Enter Sandman

This year is really shaping up to be like the lyrics from an apocalyptic death metal band. Let’s look at the day so far in pictures (which you can click to embiggen of course): the morning starts with a review of the tropics, and three low grade systems that are a harbinger of doom to come, and a scattering of earthquakes in Iceland …

Next up is a look at the new COVID19 stats, which are almost worthless hash from a scientific standpoint but are trending in a doubleplusungood direction.

That was interrupted by a really lovely discussion about <REDACTED>, which you will likely be seeing hitting the news at some point, if you’re lucky.  Here’s a pic of that:

Which was followed by a major earthquake in Mexico:

Did I mention the Giant Deathtongue of Doom has reached the Caribbean?  With another blob off the coast of Africa behind that one?

But despite all these disasters, real (COVID, Mexico, <redacted>) and imagined (dust- although it is causing respiratory problems across the region, I wouldn’t call it a disaster), we always have cats to correct our mistakes …

Destabilizing new nuclear weapons deployment

Just when you thought it was safe to leave the bunker … while I have significant experience with pandemics and related topics with respect to data analysis and modeling, it’s not really in my core area of work, and I often have to cross check with subject area experts to confirm technical details.  So it’s refreshing to get back to a topic firmly in my comfort zone: Nuclear Armageddon …

This guy is just a little too enthusiastic about going toe to toe with the Russkies. Too bad he’s running our State Department. (from “Dr. Strangelove.” which was supposed to be satire, not a how to manual.)

Over the last few years the US Defense Department has been pressing on with the deployment of a new class of nuclear weapons, and doing it in a way that by any rational measure doesn’t make much sense.  I shouldn’t have to put this disclaimer in, but in the current political environment (and it being an election year) I need to say that is not an attack on the current administration, irresponsible though they may be for actually implementing it; this change in the nuclear posture has been in the works for well over two decades and is advocated by Foreign Policy neoconservatives in both parties including the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, Joe Biden, who along with Clinton and Perry supposedly led the fight against the US agreeing to a No First Use policy during the Obama years despite then President Obama being favorably disposed to the idea.

As usual, to appreciate this issue, you need some background that is hard to come by these days, so please “bear” with me (sorry about the pun) as I go through some theory and history of nuclear weapons strategy.

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The looming political and economic crisis (editorial)

I see a lot of people who are viewing the economic impacts of the SARS-COV-2 outbreak as an opportunity for change. Across the political spectrum activists for various causes are practically salivating over the opportunity to use the crisis to implement their favorite agendas.

  • Climate change? Great! The crashing oil markets are the perfect time to act!
  • Social Justice? Great! The economic and health system disparities made clear by the virus are the perfect time to act!
  • Iran? Great! Their weakened state, internal unrest, along with the insulation of a down oil market, make this the perfect time to act!
  • China? Great! Their weakened state, internal unrest, anger over their handling of the the crisis make this the perfect time to act!

The list seems endless. And all of those forces are interacting in the political process, slowing down economic interventions in the real economy (the Fed and other reserve banks are propping up the markets, but I hope most people realize that the stock and bond markets are no longer much related to the real economy). There’s just one problem: all of the potential for change is potentially delusional.

It seems pretty obvious that the global political and economic system is on the verge of a cascading collapse, probably merely weeks or at best months away. I have discussed this with several colleagues, and while we are coming at it from different directions (some from economics, some from geopolitics) we end up in the same place. And that should give everyone some pause. What will be the trigger? There so many to choose from it’s hard to say. In the US, tens of thousands of small businesses are on the verge of failure. Those businesses all have mortgages, pay rents, pay taxes, buy stuff from other businesses – as do their employees. Once those go, the domino effect (zipper effect, whatever you want to call it) will rapidly lock up or even collapse the entire financial system, especially state and local governments dependent on tax revenues. Consider one small, often overlooked aspect: that welfare benefits are distributed using the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system. That uses debit cards to provide benefits to recipients. What happens if banks stop extending credit and the electronic money system becomes restrictive or locks up? What happens if grocery stores can’t accept EBTdue to their own credit issues or delays in state payments? Millions of people in the US would suddenly be cut off. In areas where the EBT has been disrupted for even 24-48 hours, social unrest (rioting, looting, etc) has rapidly ensued. That these happened in isolated, urban high crime areas means they didn’t capture the public attention, but if that happens nationally … well, it will be ugly. I could terrify you with various geopolitical scenarios as well. Most of these are of “low” probability (some 1 in 5, some 1 in 10), but when you have a bunch of “low” probability events, the chances of one of them happening start to approach 1.0. And they all end up in the same place: something happens that causes the fragile, overly interconnected and over leveraged credit and financial system to go into a death spiral. Once it happens, it will be hard or impossible to stop, given that if any one “trigger” happens, like a string of firecrackers it will set the others off. So that brings us to this:

There isn’t time to use this crisis to craft some wonderful transition to a brave new (Marxist, Progressive, Green, NeoCapitalist, ‘Murican!, Libertarian, whatever) world. We have to stop the collapse at all costs and buy time. Or none of those things will mean anything.  The Congress is set to pass a boost in funding to the Paycheck Protection Program and some other tweaks today.  It is woefully inadequate by an order of magnitude (trillions are needed, not hundreds of billions).  Even re-opening is not likely to help at this stage (even assuming there are not repercussions or fall “second wave”).

