Infrastructure resiliency is an important area of my research, and disruptions to infrastructure come from both natural and human actions. There is no need to mention the critical nature computers and networks play in modern society. The disruption to the essential Colonial Pipeline oil and gas distribution system got a lot of news a few weeks ago, and now the attack on the JBS food distribution company is causing disruptions and a lot of angst. Let’s look at three aspects of this: the impact of the disruptions themselves, the infrastructure security implications, and the role of both state sponsored and freelance cybercriminals.
First, the impact of the disruptions. Like with the Colonial Pipeline attacks, the JBS impacts should be transitory – but will probably end up being worse than it should be due to human behavior. Like the irrational pandemic inspired toilet paper runs last year, there will likely be a lot of spot shortages as people change their normal buying habits, creating a temporary supply shortage. Although modern logistics methods like warehousing-in-transit have reduced the safety margin, what people don’t think about is that supplies and distribution systems have slack build in to account for disruptions – and disruptions happen all the time due to maintenance, weather, and so forth. But that is all based on normal buying habits. When you horde or stockpile, you break that assumption, creating artificial shortages. Assuming the system is back online in the next day or so, price spikes and outages should be transient, but like disruptions from storms, may take a week or two to settle down. My guess is that if nothing breaks that shouldn’t, this will again have been a brief disruption.
As for the infrastructure implications, it’s an almost intransigent problem. It takes time to develop and deploy infrastructure. Even with fixed hardware, the firmware and software than runs on it takes time to develop, test, and deploy – and of course it is the ability to do remote upgrades and software changes that is the underlying cause of the problem in the first place. If you can access it to use it, much less upgrade it, you can probably hack it. The old DoD “Orange book” on computer security said the only secure computer was one that was unplugged with the hard drive removed. So while a lot can be done to improve security, ultimately there is no way to create a system that is both usable and completely secure against a determined, intelligent attacker. So like most things, the trick is to balance the two – maintain usability, but make it hard enough to keep out the amateurs, and have international standards, laws, and policies in place to deter and punish those who exploit system vulnerabilities.
And therein lies a key problem: governments use cybercriminals.
There is a love/hate, sometimes incestuous relationship between intelligence agencies, IT security companies, and cybercriminals. A not insignificant amount of the malware floating around was either developed, enhanced, or allowed to continue in play due to the action (or inaction) of intelligence agencies – including some well known episodes involving US intelligence agencies. Ironically, some of the most effective malware currently in circulation goes back to a hack of NSA and the release of their toolkit (ARS technica link). In addition, Agencies have been known to discover exploits, but because they are using them, don’t report them to operating system and software developers. IT and cyber security firms have been known to be complicit, in one at least one known case not fixing a hole until after No Such Agency had finished an operation requiring the exploit. And of course the need for computer virus protection, OS upgrades, cybersecurity consulting, etc. is a profitable business.
So it was remarkably hypocritical for President Biden to say that Russia bears responsibility for the hacks because the hackers (who in both cases seem to have only been after money) happened to be based there. Of course, President Putin didn’t really help matters when he “joked” …
“Hackers are free people, like artists: (if) they are in a good mood, they (get) up in the morning and draw. So hackers, if they wake up and read that something is happening in interstate relations and if they are patriotic, then they begin to make their contribution,” Vladimir Putin said.
Of course he went on to deny that Russia was sponsoring or exploiting hacking. While there have been cyberattacks in Russia, the security services pretty much hunts the criminals down and kills them. It is clear to these guys that if you’re going to do this, do it elsewhere. I’m not advocating that kind of quick “justice”, and the tolerance of domestic criminals who keep their crime offshore is something nations-states shouldn’t do, but in fairness it is absolutely not limited to Russia; the US is infamous for it with respect to other kinds of crimes, particularly essential and profitable but environmentally damaging enterprises.
