The Known Unknown

‪This is the worst game of six degrees of separation ever. Number One Daughter had class with someone who tested positive for COVID-19‬ virus. She has yet to hear if she is to be tested as well. In the meantime, we wait.

She came home from college over the past weekend so that she could be near her people if anything happened. That was joyful. She’s seen and hugged all of her siblings, her mother, me. Made dinner for her siblings and me the first night she was back; a delicious bowl of rice and beans. She’s now at her mother’s house.

What next? Does she quarantine herself in a room far away like a normal teenager, texting for deliveries of food between naps, or mingle with the rest of the households and everybody else with whom she’s already come into contact?

Do I next see her and the others in two weeks, barring any additional symptoms?

It seems prudent, as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, to take precautions in the face of ignorance, not unlike Pascal’s wager on God: We don’t know and the risks are immeasurable. How is this known unknown so much more terrifying than the previously unknown unknown?

A Matter of Life and Death

Here’s a purely hypothetical question for you. Let’s suppose you have a certain number of hospital beds and a certain number of ventilators and a certain number of medical staff. Further, let’s suppose that there are more sick people than there are beds, ventilators, and staff. The system has insufficient capacity to meet the need. Or, in economic terms, demand exceeds supply. How do you determine who receives help?

That question of triage, deciding who is to die, is a difficult moral calculus–for some people. For eugenicists or Nazis, it’s not: kill the old and feeble, the physically or mentally deranged, the scum; cull the weak from the herd and improve the species. Or, as Dominic Cummings, aide to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, put it: “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.

Image

Each time the United States argues over a national health care system, someone attempts to assert that socialized medicine leads inevitably to death panels, as if rationing life by one’s ability to pay were more humane than a committee. The thought was that at some point the State would decide it’s just too expensive to keep Granny alive and she would be killed–completely ignoring the fact that Congress funds anything out of nothing more than desire.

Yet somehow refusing to order production of medical equipment or prepare for a pandemic does not rise to the same level of callousness. Somehow seeking to profit from the deaths of thousands is just good business. Those actions cause or exacerbate shortages which lead to deciding who will die.

The response to COVID-19 is in a very real sense a logistics problem, in terms of delivering care to the people who need it. But it’s also one of meeting demand. And in that respect economics can offer some ways to think about it, as the field is, after all, concerned with how finite resources are allocated–the case of surge pricing toilet paper to prevent hoarding comes to mind. Though it seems rather insane for the price of N95-rated masks to have jumped from $0.70 to $7.00 each over the past week, the prices reflect a case of insufficient supply available for the demand. Some people, such as New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, redirected existing labor to another task: making hand sanitizer. The Army Corps of Engineers are doing what they do. Others are simply volunteering to help, whether in 3-D printing a valve for a ventilator, or providing patent-free CAD designs, or manufacturing, or sewing.

The response to COVID-19 is also an ethical problem. Most people want to help; the rest are outside society.

R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has been on a tear recently. He’s very upset that Roman Catholic churches, among others, suspended public celebration of the Eucharist, and argues that the Church could find other ways of adjusting without shutting out the parishioners. (I suspect he might agree with me about locking the sanctuary doors.) There is something quite magical about gathering together, but expecting others to risk their lives so you can receive the Eucharist seems the opposite of courage in the face of death. Perhaps the Catholic churches could find ways to remain open, but they have decided to help prevent the spread of disease by asking their flock to worship at home, not unlike the early Christians. Some non-denominational churches, more arrogant, won’t raise no pansies.

Mr. Reno also worries about the shrinking of our social life:

[R]estrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away.

Questioning the Shutdown,” R. R. Reno
First Things, March 20, 2020

But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen many people whose first response to the pending isolation was not to buy more toilet paper but to reach out to their family, to their friends, to others they hadn’t spoken with recently; was not to hide under the covers with a flashlight but to arrange online substitutes for in-person discussions. AT&T thanks you. We are a gregarious species.

I am lucky enough to be salaried. I am lucky enough to already work from home. My routine is not disturbed one bit. Except the Spring soccer season is on hold.

