Monday, June 8, 2020

Musings from a fading surveillance state of mind

Many, if not most, of the posts in this blog are long. They are not reflective of the myriad of thoughts that randomly come about because of the odd world we live in.

Still many musings come to mind as this 'free range old guy' surveils the intense flow of words and data streaming through the internet in the 21st Century.

Much of the time I am astounded, even aghast, at the "misinformation" that is passed from one source to another, be it from a news media source or a random individual on social media.

This regularly updated post will contain musings from my surveillance state of mind.



Covid-19. What happens when voluminous words offer little meaning within reality.- June 8, 2020

Sometimes just observing without offering ill-informed and uninformed opinion is best. On the last day we ventured off our property, March 13, 2020, a George Mason University Ph.D. candidate in computer science, Adam Elkus, offered a post in his blog. The following is from that post, though a bit reorganized with some minor language structure changes and omissions. I can only hope should he be made aware of this that he will forgive my temerity:

    Managing public health and disease was one of the core tasks that helped build the legitimacy of industrial era government in the 19th and 20th centuries.
    By the beginning of the 21st Century, civil servants responsible for those tasks had become too burdened by the need to perform political face-work and bureaucratic red tape to properly pursue this endeavor. It is a sign that Western society cares more about declining trust in institutions than what institutions have substantively done to deserve trust.
    Which is where our virus comes in. It is incredible that something so small, so insignificant, and aggressively stupid as COVID-19 could be upending the world right now. But it is doing so. Scientists and philosophers debate whether viruses are even properly counted among the living. As tiny as it is, the virus has the power to inflict significant human harm. It reproduces, it kills, and those it does not kill it may nonetheless leave with lasting injuries.
    But the virus has another power, a power that makes it uniquely dangerous to Western society. It does not think, it does not feel, and it lies totally outside the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation, and discourse. And this, above all else, makes it a lethal adversary for the West. It has exposed how much of Western society – but American society in particular – is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images, and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.
    They implicitly or explicitly assume that by attaching labels and names to things, they can control them. They implicitly or explicitly behave as if control over narrative is control over the things narrative is attached to. The virus therefore was a problem of psychology before it was a problem of microbiology, because people did not have the “right” attitudes and words for something that in and of itself was incapable of having attitudes or making words. And from the President on down, politicians behaved (and are still behaving) as if it was something that could be spun or narrativized away.
    There were endless attempts early on to compare the virus to a less-threatening entity, the flu or even the common cold. In doing so, institutional actors tried to take something new and uncertain and fit it into a tame pre-existing mental model that they preferred. Acknowledging the virus as a creature of fate – of fortuna – would be to admit that it could collapse the elaborate machinery for making narrative and reveal the narrative-makers as utterly impotent.
    There is no one “problem” because watching so many things fail in real time makes it obvious that the failure is diverse and cumulative. We could talk about the primacy of advertising or something closely related to it in shaping our political and media environment. We could go on to examine how decaying legacy institutions projected their own sickness and incompetence onto their rivals rather than living up to their responsibilities. And we could debate the various dueling theories of social and institutional decay that have been bandied about since 2015-2016.
    The virus is a very simple creature, unburdened by all of this discursive weight. To the extent it can be said to have desires and needs, they are very humble. It exists, and the only thing it wants is targets.


Three months of healthy, wise seclusion in rural California during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic- June 5, 2020

Being old and cautious in the time of Covid-19 makes one aware of certain ambiguous or even unreliable news stories.

Today we saw stories about new guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that old people should wear medical masks. Assuming that the stories were unreliable or failed to reflect ambiguity typical for medical guidelines, we downloaded the new guidelines.

What the new guidelines state is that in circumstances where other protective measures such as social distancing may be compromised "medical masks could be used by older people, immunocompromised patients and people with comorbidities."

Uh...why the word "could" not "should."

