Category Archives: Severe Weather and Other Disasters

The Complete Scientific Guide to COVID-19

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… will be written in about three years from now. Meanwhile …

We labor under a number of falsehoods about how science works. Even scientists do. There are considerable differences among the panoply of scientific disciplines, and these are important enough that I would never trust the practitioners of one scientific discipline to, say, review research procedures or grant proposals from another discipline, by default.

These differences are even more significant outside of science itself. A common example is this one. A lay person evaluating peer reviewed research claims that a certain scientific conclusion can not be supported because there have been no double blind studies. That person may be unaware of the fact that almost no science uses double blind studies. This is a methodology used only in some areas of research. A study of earthquake hazards, genetic phylogeny of chickadees, or how long a particular virus lingers on a surface will not have a double blind methodology.

In some fields of study, a single idea will often be represented by a single major publication (sometimes a book) and will not be seen elsewhere unless it is being criticized. This is not common in the true sciences, per se, but this does happen in the peer reviewed literature. In other fields of study, a single idea may be addressed in hundreds of peer reviewed papers. In some fields of study, if a published peer reviewed paper presents a conclusion that is thought to be wrong, because of some flaw, the scholars in that field are expected to learn of this problem and thereafter avoid citing that paper. In other fields, when this happens, the paper is withdrawn from the literature after the invocation of complex rituals that might or might not involve the sounding of trumpets.

There seems to be two falsehoods affecting some of our thinking about COVID-19. One is the idea that a “study” or “publication” about some detail of the disease tells us something that we can take as fact. Yes, Covid-19 stays on a certain kind of surface for N days, therefore we can’t do X! That sort of thing. However, this research is, firstly, not peer reviewed. There may very well be no peer reviewed papers on COVID-19 at this time. This Pandemic has lasted less time that the typical peer review process takes. Maybe there are a few out there, but mostly, we are dealing with non-reviewed work, or work in review. This is good work, and important work, but it is more like a set of “emergency results” that address specific pressing questions in a provisional way.

It has been important to decide which of a small number of broad categories COVID-19 can be placed in, and the work on persistence on various surfaces has provided that rough and ready guide. There are pathogens that can find their way out of an exam room, go 20 feet down the hall, and infect a person sitting in a different exam room. There are pathogens that are so unlikely to infect another person that you practically have to lick the inside of their mouth five times to catch the disease. COVID-19 is in the in between category, where it sheds into the air and hangs around on surfaces for long enough that surfaces are found to have the virus on them. Is COVID-19 more or less surface-contaminating than, say, norovirus? Rotavirus? Nobody knows, because the research to determine that, and the publication array that would be necessary to lead to policy and recommendations about that, will take time. Someday there will be a study that looks at how much of the virus persists for how long on various surfaces, integrated with the other important question of how can the virus on a given surface actually infect a human, in order to allow for a realistic and useful statement about how to go about keeping a home, and ICU, an examining room, or a school relatively safe. COVID-19 has the potential to be the most studied pathogen in recent history, but not today.

So, that is the first fallacy: that a handful of quick and dirty, rough and ready, studies designed to get a clue about this disease constitute a well tempered and developed peer reviewed literature from which we can glean an accurate characterization of most o fhte important details of this disease. Nope.

One cost of this fallacy is the second fallacy, that we can evaluate models of either COVID-19’s behavior, or the efficacy of our reaction to it, based on a solid knowledge of the disease. That is backwards. We will eventually be able to evaluate ideas like “curve flattening” by understanding a lot about COVID-19, but that will happen after we have actually seen what various curve flattening efforts have done. A recent proposal that certain areas of the world may have seen a prior passage of COVID-19, causing some local immunity. One well meaning expert (not an actual expert) on social media responded that given the way COVID-19 operates, this is simply impossible. But that is backwards. The way we will eventually be able to describe how COVID-19 actually works is by observing it, measuring it, developing good explanations for what we see, strengthening and tempering those explanations by further hypothesis testing, replication, critique in the formal peer review process as well as the less formal but sometimes more important conversations at the conference-bar setting, and time. Time to just think. Then, we will be able to say things like “X is pretty much impossible because this is how COVID-19 works.” Now, we have an expansive void where some good theory and data will eventually reside, and the job of the scientists focused on this problem is to carefully and thoughtfully fill that void with what they come to know. To get a sense of how this works, read up on the literature that came out of the 2013 Ebola epidemic. Many key known things about the pathogen and its effects were not nailed down until months or years after the last patient was identified. These things take time.

