tempts people outside:

What is missing from this list? Masks. The kind of mask regulation we are seeing in my blended, semivirtual, Anglo-Euro-American space is local and privatized and tentative: Sajid Javid has proposed mask requirements for London transport; shops and workplaces may be able to require masks for entry but it is by no means widespread. I saw only a couple of masks in my hour out in Ipswich, which included a shopping stop.

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stand still, stay silent

Red alert, day 59. Lockdown, day 49.

Stand Still Stay Silent is of course a webcomic.

Finally a simple, population-normalized graph has made it onto social media. It is possibly dodgy, depending on how much we trust the reported figures, and already out of date as death rates in Germany and China are reported rising again, but the outsized losses in the UK, US and Sweden are indisputable:

Boris Johnson is set to finally read the speech on easing lockdown tonight. The top ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have repudiated the new “Stay alert” messaging, pointing out there was no Four Nations discussion. Arlene Foster says NI is “not deviating from prior messages at this time.” Mark Drakeford: “Staying home remains the best way you can protect yourself and others.” Nicola Sturgeon reiterates “Stay home” – except you can now go for a walk twice a day – and has also joined the chorus of people asking what “Stay alert” means.

Downing Street responded by releasing a clarification which was basically the same as Stay Home, only with a few hedges (“if possible,” “if you can”). (Earlier, two-panel version, possibly sent by e-mail to press since I cannot locate the original tweet.)

In Ipswich, Borough Council leader David Ellesmere (this is not the same as the Mayor, which is a ceremonial office) says “the current situation will not change radically in the short term.” Some construction will resume, along with garden waste collection. “It will be some time before council revenue-generating services like sports centres, the Regent and Corn Exchange will be able to re-open.”

Not cancelled, so far: Futuricon, which is this year’s Eurocon, to be held in Rijeka, Croatia, beginning of October. I actually had an early bird ticket for this (still only 15 euros).

Zoom today: an hour with L testing presentation formats co-hosting and breakout rooms. I wish I’d had a chance to do this before giving lectures on Zoom. We’re both now much more aware of eye lines and how things look to the viewers, as well as ways to improve the sound.

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6 May Wed

Red alert, day 55. Lockdown, day 45.  // Suffolk has 936 (+40) confirmed cases in today’s figures, neighboring Essex has 2320 (+76, about 2X Suffolk population) cases and Tower Hamlets has 591 (+5, about 0.5X Suffolk population) confirmed cases as of this morning.

The UK has recorded 161,145 cases on 763,387 tests (+43,563 , some on the same people). A total of 21,678 (+586) deaths in hospital have been recorded.

From today, all passengers on Boston mass transit must wear face masks.

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Red alert, day 48. Lockdown, day 38. Waiting for today’s figures.

Some food stalls at the Ipswich Market will reopen on Friday with distance markers.

Construction has resumed in Ipswich. The sound of drills was not missed while it was absent.

Among the sectors that are first mentioned as being permanently damaged by the pandemic is travel and tourism. I remember my one visit to Prague, for example, as being cheek by jowl with other tourists on the Charles Bridge, not actually seeing the city because of the crowds. This kind of mass tourism will become even less attractive. Small-scale, off the beaten track travel may flourish by comparison.

Painting of Prague by Martina Cleary salvaged from Antti Korpin tie renovations

I expect museums will have metered progression through exhibitions, with lines on the floor. Entry will be even more expensive than previously. British museums will have to start charging admission for the guards to enforce social distancing, at least until we learn. My usual museum style of going to crowded shows on the last day and darting back and forth to sketch and photograph favorite pieces is not going to fly anymore.

Speaking of flying, the sudden collapse of cheap air travel and calls life choices into question. I know a couple of people in long distance relationships who left the rest of their lives behind and flew out at the last minute to be with their partners. Definitely the right choice if you could manage it without losing your place/right to live in hte other country.

American Airlines has just written to its frequent and infrequent (me) flyers to say cabin staff will be wearing masks from May 1, customer surfaces and fittings as well as galleys and counters will be wiped down, HEPA air filters remove 99.97% of airborne particles, etc. Nice try after the Washington Post published an animation of how aircraft ventilation systems spread infection. I wonder if ocean liners are going to come back, or if sleeping in a sealed environment for longer raises the chance of infection despite the possibility of distancing on board.