In summary, treating cyber criminals as serious, dangerous criminals no matter where they are based or where their crimes are committed, is essential. Today one can kill with a computer by harming cyber infrastructure almost as easily as one can kill with a bomb. Therefore, as has been attempted with mixed success with nuclear weapons and biological warfare, nation-states need to put together frameworks to limit and prosecute the use of computer viruses and cyber attacks. That will be difficult – the system of international law and norms of behavior is in shambles (in no small part due to US actions over the last two decades, but that’s another story). The US, which pioneered these techniques, should take the lead in renouncing them and working with the international community to address the problem rather than hypocritically screaming about it in public all the while creating and using them in private (the US approach), or joking about it in public, making sure it doesn’t happen at home, but allowing it to occur elsewhere (the Russian approach).
One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.
I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.
Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.
The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems: 1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water. 2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.
If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.
So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.
Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.
Complex discussions like the situation in Ukraine are difficult when limited to 800-1000 word screeds even with links to other content. I’ve received some critical questions and feedback on the previous post, and they deserve answers – and that will take lots of words. I hope those who don’t like my positions on this topic will take some time to read and think about these replies. You may ultimately not agree, but I hope you don’t dismiss these arguments out of hand, and this helps you see that there is perhaps another legitimate side to this conflict that is not based on misinformation or devious Russian propaganda. So here goes …
Ultimately, most of the criticisms seem to be from a perspective based on what I feel is a misleading “periodization.” Periodization is a concept that foreign policy experts and historians use to define the relevant scope of time needed to understand a given issue or circumstance. In other words, when does history start for the purpose of an explanatory narrative around which we can formulate an appropriate course of action? Unfortunately, far too many people (such as our politicians and the vast majority of the so-called US “Russia experts” who say things like “dishonesty is in Russian DNA”) drag history along with them like Jacob Marley’s chains. This clinging on to the past ends up not informing the present, but contaminating it. Of course, the opposite can be just as true – if you abbreviate history too much, you risk losing needed context. Finding that balance is usually hard. But it is the first step in understanding our crisis in relations with Russia.
The key question is: Are Russian actions unprovoked, or are they a response to prior western actions?
Many of the critical replies I’ve received cite episodes from the Soviet era. But the Soviet Union is gone 30 years now. Is it valid to apply Soviet era actions to Modern Russia? I argue that by and large it is not, and we need to let the Soviet Union remain in the Dustbin of History. Unlike most foreign policy situations, in this case I think periodization is fairly straightforward: the breakup of the Soviet Union provides a reasonable starting point. It was messy in some ways but also a relatively “clean” slate in others with a new form of government, and an unusual opportunity to build a more open, democratic society with a new economic system that did not require the trauma of a hot war to initiate.
By 1991/1992, Russia was on its knees, and we had two options: help them stand up and join the western family of nations as an equal, integrated partner to try to overcome ghosts of the past, or try to maintain a superior position, keep Russia down, and prevent Russia from ever becoming a potential adversary again. It is obvious to me that the West, lead by the US, took that latter path. I think Russia tried at first to take the path of cooperation and integration, but in the face of the lack of Western acceptance felt it had to respond, and we have now reverted to tit for tat responses to various actions where each side takes a provocative action then uses the response as justification for further actions. But lets rewind the clock to 1991 and see how things evolved.
I read a recent comprehensive analysis that documents how hundreds of billions of dollars of assets were looted from the Former Soviet Republics (FSR) and transferred into the Western financial system. This looting of the FSR caused major distortions in both the economy and social fabric of Russia. On top of that, the US conducted a massive interference campaign in internal Russian politics. The Yeltsin campaign in 1996 was essentially run by the Clinton White House and Democrat operatives. I have some of the campaign materials from that election. Yeltsin was by then becoming a drunk, incompetent, corrupt, barely conscious figurehead. But he was rinsed through a Western style advertising campaign and made presentable. The level of fraud was epic, and the US (via IMF) ensured that the Russian Government got a loan to be able to pay wages and benefits just in time for the election. It is widely accepted that election was stolen with US assistance.