I’m not an epidemiologist, but I play one in the classroom. Amanda and I teach a class on the immune system and epidemiology. Had I not gone into palaeoanthropology, I might have gone into this field. Excellent books on the topic include The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett (not current but mind-changing and foundational, includes some important forgotten history), Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Open Yale Courses) by Frank Snowden, and for a good textbook, Gordis Epidemiology.


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COVID-19: Don’t Just Flatten The Curve, but also, do this….

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Is Washington State leveling off?

Are mainly Republican states seeing the greatest increases in COVID-19 infections (outside of New York)?

Is the NOLA effect an explainer of the the distribution of COVID-19 outbreaks?

What is the difference between flattening the curve and pushing the curve, and why is the latter what we need to be doing?

These and other questions….

Washington State is especially interesting because until New York muscled it out of the way, it was a US epicenter of Covid-19 infection. Over the last several days, the percentage increase in cases in Washington look like this:

16
11
18
11
11
11
4

Before getting too excited about that “4” we must digress to examine the “ever trust the last datum rule” in epidemiology. If you have been following the progress of COVID-19, you’ll notice that on many day — most days, really — the current situation always looks a bit rosy because the exponential rise in new cases is less for the most recent reading than for the previous readings. This is almost always an artifact of the nature of the data. Ignore the last day.

Having said that, it remains true that over the last several days the state of Washington’s new case number has not gone up as a percent of total cases. Washington is still in trouble, but measures being taken there may be helping.

It has been suggested that Republcian run states are going to have disproportionately more trouble from COVID-19 than Blue states, because Democrats pay attention to science and Republicans spend their days punching hippies and making liberals cry. This characterization of Democrats vs. Republicans is pretty much unassailable, but the effect on COVID-19 right now is a bit more complicated. Population size and density and other factors probably matter more, and it is possible that all the different virus related factors come together in the New York City Metropolitan area (which, to the surprise of Federal health authorities, includes about 10-12 counties, not four as they have been saying) to make that a hot zone no matter what.

Otherwise, the data, as shown in the following graphic which has a smudge on each state with the most rapid recent increase in COVID-19 infection, speak for themselves.

Sometimes, when data speaks for itself, it mumbles.

Not shown on that graphic because things are happening too quickly is the sudden and dramatic increase in cases, and deaths, in Louisiana. It thought that COVID-19 was active in that state during Mardi Gras. Contagious carnivalians were literally parading around on floats throwing the virus (on beads and such) to innocent revelers. There might have been some other forms of exposure. Right now, this morning, it appears that Louisiana has the second highest infection rate in the US, second only to New York and Washington, but possibly rising at a meteoric rate soon so surpass everyone.

And, of course, all those people who went home after Mardi Gras took it with them. I want to see travel to and from NOLA and other carnival sites mapped against infection outbreaks. Globally; Mardi Gras is only one carnival of many.

Flattening the curve is a nice idea, but there are two problems with it. First, it is probably very difficult to do unless cases are truly isolated prior to multiple infections. The idea of flattening the curve is to reduce R-naught, the number of people, on average, that are infected per infected person. Social distancing can help, but the only way to make a huge difference is to identify ill individuals very early in the course of their infection, and take them totally away from society. Social distancing does not do that enough. One can somewhat attenuate the curve, but mere social distancing is not going to do what happened in South Korea, Singapore, and China.

Moving the curve is somewhat difference. This involves recognizing that a spike will happen (though maybe a lower one than otherwise), but one moves the spike about two to three weeks ahead in time. Why? Because a given region probably has about 1/10th (or maybe in better scenarios, 1/5th) of the ICU beds needed to save most lives of the critically ill.

Flattening the curve is, explicitly, making the maximum infection rate low enough to duck under the bare of ICU bed number. Like this:

If the curve flattens a bit but fails at this objective, it was not flattening the curve, but rather, failing and losing to the virus. Like this:

Pushing the curve to later, which would probably reduce the amplitude of the peak but mostly result in the same huge increase in number of cases, allows the build up of ICU bed number. Like this:

That is what we are doing in Minnesota. We expect thousands of people to require ICU beds, no matter what happens. We are partly locked down, and increasing the lockdown on Friday. We are building new ICU facilities, apparently, at a sufficient rate to handle the eventual need.

Communities that are just flattening the curve, and that expect it to work, may run into trouble if they are not building out infrastructure now. We can argue about what the best approach is, but trying different methods in different states or regions is a hell of a way to test a hypothesis.

I learned yesterday that about 15% of the ventilators used in the US are made in Minnesota. We have about 2% of the population. So we’re good.


