US Winter Storm hits in Winter!

There is a typical winter storm forming up over the US, bringing gusty winds and rain to the Southeast, and snow to the Northeast. Because, um, it’s winter πŸ˜› …

Surface map over satellite image … click to embiggen.

Fortunately there is enough other news that everyone other than that weather channel are too preoccupied with other “breaking” news to blow this out of proportion, although adjectives like “major” are being thrown around. But it’s a strong storm, so here’s that cool swiper thingee so you can see the radar and precipitation type by grabbing the pointer with your mouse (finger on a touch screen) and slide between views.

Slide left to see precip type (white-snow, blue=rain, cyan=ice_so_be_careful), slide right to see intensity.

The usual impacts from this kind of storm, nothing catastrophic in store if people use common sense (well, I can hope!). Tomorrow will be a messy start to the week, I see that some cities like New York are taking precautions like closing schools and shifting to on-line instruction (a sad consequence of COVID is kid’s don’t get snow days so much any more). There is another storm system hitting the Pacific as well, that has washed out a chunk of the Pacific Coast Highway (caution: link goes to insufferably preachy news source, but does have drone footage).

Busy in the South Pacific; Storm brewing over the US

We have three cyclones in the South Pacific, with two of them criss-crossing Fiji and one off of Australia headed towards New Caledonia …

Cyclone Ana is just past the main islands of Fiji, having passed over the capital and causing a lot of flooding. Right behind it is Cyclone 16, which may not reach hurricane status but will cause even further damage and misery. To the west is Cyclone Seventeen, which is headed towards the French territories of New Caledonia. It may reach major cyclone status before turning south towards the islands, is forecast to be a weakening tropical storm as it passes over the Loyalty Islands (the group of islands just to the right (east) of the “New Caledonia” label on this map).

Watching the developing Nor’easter on the US East Coast. It is windy here in Savannah this morning and rain should be moving by this afternoon, erasing the pretty blue skies. Be careful on bridges in the area this afternoon – the National Weather Service issued a special weather statement for the coastal GA/SC area, with winds expected to pick up to 35-40mph. Will try to do a post around lunchtime with the details …

Binary Thinking

In reading “news” stories lately, not to mention various comments in social media about topics ranging from politics to COVID vaccines, I was struck again by the power of binary thinking, as well as how perceptions are manipulated by asking (and answering) the wrong question. Another frequent related problem is making assertions that are perhaps true, but presented out of context in such a way as to create a false perception. This usually results in the two “sides” talking past one another and a shouting match ensues; there is no shared worldview to even begin a discussion.

Here’s a concrete example regarding vaccines: In skimming a discussion about mRNA vaccines it was said by one advocate that there is no evidence or “mechanism” they cause birth defects. The problem is, that’s “true” as far as it goes but also misleading. Pregnancy was a specifically excluded condition during the trails reported so far, and all of the documentation submitted to the FDA said it was not assessed. As for mechanism, there are in fact several potential mechanisms where something could go wrong, given the rapid and complex cell division that occurs during the early stages. Is it rare? Possible or impossible? Probable? Likely? We just don’t know – there is no evidence. Last time I looked at least 18 people had become pregnant during the trials and are being closely monitored, but that’s a very small sample size, and until the children are several years old, it can’t be said for sure that there were not problems. It was also said no long term side effects have been reported. That is true but highly misleading: the vaccines were only developed less than a year ago, so there hasn’t been enough time for any long term effects to develop or reach a statistical threshold. So therein lies the problem – saying “there is no evidence” when there have been very limited (or no) studies is absolutely not the same thing as saying “there have been detailed studies an no problem was found.” That’s a distinction that is lost on many people.

For the record on this subject, here is what CDC says as of 7 January 2021: Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant. However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women. We know COVID19 presents risks to pregnant women, so if in a high risk group (like a health care provider) it might make sense to be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine despite the unknowns. Work from home and sensible about social distancing, etc? Maybe best to wait. It’s not an easy call, based on an objective view of the available data.

Again, this isn’t to be anti-vaccine. There are rational risk-benefit arguments for some, and over time as more data is collected and if the early results hold up, increasingly large segments of the population to take these vaccines. What bothers me is that people present it as a binary, “no brainier” choice. It’s just not that straightforward and it is hubris to assert that it is.

Unfortunately there is no shortage of hubris, exaggeration, and binary thinking in order to sway opinions in our public dialogue these days. I could cite many examples, from election fraud (it probably didn’t impact the results, but that’s not the point: the US election system is broken, with deep structural flaws such that it doesn’t meet standards it imposes on other countries), to social debates like LGBTQ issues or abortion or climate change or …

In short, it takes objectivity and careful analysis to reach good conclusions. This is especially hard given the political parties benefit from a sharply divided electorate, advocates for various issues minimize or are even blind to potentially adverse consequences, and demand you “take a stand”, and of course the media industry profits from the noise and drama all that creates. Please don’t feed that process, and try to understand that many situations are not sound-byte simple.

