Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Let Me Pray for You, and lesser thoughts

The most important thing first of all: I have the privilege of going to Mass again on Sunday, to sing the psalm response, and this time I'd love to carry your intentions with me as I offer communion for all of you. Is there anything you'd like me to pray for? Please send me an email if you don't want to comment publicly.

And if you'd like to watch daily mass, our parish has been livestreaming since the day Masses were closed, so our tech guy has made great strides. Mass is at 9:00am EST every day.


As with the general economy, so with personal productivity. My letter-writing pace has slowed to a crawl, but it does continue. If you asked me to write to you, rest assured that I will, even if it takes me all of Lent and Easter seasons. The pace of writing a letter is good for me. I tend to type too fast, and delete and edit on the fly. With a handwritten sentence, in ink, I have to stop and craft before I write. Sometimes I write a few words and realize I wasn't quite sure where I was going, and I have to make the rest of the sentence fit the rather stilted opening. I imagine future anthropologists coming across one of them in an attic and trying to analyze the prose style: "Looks like this author was a seventy-year-old woman who learned how to compose from Voyages in English, a series popular in Catholic schools in the mid-20th century."


Today the first of my Amazon spree of second-hand Georgette Heyer books arrived, and after rushing the kids through their morning lessons I sat down to read. Alas, it was one of her lesser efforts -- a color-by-numbers plot about wards rushing off to avoid marriage, and a rude guardian and a beautiful lady of a certain age (29, heh) whose banter is supposed to prove that hate at first sight is really love at first sight but mostly proved how tedious they both were. He's rude, she snipes back, they're both strangely flustered, but the reader is strangely unmoved. Lather, rinse, repeat every time they interact. Add in a stable of mostly cardboard characters, with nary a true human interaction from cover to cover. At the close of the book I found myself drained rather than refreshed.

Heyer has considerable literary talents, but if I didn't already know, this wouldn't be the book to convince me of it.


I wish I had a longer post to write. I've had a number of seedlings germinating in my brain, and some that would probably come to fruition if I would just sit down and write. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

Mark Your Calendars: 12 Angry Men, Quarantine Edition

Where the jurors were, when jurors performed in person.

As with every activity, hobby, and avocation that requires working in close contact with other humans, theater is evolving to meet new social demands. And our community theater is at the forefront! Our local revival of Twelve Angry Men, in which Darwin plays Juror 12, the advertising jerk, had to be canceled due to everything being canceled, but modern times call for modern solutions. This Saturday evening at 7pm EST, the performance is being streamed as a radio drama on Facebook Live, and you're all invited.

The plan is to add sound effects and use still photos from the original performance two years ago to keep pace with the action. How will it all work out? Watch and see as everyone adapts to new methods. You shouldn't need to have a Facebook account to be able to watch, and we'll post a link here on Saturday.

Happy deliberating!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pandemic in Simland

As is perhaps obvious, I've been spending a fair amount of time looking at data about the coronavirus pandemic. One of the questions that I've seen is: Why is it that the number of new cases and new deaths isn't trending down more now that seem to have peaked in the US and in other countries?

As we've heard about the COVID-19 outbreak, we've seen a lot of charts with curves on them. Here's the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) prediction of how many deaths we might experience which was released back on April 1st. The model projected a total of 90,000 deaths in the US with a trend that looked like this:
Note that the estimate for peak deaths per day was not far off from what we've seen thus far. We saw 2,631 deaths reported on April 15th, the second highest to date, with the highest being April 21 at 2,683:
(Source: )
What's different from the IHME chart, however, is that instead of heaving a clear peak and then falling off steeply, the US trend seems to be just continuing. We can see a clear precedent for this behavior in the reported death trend from Italy, which saw its outbreak get big before that in the US did:
That's clearly a more lopsided curve than the one which the IHME projected. If I were to eyeball their curve, one month after peak, the daily death toll should be around 25% of the peak death toll. However, Italy is now one month past their peak and their daily numbers are now coming in in the mid 400s, when their peak was at 900.

One theory I've heard put forth for this is that all around the world countries are now taking very aggressive approaches to classifying deaths, marking down anyone who might have been infected with the virus at some point as dying of it, and thus that now an increasing percentage of total deaths are being classified as coronavirus deaths. This theory would suggest that there was a symmetrical curve of deaths due to the virus, but the lopsided trend we're seeing now is the result a misclassification which is making the total death toll larger than it is.