Russians have not forgotten this – with good reason. They also see how the US continues to pump money into “opposition” (either US friendly or simply disruptive) political parties, and US Diplomats are often seen openly and directly (and, btw, in violation of international norms) participating in political rallies. They also see how the US and international media pump up marginal figures like Navalny, and fuel divisive internal issues like LGBTQ rights to try to create internal turmoil. They also saw what happened in Ukraine, where the “transparent and honest elections” (per OSCE and PACE observers) in which the US did not like the outcome were overthrown in 2014 by a US instigated coup. Russia also learned a lesson that was quickly implemented in retaliation: social media can be used to rapidly inflame existing social divisions so as to create turmoil that can be used in the furtherance of external agendas.
From an international relationship perspective, when the Soviet Union was dissolved a number of new agreements were made as to the conduct of relations between the west, Russia, and the other FSR, and Russia was designated as the “successor state” to various arms control agreements made during Soviet times like ABM, IRBM, and so forth. Who violated them first? The answer is pretty clear: it was the west lead/pushed by the US.
During the 1990’s, Russian weapons development activities were at a standstill, and military deployments minimal. But despite the “peace”, US R&D actually accelerated in the fields of developing new strategic weapons, as well as expanded NATO eastward, and continued aggressive exercises and flights along the borders of Russia to which Russia could not respond. By the early 2000’s, and the election of Bush II, the US was arguably directly violating both the ABM and IRBM treaties. The west had clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and associated side agreements on NATO expansion, and was actively interfering in the elections in all of the FSR successor states, including gross interference in Ukraine (in direct violation of that agreement) as well as the previously noted interference in Russian internal politics.
Has Russia subsequently violated these agreements? Not sure that matters – if Party A abrogates an agreement, then Party B is generally no longer obligated to follow it, but let’s say for discussion purposes that Russia has subsequently violated these agreements. Would Russia have violated those agreements had the US not taken advantage of the situation and acted as it did? We will never know, but I suspect not. I have been to Russia and had extensive contacts in the international community throughout the key period of 1991 to 2014. At first there was a great deal of excitement at the opportunity to peacefully spin down the Cold War and join with the West in a constructive relationship. But as the 1990’s evolved into the mid 2000’s, that excitement turned to resentment within Russia.
That’s more extended background and the context (periodization) within which I view the situation. Now some answers to some specific questions I’ve received over the last day or so … questions (often consolidated or paraphrased) in bold:
But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile. — Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. — Senator (former Civil War General) Carl Shurtz, 1871
Hopefully everyone reading this is aware that tensions between the US and Russian governments are at the worst level in their 30 year history. If you include the Soviet Union, then global tensions are the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which you shouldn’t unless you mean the risk of peer-on-peer nuclear war; despite the fact that many in the US Government are blindly stuck in that mode of thinking, Modern Russia is definitely not the Soviet Union). While the Cuban Crisis is before my time, I was there during the late cold war, including the 1983 Able Archer incident.I feel the situation now is far more dangerous. During the Cold War, both sides wanted to avoid outright war, and made sure that conflicts that could lead to a war were defused. Although there were NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Targeting Strategy) on both sides, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was the rule of the day, and nuclear escalation was unthinkable except in response to a nuclear attack. Today that situation has changed. In a level of hubris that would make any writer of a Greek Tragedy green with envy, policy planners in the US now believe that tactical nuclear weapons can be used and contained to regional conflicts without risk to the US “homeland” or escalation to an all global exchange. This was the rationalization for the deployment of the W76-2 warhead, which I discussed in this post last year. I won’t repeat the insanity of that move other than to say that it totally ignores Russian doctrine and makes the world a far more dangerous place. And it has painted the US into a tactical and doctrinal corner that can only end poorly. One key reason for the relative stability of the Cold war is that each side would rather lose a conventional conflict or crisis that lay outside its borders rather than risk nuclear war. In the current Ukraine crisis, that safeguard no longer seems to exist for several reasons.