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COVID-19 Conversation: Updates and meanderings

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Updates

Spain has had a major surge in Covid-19 numbers. India has more people locked down right now than any other country. Trump intends to “open up” the economy by Easter. Fortunately he is powerless to do so. The best available information suggests that Covid-19 is not mutating much, suggesting that once a vaccine is developed, it can work widely and be more effective.

Things are bad in Iran. According to Arash Karami, “Iran’s confirmed corona cases is now 27,017 with 2,077 deaths. In the last 24 hours there have been 2,206 new cases and 143 deaths. In total 43 doctors and nurses have died from corona.”

Yesterday, March 24, is the day Trump told us we would have zero cases of Covid-19 in the US. The actual number was 53,478.

I hear chest freezers are flying off the shelves.

Covid-19 is Partisan in the US

Example of the effects of social distancing on a symptomatic indicator of Covid-19, suggesting it is working well at least in some place.
The default behavior of the Covid-19 virus has almost the same pattern of spread and increase everywhere — exponential increase with a fairly high exponent, for a virus.

How different societies or regions attempt to “flatten the curve” seems to result in very different specific outcomes, but in several areas there has been real success.

It is probably true in the US that the federal response has been pretty much perfect, from the point of view of the Virus. Trump is treating Covid-19 much like he treats Putin. “What can I do for you, sir?” But fortunately, locally, it does not work that way.

Broadly speaking (with too few exceptions) Republican executives are literally supporting the virus in this manner. They want it to spike. Democratic executives are ordering serious responses and it is working to varying degrees. In states with Republican governors, Democratic (usually) mayors are responding despite what the Governors are saying, and that is working locally.

So, yes, Covid-19 response is partisan, and one of the parties is acting like a Death Panel determining that the aged, infirmed, and the less privileged be sacrificed for the benefit of the economy. The other party is trying to help. Republicans vs. Democrats.

The response in Congress is also partisan, but the Republican response is so awful that Democrats are winning out of sheer shame on Republicans. Plus at the moment, more Republcian Senators are down with the virus than are Democrats, so that seems to shift the balance of power.

In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen the Deplorable Housewives of Minnesota (yes, that is a thing) congregating in groups at the grocery store and loudly yammering about Nancy Pelosi and how she hates America, spreading viruses onto each other as they wander like a pack of hapless Gollumoids through the produce section.

(In the past the Senate Republican leadership has always been against remote voting. Now that it is in McConnell’s interest to have remote voting, expect his situational ethics to resituate.)

Bad News

The mother of NBA player Karl-Anthony Towns is very ill with Covid-19, as of this writing. Amy Klobuchar’s husband is in the hospital on O2 and quite ill. Minnesota’s Lt. Governor’s brother has died of complications of Covid-19. A minor youth in Los Angeles has died. Prince Charles has been diagnosed positive. There is a long list of famous people from Jackson Brown to Natalie Horner to Prince Albert II diagnosed. Terrence McNally dies of Covid-19. These folks happen to be famous, and the tends of thousands of non-famous victims do not exist on a lower plane. But having famous names across the spectrum of how people know them and what people think of them is, perhaps, to this pandemic what a set of really bad hurricanes is to climate change, if you get my drift.

Watching an interview with a former official from the Louisiana Health Department last night, we got two reminders. One is that Mardi Gras happened at just the right time and place to be a major incubator of the disease, and probably accounts for a lot of sick people. The number of cases in NOLA has skyrocketed. The other reminder: Official Atlantic Hurricane season starts June 1st, but actual hurricanes or tropical storms can show up in May. Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard hospitals and communities night have an interesting year.

Here is an interesting history of the N95 mask. An outtake:

In the fall of 1910, a plague broke out across Manchuria… “It’s apocalyptic. … It kills 100% of those infected, no one survives… within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms,” …

What followed was a scientific arms race, to deduce what was causing the plague and stop it. “Both Russia and China want to prove themselves worthy and scientific enough, because that would lead to a claim of sovereignty,” …

The Chinese Imperial Court brought in a doctor named Lien-teh Wu to head its efforts. … after conducting an autopsy on one of the victims, Wu determined that the plague was not spread by fleas, as many suspected, but through the air.

Expanding upon the surgery masks he’d seen in the West, Wu developed a heartier mask from gauze and cotton, which wrapped securely around one’s face and added several layers of cloth to filter inhalations. His invention was a breakthrough, but some doctors still doubted its efficacy.

“There’s a famous incident. He’s confronted by a famous old hand in the region, a French doctor [Gérald Mesny] . . . and Wu explains … his theory that plague is pneumonic and airborne,…and the French guy humiliates him . . . and in very racist terms says, ‘What can we expect from a Chinaman?’ And to prove this point, [Mesny] goes and attends the sick in a plague hospital without wearing Wu’s mask, and he dies in two days with plague.”