 (Side note: Joseph Moore, the author of the above linked blog Yard Sale of the Mind holds that in fact we're not really seeing any "excess deaths" due to COVID-19, as the people dying all would have died soon anyway. I think this is false and that the deaths in the US and elsewhere will be clearly visible in overall death data for the year once that becomes available. Since I think it's important to put one's credibility on the line when making statements like this, I'll lay out in a separate post my commitment to report back in January 2021, examine the data, and either rhetorically eat my hat or show clearly that this was in fact a serious matter causing a death toll in the US of over 75,000, at which point I'll invite Joseph Moore to rhetorically consume a hat of his own.)

I think the trend we're seeing is instead the result of the amount of disease suppression we've achieved using social distancing: enough to start decreasing the number of new cases, but only barely.

Why did we expect a curve that peaked and then decreased quickly? Because that's what China showed for their initial outbreak. The Chinese data is messy, but if I download the Chinese data from the John Hopkins data repository and chart out the death trend for Hubei province, with a five day average to smooth out its extreme choppiness, I get this:
That's a pretty symmetrical trend. However, two things are worth keeping in mind. First, once the Chinese got serious, they started quarantining sick people in a very, very aggressive way. They also started tracing down all the people each sick person had been in contact with, testing them, and quarantining them. In the US we have not taken this aggressive approach. Part of this is because we hold a lot tighter to our civil liberties than the Chinese government (which is good though it's perhaps worth asking whether some of our hesitation to use more aggressive quarantine procedures is just that it's been a really long time since the West has dealt with a serious infectious disease outbreak and the right balance between quarantine and civil liberties has faded a bit in our cultural memory.)  Another factor may be that the Chinese data is not wholly accurate, but since I can't really judge that one way or the other I'll leave that alone.

So my rough theory was: the social distancing measures we're taking with lots of people staying home as much as they can, large gatherings banned, etc. are having a significant effect, but rather than decisively "crushing the curve" they're just kind of gently bending it, giving us that very lopsided trend we're seeing both in Italy (and Spain and France) and so far in the US.

To try to show that the kind of effect I think is going on could produce trends such as we are seeing, I decided to create a simplistic pandemic model and put some different assumptions through it. (When I say simplistic, I mean "in Excel" so we're talking very basic. But you can view the file here if you want to check my equations.)

In the model, I set up a population of one million and introduced twenty people with a pandemic virus into it. Each person in Simland has contact with an average of 20 other people each day. The contagiousness of the virus is such that each person who is infected has a 1.2% chance of passing the virus to any given person he or she meets. The infection lasts ten days. After ten days, the person either dies (0.5% chance of death) or recovers. People who have recovered are immune to the disease. This means that as more and more of the population is exposed to the virus, the chances of passing it on go down, because a smaller and smaller percentage of the infected person's daily contacts are unexposed. (Note, the chance of passing on the disease, number of contacts, and period of sickness were all made up. I made my disease last only ten days so I could have a shorter model period without scrolling through more than 200 days. I didn't account for people having splintered social networks or families, I just used one big population pool. So this is a very simple model, but the basic ideas of transmission work. And I did work a number of scenarios so I could come up with a model disease which seemed to have some similarities with what we're saying about the coronavirus.)

First I just let the disease rip through my population. Within just over 100 days almost 90% of the population got the disease, and then the population hit herd immunity and the infection rate dropped to a nominal four new infections a day with the remaining ~10% of the population staying healthy. The death and infection curves were entirely symmetrical and the total deaths were a bit over 0.4% of the total population (4,395 deaths out of 1 million people).

Then I introduced social distancing, starting on Day 35 (at which point almost 5,000 people were infected and seven had died) Over a ten day period, I had my Simlanders reduce their number of daily contacts from twenty to eight. This resulted in a trend in new infections (and ten days later, a mirror trend in new deaths) that was a lopsided curve that may look a bit familiar.  (I trimmed this chart to 88 days so you can see the "current" period more clearly.)
As you can see, the number of new infections is going down after a noisy period of adjustment, but it's a long slow reduction. At the two hundred day mark, there are still almost 150 people a day getting the infection. Just under 10% of the population has been infected at some point, and just under 500 people have died. So the social distancing has massively reduced the infections (from 900,000 to under 100,000) and the deaths (from 4,395 to 472). However, the problem is that my Simlanders are still doing their social distancing half a year after they began.