As always, you need background and context to understand this situation, which means lots of words. I wrote a piece on this back during the impeachment circus. Even that longish overview glossed over several topics such as the vital gas pipelines that cross Ukraine, and the nearly completed Nordstream 2 pipeline system that further bypasses it. Those gas pipelines are of increased importance given the connections to the Ukraine energy sector by key people in the Democratic Party, as well as the fact that the US wants to maintain influence and control over Europe’s energy resources. It argues that European dependence on cheaper Natural Gas from Russia creates a security risk for Europe. Of course, one could also argue that dependence on US LNG (which costs many times that of pipeline gas) creates an equally dangerous dependence on the US, given it’s predilection for sanctions as a weapon, as well as reduces European competitiveness in the global economy by more costly energy sources. So the bottom line is that while much is made about Democracy or the sanctity of national borders (something the US seems to have a highly selective view about, given allies like Saudi Arabia), like many if not most things this is at heart about economics and the control of resources.
There is so much misinformation and misleading perspectives (propaganda?) about the current crisis in the US and western media. You’ve been told that Russia has built up considerable forces on the border of Ukraine. That’s absolutely true. But did you know that it could be argued that the US and NATO started this round of escalation by moving nearly 40,000 troops into countries bordering Russia as part of an “exercise” (Defender 2021, which is running in conjunction with other ongoing operations)? And that Ukraine, believing that NATO will support their adventures, has been moving forces to the border of the disputed regions for weeks to take advantage of the exercise, has been shelling civilian targets, and otherwise violating the Minsk 2 agreements and associated cease fires that were meant to try to bring a negotiated settlement to the crisis? Did you know Ukraine effectively declared war on Russia last month? And that Ukrainian officials have actually intimated they are hoping for a provocation that will trigger a Russian reaction, knowing they will lose badly in any conflict, just to draw in US and NATO forces? In context, the Russians moving forces to their border are perfectly reasonable. I doubt the US would merely watch if a hostile Mexico mobilized their military, then allowed China to put tens of thousands of troops on the Rio Grande …
The current situation is especially risky because the present Ukrainian government feels it can provoke Russia since the US “has its back.” They have good reason to believe that – the current President and other US leaders have have business connections to Ukrainian oligarchs and have publicly stated their support. Many in the US Government, coming from a neoconservative background, want to “put Russia in its place” and expand US economic hegemony by restricting European options with respect to energy as noted above. Others in the Democratic party are angry over the mostly mythical “election interference” in 2016 and 2020, hypocritically ignoring the tens of billions of dollars the US has spent “promoting” (and subverting when it doesn’t suit US interests) democracy in Russia and Ukraine. So there is pressure to “look and act strong.” Yet strategically and tactically a US/NATO intervention would probably not go well, and may well lead to the use of nuclear weapons unless the US would be willing to lose a conventional conflict. And since the nuclear threshold has been lowered with systems like the W76-2, and the US fundamentally does not understand (or believe) Russian nuclear doctrine, the US might think it can use tactical devices without a corresponding use against the US. It is almost certainly wrong.
A discussion of the “correlation of forces” in Ukraine from a military perspective is complex. Sober analysts on both sides realize that the public pronouncements of both sides are optimistic for public consumption, the reality is that while probably not as simple as they might want it to be, Russia could easily wipe out the Ukrainian military (and supporting NATO units if they chose to help) if the conflict were to be kept confined to that theater. If it became a wider scale conflict, Russia could not easily (and by all indications has absolutely no desire to) “take over Europe” militarily. It could very probably not only successfully defend itself against NATO but inflict considerable pain should the conflict widen. Here the risks are enormous: Russia would be on the front lines, and militarily it would be inevitable that strikes would be made on Russian soil. However … Russia now has the ability to strike the US “homeland” with conventional weapons as well as infrastructure and financial system assets, which it might well do. How would Americans react to that? Badly and jingoistically, I would assume. But most likely Russia would not strike the US homeland directly out of fear of escalation unless serious casualties were inflicted inside Russia itself, and try to keep the conflict European by only attacking US assets in Europe or other theaters like Near East Asia. This raises the question of what the US would do at that point: would it accept the loss of Ukraine and a frozen conflict or try to “win” using tactical nuclear weapons? If the latter, which some in the US military and State Department advocate, it would almost inevitably result in a global nuclear exchange if a nuclear strike of any kind were to occur on or near Russian soil (per clearly stated Russian doctrine). A frightening but all too plausible scenario.