If the system collapses, no matter what the trigger, there won’t be any opportunities for change. Yes, we need to move to something more sustainable.  If we get past this crisis that will take on even more urgency because it is doubtful we will get another chance. To use a medical analogy, the patient is in about to go into cardiac arrest; we can worry about diet and exercise when we get the heart beating again.  But for now, we need to stop pushing for the next thing until we can have some confidence there will even be a next thing …

How bad is Italy (ok, one more COVID post this week).

As of the final totals from yesterday, 22 March 2020, there have been 5476 deaths from SARS-COV-2 in Italy. To put that in perspective, in the 2013/14 influenza season, there were 7027 excess deaths due to influenza recorded. In 2014/15, a  20,259 deaths were attributed to that outbreak, while in the worse recent year, 2016/17, 24,981 died from influenza. (from Rosano et al, Int. J. Infections Diseases, Vol 88, Nov 2019, pp 127-134).

Yes, COVID19 is different in how fast cases are coming, but not in whole population mortality. The speed of progression seems to be about 4 and 6 times that of influenza, and that is producing a HUGE strain on the system. But the outcomes have yet to approach a bad influenza outbreak. The present rate of the last three days of 690/day will have to continue for another 28 days to reach the 2016/17 flu season toll. I’d be very surprised if the rates don’t start to drop soon. If they haven’t dropped in Italy in two weeks, maybe then it’s time to worry, but for now, things seem on track for this to be a “flu season in 6 weeks” virus. Catastrophic for the health care system, but not a big deal in whole population terms. In economic terms, that’s a whole different question …

To repeat from yesterday: The US health care system can’t really keep up with a normal flu season; there is no way it can handle a rapid influx. That is why COVID19 is so dangerous, and why everyone needs to take it seriously, following the CDC guidelines, exercising social distancing and hygiene protocols, and otherwise doing everything you can to try to slow down the rate of spread. It’s more than likely not about you. It’s about that 1% of so of the population who will get very sick, and may not get enough care because the system will be overloaded.  Fixating on every up or down tick in the numbers, and chasing down every wild number or wild theory making the rounds is just not sensible or conducive to sanity.  My advice is to be careful, keep watch over those around you, take advantage of the time off as you can, check the news maybe once a day to see if anything has really changed as to what you should do, but don’t drive yourself crazy hitting refresh; this is a slow motion disaster. April will be the cruelest month – but by the last week things should be looking up.

What a fashionable Italian Cat might look like.

The Worst Case Scenario (15 March 2020)

OK, here it is: SARS-COV2 continues to mutate and the mortality rate increases for younger demographics, with the whole population mortality exceeding 10%.  The economic spiral rapidly accelerates into a financial system collapse, and a global depression results.  As social unrest spreads, various state and non-state actors seek to exploit the situation, and a peer-on-peer nuclear exchange is ultimately triggered.  The surviving fraction of humanity is reduced to a mad-max style existence. This is not a joke or exaggeration, this is what some of the models and associated analyses are currently forecasting as our near term future.  However …

Mad Max Fury Road promo shot. Or Abercorn Street in Savannah on word that WalMart has toilet paper. Could go either way.

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You’re Doomed, Friday the 13th Special Edition

Some argue COVID19 is like the flu.  Others scream in outrage that it isn’t at the slightest implication that it is.  Both are right, yet dangerously wrong.

Those who say it’s nothing like the flu are right.  In many ways the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is potentially much more dangerous, especially to certain segments of society.   It is especially devastating to the health care system for two key reasons: it spreads quickly, and while the total numbers becoming seriously sick appear smaller than influenza it has a much higher complication rate for those who do get sick with it.  If we don’t take action, the US we will run out of respiratory support equipment (and people trained to use it) quickly, and it’s going to get ugly. South Korea has four times the hospital beds per capita than Italy – 12.4/1000 vs 3.4/1000.  Most areas of the US are under 3 per 1000. South Korea is farther along the progression than Italy, yet has a hospitalized/identified mortality rate of less than 1%. Italy is currently at 6.6%.