What if the Simlanders decide to get really tough on social distancing? If they do a final crackdown to only four contacts a day, you get a symmetrical curve. However, unless they can make sure that no infected person comes in contact with any uninfected person, the disease doesn't fully wipe out. This curve looks like it goes to zero, but there's actually a small number of daily cases still going. At day 200 a total of 29,644 have ever been sick and 147 have died.
But unless they really can totally quarantine the sick people (resulting in zeroing out the transmission) if they relax their social distancing, they immediately have another big wave. Here's what happens if after cutting their average daily contacts from 20 to 8, and seeing good results, the Simlanders decide to reopen their country on Day 80 and their average daily contacts go back up to 12.
As you can see, as soon as they open up again, the virus starts spreading like crazy again. At day 200 they've had a total of 528,760 people get the virus and 2,617 have died. Short of a vaccine or a treatment, or finding and quarantining all their sick people so that they do not pass it on to anyone else, reopening causes a new outbreak.

However, it's interesting to note that if even after re-opening they have somewhat fewer average contacts per day (12 rather than 20) the disease will level off at a lower level than it would with more contacts. In the original unconstrained model with each Simlander having an average of 20 contacts a day, nearly 90% of the population got the virus and 0.44% of the population died. If when they reopen they do so with a lower number of average contacts a day, only about 50% contract the virus and 0.26% die. So if the Simlanders are unable to quarantine all the sick people and thus wipe the virus out (and knowing that they can't remain in "lockdown" forever) their next best shot is to do a return to "normal" that still reduces the opportunities for spread. They'll lose a lot more people than if they could isolate and eradicate the virus, but they'll save a lot of lives versus a scenario in which they do nothing.

Since this is a purely numbers driven simulation, I can't provide any insight into what the "right" level of sustainable social distancing would be. But at least with this kind of simplistic modeling (and short of having a treatment or vaccine show up) these seem like the two options that would be available.

Saturday, April 25, 2020


I have to tell you all something. This past Sunday, I went to Mass and received communion.

I don't know why I should have kept it so quiet, except that I know so few people had the same privilege. And I know that until recently, I myself would probably have been resentful about hearing that from someone else, as if they were getting one over on the rest of us stuck at home. But I was asked to sing with a small choir for our livestreamed parish mass to celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, and so I went.

I did not feel overwhelmed with joy or sadness or nostalgia or deep spiritual fervor. I was glad to be in church again, and I was delighted to see my parish priest in person and to talk to the few others there. But we were there not to be served, but to serve. Livestreaming is not like being in person. The sound is less forgiving. Everything has to be more precise. You have to be much clearer and crisper than on an ordinary Sunday. And you don't know when the camera might be on you (though you have a good idea), so you always have to be on. In a sense, it wasn't much different from being on stage, where the wisdom is, "Someone is always looking at you." But it's not like being on stage either, because the camera is much closer. I sang the psalm, and I wasn't sure where to look or how to project. (I went back and watched a few seconds on YouTube and couldn't bear to see any more, so if I got better after a nervous start, I'll never know.) Our parish tech guy is amazing and has been improving the quality of the filming each week by strategic repositioning of the two cameras to catch the mass from several angles. It was an honor to watch the complicated tech ballet to ensure that the people watching had the best view possible.

And what was it like, after weeks of fasting, to receive the Eucharist?

It simply was. I wished I'd been able to go to Confession beforehand, but, particularly as it was Divine Mercy Sunday, I had the strong conviction that Jesus only saw me, not my sins. Before I received, I prayed for everyone, but everyone on earth, and offered the Eucharist for the entire Body of Christ, whose representative I was privileged to be. And then I consumed the Eucharist and knelt in thanksgiving just like any other Sunday.

The next day, I watched our parish's daily Mass, and the spiritual experience of watching was no different from being there in person. In each case, the physical circumstances of attending Mass were a result of obedience -- obedience in being asked by the bishops to stay home; obedience in being asked to attend and serve. God did not bestow great consolations on me at Mass in person; he did not deprive me of anything by participating from home, praying the prayer of spiritual communion, and watching our tech guy receive communion on our behalf.

But if you received any graces during the week, I hope it was a sharing in the grace of the Eucharist I offered for you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Looking at the Stanford Santa Clara study on COVID-19

A couple people have pointed me towards this interview with Stanford Dr. Jay Bhattacharya about his antibody study of COVID-19 in Santa Clara, CA. His conclusions, which have been widely reported, are that the number of people who've contracted the virus are actually 50x to 80x more than the official case counts, and thus that the actual death rate is down around 0.16% or not much different from the flu.