It will soon be three months, 13 weeks, 91 days since the last time we left our property. On March 13, 2020, we made a trip to the store to buy some groceries. Since then as with most older people, we have been in seclusion which resolves any confusion about WHO or CDC or local county guidelines.

We use the term "seclusion" when people who for purposes of health, safety, privacy, or peace and quiet are in a place sheltered or screened from general activity involving limited human or social interaction from outside the location. It does not refer a "reclusive" person withdrawn from society, shut out of the world, like a hermit.

In our case, we see the delivery folks regularly - our postal delivery person, our Instacart shopper, our Schwan's guy, and folks from UPS, FedEx, OnTrac, etc. Not every day, but several times a week.

We had been concerned we might have to go out shopping where, as we see in news video and pictures, social distancing gets compromised. We could have worn simple fabric masks which now appear would have been a bit of a compromise. But the delivery folks eliminated the shopping problem.

In addition to groceries from Safeway literally shopped for us by the Instacart shopper and frozen foods every two weeks from the Schwan's guy, during the pandemic we were able to get much of what we wanted from Amazon, BevMo!, Omaha Steaks, Wolferman's, Harry & David, etc. And we have them set every package down maintaining social distancing.

On the other hand, some typical old folks regular outings like going to the doctor, dentist and our old dog's vet have been delayed.

It is the 21st Century, so we can see through online sources what's going on and interact with people. We talk with family on the phone. Heck, we even Zoomed a couple of times. (Yeah, "to zoom" is a new verb.)

Life could be worse, a lot worse....


Epidemics and spring flowers were an expectation of American life for people prior to 1960 - May 27, 2020

Americans have enjoyed the blossoms of spring since Colonial times. Today spring flowers still bring us pleasure even here in our yard such as those in the picture to the left. Americans from Colonial times on also experienced deadly epidemics such as what we are experiencing today.

The death of relatives and friends from contagious (infectious) diseases was a common experience in Colonial times as it was in the decades, centuries, and millenniums prior to the end of WWII.

Consider Philadelphia. Yellow Fever made its first appearance in America in 1668, in Philadelphia. In 1793 it reappeared in that city of 50,000 people, killing about 10% of the population, while another 40% fled.

Then there was 1918. The Spanish Flu first hit Philadelphia, through the Philadelphia Navy Yard, on September 19, 1918, from sailors who were returning from WWI Europe. The City had decided to raise money for the war effort by holding a parade. While parts of the U.S. had already put rules in place regarding the Spanish Flu, Philadelphia held the parade. It was patriotic and who would allow themselves to appear weak. More than 200,000 Philadelphians (probably including some fat guys who brought their rifles) flocked to see the parade. At the time, it was the largest parade in Philadelphia's history. The parade raised more than $600 million for the war efforts.

Twenty-four hours after the parade had ended, 118 Philadelphians were described as coming down with "a mysterious, deadly influenza." Two days later, Dr. Wilmer Krusen concluded that the Spanish flu was now present in the civilian population. One day after this announcement, every bed in Philadelphia's 31 hospitals was filled. One week later, 4,500 Philadelphians were declared dead of the Spanish flu and 47,000 people were infected. No memorial to the more than 17,000 Philadelphians that were killed by the Spanish flu exists in the city of Philadelphia today. The Center for Disease Control's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine uses the Philadelphia Liberty Loans Parade as an example of how not handle a pandemic.

The chart below indicates how the generation break looked with regard to experiencing epidemics, before Covid-19.


In fact, until the eradication of polio from vaccines, Americans in generations born before the early 1950's remember what the fear of an epidemic felt like. (Yes, that is ignoring AIDS which mostly affected a generally disdained portion of the population, ignoring Ebola which mostly affected parts of the world the vast majority of Americans cannot seem to find on a map, and ignoring for whatever reason the annual flu epidemics which kill tens of thousands even though we have vaccines.)


So China is hiding information regarding Covid-19 which is why Trump's people are so ignorant ill-informed - May 26, 2020

Recently I was surveilling several stories in the news about the first human trial in China on a possible Covid-19 vaccine that offers some promise. It's as iffy as vaccines prematurely publicized in Europe and the United States.