Others are not so lucky. Staying home, or, more precisely, away from work, has immediate costs that they cannot recoup. They have no help. The financial situation of many households is precarious. The financial situation of many businesses is precarious, even larger businesses. We are, the bulk of us, over-extended, living hand to mouth. Cash money is, these days, what we need to live. We may adjust to having less. Or we may die.

The financial markets, despite their formerly rosy numbers, are an illusion. The real economy always involves real people, real joy and real suffering, real living and real dying. What are we doing for real people?

We are all looking for a middle ground here, between the Scylla of mass death and the Charybdis of economic apocalypse. At this stage of the crisis, it looks like there is no middle ground. This is an intolerable thing, but it might well be reality.

The Hard Road Ahead,” Rod Dreher,
The American Conservative, March 20, 2020

Where we devote our attention, where we give our time, and what we spend money on tells us a lot about our priorities. We have choices to make.

Meanwhile, it appears we won’t have to worry about missing Easter services. The President thinks we can open up for business in just a few days.


The Plague

Our public library has closed indefinitely, and though I will need to return the large stack of books 📚 I borrowed last month at some point, I do not think I will lack for reading matter if I can manage to tear my eyes away from the slow-moving train wreck that is the world these days: I have many unread books in both the fiction and non-fiction rooms of my own library, which sounds much more grand than it actually is.

This one, however, I’ve read before. According to the receipt inside from Dave’s Comics on Three Chopt Road in Richmond, Virginia, I did so the summer of 1988. It seemed apropos to revisit The Plague.

The language [Rieux] used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

Truth.

A Tale of Two Cats

Two cats live with me. One, Lily, is 15; she has been with us since she was weaned, adopted with her brother when my daughters were four and two. Her brother passed away two Christmases ago. The other, Maple, is of indeterminate age, and came to live with us five years ago after she was abandoned. They don’t get along.

Lily used to be the queen, but she’s aged, and now Maple can push her around. As a result, she spends most days on edge, tip-toeing around the sleeping bully. She’ll ask politely for food, stand daintily in second position while she waits, and then not eat–because as soon as a rustle or a can is heard, Maple flops off her chair and gallumphs thunderously to the kitchen, elbows her way past Lily, and quickly consumes all there is, regardless of how much is set out.

Maple is moaning piteously outside right now. She claims to be starving to death. How could I be so cruel as to keep her away from all of her food.

The house has one too many cats.

What I Hope–and Fear

I hope there will be a great coming together of society, as people from all walks of life realize that we are all in this together. We leave the world a better place than we found it.

I fear a few, seeing the opportunity to never let a crisis go to waste, ensure that they profit at the expense of others, that they consolidate their power, turning neighbor against neighbor as the many fight for table scraps dropped by the few.

One might say I’m a pessimist, but I’m afraid that my fears are more likely to come to pass.

Garbage-In, Garbage-Out

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If testing for COVID-19 only if another test for COVID-19 is positive, when do you ever test?

Answer: you don’t.

Luckily, humans aren’t computers, though rules can make them behave, sometimes, like they are.

The question above was prompted by personal concern. It’s that time of the year when folks, including me, tend to get sick. I’ve had symptoms of the common cold or allergies for a week or so: a dry cough, runny nose. Number One Son presented symptoms of a viral infection on Monday evening: A fever, a dry cough, aches and pains. He did not have trouble breathing. Could be an influenza.

We can test for the flu. The test results came back negative. It’s not the flu. Given the current situation, it could be SARS-CoV-2. We could test for that, if test kits were available. But test kits are unavailable, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to a fragile supply chain. Therefore the Centers for Disease Control has certain recommendations on when to test, in order that the available tests not be used up in a panic.

Decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19, as well as the clinical course of illness. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever1 and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing). Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.

Epidemiologic factors that may help guide decisions on whether to test include: any persons, including healthcare workers2, who have had close contact3 with a laboratory-confirmed4 COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset, or a history of travel from affected geographic areas5 (see below) within 14 days of symptom onset.

Evaluating and Reporting Persons Under Investigation, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(updated March 4, 2020; retrieved March 11)

Practically speaking, however, there’s no testing because we can’t. This limits our knowledge of the spread of the illness and whether or not we should test.

