Gimme Shelter, Gimme Testing Data

On Day 2 of our Alameda County Shelter-in-place order, I am creating graphs, mostly for my sanity. Today’s topic is data, in particular, Covid-19 testing data. If you’re a data geek like me, this is for you.

I have blathered on for days (?or is it weeks? I’ve lost track…days seem like weeks) that our biggest problem right now is lack of testing. We don’t know what we don’t know. Because the U.S. didn’t roll out testing capacity early on, people who feel sick or at risk for Covid haven’t been able to get tested. We’ve heard that for weeks and are still hearing it. Because people who know they’re sick can’t get tested, we have no idea who is sick and how many would test positive. Without knowing that, everyone has to STOP moving. That’s the problem right now.

Yes, it’s definitely a problem that hospitals are starting to become overwhelmed and might become swamped. It’s definitely a problem that travel is cancelled and that there is a black market for toilet paper and sanitizers. (Anybody know where we can get some ramen? That turns out to be a big concern in our house.) It’s an even bigger problem that we don’t know how long this will last, and we won’t know until there’s a robust testing structure in place. South Korea put in an excellent testing structure early on, and they seem to be moving into a better part of the pandemic curve. We can learn something from their experience, and we can learn something looking at data.

The Most Important Data Is Under-Reported

The problem has been a lack of good data, and good testing data is still hit and miss. In a world that’s used to hitting the “refresh” button every minute and seeing numbers update, having data that is only reported every few days or not at all is killer to the psyche. Up until about a week ago, data on how many people were being tested was nearly impossible to find. This was due partly because few had been tested; I might also speculate that some didn’t want the public to know just how few that was.

I can illustrate this by looking at Daily Case data compared with Daily Testing data. Here is the number of cases in California, shown per day and total to date. By the way, note that the red bars (daily cases) are linked to numbers on the left side and the purple line (cases to date) linked to the right side. Showing data on different axes is important because if you show cumulative and daily on the same graph, the cumulative would make the daily increases too small to see. You would have no sense of the underlying infection curve.

Graph of California Covid cases
Graph by kajmeister based on data sources in COVID Tracking project.
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Let Facts Go Viral

Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, photo from historyofvaccines.org

The question was asked yesterday: What’s something you’ve longed believed to be true, but now you know is not true?  When it comes to worldwide problems, we often think: It can’t happen here. I mused about this while watching the news, with story after story about the coronavirus, topped by Our Leader at a press conference emphasizing that there are only 15 U.S. cases of the virus, and really that would soon be zero. That same day, the 60th case in the U.S. was confirmed, a case which is literally Here, near-ish to where I live. At the moment, they don’t know how the person became infected, and they don’t know who she came in contact with.

It can happen here.

Americans seem to sway between attitudes of invulnerability and full-scale panic. It can’t happen to us, that’s only for exotic people in China or Iran. Next day, we’re in long lines at Home Depot asking where we can buy HAZMAT suits. I’d like to take a middle road here and discuss some fact facts about pandemics—risks, likely scenarios, treatment, and precautions.

Lessons of History

There have been pandemics before, the most prominent being the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, where 30 million people died. An estimated 500 million, 27% of the world’s population, became infected, and the death rate averaged around 2%. As many as 675,000 Americans died of the 29 million thought to have contracted the disease. The outbreaks occurred in two waves: one in the winter of 2018 during normal “cold and flu” season and a second, deadlier wave, in late summer. An unusually high number of young adults died in that second wave, unlike a typical flu. The disease hit hard even in isolated communities like the Pacific Islands and Alaska, with communities like Samoa losing 30%. In other places, such as the U.S., the mortality rate was closer to 0.5%. Not everyone was exposed. Not everyone exposed became infected. Not everyone who became infected died.

For comparison, a normal flu season in the U.S. kills between 20-40,000 people annually, about 0.1%. Like the coronavirus, the typical flu spreads when infected people cough or sneeze. People who die from the flu are usually those most vulnerable to respiratory diseases because their immune system is already compromised or they have other risk factors. Not everyone is exposed. Not everyone exposed becomes infected. Not everyone who becomes infected dies.

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Fa-la-la-la-la Is No Accident

Piano music The Christmas Song

Christmas is the one holiday that has its own music. In fact, music is so much at the core of Christmas celebrations that three of the top fifteen best-selling singles of all time are Christmas-themed, and public venues start playing carols right after Halloween, two months early. Think about it; no other American/western European holiday involves theme music.

I realized this fact last night while attending the second holiday concert of this season, listening to a stream of sublime medieval motets and “Marian polyphony” by Chanticleer. As they sang dozens of songs about mangers and Magi, I tried to think of songs for Halloween or Thanksgiving, and they are rare, ancillary, afterthoughts. In the religious elementary school I attended as a child, Easter and Christmas were considered equally worth of pageantry, and we performed songs for parents in both. But few people would now sing “Go to Dark Gethsemane” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” while shopping for chocolate bunnies in March.

Music is a fundamental part of the Christmas experience, as old as wassailing and gift-giving, almost as old as snow and the change of the seasons.

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The Singularity Always Happens

How did the Mongols conquer Asia? Where did knights come from? Look at the feet. Photo from arstechnica.com.

Will the Singularity happen? I’m currently reading an international spy techno-thriller pot-boiler whose premise centers around the creation of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), just asTerminator: Dark Fate is raking in big bucks in theaters. Scary futures are big entertainment business. It’s a perfect time for a provocative question like the one Fandango asks today:

Do you think the singularity will occur? If so, what time frame do you think it will happen in and how will it impact humanity? Alternatively, do you think or care at all about the potential for reaching singularity?

The short answer is: World-threatening technology is perpetually created by humans. Humans then create an alternative to pull civilization back from the brink. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My autocorrect: “You didn’t type candy corn, you typed child porn….” Your IP address has been forwarded to local law enforcement.
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We Don’t Remember the Future Imperfect

Author’s Note: I apologize, in advance, for mangling Spanish, misinterpreting quantum physics, and injecting so many puns into this essay.

Time is perfect. We are imperfect. We remember only the past. We don’t remember the future.

The past is always tense, the future perfect.

Zadie Smith

This quote from English novelist Zadie Smith is today’s provocative question (muchas gracias, Fandango). It suggests we remember the negatives and hope for the positives. The future hasn’t occurred, so it can be what our imagination creates. This is also a play on grammar, which is a subject much on my mind these days as I am attempting to learn Spanish. So, for me, the tense is confusing. The present might be more like the collapse of a wave, given that the arrow only goes one direction. But the Multiverses suggest that the arrows might go several directions, if we could but see them, and that would make the future perfect. Let me explain what I mean.

One view of the Multi-verse, photo of Into the Spider-verse by Sony Pictures

Tenses Are Difficult. Futures Are Also Difficult.

The use of the word Tense, in the sense of verbs and grammar, comes from the Old French word for time which was tens. That’s not to be confused with the current French word for time, temps; language has changed. Language, like time, moves forward (and collapses). The word does not refer to “tense” as in stretchiness, which comes from the Latin tendere. This is why Zadie Smith’s quote is a looping play on words, since it mixes emotions and grammatical expressions, and either deliberately or innocently uses them wrongly. Tense does not mean tension. It is a homophone. Which is intense. And perhaps what she intended.

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