But will the US go to war over Ukraine? The Ukrainians believe so. However, while I think the Russiphobia in Washington knows few bounds, I’m not so sure. It would actually suit US interests just fine to have Ukraine start a war with Russia and lose. Russia would occupy Donbass (the disputed region – there are no signs Russia wants anything much to do with the Nazi infested realms west of the Dniper). This would be an epic angst-fest for the Washington Elites, and would likely completely alienate Europe from Russia economically. The new “Iron Curtain” (this time raised by the US) would likely ensure European subservience and dependence on the US for the foreseeable future. The remaining 70 percent or so of Ukraine would almost certainly be incorporated in NATO, and the Military Industrial Complex (which already sucks up over half of the US discretionary budget) would enjoy a massive influx of even more money. Win-win. Well, except for the vast majority of people in Ukraine who just want to live their lives, or the majority of Americans who don’t own Lockheed-Martin stock and selfishly want things like health care, roads, and schools. Russia too sees benefits to a short, sharp conflict that “resolves” the Donbass situation. It has been festering for years, with ethnically Russian speaking people caught in the crossfire of this unnecessary conflict. Russia also seems to be giving up on any relationships with the west, and especially with the US. So the three sides – the US, Ukraine, and Russia – have all pretty much given up on a peaceful solution; one of the three actively wants war (Ukraine), one wants a war but likely won’t back its nominal ally (US), and the other (Russia) isn’t willing to be intimidated and thinks it can win if it has to.
Unknown in all of this is what the other regional players (especially Turkey and Iran) would do. And of course there is the China wildcard – no question of their military involvement, but it would present them with many geopolitical and economic opportunities. An already unstable world will become even more dangerous.
During the late Cold War, there were a number of analysts who actually understood both the Soviet Union as well as the Russian People. Today, there seem to be far fewer US policymakers who have such an understanding. The public misunderstanding is even worse. There are certainly no voices like the late Stephen Cohen trying to foster an understanding of them. As I noted in a previous post, we have a bad situation where those voices that are heard are often personally biased. Worse, a situation has been created that you can’t even cite many authoritative Russian sources or contrary opinions (even to point out their errors, much less when they have a valid point to make) without being deplatformed and silenced in the primary modes of communications these days, the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter. There are several commentaries I would love to link to here to try to get across the profound misunderstandings that Americans have about what is going on in Russia and vice versa. I can’t – this post would be blocked. And, yet, the “country” that the above quotes speak of protecting is either unaware of this impending catastrophe, or else actively cheering it on under the influence of a “news” media that largely parrots official government statements with virtually no critical thought, much less investigation or context.
So in (not so) short, we are in a very dangerous situation, and the burden for stepping back from the edge falls squarely on the US. It is well past time to declare in no uncertain terms that this government (that of the United States of America), is on a morally and ethically wrong path in its relations with Russia, one that is in violation of a wide swath of agreements and assurances, and from a purely practical standpoint is dangerous and puts global stability and the lives of millions at risk. So what to do?
First, the US needs to stop baiting Russia, and accept it is a world player. Drop the moralizing – while the US had moral credibility during the Cold War, it has squandered that precious advantage and needs to rebuild it by adhering to international norms of behavior before it calls out others. IMNSHO, the simple fact is that the situation in Donbass and Crimea between Russia and Ukraine was largely created and inflamed by the US for crass geopolitical reasons. There is no direct US strategic security interest, and if it were not for US backing, the parties would have sorted this out long ago. Second, the US needs to stop trying to control the world. Those days were fleeting, the US mismanaged that window in the 1990’s, made it worse in the 2000’s, and it needs to accept – and more importantly, influence and benefit – a multi-polar world, or be left behind. Third, the US needs to honestly and seriously create a internal situation where it is not so dependent on exploiting a global economic system that it can’t control. That last will be the most difficult, but is the most essential, because that fragile system creates the circumstances where the US feels it needs to run everything or risk destruction.
I know that many of you are worried about the environment, energy, the pandemic, civil rights, or whatever the media inflamed issue of the day seems to be. None of that matters if we blow ourselves up over artificially generated, great power gamesmanship and selfish, hubris driven geopolitical conflicts. Russia absolutely isn’t perfect, or righteous, but in this case it is the US that is in the wrong and has been for some time.
