Capitalism in the Time of Covid-19

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ionizer! See 99.99%. Photo from CBSNews.com.

Who said our economy shut down during shelter-in-place? Based on the nature of advertisements, businesses seem to be thriving–businesses targeted at selling masks, toilet paper, and chloroquine tablets, in particular. The innovation of greed has been a marvel to behold as this pandemic created, in just a few weeks, a whole sub-industry of quackery preying on people’s needs, fears, and hopes.

Counterfeit: Rascal Rollover

Despite the gutting of budgets for critical government health agencies like the CDC and FDA, the handful of people there are kept very busy posting about bogus companies. For example, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote about how thousands of overseas medical suppliers were using a fake Delaware registry as their representative. Pop over to the CDC, and you can easily find a handy list of how to tell if a company is falsely claiming their product is endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Hint: they might misspell NIOSH.

What’s crazy isn’t so much that an Asian company might market a product in the U.S. with the fancy label “Air Queen,” or that they might sell a lot of masks which aren’t medical-grade. What’s crazy is that they bothered to create a fake Letter of Approval from the NIOSH, which the NIOSH then has to post with a “We Don’t Endorse this Crap….” label. Instead of working to design and manufacture whatever they would need to make masks that are medical-grade, it’s obviously much cheaper to create a fake letter of endorsement. But since American consumers wouldn’t care whether the letter has the correct government agency on it, there must be a middle-market supplier who needed to be convinced, which requires someone to be on top of determining what the transport paperwork looks like for such agencies. That’s damn elaborate!

However, as the founder of Quackwatch Dr. Stephen Barrett told NPR, when the AIDS crisis arose, those who touted fake cancer cures started touting fake AIDS cures. He called it “Rascal Rollover.” With Covid-19, the Rascals roll on.

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Absence of Evidence

Graphic of telepathy from Pinterest.

Shepherd: It’s my belief that those sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds. Observe their behavior. …witness their attmpts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as… plummet. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.) …One thing is for sure, the sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’. (Baaa baaa… flap flap… thud.)

Tourist: But where did they get the idea from?
Shepherd: From Harold. … He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standin’ around for a few months and then bein’ eaten. … He’s patently hit on the idea of escape.
Tourist: Well why don’t you just get rid of Harold?
Shepherd: Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.

Could there be ESP? Can sheep fly? Monty Python speculated about it…

The topic of Extra-Sensory Perception came up yesterday, and my initial reaction was that it was too broad to write about and that it hadn’t affected me personally, so I had nothing to say. I then got it into a hot debate with my spouse about the limits and definitions of ESP–does it include ghosts? is telepathy part of ESP and therefore BS whereas telekinesis might be possible so it’s not BS? what about twin studies? and so on. This led me down the Internet rabbit hole; what exactly is the research? I realized that I never have nothing to say.

This Provocative Question was asked by blogger Fandango (in summary): “Do you believe in ESP, defined as 1) Telepathy; 2) Clairvoyance; and 3) Precognition?”

Fair enough. For definitional purposes, let’s not include all unexplained phenomena, no ghosts, traveling back from the dead, global consciousness, or UFOs. Let’s get even simpler. Telepathy, and its corollary, telekinesis. Moving and communicating with just your mind.

Belief is the Wrong Word

While assessing whether ESP is possible might seem a simple question, I have to start by picking at the word “belief.” Belief can be a function of drawing a conclusion based on facts, even though the dictionary suggests that “Belief=confidence in truth of something without proof.” Proof is a bit dodgy, since it could be limited to what I’ve observed, but ought instead to be limited to what has been developed by experiment. This is important: Belief in scientific fact can’t be limited to what you have personally experienced.

I believe the world is round based on photos I’ve seen and textbooks I’ve read. I haven’t personally seen the “roundness.” I believe there is a sub-atomic world. I believe that there were giant sloths (we have the bones). I believe there could have been unicorns.

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The Cosmonauts in the Mirror

As a person of a certain age, I always associate the word “cosmonaut” with space villains, who launch spy satellites and build giant lasers on the moon to execute secret plans for world domination. Everyone raised in the 1960-70s “knows” that America did all the important space stuff like design a plane to fly in space and land on the moon. The reality, of course, is that the Soviet and Russian space programs, like the American space program, have been a blend of science and humanity, ingenuity and bravery, success and failure. While many goals were military, the Soviet achievements were as much about beating the United States (or playing catch up to perceived U.S. advantages) as anything else. In that sense, the journey into space and advances in knowledge shared by humanity have derived from a giant game of tag between superpowers.

Since today’s launch of the first astronauts in an American spacecraft since the end of the shuttle program has been delayed until Saturday–godspeed Behnken and Hurley–perhaps it’s a good day to review some space history. But we often hear only about the Americans, like what John Glenn or Neil Armstrong experienced. What about their mirror image counterparts?

A Vostok 3KA descent module like the one used by pioneer cosmonauts. This one was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $2.9 million. Photo by Anatoly Zak.
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Mom Always Said Wash Your Hands

Today is a perfect time to honor our healthcare professionals, celebrate international women’s month, and remind you to lather up. Consider it a threefer. All hail to midwives, nurses, and mom.

Poster from Foodsafetynews.com. October 15, 2016 was Global Handwashing Day, though we might have missed that.

Aqueducts and Aquamaniles APlenty

Contrary to some beliefs, bathing and hand-washing is not a historically recent phenomenon, but was a practice widely dispersed across many cultures for centuries. The Romans, Greeks, Mesoamericans, and Japanese all incorporated bathing into their daily routines. Even into the Dark Ages, where food was eaten mainly with the hands, it was customary to rinse off before dining. Special ewers were provided for noble feasters, but even commoners might prepare a hand-washing solution with herbs, like making tea.

Pour faire eaue a laver mains sur table mectez boulir de la sauge, puis coulez l’eaue et faictes reffroidier jusques a plus que tiedes. Ou vous mectez comme dessus camomille et marjolaine, ou vous mectez du rommarin, et cuire avec l’escorche d’orenge. Et aussi feuilles de lorier y sont bonnes.

To make water for washing hands at the table. Boil sage, strain the water and let cool to a little more than tepid. Or take camomille and marjoram in stead [of sage], or rosemary, and boil with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good.

From Coquinaria, A Recipe for Washing Hands
A medieval aquamanile, for rinsing hands before dinner. Photo at Coquanilia.
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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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