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Red alert, day 47. Lockdown, day 37. County figures were not updated today. The BBC checker still gives figures for April 27.

The UK has recorded 161,145 cases on 763,387 tests (+43,563 , some on the same people). A total of 21,678 (+586) deaths in hospital have been recorded. From the yo-yoing of the daily figures, it is clear we have no idea where we are in the curve. From the data on overall deaths reported with ONS figures, it is clear that we are still nowhere near complete figures.

US Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic without a face covering, NBC and CNN reported.

Maria Nikolajeva has the best piece so far on the sense of time. She acknowledges her privilege as already having retired modestly but comfortably in Sweden, and, based on her work in children’s literature, discusses the difference she found as between kairos – circular, liquid time – and chronos – secular, progressive time:

I feel leaving chronos behind is a relief. I still need to keep track of days to know when my groceries delivery is coming, and I need to know when the live-streamed concert starts, but apart from that days are determined by sunrise and sunset, meal time is when I am hungry and bedtime is when I am tired. In between there are so many exciting things to fill my days, and every day is Sunday, and it is always summer. Unlike childhood, there is nothing I must learn because it will be useful later in life. I can gather totally useless knowledge and acquire totally useless skills. I can “waste time” because I have unlimited supply of it. I have the peace of mind to feel joy about everything I do, everything I see, hear, touch, smell. I do not look back with nostalgia or regrets at my past. I do not look with hope into the future. I do not feel anxious about the future either. I am not longing for anything, least of all any return to my previous lifestyle. I enjoy being away from civilisation and close to nature. And of course remoteness and isolation are the very tokens of kairos.

Also very good is her essay on shortages in the Soviet Union.

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Red alert, day 46. Lockdown, day 36. Suffolk has 936 (+40) confirmed cases in today’s figures, neighboring Essex has 2320 (+76, about 2X Suffolk population) cases and Tower Hamlets has 591 (+5, about 0.5X Suffolk population) confirmed cases as of this morning.

The UK has recorded 157,149 cases on 719,910 tests (+37,024 , some on the same people). A total of 21,092 (+360) deaths in hospital have been recorded.

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reverse Ebola

Red alert, day 45. Lockdown, day 35. Suffolk has 896 (+21) confirmed cases in today’s figures, neighboring Essex has 2244 (+42, about 2X Suffolk population) cases and Tower Hamlets has 586 (+0, about 0.5X Suffolk population) confirmed cases as of this morning.

The UK has recorded 152,840 cases on 669,850 tests (+29,058 , some on the same people). A total of 20,732 (+413) deaths in hospital have been recorded, including these Suffolkers profiled in the East Anglian Daily Times.

To reiterate, this is definitely an undercount and the level of government response is nowhere near what it should be. In Finland, 12 out of 26 residents of one nursing home have died and there are surely similar cases in total institutions everywhere. We’ll have to to wait for Private Eye to tell us, or whatever bureau keeps tabs on funerals. Another chilling detail: in the US, people are attending funerals by sitting in their cars outside the cemetery.

The most frightening social media chain letter of the last 24 hours is the Washington Post story (also without paywall in The Independent) about the clotting ability of the virus, or one version of the virus. It is causing strokes in young patients and, in the most striking image, seems to make clots form faster than surgeons can remove them. Like Ebola in reverse.

I am trying to level up in cooking by copying dishes from friends’ social media posts. Tonight: egg noodles with oil and peanut butter (this friend adds peanut butter to everything), and sauce of egg and mushrooms and herbs. His also had pepperoni and parmesan. I forgot the parmesan in my vegetarian version, but will add next time, along with some more spinach and maybe garlic.

Today I hosted my first nonclass Zoom a high school friend. We invited six others to see if we could maintain a single threaded conversation (plus chat) with that sized group. It worked well and I think this crowd will be having more of them. One friend was spending the afternoon on a virtual bike ride on an app called Zwift that connected with his exercise bike, and shared the screen (below). Now I’m wondering what other augmented virtuality apps can be meshed with Zoom. Nobody expects to be traveling anywhere before July at the earliest.

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