Plagues and statues

I’ve been reading Camus’ La Peste, hoping to obtain some insight into one of the great crises of the present, and finding him commenting on a completely different one. At the height of the epidemic of the novel, the narrator comments on the aspect of the silent, immobilised city, and expresses resentment toward the statues that are permanently in that condition.

La grande cité silencieuse n’était plus alors qu’un assemblage de cubes massifs et inertes, entre lesquels les effigies taciturnes de bienfaiteurs oubliés ou d’anciens grands hommes étouffés à jamais dans le bronze s’essayaient seules, avec leurs faux visages de pierre ou de fer, à évoquer une image dégradée de ce qui avait été l’homme. Ces idoles médiocres trônaient sous un ciel épais, dans les carrefours sans vie, brutes insensibles qui figuraient assez bien le règne immobile où nous étions entrés ou du moins son ordre ultime, celui d’une nécropole où la peste, la pierre et la nuit auraient fait taire enfin toute voix.

The huge, silent city had become nothing more than a collection of solid, inert cubes, where the taciturn effigies of forgotten benefactors or ancient great men were suffocated forever in bronze, evoking a solitary, degraded image of what man had once been. These mediocre idols, enthroned under a thick sky, in the lifeless crossroads, unfeeling beasts that symbolised well the immobilised realm we had entered, or at least its ultimate order, that of a necropolis where plague, stone, and night would have finally silences any voice.

I’ve commented before on how odd it is that, just because some of our ancestors chose to cast their images in heavy bronze or marble and plonk them down at significant sites in our cities, that we should feel obliged to keep them there. But I assumed that the current attacks on statues of racists was unrelated to the pandemic situation, mere coincidence of crises, except perhaps that the lockdown left people with lots of pent-up energy.

But maybe there’s something about coping with an epidemic that inspires iconoclasm?

Adrift on the Covid Sea

Political leaders in many countries — but particularly in the US and UK — are in thrall above all to the myth of progress. Catastrophes may happen, but then they get better. And to superficial characters like Johnson and Trump, the improvements seem automatic. It’s like a law of nature.

So, we find ourselves having temporarily stemmed the flood of Covid infections, with governments laying out fantastic plans for “reopening”. Even though nothing significant has changed. The only thing that could make this work — absent a vaccine — would be an efficient contact tracing system or a highly effective treatment for the disease. None of which we have. But we still have a timeline for opening up pubs and cinemas (though less important facilities like schools are still closed, at least for many year groups).

It’s like we had been adrift for days in a lifeboat on the open ocean, carefully conserving our supplies. And there’s still no rescue in sight, but Captain Johnson announces that since we’re all hungry from limiting our food rations, and the situation has now stabilised, we will now be transitioning toward full rations.

Rhodes in Context

This seems like an appropriate time to repost this comment from 2017. It seems very peculiar to me that one politician puts up a poster and the next one tears it down, buildings are torn down when they no longer meet the commercial or aesthetic needs of the current generation, but once a person has had himself poured in bronze or carved in stone.

Of course, it is something requiring debate and consideration — for statues as well as for buildings — and the massivity of these constructions is designed to thwart an overly hasty disposal. Surely no one can say that Rhodes has been hastily disposed of, or with insufficient consideration. At this point if Oriel College decides to retain its statue of Rhodes, it is taking an active decision that the complete record of Cecil Rhodes is such that that college wishes to commend and publicly honour.

Here is my comment from August 2017:

This story happened to a friend of a friend — FOF in urban legend technical parlance — when I was a student at Yale. Said FOF had applied for a Rhodes scholarship, and was invited for an interview. Reading the FOF’s application letter stating that he sought to “further the legacy of Cecil Rhodes”, one interviewer asked, “When you refer to the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, do you mean in particular his legacy as a white supremacist or as a pedophile?”

I’m not sure if it’s credible that a representative of the Rhodes Trust could speak so disparagingly of its founder — this may be an example of British establishment values refracted through the prism of 1980s American student sentiment — but the principle is solid: Many who advocate leaving monuments to dubious figures of the past in situ — whether Cecil Rhodes or Robert E. Lee — complain  suggest, instead of “rewriting history” that this statuary needs to be seen “in context”. But they rarely concern themselves with providing the full context.

Now that Charlottesville has deposed its racist monument and Oriel College has kept its own, I wondered if the Oxford City Council might propose a solution amenable to all. Accepting the right of Oriel and its not-at-all-racist historically-minded alumni who refused to donate to a Rhodes-free institution, there is still plenty of space in front of the facade for more context. As it stands, the college places Rhodes in the context of two 20th-century kings and four 15th-16th-century college provosts and bishops. The city (or enterprising protestors) could contribute more context by placing an exhibition out front of famous British racists — for example, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Enoch Powell — with the Rhodes statue in the centre.