But by far the biggest concern is the potential for a major conflict to erupt in Ukraine. Despite rhetoric that on the surface seems geared towards defusing the situation (such as Biden’s offer to meet Putin), under the surface all sides are preparing for war, and all four major parties (the US, Ukraine, the DPR/LPR, and Russia) believe the situation is in their favor. Three of them are right. But we all know who loses: the average person caught up in the conflict zone … more on the situation in Donbass/Ukraine later this week.
There are reports that water levels in both the Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactors at the wrecked Fukushima Nuclear Plant are falling as a result of additional damage from the earthquake a few weeks ago. (Nobody really knows what is going on in Unit 2, the sensors are offline.) This is Not Good(tm), since that water is essential for keeping the damaged reactors cool during the long decommissioning process, and it indicates further damage to the primary containment system. This is requiring Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owners of the reactors) to pump in more water to try to keep levels up. That means even more contaminated water coming out that has to be captured and stored or otherwise dealt with, and there just isn’t any place to put it. TEPCO received preliminary permission to slowly release the contaminated water offshore (to allow for dilution), but there is fierce opposition both by local fishermen and the international community and a final decision has not been made. The problem is, that decision might well be moot with this new damage: they will have to do controlled releases, because it’s about to get out of control. And, given the roughly 1.4 million gallons already stored, any additional quakes could result in a massive uncontrolled release. It’s a classic difficult decision: do you accept small harm over a long period of time from the slow releases, or risk massive catastrophe of an uncontrolled failure while you figure out something smarter to do.
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.
First, I would urge everyone not to focus on wobbles in the numbers. It really offends me how the media are saying things like “the US has more cases than any other country!” That is either gross ignorance and incompetence, or else misleading and irresponsible fear mongering (my bet is the former). For example, the US is reporting 216,722 cases, Italy 110,574. Leaving aside the difference in testing (who is tested, availability of testing, etc), the simple fact that Italy’s population is only around 60 million, vs. the US at over 330 million, comparing the two without adjusting for the fact the US is over five times the size of Italy is silly. On a per-capita basis, to exceed Italy the US would have to have over 600 thousand cases – assuming we are even measuring the same thing (and we are not). I started to do a plot of this and it was boring; you can barely even see the US points on a properly scaled plot yet.
Here’s the latest chart, which plots the mortality rate per 10,000 people so they are somewhat comparable. As previously discussed, these things move slowly, and day to day wobbles have to be viewed with caution. The good news it is does look like Spain is starting to “turn the corner” in the curve; Italy *might* have started to turn as well – we need another couple days of data to confirm. Any chart can be clicked to embiggen …
Lots of graphs are making the rounds, and in the White House briefing yesterday (31 March) there was a lot of talk about the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and other models of resource use or peak deaths. It seems there is some confusion about what the graphs are showing, here is a brief 😛 overview of the two most common you will see. The key difference is that they are trying to answer two different questions: how many total of something, and the peak rate of something.
Let’s take a detailed look at Spain mortality, since they are right at their peak, and it might be a good analog as to what New York is facing. Note that in all of my analyses I’m focusing on deaths. The reason is that the definition of a “case” or “hospitalization,” much less “infected,” is really fuzzy because to be blunt the testing is inconsistent and, well, a mess. But deaths are being tracked a bit better (at least outside China). It’s also important to recall that deaths lag “cases”, in this disease typically by about 15 or more days. So you will see the number of cases per day start to drop even though the death rate is still climbing or steady.
Here is a plot of the deaths in Spain, along with a statistical prediction (red dashed line), and the rate at which those deaths are happening (black line, exaggerated by a factor of 10 to better see it). In other words, the total deaths, and the deaths per day . You can clearly see the two curve shapes:
The peak death rate per day happens in the middle of the outbreak. In this case, Spain probably hit the peak sometime in the last couple of days. The model forecast 900 per day, 908 were reported Monday. Hopefully this forecast holds true, and Spain (and Italy) are starting to recover. Italy has reported a drop in new cases, the death rate should drop quickly as well. I tend to use the cumulative mortality plots since that is showing you the end point and where you are with respect to that end total. You can estimate the rates based on how steep the curve is. In technical terms, the total deaths to date is a cumulative function, and the rate of change is the first order derivative of that function (not for the faint of math heart).