On Twitter


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One way schools could help with the Covid-19 response

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Most schools have science classes. Among the science classes there are some that occasionally use nitrile or latex gloves (“surgical gloves”). While it may be perennial true that science classes are low on gloves, there is a good chance that there are a few unopened boxes in the cabinet somewhere.

Schools will not be using these gloves for the rest of the school year, because there is not going to be in class instruction for the rest of the school year.

So, figure out how to get these gloves to an appropriate medical facility.

If you are not a teacher you may not understand this part: The science teachers may have had to promise their first born to even get these gloves, and other important scientific equipment, in the first place. They may be unwilling to go up against the bursars to give these gloves up now and fight later. Indeed, it would be technically illegal for them to unilaterally root through the cabinets and gather these gloves together.

The word has to come from the top. Call your local school’s principals or superintendents. Or email them. Make the suggestion. They’ll make a call or send out an email and it will happen.

I mentioned above “unopened boxes.” I assume previously opened boxes are less of interest to medial facilities, but I might have that wrong. Anybody know?

Anyway, try it, it may help.


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Covid-19 Bored At Home: Try Board Games

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The kids are home from school because the schools have been closed. The adults are home from work because work has been closed. You’ve done all the binge shopping you can afford, and now you are sitting at home with your stash of toilet paper and children’s medicine (oh, and shame on you for that), wondering what to do with yourself other than binging on Netflix and playing Minecraft for hours on end.

You might consider board games to fight the boredom.

We have tried out several board games recently. Some of these were suggested by Jim, Jan, Julia, and Rachel (you’all can identify yourselves in the comments if you like). They are among the top games out there. I knew they were good, but when I googled “best board games” and all of them showed up on the various lists, I figured, well, there you go. These are good games.

Some are new, some are classic. Most interestingly, some are not games in which a particular player wins, but rather, all the people playing either win or lose.

Choose carefully. To get all these games is going to put you out a couple of hundred bucks. Also, some of the games have multiple version and add in packs.

Hyped UP Tic-Tac-Toe

One of the simplest games ever invented is Tic-Tac-Toe. You can play that, oh, five or six times before getting bored out of your mind! But Otrio is to Tick-Tack-Toe what a proton is to organic chemistry.

It is played like tic-tac-toe but instead of writing into a space an X or an O, you just put the O. No Xs. But the O’s come in three sizes, and nest, and there are multiple ways to win. The total number of possible moves is very large. This game is a blast, and you will play it several times as you start to get a sense of strategy.

Ticket to Ride is a classic game that we only recently discovered. There are many versions. When we got this game a while back, we picked the Ticket to Ride – Rails & Sails version. The idea is that players build routes, including train and boat segments, between cities. When the game ends, the player with the mostest and bestest routes win (it is a bit complicated). The various versions of this game have a variety of differences, but mainly, the map you play on varies. This version has a world map on one side of the board, and a map of the Great Lakes on the other side.

This is a game that is fairly simple to play if all the players are novices, but that gets much more complicated as players gain experience and figure out that certain somewhat more complex strategies are required to win.

Stratego is one of my favorite games from my youth. Each player has a number of tiles, representing a range of soldiers, some bombs, a spy, and a flag. You set them up in a way in which you can see how your pieces are arranged, but your opponent only sees the blank side of your pieces. You then attack each other. Lower numbered pieces take higher numbered pieces, but any piece that hits a bomb is dead, except an 8 (the bomb defuser). The Spy can take a Marshal (the highest value piece) but can be taken by any other piece. So, there is room for a great deal of strategy in Stratego. Which is probably why they call it that.

While on the subject of 19th century rooted war games, consider Risk. It is a classic you certainly know about.

Codenames involves all the players against the board. The concept is simple yet diabolical. Two players face off over a set of 25 words. Each player says a word (not among the 25) and a number. The other player then chooses which of the 25 is conceptually linked to that codename. The number supplied with the codename tells the recipient of the clue how many words are expected to match. So, for example, if among the 25 words on the table we have dog, cat, bird, and stroke, I might say “pet, 4.”

That sounds pretty simple, but if the recipient of the clue guesses certain answers, the game ends instantly and you all lose. There are other complexities as well.

There are different versions of this game, mainly depending on how many players you normally would have.