Capitalist omelettes

Communists are routinely stigmatised by association with the adage “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”, which is taken to summarise their willingness to excuse present cruelty in the name of never-realised lofty future goals.. In the 1930s it was sufficiently widespread that the hero of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here exclaimed

If I ever hear that ‘can’t make an omelet’ phrase again, I’ll start doing a little murder myself! It’s used to justify every atrocity under every despotism, Fascist or Nazi, or Communist or American labor war. Omelet! Eggs! By God, sir, men’s souls and blood are not eggshells for tyrants to break!

Sick of hearing this justification on a tour of the Soviet Union in the early days of Stalin’s rule, Panait Istrati famously retorted, “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?”

Anyway, these days the true radical utopians are the capitalists, and so we have seen the right wing in the US — and elsewhere — following Donald Trump in obsessing over stock market declines in a pandemic. “Don’t let the cure be worse than the disease.” The deadly cure being a reduction in economic activity, and the disease being… an actual often fatal disease. The epitome of this tendency was the Lieutenant Governor of Texas proclaiming that the older generation — in which he includes himself, to be fair — needs to be ready to die in the current pandemic to avert destruction from the American economy: “keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren”. In other words, we need to break some elderly (and young immune-compromised) so our grandchildren can have the omelettes.

Except they’ll still have to eat their omelettes indoors, because the same people insist on boiling the planet. More eggs, more omelettes.

The bourgeoisie will not only sell the rope for their own hanging. On the scaffold they will try to underbid the hangman to take on the hanging themselves, and sell off part of the rope as really more than is strictly needed to carry out the task.

Capitalist utopianism, it might be mentioned, was beautifully summarised by Joe Hill in his song The Preacher and the Slave:

You will eat by and by
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

O tempora, o mores!

I was watching a 15-year-old comedy yesterday — The Terminal (okay, not great) — set in an airport. And the whole time I was feeling viscerally uncomfortable at seeing people in public standing close to each other, touching each other, touching their faces, sharing food.

This pandemic is going to have very serious long-term social and cultural reverberations. I hope someone is documenting these.

COVID-19 and the Dunkirk spirit

My recent post suggesting that the government may have some reasonable thinking behind their go-slow-but-not-too-slow strategy had two underlying errors:

  1. I assumed they knew what the NHS capacity is, and were trying not to linger too long in the period where there is plenty of spare capacity. In fact, resources already appear to be overstretched, particularly protective equipment (PPE), even though the epidemic has barely started, and there are just a few thousand cases in total so far.
  2. I neglected to reckon with — what was otherwise obvious to me — Johnson’s Churchill complex. Johnson doesn’t have all that much in common with Churchill, but one thing the two do share is a mania for all manner of harebrained wheezes rather than careful dependable planning. Keynes famously said “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail with the crowd than to succeed unconventionally”. Johnson is one of those rare individuals who would rather fail unconventionally — or, at least, is willing to hazard a strong risk of failure for the compensation of being seen as brilliantly unconventional.

Now the government says they miscalculated, after a paper from Imperial College’s Covid-19 Response Team found that the previous strategy would exceed available ICU capacity by a factor of 8! Did they misplace a decimal point? So suddenly the schools, gyms, and everything else that was announcing plans to cope with staying open through the epidemic is shutting down.

I find it genuinely shocking that the UK does not have a strategic reserve of PPE and ventilators, particularly the latter, as the shortage of ventilators was widely discussed in the press in 2009, in the context of the H1N1 pandemic.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m not in the US…

Californians panic-buying guns

What is the UK government trying to do with COVID-19?

It would be a drastic understatement to say that people are confused by the official advice coming with respect to social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Some are angry. Some are appalled. And that includes some very smart people who understand the relevant science better than I do, and probably at least as well as the experts who are advising the government. Why are they not closing schools and restaurants, or banning sporting events — until the Football Association decided to ban themselves — while at the same time signalling that they will be taking such measures in the future? I’m inclined to start from the presumption that there’s a coherent and sensible — though possibly ultimately misguided (or well guided but to-be-proved-retrospectively wrong) — strategy, and I find it hard to piece together what they’re talking about with “herd immunity” and “nudge theory”.

Why, in particular, are they talking about holding the extreme social-distancing measures in reserve until later? Intuitively you would think that slowing the progress of the epidemic can be done at any stage, and the sooner you start the more effective it will be.