In short, life is complex. Don’t fall into the trap of absolutes.

Not a big Star Wars fan, but it has its moments.

COVID19 Mortality: A look back

TLDR: The 27 March 2020 forecast all population symptomatic case fatality rate based on the Diamond Princess cruse ship data was 1.71%. The current (20 January 2021) US symptomatic case fatality rate is 1.67%. So while the public perceptions and actions have been shifting, the bottom line hasn’t changed that much, and while there was a lot of uncertainty back then, the early work wasn’t bad. Here’s some more background, including a rant about people who think people aren’t dying from this, and a look back at the mortality forecasts made early last year.

Our first solid look at COVID19 in a controlled environment was the cruse ship “Diamond Princess”. Almost exactly one year ago, on January 20, 2020, the ship departed Yokohama on a three hour tour, um, on a round trip tour of Southeast Asia timed to coincide with the Lunar New Year celebrations. A single passenger from China brought with him a hitchhiker: the SARS-COV-2 virus. Over the ensuing weeks (which included some dumb measures by the Japanese Government that made things worse), something like over a third of the passengers and crew are thought to have contracted the virus. Around 400 of the passengers and crew became sick enough to be classified as symptomatic, nearly 200 of those were hospitalized, and about 10 or 12 had a primary cause of death being from the disease which is now called COVID19.

So where do things stand? I again rant that real time death counters seen on “news” outlets are disgusting displays of much that is wrong with American “Journalism.” Let’s look at the National Center for Health Statistics data, which is probably the most authoritative/reliable source. These statistics are updated weekly; those of you with wonky tendencies may want to read the technical notes, but the bottom line is that mortality statistics take time to compile in the US. Nationally, only 60% of death records are submitted to NCHS within 10 DAYS of death! Lets ltake a look at the week of December 26th. As of the 14th of January (two weeks after), the number of reported deaths were 41,796. As of yesterday that number is up to 72,710 … now, that’s a worse than usual example due to the holidays, but it shows the dangers of relying on the “real time” data. The Johns Hopkins data sets that many in the media are using are quite good, but they are not definitive, and the sensationalist abuse of this data is not helping. Again, pandemics are “slow motion” disasters. They rarely evolve from hour to hour or day to day, it’s more of a week to week process, with the decisions of millions of individuals influencing the course of the outbreak. The hype is stressful, distracting, and given the politics, divisive, as it encourages people who think they are being railroaded to believe there isn’t a problem.

But there is. I’ve posted similar graphics before, but here it is again, updated through yesterday. The blue line is shows total reported deaths. The orange line is expected deaths based on the US population at the time. The yellow line is “non-COVID related deaths” as classified by the ICD–10 codes. The “expected” line is wavy because more people die in winter than summer – usually due to Influenza and Pneumonia. You can very clearly see that the 2017-18 influenza season was bad, and that 2018-19 was mild. The 2019-2020 season was pretty normal – until in early February something drastic happened. That “something” was the SARS-COV-2 virus. Even if the only data you had was the blue line – reported deaths – you’d know that there was a new disease stalking the land. Look carefully at the orange line – non-COVID deaths – and how high it is during the summer. Contrary to what some with an ax to grind are saying, it seems that we were more than likely under-counting COVID deaths rather than over counting them, although it is possible that some people died who would not have otherwise because they did not seek medical care out of fear, or some other indirectly related causes. In any event, reported deaths are obviously well above normal, there is obviously some new disease running through the population, and anyone who is saying otherwise is simply wrong.

Click to embiggen …

Looking back at the early mortality forecasts, my own forecasts were off by a factor of two – the estimates from late March/Early April were on the order of 200,000 by now, but reported US fatalities recently topped 400,000. I had assumed average people would demonstrate more common sense than they did (yeah, you can rarely go wrong assuming people are idiots but despite being on doomwatch I try to be optimistic πŸ˜› ). I also thought the initial reaction would be stronger nationally, and widespread masking start earlier, than how it played out. I never really thought the vaccines would be ready by now – and I’m still rather pessimistic it will have the impacts the vaccine chorus is singing. First, this is a corona virus: other beasties of this type are responsible for about 20-30% common cold cases, and they mutate so rapidly the immune system can’t keep up; it’s unrealistic to expect vaccines to keep up, although it’s also wrong to discount them, as like with influenza vaccines, they can provide some protection even against unrelated strains. Second, despite the PR deluge, the efficacy hasn’t really been statistically demonstrated to the usual standards, and the quality control and massive rollout have created problems that have harmed the process. Cheerleading and glossing over things like adverse reaction rates isn’t really great way to build confidence. As I have said, I am absolutely in favor of vaccines – but I’m also in favor of a careful, “first do no harm” approach to public policy that a rushed “do something NOW” process rarely allows. Appearances do matter, but the data matters more.

