Saturday, December 19, 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.

The American Way: They talk, we don't listen - December 19, 2020

RAINA MACINTYRE, Head of the Biosecurity Research Programme and Professor of Global Biosecurity at the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, Australia:

In terms of what Australia did well, the decision to close international borders in mid-March stands out, particularly after the WHO consistently and from early on said border closures were not necessary.

In the first wave, the majority of Covid-19 cases in Australia were return travellers, and we had voluntary home quarantine that was regularly being breached – so the decision to use hotel quarantine was also implemented, which has been another important measure.

We saw the epidemic peak and start to fall exactly two weeks after the borders were closed. This allowed us to control the pandemic within our borders, even the second wave in the state of Victoria in July.

The mistake made there was the failure to recognise the need for public health surge capacity, particularly the need to swiftly trace thousands of contacts, even though Australia did well with increasing intensive care unit and ventilator capacity by more than 100 per cent in March.

Sadly, that lesson does not seem to have been learned – in the state’s latest budget announcement there was no funding for expanding public health workforce capacity. I do not think this lesson is well understood anywhere, but some states have better-resourced health systems than others.

It is very good news that we have effective vaccines, and many more in development. With a vaccine of 90 per cent efficacy, we would need about 70 per cent of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and stop transmission.

At this stage, with no trial data on children, vaccines will initially only be for people 18 years and over, which means the majority of adults will need to be vaccinated if no children are vaccinated to achieve 70 per cent coverage – and that is unlikely.

We also have no national goal for herd immunity at this stage, which is a concern. I believe we should be aiming for herd immunity and planning accordingly.

So it is likely if the status quo remains, vaccination coverage will rise slowly and may reach 30-50 per cent over a period of a year or much longer, and we will be living with Covid-19 for a long time. If, however, we aim for herd immunity and do our best to get enough high-efficacy vaccines, we could eliminate the disease.

Low-income countries will probably end up getting the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which showed 62 per cent efficacy in its most recent trial, as high-income countries will scramble for high-efficacy vaccines.

This means transmission of Covid-19 will continue in low-income countries that either cannot vaccinate enough people or have a lower-efficacy vaccine, and hotspots of the disease will remain in the world for some time to come.

The high levels of vaccine hesitancy in the US means it is unlikely to achieve high enough vaccination rates for herd immunity any time soon.

One thing that surprised me in 2020 was the utter failure of many Western democracies to control Covid-19. There has been a rather patronising attitude in the West – reflected in measures such as the Global Health Security Index – that only fragile states and low-income countries will do badly in a pandemic.

What we saw was the opposite, which proves that money, technical know-how and scientific knowledge do not guarantee good pandemic control. Culture and leadership matter too. Cultures which are more civic-minded and obedient of public health orders have done better. In that way, Australia is more like many Asian countries than the US or Britain.

We tend to trust the government and do what they say. We have seen the dire outcomes of poor leadership in the US, where leaders have peddled unscientific theories, miracle cures and actively discouraged good public health management, while basic public health measures such as masks and vaccines have been politicised.

A final point, as someone who has worked in the pandemic field for 28 years, is that I believe we have seen a gradual hijacking of pandemic planning and expert groups around the world since the 2009 swine flu pandemic by people without the requisite qualifications or knowledge of public health epidemic control.

When people with some relevant knowledge in infectious diseases but no understanding of epidemic control fill these expert committees, it’s a bit like putting an air traffic controller in charge of flying the plane.

This has resulted in unscientific theories and poor management being pushed in many countries by supposed expert groups – such as the herd immunity by natural infection theory, which seems to have started in Britain. Just like aviation, health is a vast field.

But in infectious diseases there are many different areas of expertise. Like aviation, each area is equally critical, but if you have one doing the job of the other, accidents will happen.

From an interview in an article Coronavirus vaccines will save 2021? Not so fast, here’s what the experts think, not published in the United States.

When Wishful Thinking Envelops Voters - December 7, 2020

In the South China Morning Post headline today, December 7, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, we are told: China’s US, Australia trade continues to grow in record-breaking month despite ongoing geopolitical spats: Record-breaking Chinese export data saw exports to sparring partners Australia and the United States grow strongly in November year on year; China’s surplus with the United States surged to the highest point of Donald Trump’s four-year presidency, despite his vow to eradicate it.

And, ironically, since Trump took office the Chinese have negotiated with Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam to create a significant Pacific-Southeast Asian trade alliance known as RCEP signed on November 15.

In the meantime, last Thursday a CNBC article reported Biden could rebuild trade deal with Asia-Pacific to counter China's dominance, says think tank explained in the post here December 2, in today's political reality, a significant minority accepts its beliefs from the likes of sportscasters and reality show hosts.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed in November 2020 was introduced nine years earlier as a concept in 2011 during the 19th ASEAN Summit. The original proposal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was made in 2008 with the final agreement stalled by the U.S. disinformation machine eight years later in 2016

The U.S. cannot compete when we need 8+ years of informed participation in complex economic negotiations.

Too much wishful thinking goes on in the minds of voters. A certain chill is felt when current failures in international relations are reported on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Or maybe it's just me.

California's Racism: A Different History - July 8, 2020

Reports indicate that 832 anti-Asian hate incidents in California have been reported in three months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the midst of the national Black Lives Matter revolution, Californians need to remember that our state's population is about 39% Hispanic and 15% Asian while only 6% Black and 37% non-Hispanic white. Blacks and whites together make up only 43% of our population.

As noted in previous posts 28 members of my high school class were born in the American concentration camps to which their Japanese-heritage parents were shipped off to by the U.S. government in WWII. Prior to that we had the 1892 - 1940 Chinese Exclusion Act, the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.

In California we have a complex multi-racial history that dates back to the mid-16th Century.

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!

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 Inc. true?

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