I listened to the interview and then read up some more on the test to make sure I was understanding right how it worked. Two things that are worth keeping in mind:

1) When they developed their test, the manufacturer of the test did a test for false positives by testing 371 blood samples from before coronavirus was in the US. The test correctly identified 369 of those samples as not having COVID-19, and incorrectly identified 2 as having it. (Dr. Battacharya's team then did their own test on 30 samples they knew couldn't virus antibodies, and all thirty came back as negative, but since that 0/30 result is consistent with the 2/371 result, I don't feel that really changes it.) When they did their actual test, they tested 3330 people and had 50 tests coming back as positive. So if we think about the false positive rate they had when doing their initial check, that means that nearly half of their positive results (18 out of the 50) in the study could have been through the test returning false positives. And we don't know what the range of error rate is. If they tested another 371 known non-COVID exposed samples, would they get another 2 errors, or would they get 4 or 0? This test would be acceptably accurate for testing a population with 10% of 20% of people who actually had coronavirus antibodies, but it creates a huge amount of uncertainty when only 1.5% of the people they tested had it. They did some statistical adjustments to try to deal with that and also to account for the sample bias of which people from the county showed up, but it really makes the whole thing very hard to evaluate. (If you want to read about this in more depth, see the analysis here.)

2) Let's take the test conclusions as being totally accurate and say that the actual infection fatality rate of COVID-19 is down around 0.15%. Does that fit with the other things that we know? Well, as of today New York City (the worst outbreak in the US) has had 10,344 deaths in a population of 8.4 million. That means that the COVID-19 deaths in NYC as a percentage of the total population are 0.12% If the Stanford study is right that the actual fatality rate of COVID-19 is around 0.15%, then we'd have to assume that 82% of New Yorkers have already had the virus. And yet, overall, only about half the people test in NYC are getting positive results. That would mean that among the people who think they have COVID-19 and seek out a test, the rate of infection is significantly lower than among the NYC population as a whole. And that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Moreover, it would suggest that some areas such as Bergamo in Italy had an infection rate of over 100% (and that's using only the official deaths, not the "excess death" analysis of mortality which has suggested that Italy probably actually saw 2x to 3x more deaths than the official counts.) I think we'd all like to believe that the outbreak is nearly over in New York City, but there are a whole lot of ways in which the idea that 80% of the population has already had the virus does not pass the smell test.

That hard hit areas simply don't make sense using the infection fatality rates than the Stanford study, combined with the fact that the false positive rate of their tests may contributed nearly half their results, suggests to me that there's something wrong with the overall model. Testing for antibodies to the virus in order to figure out how many people have actually been exposed to it is definitely going to be an important tool for figuring out how widespread the virus has become and what we should do next. However, it looks to me like the Stanford study has probably rushed out with a result with fits a story which many people would like to believe, when the results are in fact pretty uncertain.

Color Me Screenless

Someone came in just now to tell me that my laptop had stopped charging. As it turned out, no amount of trying different outlets was going to make the frayed cord conduct electricity again. And in these days of heightened screen time, losing a screen is going to hurt.

It's not going to hurt me! I have barely touched my laptop in the past six weeks as it's gone from room to room, hosting Zoom calls, and Google Hangouts, and suddenly-online dance classes and piano lessons, and people's Spotify playlists, and the occasional Shaun the Sheep marathon. Indeed, my overall screen time has dropped during quarantine. Darwin is working from home in the library, a room with a) a door that shuts, and b) the family computer. He's using his work laptop and monitor, but if I step into the room during business hours to log on to our desktop, a trail of children follow in my wake, which defeats the purpose of the door that closes, and can be dicey in the event of a conference call.

So I'm not much on the computer during the day, and I'm not much on during the evening. I've taken all social media apps off my phone, and that cuts down screen time there. What am I doing with all this screen-free time? Good stuff, but little stuff. Baking more, and I'm happy to say that a bit of my kitchen mojo has started to return. Puzzles with the kids -- we're cracking through our 1000-piecers, and might have to resort to pleading locally for a puzzle exchange. Chatting with the kids. Watching family movies in the evening, sometimes (not screen-free, but you know). Reading, kind of? I'm trying to get through some improving books right now. The other night I sat down and read the first pages of Leisure: The Basis of Culture, looked up and saw A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer on the end table, and promptly took it up and read until 1 AM. I feel a Heyer kick coming on, but I want to read the good ones, not the formulaic early stuff. I dug up the Kindle and picked up The Spanish Bride, based on a true story of an English officer at the siege of Badajoz who rescued a Spanish maiden and married her.