When I teach emergency management, the very first thing I try to get decision makers to understand is that no matter what they do, they are going to kill people. There is almost never such a thing as “erring on the side of caution” because all actions have consequences – and as I often point out, economic harm also causes physical harm, a fact that is often overlooked. Ultimately the trick is to figure out policies that will cause the least harm in the long run.

As the COVID19 pandemic shows, that’s a very difficult thing to do.

Doomwatch, 20 Jan 2021

It’s been super busy and I’ve been swamped trying to reset things after major changes my organizational landscape, but we continue to have the usual share of doom stalking the Earth: it’s hurricane season in the southern hemisphere, there have been a couple of significant earthquakes. The SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continues to be doing fine (humans not so much), and of course there is something happening in Washington DC today …

There are three active tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere, two “invest” areas, and another invest area in the Philippines(!). Most of these are fairly weak systems, but Cyclone Eloise has just made landfall in Madagascar and is headed towards the African Mainland. The forecast models, as well as the official forecasts from MetoFrance (who are responsible for this area) and the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center, show it strengthening into a hurricane before the second landfall. Here’s the impact estimate …

Cyclone Eloise, headed for Mozambique.

There has been a rash of earthquakes causing moderate damage over the last week. The two most significant are a series of quakes in San Juan province of Argentina, and a major earthquake causing significant damage near Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nearly 100 are known dead, while humanitarian situation among survivors in Indonesia is becoming of concern. Damage in Argentina seems mostly confined to infrastructure.

COVID continues a slow burn through the population. It has been over a year since the first warnings were raised, and I have a longish post under construction looking back on the early predictions, as well as where we seem to be going from here. Hopefully will get posted in the next day or so, reviewing some of the latest data. It’s not good, and while it’s not the black death, it is still killing a lot of people who would not otherwise have died, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Period. That said, there are some interesting trends in mortality from other causes (such as influenza, which is almost non existent this year).

Due to the inauguration, the normal weekly data update won’t be out until tomorrow, which will give us our first mostly complete look at the 2020 mortality data, so the post will likely be on Friday. To rant once again, there is NO REAL TIME DATA ON COVID19! The “death counters” on TV are bogus. Johns Hopkins (the source most are using) is doing a great job, but the daily totals, especially of mortality, are very noisy estimates. This is a slow moving disaster; it takes a couple of seeks for all of the mortality data to be compiled.

It still astonishes me that people can’t seem to get grip on this thing, and how politicized it has become. Of course, it shouldn’t; sadly the reaction of people and what policies they want to enact are pretty predictable based on party. And like most things a balanced approach would do far better than either extreme. We’ll see how the “new” Administration does. Speaking of which …

The Biden Administration takes over today. A lot of things will likely become more orderly, and while their domestic polices are not accepted by almost half of the population, the rollout and implementation will be well organized given the long government pedigrees of the President and his various appointees. And given the fact the US media is largely on their side, stuff will get done and things will certainly appear to be better. But I’m extremely concerned about Foreign Policy. This group, lead by Blinken, Rice, Powers, and the new torturer in chief, Avril Haines, are responsible for inflaming many of the world’s trouble spots such as in the Middle East (especially Syria and Libya). They are largely responsible for the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, and advocate policies that are likely to create further dangerous conflicts. Unfortunately, much of that will be “under the radar” as the US public and media focus on the domestic situation.

Administrative note: I’m no longer cross posting any politically focused posts on either Facebook or Twitter. The environment just isn’t conducive for rational discussion, and I don’t want the Enki FB page to become yet another site where people I don’t know engage in poo throwing contests πŸ˜› … I’m happy to discuss the political implications of various doom we face (and most of them do involve politics), but we need to keep the anger and emotion to a minimum, and try to keep things based on all the facts (not just the ones that support some particular point of view). All that said, the new year is starting off much better (organizationally, if not funding wise) than the last, and the reorganization should finally start to be seen in better stuff on the Patreon page and web sites any day now πŸ™‚

What can be said about the last week?

What can be said about the events of the last week that hasn’t been said? A lot, actually, since most of what has been said on social and corporate media is either bullcrap or out of context, but I don’t think anybody wants to hear it. Not that I’ll let that stop me πŸ˜›

I’m starting to worry it’s too late,Β  andΒ  the Russian commentator Vladimir Solovyov is right: “American is finished.Β  Everyone knows this.” But on the off chance it isn’t, here are a few thoughts, because where this ends may be seen in places like Sarajevo …

Woman braving sniper fire to get food, Sarajevo.