But those who say “worse than the flu!” are also wrong in a very dangerous way.  In societal terms, the hospitalization and mortality rates are comparable to influenza.  As of yesterday evening, those numbers in the outbreak areas in China and South Korea are still converging to the same range as influenza.  In areas that are still in the “exponential” part of the curve, Italy, Iran, and now Seattle, the day to day increases are scary, but are progressing in about the same way.  (As an aside, beware mathematicians who extrapolate the exponential expansion numbers: that is only one phase of the progression and doesn’t last forever …)  This is manageable with some common sense: concern is justified, appropriate and measured action is justified, fear and over reaction is not. The societal and economic impacts of fear are significant, and our economy in particular has a number of fault lines (especially in the areas of liquidity) that this has the potential to cause a major recession or worse.

Those who say it is similar to influenza also have a point, in general terms.  As noted above, the overall number of people who are getting sick, dying, etc. are about like bad influenza year.  In total number terms, based on what we saw in China and are seeing in Italy, about 400 thousand Americans will need hospitalization, and sadly about 30,000 will die.  But, again, the H3N2 influenza out break of 2017, against which the vaccine was only partially effective (and only 37% got anyway), hospitalized 810,000 and killed 61,000.  But, saying “it’s just the flu” misses the point just as badly as saying “it’s a bazillion times worse than the flu!” for the reasons noted above: it’s moving faster, and a greater strain on the health care system that doesn’t handle the annual flu outbreaks well.

This is a fascinating exercise in how people deal with risk.  It is also yet again a depressing example of a major societal threat we knew was coming, that experts warned about for many years, and recommended plans be made to deal with it.  But the short-sighted leadership class (of all political stripes) utterly failed in their responsibilities to get ready for it, and are now failing to react appropriately.  And it’s the average person who pays the price for that failure.  Sigh.

Get Away From Me! What part of “social distance” do you not understand?

Usual reminder that the CDC web site has consolidated information and links on the current situation, and as to what actions various at-risk groups should do, as well as what the general public can do to help stop the spread to those groups.

 

Dissecting COVID19 Statistics: what they really mean.

Everybody in the media seems to have become experts in epidemiology and statistics, talking about cases, R0, and mortality rates.  Here’s what all these numbers mean to you: Not much. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t freak out.  The best sources of practical information are at the CDC web site, and the DHS/FEMA “ready.gov” site. Essentially, these are common sense actions.  But, since a 100 word post just isn’t in my nature, here are a thousand or so more words on what we seem to know about COVID19 statistics from a public policy, economics, and emergency management perspective.

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COVID-19, Syria/Turkey, and the Johari Window

In my first job I traveled a lot between world capitals, often spending weeks at a time on an airplane supporting senior government officials and their teams.  One of them was an especially interesting guy, extensive experience in business, politics, and government, and had a set of “rules” he would would give out.  They really weren’t rules per se, but a collection of quotations and reflections based on his experiences, some funny, some thoughtful, that covered working in the White House and government, business, and how to stay sane in life in general. As a young officer I found them very valuable – I still have my signed copy.  Later on he became (in)famous for saying ..

…because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

That is a restatement of something developed in the mid 1950’s known as the Johari Window.  As a concept it’s been around for a while, especially in the intelligence and aerospace communities.  The basic idea is that the things that you don’t know you don’t know are the ones that have the potential to cause you the most trouble. It’s a useful tool for assessing information and decision making.  Recently several sociologists have suggested adding another category: things we do know, but don’t believe for one reason or another.  And I think that is the most dangerous category of all, and what we are facing at this moment in several areas such as with this virus.  People are thinking and acting like some information is unknown, when it is in fact known – but for various reasons don’t want to believe it.

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Some perspective on the COVID-19 coronavirus and global response

Over the weekend there have been some major, and on the surface rather frightening developments surrounding the corornavirus outbreak that started in China last year.  So how bad is it, and should you be freaking out?  When the media starts using words like “pandemic” people start to panic.  But the bottom line on this situation is there is more reason to worry about the panic than the pandemic.  Here’s some perspective:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.  In English, that’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related (SARS) CoronaVirus.  Here’s what the beast looks like …

CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312.

Part of the problem is that the info coming out of China is pretty obviously crap.  We just don’t have a good picture of things like how contagious it is, and in particular nobody really believes the statistics on the number of cases and associated mortality rate.  That has given rise to lots of crazy rumors and fear mongering. But it seems like the following is true of COVID-19, based on reliable sources: Continue reading

Do satellite images show the Chinese burning thousands of bodies outside Wuhan?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:  No, here’s the background:  There are a number of reports floating around that are implying that satellite data is showing high Sulphur Dioxide emissions outside Wuhan, China,and that means they are secretly burning thousands of bodies.  It’s being widely reported, especially on “alternative” news sites based on images from “windy.com”.  Here one such image (screenshot from windy.com):

Well, it’s just not true.

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