Darwin and I are taking sanity walks every day after dinner, to get some time together and to revel in the spring beauties of the old American neighborhood. Time together, you say? Aren't you together 24/7 now? Yes, but we're also with seven other people 24/7, and they all have legitimate claims they need to press, except when the 11yo dabs on his siblings and everyone starts yelling because that's stupid. (Dabbing is this close to being banned, let me tell you.) When we are walking, no one fusses at us or comes up while we're chatting to ask a question, or even to start an interesting conversation that we're glad to have. And there is no small (but not as small as he used to be) person sleeping between us, flinging arms across our faces or jabbing our eyes, bracing his legs, and finally cuddling up to be the coziest warmest fellow emitting the sleep waves at us. As we walk, we discuss moving him, which would require a major household reordering of bedrooms, such an intensive project requiring the careful matching of personalities that would need to share a room, that we end up putting it off for another week, again.

We discuss paint, or rather, I discuss paint and Darwin nods politely because I am forever discussing paint. It's been on my mind a great deal because there's a hole in the house by the door where the mail slot should go. 

The mail slot is old and brass. Over time, the 90-year-old wood that it was screwed into has disintegrated, so that it's come looser and looser. We've tried to repair it several times with shims and wood blocks, but nothing about this mail slot has been simple to fix. Instead of trying to put the slot back in, we needed to mount it in a wooden frame that would screw right into the house.

First, I carefully cut a paper template to match the back of the slot, and then Darwin cut the frame out of plywood. There are screw and hinge mounts sticking out, part of what has made it so tricky to adjust in the house wall.

We checked the fit and made adjustments.

Then we inserted the door on the long hinge pin and made sure that it could swing clear.

This is a bonus shot of the cat that uploaded with the other pix.

The last step before mounting should be painting, and that's where the delay has come it.

Our glory and misfortune is that we live in a Tudor Revival house. One does not simply paint a Tudor house anything other than cream and brown, unless you are going to paint the trim white and color the fields. This house does not want the trim to be painted white. It wants brown -- maybe not this brown, but some brown.

As you can see, none of the woodwork on the lower story is brown. Everything is cream, and everything is peeling and needs to be touched up. Could we, I wondered, paint the mailbox and that trim a different color? I talked about it for days, and Darwin nodded hesitantly for days, and finally one day we realized that he thought I was talking about replacing all the brown with some other color, and we'd been talking at cross purposes all this time.

But still I vacillated. For all my searching, I could not find any examples online of a Tudor house with this severe style having any kind of trim color besides the timbering. I love color dearly, and always imagined that I would own a Victorian with, I don't know, a porch or at least a shutter with some good pigmentation. However, even with a Revival facade like ours, where the Tudor is only skin-deep (those boards are literally 1x6s tacked up there between a few coats of plaster) over the original Victorian bones, it would be clownish to slap on color without some very thoughtful analysis.

(One thing we're going to do, one day, is replace the brown metal roof with real copper sheeting. Copper is pricey, but at those small square footages, it's achievable.) That will give us, in the future, a true verdigris accent. But verdigris paint looks nothing like aged copper. I know this because I went so far as to order some sample quarts from Sherwin-Williams (carefully delivered to my car) and test some colors on the garage, which also wants touching up. The good folks at Sherwin-Williams, not having in stock a paint chip I wanted, generously gave me a whole color fan deck. Flipping through this thing has the intoxicating high of pure potential. The strips of gradated hues! The array of tones and shades and sheens! All this color out there, and it could be on my walls! The names themselves produce a buzz. Roseberry. Hazel. Delft. Studio Blue Green. Rookwood Antique Gold. Dover White and Turkish Coffee (probably the colors of my house). We sit around and challenge each other to pick one color from a random strip to paint the dining room. We delight in the blues, the greens, the neutrals. We ignore the oranges.

Alas, from my garage experiments, let me tell you that strong contrasting color on a Tudor is Right Out. What about complementary color? Could the trim be, say, Rookwood Antique Gold, or maybe Straw (both from the Historic Color collection, so's you know), tone on tone with the cream? I have not tested it on the garage yet, but more and more I fear it would be a misstep. Should the woodwork around the windows and door even be painted brown, or should it remain cream to give a solid foundational look to the first story? We have yet to decide.