Or Beirut …

Think that is being overly dramatic? A significant part of what I study how societies, organizations, governments, respond to disasters – often of their own making. And this society seems to be unraveling. And it shouldn’t be.

We need to keep perspective. The protest in the US Capital last week was barely even a halfway decent riot. Seriously, folks, get a grip: do a Google search for “national championship riot” and you’ll find scenes and reports of mayhem in support of a winning (or losing) sports team that are far in excess of the meager efforts of the MAGA crowd. Heck, the MAGA folks didn’t mange to overturn or burn even one cop car! As far as disrupting Congressional proceedings, again, that’s not terribly unusual, and people have even set off bombs inside the capital. That’s not to say there weren’t disturbing aspects – the collapse of security for one thing, and the President and others egging them on, but let’s not blow it out of proportion.

Which brings me to my first point: don’t give these half-assed amateurs who caused the damage more credit than they deserve; they should be ridiculed, not feared. Yet if you watch CNN, as one odious example, or read Facebook (which I have pretty much stopped doing), you will be bombarded by phrases like “insurrection” or “coup.” Well, I’ve seen a few insurrections and coup d’etats, and this isn’t anywhere near that, any more than the somewhat better organized and implemented BLM riots of last year were (and were called insurrections and worse in the right wing bubble). What we have in both cases are groups of people with legitimate concerns (such as Law Enforcement misconduct on the part of BLM, election integrity on the part of MAGA) are being exploited by a broken political system to deflect attention from their own failures and the real underlying problem that afflicts both BLM and MAGA: economic disparities and corruption. And don’t delude yourself: Democrat politicians have been exploiting the BLM destruction and violence (by excusing it) just as surely as they are by denouncing the MAGA efforts (by exaggerating it). Likewise, those Republicans who jumped on the MAGA and wagon have been playing with fire by doing the opposite, encouraging MAGA while demonizing BLM/Antifa. Both exaggerate the radical elements of the movements they dislike, and cover up or excuse those they want to manipulate, to try to get their respective agendas rail-roaded though because they can’t stand the light of a reasonable debate.

And before somebody screams “false equivalence”, sorry to burst the bubbles on both sides, but these two movements are EXACTLY equivalent in many respects: people with legitimate concerns that could and should be addressed within the normal political process are being encouraged by opportunistic elements to distrust the system and go outside the process to use disruptive, even violent protests to apply pressure to the system. Again, that is playing with fire.

I’ve tried to have conversations with acquaintances (I can’t call them friends any more) on both “sides” of this increasingly stark, largely reality free (IMNSHO of course) divide.Β  Both sides have reached the stage where to even try to understand the other is seen an act of treason and betrayal, and the radical elements are now controlling the conversation, placing what should be a reasoned discussion of the complex but solvable problems facing this country into the starkest, most confrontational concerns possible. Β A similar situation arose before the “War of the Rebellion,” aka US Civil War. Both the “fire eaters” of the south and the radical abolitionists of the north wanted redemption by blood. The “other” is beyond redemption, and must be destroyed. And once it becomes a “religious” (ideological) war, reason no longer plays in to it. That is unbelievably dangerous, and has to stop. The “sides” need to communicate, understand, cooperate and compromise.

But what about tRump? Ignore him and he will go away in less than two weeks. Yes, he might continue to try to incite his more radical supporters, but the best way to deal with that is to not give them any more credit than they deserve, which is very little. By keeping the radicals fired up and making them seem important, you’re painting those who could quietly deal with Trump into a corner. It’s not likely that a lame-duck can do substantial, long term damage. The institutions are mostly in place to mitigate that. And both sides then need to do a gut check and minimize the demagogues – of which both have way too many. The media has a role here: don’t give the extremists credit, and seriously, objectively fact check everyone. “Advocacy journalism” – which is by far the dominant mode in the US – is probably the most toxic thing that can be done in this environment.

So tune down the rhetoric. Objectively listen to what your side is saying, and imagine how it sounds to the “other.” Recognize the “other” has legitimate concerns and more than likely just wants many of the same things you do, and even when it seems they don’t, often there are compromises that can be made. Be on guard for the fact that opportunistic politicians and media corporations/personalities are trying to exploit you, and are artificially ramping up the temperature of the debate. Realize there are a few individuals/groups who are just looking for any excuse for mayhem. They want to burn the existing system down. That almost never ends well. Don’t let them.

TLDR: everybody calm down and eat some fruit. I don’t have time for this political stuff. Now that I don’t have as many restrictions on my public activities, I’ve got some neat new projects (like with UNICEF and the African Risk Capacity), and am trying to roll out some cool stuff for my Patreon supporters as well as the great unwashed masses. So behave yourselves πŸ˜›