And that’s not even getting to sins of omission. The cases reported to the World Health Organization are an approximation due to input error. We can somewhat extrapolate the scope of this problem with math–The Economist mapped typical tourism flows to elucidate where COVID-19 is being under-reported, for example–but small errors in variables cause very different results. How many people have been exposed? How many people have been infected? How long is the incubation period? When does an infected person start spreading the disease? How long does an infected person spread the disease? How much can you trust people who habitually lie?

All of which means that the very nice map from Johns Hopkins is a picture of the past, and not a clear guide to what’s happening now, in your neighborhood. The same goes for any news reporting. Still, decisions have to be made with incomplete or inaccurate data. And they can be, from knowledge of how diseases spread in general, and boil down to two things: reduce contact and reduce travel. The decisions by many colleges to hold classes online and to send students home is then, in this light, only half right.

We know that we don’t know if we’re infected.

We know that it spreads before symptoms appear.

We know that the symptoms are deceiving.

We know that we aren’t testing.

We know that the virus cannot spread without hosts.

Waiting until we have a confirmed case before acting seems the height of silliness, closing the barn doors after the horse has bolted.

But how easy is it to ask people to stay home for a fortnight? Martial law shouldn’t be necessary: ask folks to stay home and make it possible for them to do so. That’s the difficult part.

One thing that can be done, relatively easily, is projecting the result of doing nothing. [edit to add link that starts from a different assumption]

First, assume everyone is infected. 80% will be fine. 20% will develop complications. 1% will die. In the United States, that’s ≈3,500,000 people dead. Luckily, we aren’t doing nothing. People do wash their hands and stay apart from each other. We’re just doing practically nothing.

When this is all over, we shall see.

Personal Hygiene is Public Hygiene

Isn’t it remarkable how the recommendations for what to do if you get sick are basically the same regardless of the cause? Wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Cover your mouth (not with your hand) when you cough or sneeze. Clean surfaces. No double dipping. Wash your hands. Stay home. Rest.

The difference with something like SARS-CoV-2 is that, because of its virulence, the population as a whole cannot depend on individuals to wash their hands–or to stay home.

We here in America have a habit of not staying home when we’re sick, for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious: if I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid; if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat. Some people do have paid sick days, though not everybody does, nor does everybody have enough paid sick (or personal or vacation) days to cover being sick more than once. They have no option.

But we’ve also been taught not to take our sick days on Mondays or Fridays because the boss will think that we’re not actually sick. Obviously, we’re goofing off or we drank too much over the weekend. So we go to work. We were taught this in school: attendance is mandatory. Come to school every day unless you have an excuse. Our industrial training has been effective. Long story short, we do not rest: we go out and contaminate the world when we’re sick.

Perhaps after this epidemic runs its course, particularly if it kills enough people, that might change.

A Simple Rate Tweak Should Do It

Last week, the Federal Reserve and others lowered interest rates in an attempt to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Also last week, The Economist optimistically wrote that a recession is unlikely but not impossible:

Yet there is an uneasy feeling that a flurry of rate cuts may not be the solution to this downturn. In part that reflects the fact that they are already so low.

Lowering the prime rate has no effect because it’s not the banks who don’t have enough money: it’s the people. Maybe rate changes would have an effect if the banks changed the interest rate on consumer credit from 25% to -25%, but they won’t. It’s thoroughly irritating how some commentators say there’s too much money in the system when the problem is not how much there is but who has it. We’ve needed a helicopter drop of cash or a debt jubilee for a decade, and a basic income for a century.

In the United States, “full” employment is not having an effect on wages because it’s not full. The labor market is global, or was until yesterday, and global unemployment is roughly 50%, so real wages are still going down. Because employment only counts paid labor–and bears only a passing relation to what work needs to be done–employment is constrained by employers. And there aren’t enough employers, again because of the distribution of money, but also because of a tendency to monopoly: how many paperclip maximizers do we really need? Meanwhile, none of that matters because the system isn’t designed for the public good–or, if you prefer, it’s not designed to maximize marginal benefit for all market participants. Finance capitalism thrives on greed: the world can go to Hell; I’ve got mine.

Besides, it’s not just households who are over-leveraged. Everyone is.