Meanwhile, we still had a hole in the house, so instead of making bold color decisions, I sanded and painted the frame house white, and Darwin screwed up it. As soon as I sand down the filler over the screws and paint over that and the caulk, I'll share a photo. If we decide later on an accent color, I can paint i-the frame again. It won't be as neat as it would have been if I could done it before we put the mail slot in, but that is what painter's tape is for.

In the meantime, if anyone needs me, you'll find me dreaming over my color deck.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Eulogy for an Arachnid

Everyone has had their lockdown occupations around here. Mine seem to have involve arguing with people too much on social media and obsessively following the news. But our eldest daughter has been more productively engaged. You've already seen on these virtual pages some of her cartoons featuring Coronavirus and his cast of associates:

If you want to follow her creations, you can like her Splintered Thoughts page on Facebook.

However this weekend she produced a short animation, featuring not Coronavirus but herself and an unidentified arachnid of her brief acquaintance:

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day is a song that may date back as far as the medieval mystery plays. The mystery plays were often performed on a portable stage by traveling players. The stage contained earth in the middle, and heaven and hell on the sides. Devils and angels proceeded from their respective sides to entice the sinner to his final destination. This song, however, is narrated by Jesus himself, and invites the sinner into the mystery of his life, death, and resurrection.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;


Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance.


In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.


Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.


Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love's dance.


The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.


For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.


Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.


Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.


Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love's deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.


Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.


Tuesday, April 07, 2020

COVID-19 May Be Slowing: Now What

In a short humor piece entitled "The Dog Who Bit People", James Thurber tells about his travails with a dog of his mother's named Muggs who (as the title explains) bit people.
One morning when Muggs bit me slightly, more or less in passing, I reached down and grabbed his short, stumpy tail and hoisted him into the air. It was a foolhardy thing to do, and the last time I saw my mother, about six months ago, she said she didn't know what possessed me. I don't either, except that I was pretty mad. As long as I held the dog off the floor by his tail he couldn't get at me, but he twisted and jerked so, snarling all the time, that I realized I couldn't hold him that way very long.
I've been thinking of late about that image of Thurber holding the snarling Muggs in the air, as people talk optimistically about how "the curve is bending" in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. The curve is indeed bending in much of the world, and indeed perhaps here in Ohio where the number of new cases and the number of new hospitalizations each day have been pretty flat for the last week.

The problem is that the curve is bending under current conditions, and those conditions involve much of the world being under a stay at home order. It's not exactly a surprise that after a few weeks of most people staying in their homes and only coming out to do a few essential activities (and social distancing when they are going about essential activities) the spread of the virus would have significantly slowed. However, that slowing is dependent upon the staying at home and social distancing that we are all doing. The virus is not like an army that will realize it is defeated and fold up its tents and go home. It's still out there, moving through hosts at a slower rate than before, but biding its time until more hosts become available. The spread of a virus is fairly mathematical. How fast it spreads is determined by how easily passed from one host to another it is balanced against how many contacts the people with the virus have. We've reduced the number of contacts, and so the spread has slowed. But it's still just as contagious as before. If we go back to our offices and restaurants and schools and theaters, the transmission rate will pick up again and we'll be back where we started.

So here we are, like Thurber holding Muggs in the air. Under present conditions, the virus's ability to bite us is reduced. But we know we can't maintain those circumstances indefinitely.

There are, of course, a couple of means of relief. Some viruses spread less well in typical summer weather than they do in typical winter weather. That's why "seasonal flu" is, well, seasonal. Thus far there's not necessarily a lot of evidence that this is the case with the coronavirus, but it may be. In that case, we might get a break over the summer (while the virus went off to ravage the southern hemisphere) only to see a second wave in the fall. That would at least buy us time to improve our production of tests and to keep working on a vaccine.

The other way out is through "herd immunity". Right now, almost every human the virus encounters is a potential host able to give shelter to the virus and pass it on to other humans (though some humans will feel sick in the process and others will not.) However, if it's the case (and we think it is) that someone who has been infected with the coronavirus then develops antibodies capable of fighting off the virus and is thus immune to the virus for a long period of time, then after a sufficient portion of the population has had the virus and developed antibodies, the spread of the virus will slow. Herd immunity works a bit like social distancing, but without the necessity of staying home. Just as with social distancing, herd immunity slows the spread by cutting down the number of contacts through which the virus can be passed on. If one contagious person comes in contact with a dozen different people, but all of those people are already immune to the virus because they've already had it, then the virus doesn't find another congenial host and after fighting its last stand against its current host's immune system, the population of viruses in that person dies off and becomes a dead end for the virus population. Herd immunity is what keeps diseases that used to be common like chicken pox from spreading much at all anymore.