Here’s my best guess about what’s behind it, which has the advantage of also providing an explanation why the government’s communication has been so ineffective: Unlike most other countries, which are taking the general approach that the goal is to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible (though they may disagree about what is possible), the UK government wants to slow the virus, but not too much.

The simplest model for the evolution of the number of infected individuals (x) is a differential equation

Here A is the fraction immune at which R0 (the number that each infected person infects) reaches 1, so growth enters a slower phase. The solution is

Basically, if you control the level of social interaction, you change k, slowing the growth of the cumulative rate parameter K(t). There’s a path that you can run through, at varying rates, until you reach the target level A. So, assuming the government can steer k as they like, they can stretch out the process as they like, but they can’t change the ultimate destination. The corresponding rate of new infections — the key thing that they need to hold down, to prevent collapse of the NHS — is kx(Ax). (It’s more complicated because of the time delay between infection, symptoms, and recovery, raising the question of whether such a strategy based on determining the timing of epidemic spread is feasible in practice. A more careful analysis would use the three-variable SIR model.)

Suppose now you think that you can reduce k by a certain amount for a certain amount of time. You want to concentrate your effort in the time period where x is around A/2. But you don’t want to push k too far down, because that slows the whole process down, and uses up the influence. The basic idea is, there’s nothing we can do to change the endpoint (x=A); all you can do is steer the rate so that

  1. The maximum rate of new infections (or rather, of total cases in need of hospitalisation) is as low as possible;
  2. The peak is not happening next winter, when the NHS is in its annual flu-season near-collapse;
  3. The fraction A of the population that is ultimately infected — generally taken to be about 60% in most renditions — includes as few as possible of the most at-risk members of the public. That also requires that k not be too small, because keeping the old and the infirm segregated from the young and the healthy can only be done for a limited time. (This isn’t Florida!)

Hence the messaging problem: It’s hard to say, we want to reduce the rate of spread of the infection, but not too much, without it sounding like “We want some people to die.”

There’s no politic way to say, we’re intentionally letting some people get sick, because only their immunity will stop the infection. Imagine the strategy were: Rather than close the schools, we will send the children off to a fun camp where they will be encouraged to practice bad hygiene for a few weeks until they’ve all had CoViD-19. A crude version of school-based vaccination. If it were presented that way, parents would pull their children out in horror.

It’s hard enough getting across the message that people need to take efforts to remain healthy to protect others. You can appeal to their sense of solidarity. Telling people they need to get sick so that other people can remain healthy is another order of bewildering, and people are going to rebel against being instrumentalised.

Of course, if this virus doesn’t produce long-term immunity — and there’s no reason necessarily to expect that it will — then this strategy will fail. As will every other strategy.

The coronavirus spectre

This article about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on air travel mentions social-media criticism of millennials (of course!) for ignoring public health advice by taking advantage of lowered airfares for inessential travel. It occurred to me, though, that the well-publicised observation that the virus seems hardly to affect children and young people at all may create different incentives for different age groups.

And that reminded me of The Subtle Knife, book 2 of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials about Oxford scholars (and children) exploring the multiverse. A significant portion of that book is set in a parallel world that has been overtaken by “spectres” that attack and devour the minds of adults, but leave children unharmed. So children run wild and the few remaining adults are in hiding.

No further comment…

Who’s behind Brexit?

One of the newspaper covers promoting pro-Brexit celebration:

It’s hard to miss that the jubilant lady draped in the Union Jack has a US flag right behind her. A message to those who still suppose Brexit will bring “independence”. (In case they didn’t get the message when the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and pretended to take Jared Kushner’s Middle East “peace plan” seriously.)

And in case any Jews or Muslims might have thought they would be part of this “glorious new Britain”, they have a fucking CRUSADER in their masthead!

Buddhist causal networks

A little-publicised development in statistics over the past two decades has been the admission of causality into respectable statistical discourse, spearheaded by the computer scientist Judea Pearl. Pearl’s definition (joint with Joseph Harpern) of causation (“X having setting x caused effect E”) has been formulated approximately as follows:

  • X=x and E occurs.
  • But for the fact that X=x, E would not have occurred.

Of course, Pearl is not the first person to think carefully about causality. He would certainly recognise the similarity to Koch’s postulates on demonstrating disease causation by a candidate microbe:

  1. No disease without presence of the organism;
  2. The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease ;
  3. The disease must arise when the organism is introduced into a healthy animal;
  4. The organism isolated from that animal must be identified as the same original organism.

I was reminded of this recently in reading the Buddhist Assutava Sutta, the discourse on “dependent co-arising”, where this formula (that also appears in very similar wording in a wide range of other Buddhist texts) is stated:

When this is, that is;

This arising, that arises;

When this is not, that is not;

This ceasing, that ceases.