Until now I haven't commented on all the untruths about China hiding from Donald Trump information about the virus. Here are a few stories that appeared in the news in December and early January. I realize these were not formal communiques nor informal notes from the Chinese President Xi to Donald Trump. But I took a look at these stories when they appeared. One has to wonder if there is anyone in the top 20 or so aides to Trump who read the news about anything that isn't perceived as information that would make them personally rich and famous.

What is clear from these stories is that more than adequate information about the spread of Covid-19 in China was available in early January to permit a U.S. government not totally focused on making rich people richer and reelecting Trump to mobilize for a pandemic.

Published:  December 31, 2019, 2:35pm South China Morning Post Hong Kong takes emergency measures as mystery ‘pneumonia’ infects dozens in China’s Wuhan city
Published:  January 4, 2020, 12:10 am Bloomberg China Pneumonia Outbreak Spurs WHO Action as Mystery Lingers
Published:  January 5, 2020, 1:33pm South China Morning Post China says Wuhan pneumonia not Sars, but virus remains unidentified, more people hospitalised
Published:  January 7, 2020 Macau News Government says steps in place to respond to ‘Wuhan virus’
Published:  January 8, 2020, 8:00pm Focus Taiwan CDC lists mysterious Wuhan virus as serious communicable disease
Published:  January 9, 2020, 12:51pm South China Morning Post Wuhan pneumonia: what we know about the new virus and how you can stop yourself getting sick
Published:  January 9, 2020 Journal Cretien Un coronavirus de type nouveau provoque la pneumonie virale à Wuhan
Published:  January 10, 2020 Al Jazeera/Reuters China reports first death from mysterious outbreak in Wuhan
Published:  January 11, 2020, 3:00pm Science Chinese researchers reveal draft genome of virus implicated in Wuhan pneumonia outbreak


About Amazon and Jeff Bezos - May 23, 2020

Over the past several years I've noticed incessant attacks on Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos. My first observation is that they aren't the same thing. Donald Trump and followers attack him because he owns (and basically saved from bankruptcy) The Washington Post which editorially has opposed Trump. As the owner, Bezos has ultimate authority over the editorial content. But those aren't the attacks I'm puzzled over.

Jeff really doesn't need defending. As long as someone who attacks him has read the Wikipedia entry on Jeffrey Preston Bezos né Jorgensen, presumably the critic has decided what is and is not important about the man. I assume that most of the attacks comes from a generic hate for billionaires.

What is most bemusing is how much wealth the press says he has - he apparently is headed towards being a trillionaire according to reports. Like a lot of headline news, at best that is based on a series assumptions only someone financially naive would make.

If one considers the chart to the right, you discover some curious comparative information about Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Amazon has the highest revenue. Of course, it sells real, tangible goods to people which neither Google nor Facebook do. It's 2019 earnings per share were less than half of Google, but over three times that of Facebook. It's Stockholders Equity, the value an accountant calculates as the investor's value, is the lowest of the three.

But it's Market Cap on the Friday before Memorial Day was the highest of the three at $1.2 trillion. Market Cap is, of course, a meaningless figure since it is based on the last sale price per share for the day. Nonetheless, it is the number the news media says the companies are worth, despite the fact that on Tuesday morning following Memorial Day those prices could double or drop 75%.

"Market Cap" is a number that appeared with the Nasdaq, a stock exchange oriented to the tech world where gamblers invest in startups which fail at a rate of 99 out of 100. But that 1 success...wow!

When the news talks about Bezos wealth, keep in mind it is the Market Cap they are talking about. And also keep in mind that Amazon's earnings per share is less than 1% of its May 22 closing price of $2,436 while Costco's $8.52 annual earnings per share is nearly 3% of its closing price of $302.43.

See also Fact: Donald Trump hates Jeff Bezos. Is anything you read and "know" about Amazon.com Inc. true?

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