There is also a Harry Potter version. This one is difficult unless all the players are fully briefed on the Harry Potter mythos. Otherwise it becomes an awkward version of a Harry Potter trivia game and, essentially, can’t be played. Our house rule when playing this version is: You can ask Google to define or describe a particular item (ie, “OK Google, what is a Norwegian Ridgeback?”).

Arboretum is a pretty new game that uses cards. The cards have trees on them. Using a rummy-esque pattern of choice and discard, you lay down the tree cards in a pattern that will form a path through a hypothetical arboretum. A set of simple rules define what makes a valid path. At the end of play, everyone declares what paths they have. There are moves one can make that invalidate the best laid path of another player. The scoring turns out to be complicated, and this is when new players realize that the strategy is deep, despite the simple surface appearance of the game.

Naturally, no panoply of board games in this day and age would be complete without Pandemic. We just got turned on to this one. It is one of those games in which all the players work together to beat the board and, sadly, usually don’t. But you do have fun all dying in a pandemic, so that’s good.

I have a suggestion for a house rule for this game, which you will appreciate once you play. Each player is randomly assigned a “role.” The role is a particular set of abilities, like a researcher who can cure a disease, or a field worker who can stop a disease, etc. My suggestion is to choose, as a group, which role to assign to each player, instead of having random chance decide which roles are even being used. Once you play the game you’ll see how this can add to the fun, but at the same time, not make it ridiculously easy to win. You still won’t win. You will still all die in the Pandemic.

Happy boardgaming!


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Bjorn Lomborg’s Little Idea

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Bjorn Lomborg is famous for downplaying the importance of climate change, and the urgency of acting on it. I don’t know anyone who quite understands why he does this. If you want to know more about him, click here.

You will remember his comment a while back about how sea levels actually went down for a while, but nobody ever talks about that. He was wrong. Sea levels are rising over time, but they do go up and down within that larger framework. His sea level comment prompted me to create the following graphic:

Lomborg’s latest is to make the incorrect claim that the recent and ongoing unprecedented, traumatic, and destructive fires in Australia are just kind of average. Nothing to see here. His claim is based on a misrepresentation of cherry picked data. Australia does have a lot of fire, so it is easy to find a way to describe this year’s as not abnormal. What is different, and worse, this year is where the fires happened, the kind of habitat that burned, and the timing. (See this.) The Twitter thread that Lomborg started, and many others chimed in on, is here.

And, here is the graphic I could not resist making in response. I’ve replaced the Picard Face-palm with the Greta Stern Look. This might be a thing from now on.

The graphic used in that image is a screen shot from this video:


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Hurricanes may start stalling more, and that is bad.

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The tempo of storms has changed with global warming. A single storm that might drop X amount of water across a zone one thousand miles in length and hundreds of miles wide may now drop that same amount of water over a zone that is only a few hundred miles in length. Major floods in Calgary, Boulder, Southeastern Minnesota, Duluth, and other very wet rainfall events are now on record as examples of this, and the cause is quasi-resonant Rosbey waves. Continue reading Hurricanes may start stalling more, and that is bad.


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Dorian: All those people who evacuated north? Oops

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There was always a chance that Dorian was going to make a right turn. In fact, it wasn’t just “a chance” but a very high probability. But a day or so ago, it was reasonable to say that Dorian would likely, but not necessarily, make that turn AFTER coming ashore in Florida.It now looks like Dorian may make that turn sooner, while still at sea.

We have already seen major news outlets walking all over their own tongues trying to describe that might happen, and thus quite possibly misleading people in a dangerous way. Here, I’ll focus on a new way of explaining the Dorian dilemma.

First, think of a hurricane as a car. The driver is the eye. Perhaps imagine a car where the driver sits more in the middle, like this one: Continue reading Dorian: All those people who evacuated north? Oops


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“Am I going to have access to food or water when I’m 30?” — the question your kids are asking now.

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If you do not understand that this is a valid question, then you do not actually deserve to be breathing our chemically-altered air right now. No excuses.

Continue reading “Am I going to have access to food or water when I’m 30?” — the question your kids are asking now.


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A Hurricane Named Dorian Likely To Hit Florida UPDATED

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Dorian is a poorly to moderately organized tropical storm just west of the northern reach of the Leeward Islands, expected to affect Puerto Rico by the end of the day today, then to move into the Southwest North Atlantic, where it will likely become a hurricane between 36 and 48 hours from now.

It is highly likely that Dorian will strike the US 48 this weekend or Monday, somewhere, as some kind of storm. There is a very good chance this will be Florida as a Category 2 Category 3 or 4, i.e., MAJOR hurricane, but it is very early to be sure of that. Continue reading A Hurricane Named Dorian Likely To Hit Florida UPDATED


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