One way the virus hurts the economy is by disrupting the supply of labour, goods and services. People fall ill. Schools close, forcing parents to stay at home. Quarantines might force workplaces to shut entirely. This is accompanied by sizeable demand effects. Some are unavoidable: sick people go out less and buy fewer goods. Public-health measures, too, restrict economic activity. Putting more money into consumers’ hands will do little to offset this drag, unlike your garden-variety downturn. Activity will resume only once the outbreak runs its course.

Then there are nasty spillovers. Both companies and households will face a cash crunch. Consider a sample of 2,000-odd listed American firms. Imagine that their revenues dried up for three months but that they had to continue to pay their fixed costs, because they expected a sharp recovery. A quarter would not have enough spare cash to tide them over, and would have to try to borrow or retrench. Some might go bust. Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements, a club of central banks, find that over 12% of firms in the rich world generate too little income to cover their interest payments.

Many workers do not have big safety buffers either. They risk losing their incomes and their jobs while still having to make mortgage repayments and buy essential goods. More than one in ten American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to about two days’ work at average earnings, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. Fearing a hit to their pockets, people could start to hoard cash rather than spend, further worsening firms’ positions.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2020/03/05/a-recession-is-unlikely-but-not-impossible

The Economist longs for Bretton Woods while they chart some of the attempted remedies. It’s quite possible, however, as some commentators have noted since at least the turn of the century, that the global economy is now too complexly intertwined to be centrally managed, if it ever could have been, or ever could be.

May you live in interesting times.

Don’t Panic

It may be this is the End of Days, or it may not. We shall see, though it has certainly looked like this century has been rhyming with the last since at least 2008. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to recall the wise words on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Or, as it was written in the days when Men were Men and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri were Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri,

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If—,” Rudyard Kipling (1910)

(Come to think of it, it’s no surprise that the Scout motto is Be Prepared. Baden-Powell and Kipling came out of the same mileau.)

Thou Preparest a Table Before Me

Last Sunday, the pastor of Freedom Plains Presbyterian Church asked for help cleaning the tiny cups used for Communion. They’d switched to glass, or back to glass, from disposable plastic. I was pleased: Glass cups were all I’d known when I was younger, last century.

I’ve helped prepare for Communion and clean up afterward. I’ve filled quarter-ounce glasses with Welch’s grape juice. I’ve collected the empties and not-so-empties from the backs of the pews after the service. I’ve washed the cups. It’s one of the things you do as the preacher’s kid.

Perhaps because I grew up a preacher’s kid in the Presbyterian Church, I’m curious about worship practices among Christians and across cultures. I am not anthropologist enough, or daring enough, to visit other ceremonies uninvited, but I have attended within my comfort zone: mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.

The service of the Eucharist differs in the details. Some traditions break freshly baked bread; some, wafers. Some use wine; some, grape juice. Some go to the altar rail. Some form lines. Some pass a plate hand to hand. Some sip wine from a chalice; some, from little cups. Some plastic. Some glass. The way the liturgy is structured emphasizes or elides different aspects of the practice of life.

I love the ritual of the Catholic mass: The washing of the hands, the presentation of the gifts, the setting of the table, and then… the cleaning up. No crumbs are dropped. Dishes and utensils are cleaned–and put away–every time. The congregation silently, patiently, waits.

It’s part of the ceremony to set the table. It’s part of the ceremony to wash the dishes. This menial labor is not insignificant.

At some of the services I’ve attended, there’s a rush to leave, immediately, before “the Mass has ended; go in peace.” Parishioners receive communion and walk out the door rather than return to their pew. They jostle in the parking lot, impatient to get on with their day. Did they receive anything other than a stale cracker? I’ve seen this less recently, perhaps because of where or when I’ve attended, or perhaps because I’m older. Or perhaps because attendance has dwindled: those who are there want to be there. Church is not an irritant.

At Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian meetings, where the plate is passed, there’s no easy escape. In the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran traditions, where the congregants rise and move forward to receive, the return is easily abbreviated.

But if you stay, see how the meal ends with the washing and the putting away.

Last week, a couple about my age collected the soiled dishes on a hand cart and wheeled them off to the commercial washer in the social hall’s kitchen.

Who prepares your meals? Who cleans?

Living on Margin

Instant gratification is made possible by just-in-time delivery. What if just-in-time never arrives?