The problem with herd immunity is that a lot of people need to have the disease before it develops (unless you are able to take a shortcut by developing a vaccine and vaccinating everyone.) So far we know of 400,000 cases of COVID-19 in the US. Those, however, are just the number of people who have been tested and have turned out to actually have the disease. The number of people who have actually had the disease must be much larger. The question is: how much larger? If we look at the data on the COVID-19 tests that we've been giving to people over the last week, we find that on average 20% of the tests are positive. However, the people who are being given tests right now are not a random sample of the population. Given the limited supply of tests, we're mostly testing only people who either show symptoms for the disease or who have been exposed to someone known to have had it. This means we should take that 20% number as a very high upper bound. We can't imagine that more than 20% of the population has had the virus, and indeed we need to assume that it's a good deal less because we're only testing the people who are most likely to have it. If for each person who has tested positive, there are ten more who do have the virus but haven't been tested, that would give us about 4 million infections. That doesn't seem like a totally crazy number. If I had to commit to some sort of a guess as to the number of actual Americans who have had COVID-19, I'd put it somewhere between twice and half that: 8-2 million people who have had it. That's between 2.4% and 0.6% of the US population. And that's not nearly enough to produce herd immunity.

So even if it's true that our number of new cases per day is slowing, and thus that after a lag of a week or two the number of deaths per day will cease to grow and start to shrink (which yes, means that today's nearly 2,000 deaths is not the worst day we'll see, because the deaths we're seeing today are a result of the smaller number of people who got sick a week or two ago) we can't imitate Thurber. His solution to the problem of the furious dog he was holding by the tail was to heave it out the door and slam the door after it. The problem was that he forgot the bad door was open, and so Muggs ran around, came up the back stairs, and was ready to vent his fury on Thurber until the writer saved himself by climbing onto the mantelpiece and sheltering in place. To play out this now rather stretched analogy, we can't just come out of our current defensive posture which is holding off the virus, because if we do so we'll just see it spike again. And yet we also can't continue to all stay at home. At the slowing rate the virus is spreading we would still be staying at home a year from now and we'd no longer have an economy.

If it sounds like I've just said we can't come out of isolation and we can't stay in isolation, you'd be right. Are there other options? What countries such as South Korea have done is to test lots and lots of people, and to have the people who test positive remain in isolation until they recover. This would allow the people who do not test positive as actively having the disease (which would include both people who have never contracted it and those who did but have recovered) to go back to somewhat normal behavior. To pull this off, however, we'd need to be able to move up from testing an average of 140,000 people a day (as we have over the last week) and instead test millions. If we concentrated those tests on the people most likely to have been exposed to the virus, we could probably start to identify and quarantine the people who are actually contagious and thus be able to start to lift restrictions without seeing a spike in infections. How fast we can get to that testing volume (and whether we can successfully get the people who are contagious to stay quarantined) remains to be seen. But it's important to be clear that just seeing the new case or new hospitalization curve "bend" does not mean that we've beaten the virus and we can all go back to normal. Unless it turns out that the virus is weather dependent, seeing the curve peak and decline under current conditions does not mean that the virus is beaten for good, it just means that it's beaten so long as we maintain current conditions. If we change the conditions, we are quite likely to see spread pick up again.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Iron Seeking Iron

I read C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves when I was 17. Perhaps it's philosophy-lite, but it was the first that I'd ever read, and I devoured it several times. The chapter on Friendship was a revelation: a chosen love, based on shared interests, that helps the participants grow in virtue. (Lewis points out that of course, shared interests can lead people to grow in vice, too, if the interests or the people are not virtuous.)

The past weeks have been hard ones for me in terms of friendship. I thought I was doing fine with quarantine, and in many senses I am. I've had no panic attacks. I've had no problems pivoting. I have no fear of germs, and no obsessive tendencies that prey upon me. In terms of being shut up at home with my favorite people, in a spacious house with a backyard, I'm living the dream. But in the past days, the stress is coming out in other ways -- entirely predictable ways. No one's personality has changed during this time, and mine least of all. And what is suffering is my friendships.

Opposites attract, they say, but I've never found that's the case. I place great value on the ways that I am similar to my friends. And right now, stress is bringing out many of the ways in which most of the people I interact with are different than I am. And stress, and the lack of the sacraments, is also wearing down the grace that makes it easy for me to overlook people's foibles, idiosyncrasies, and and worries that I don't share. My old nemesis sloth is bearing down on me, filling me with disgust for most of the world. If I didn't need to go to confession before, I surely do now.

And what I don't need are glossy memes from media Catholics assuring me that the Pope says that right now we don't need to go to confession to a priest, if we have perfect contrition. If I could gin up perfect contrition, I'd be in a much better place than I am now. I'd been letting my Lenten social media fast slip in the chaos of the past weeks, dipping in here and there, not commenting, but reading the hot takes and the pivoting and the anxiety that manifests as scolding and educating. It's time to crack down again. I can love people right now when I'm not encountering their follies and inconsistencies (and memes), when I'm doing regular spiritual reading, when I'm fasting. Holy Week is a good time to fast, and fasting from the hot takes is the fasting I require.

People are well-nigh insane right now, but the real problem is me. Contempt is a problem. Pride is a problem. Sloth is a problem. God dwells not in these things, and I have to take steps, with his grace, to root them out -- especially now, without the strengthening effects of the sacraments. "Lead us not into temptation," I pray every day, multiple times. Not putting myself in a place of temptation is the first baby step out of this dryness, toward perfect contrition, I guess

But man is not meant to be alone. I can't do without friendship, and I know that there must be others out there who need this same kind of friendship: sane, quiet, low-drama in a time when public messaging seems a one-way ratchet of austerity and preventative signaling, and compliance becomes competition. This is why we write, any of us -- to look for truth, and to hope that by writing, we can find someone else who recognizes that truth as well. "As iron sharpens iron," says the proverb -- like aiding like, people of similar mind and personality honing and refining each other. In my most essential relationship, my marriage, I have this already. But my friendships are more varied. Right now, I have an iron deficiency, and I can see my love growing anemic as a result.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Alternate Realities

It's been a rough week on Earth 2, as President Clinton tries to lead the country through the rapidly mounting pandemic despite a rising storm of criticism from her political rivals on left and right in an election year.

With Marco Rubio leading in the GOP primary, it had seemed like the party was strong and back to normal, with a strengthened majority in the House after the mid-term elections and an establishment friendly primary slate. However, in the Republican firmament it was Steve Bannon and Tom Cotton who gained notoriety when their early warnings about COVID-19 proved true. While establishment Republicans quietly agreed with President Clinton's dismissal of their January call to impose a total travel ban on China as "racist jingoism", the fledgling Trump Network went full in on promoting the threat of the Chinese Virus. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been running the lead "Clinton Lied, Americans Died" on their nightly Trump Network programs where the "Chinese virus" is a major theme. With the primaries on pause during the pandemic, pundits have asserted that Rubio (quietly in self quarantine since being exposed to a COVID-19 positive supporter at his last fundraiser) has shown himself rudderless in the crisis and should either be replaced at the convention despite his delegate lead -- or else that he should choose Senator Cotton as his running mate in order to bring on clear expertise and solidify the support of the populist side of the party. Trump himself has even suggested that he might be willing to accept the nomination if it was offered because "it would take a businessman" to get American through the kind of supply problems Clinton has faced in securing ventilators and PPE. "With the right person in charge," said Mr. Trump. "There'd be so many ventilators doctors would be tripping over them. I'd get us a million ventilators and make China pay for them."

Meanwhile, President Clinton's struggles have brought new life to Senator Bernie Sanders' quixotic primary run against a sitting Democratic president. Sanders and progressive Democrats paired with Senator Romney and House Majority Leader Ryan to sponsor legislation the president initially denounced as "ridiculously fiscally irresponsible" to promise every American immediate financial relief as well as bridge loans to employers with the goal of keeping furloughed workers paid throughout the national lockdown Clinton announced on March 15th. While Sanders had not to date won a single state against the president, his supporters have been simulataneously suggesting that Clinton step down and allow an open convention (with clear parallels to LBJs acknowledgement of his failure in Vietnam) and floating the idea that since the situation has changed democratic principles require a new, national primary held by mail.

Mainstream Democrats including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have attempted to defend Clinton's handling of the crisis, though this has rung hollow to some constituents as they simultaneously plead with the hastily convened National Health Supplies Allocation Board for PPE and ventilators. Republican governors, particularly in Florida and Texas where outbreaks were perhaps hastened by crowds at Spring Break and the South By Southwest music festival, have openly accused the Clinton administration of rationing much needed supplies.

All of which has served only to convince this blog's humble author that we are always living in the worst of all possible worlds.