I have four eggs left in the refrigerator and half a gallon of milk, so if I want to make waffles over the weekend, I will need to purchase more. Assuming that I have money to buy more. Assuming that there are more to buy.

I know someone with chickens, so eggs might not be a problem if, for some reason, I have to beg favors, or the local grocery store closes, or a delivery can’t be made because all the drivers are ill or fuel is scare, or the farmers or their robots can’t milk the cattle or gather eggs from the chickens. But do I know anyone with a milk cow? It’s still Winter; do I know anyone with greenhouse? (Actually, I know several, but they’re in Virginia and Connecticut; I’m in New York.)

What will you eat when the world ends?

What is your margin of error?

Echoes of Holy Wisdom

What we can do with physics and math–and curiosity–is awe-inspiring.

Natural light moving across the surfaces of marble and gold causes glitter that in turn simulates the perceptual memory of the quivering sea. The iterative marmar offers the linguistic basis of this experience: in Greek marmaron is marble; Marmara is the name of the sea washing at the southern harbors of Constantinople and surrounding the marble quarries on the island of Proconnesus; marmairein and marmaryssein is “to flash,” “to sparkle;” and marmarygma is shimmer. Marmarygma arises in Hagia Sophia at sunrise and sunset at the time when originally the morning and evening liturgies unfolded.

https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/iconsofsound/hagiasophiaaesthetics/

Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel’s Icons of Sound project at Stanford resurrected the soundscape of Hagia Sophia in concert with Capella Romana. Listen:

Like all good things, there’s also a book, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium (2017) and accompanying website(s).

The film contains more details, or just listen.

(via NPR’s Weekend Edition and The World According to Sound)

What Practice?

Doesn’t this miss the point?

Tenzin Priyadarshi, a Buddhist monk and the CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. To automate the elaborate process of creating and destroying [mandalas], an important tradition in Buddhism, Priyadarshi teamed up with Carlo Ratti, an MIT architect and designer of Scribit, a $500 “write and erase robot” that uses special markers to draw and erase art on a wall. [emphasis mine]

“The robot does the hard work. Can you still attain enlightenment?” Tanya Basu, Technology Review (February 21, 2020)

Pride Goeth Before

Most of us find it hard to admit mistakes.

Was the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak worsened because admitting the scope of the problem, or that a problem even exists, could be embarrassing? Is that any different from a Church that claims to speak infallibly and act in-errantly, yet shelters and enables abuse?

Are we bound to ignore the probability of error? Why do we assert absolute truth, yet fester with lies; claim omniscience, yet remain ignorant?

What a sin is this pride, this hubris!

How long, O Lord?

“Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.”

Isaiah 6:9-13

Why Do I Keep a Library?

Hope.

My father keeps a library. His father and mother had books and albums of photographs galore. My mother keeps a library. Her mother and father did not. Visits to my grandparents homes felt different, and the difference was most obviously, to me, in the books.

I grew up among books. They were my playground, my refuge, my adventure-land. I could retreat to the library and lie with National Geographic, the World Book Encyclopedia, or ancient Triple-A maps. There lived philosophies, prophets, histories, fantasies, adventures. I traveled to far distant Camelot with a Connecticut Yankee. I never thought I wouldn’t keep a library.

But the reason for it was the future: my children would laugh and play here too.

They haven’t, not as I thought.

Their pleasures have been, in large part, electronic. What is there to see and love in a virtual world? How do you pass it on? My youngest, No. 2 Son, recently excavated the Apple Macintosh LC-III that I kept because maybe one day I might need it. It holds nothing much. I never bought much software, and toward the end it was not much more than an e-World terminal. He’s been playing Sim City 2000 (1993).

I feel a certain nostalgia, but of what use is an LC-III now? I regret my digital life. What is there to show of what I’ve done? I may have saved some documents, but who can read them? Even an audio recording of my grandparents needs a cassette player. Consider this website: It is not just HTML and CSS and a smattering of PNG images. It is WordPress and PHP and Apache and MySQL and FreeBSD and Pair.com and electricity and the Internet. What future does it have? It hardly holds interest for anyone now; of what interest will it be when I am gone?

But books, barring insect, fire, or flood, will remain.

And if my children do not play here, perhaps one day my grandchildren will.