All of my graphs other than the above example are normalized for population. What that means is that the denominator is fixed so we can compare. I really wish everyone would do this because otherwise you can’t see what is going on. For example, the population of Spain is 46.6 million, New York State around 20 million. So 100 deaths in Spain is the equivalent of 42 deaths in New York. So when you are looking at a graph, be very aware of what question it is trying to answer, and how it is scaled!
Here is the mortality data as of this morning for a variety of states and countries. This plot is the “cumulative deaths per 10,000 population plot,” which is trying to answer three questions, how do different regions compare, where are they in the overall progression of the outbreak, and how many total deaths can we expect:
As can be seen, New York is just entering the steepest part of the curve. If these trends and statistical projections pan out, New York can expect between five and six thousand deaths over the next two weeks, and across the US, between 75,000 and 125,000 by June. That is in keeping with what the more complex models are showing as well, in the case of my “in-house” model, around 130,000. Hopefully the mitigation measures will start to “bend” that curve, but remember what we are seeing now in deaths is the result of actions three to four weeks ago, so be patient and follow the mitigation guidelines so you or someone you care about won’t become a patient!
A lot of people who are playing with the numbers for COVID19 and coming up with huge death tolls, in the millions or even billions, are missing some key aspects of how infectious diseases and population growth works. Here is a bit more about the dark art of predicting how many people will fall ill from something like this.
The exponential growth phase of any predator (the SARS-COV-2 virus) moving into a new environment is limited by the food source in terms of both the raw supply and behavior of that food supply (the food supply, in this case, is us). If you want to learn more about that, here is a nice article that describes how this works. The bottom line is that the period of time of exponential growth for a virus is limited both in terms of the total population, immunity (either existing or developed) in that population, and changes in the behavior of that population (for humans, things like “social distancing”). So the “curve” always ends up being “S” shaped following what is called a logistic function or logistic curve. At some point, the thing just runs out of food …
In modeling viral outbreaks, the simplest models just try to figure out the three parameters that describe that curve (the midpoint, the peak rate or shape, and the maximum). In the early days of the outbreak, you can collect data such as mortality, and “fit” that data to the curve to try to estimate the ultimate variable of interest, usually the end total population mortality. More advanced models simulate things like transportation networks, interaction between people, infection rates, development of immunity, etc. These kinds of models are really useful to figure out what is the most effective way of dealing with an outbreak. But the neat thing is that these advanced models usually end up generating a logistic curve. There are theoretical reasons why this works that I won’t bore you with here (sort of like how the central limit theorem and probability bell curves work).
If we look at the data as of this morning (30 March 2020), we can fit the various data sets to logistic functions and see what the future might hold, and how things are progressing in various locations. One of my real pet peeves is when people put raw numbers on a graph that are not “normalized” for population. For example, even though a US State is similar in geography and size to a European country, comparing New York (19.5 million people) and Italy (over 60 million) to Georgia (10 Million) directly doesn’t work unless you scale it for the population. The most common way of doing that is in deaths per 10,000 people. That way you can compare them more directly. I’m not showing the “whole US” numbers, because the US is a very disparate place, with multiple “epicenters”.
Here I’m running a simple model on Italy and Spain, as they are far enough along to see how things are going, and comparing to US States. Here’s today’s plot of the data (points), with several projections (lines). As always, click to embiggen:
The solid black line is based on data from around the world as of the first week of March. At that point, we had the China data, but didn’t really trust all of it. We also had limited data from the Diamond Princess. The solid light grey line is a line derived from the H3N2 outbreak in 2017, but assumes the day of maximum rate occurred 5 times sooner (in other words, the progression of the outbreak happened five times faster). This line is interesting since it provides context in terms of the final outcome, but also to reinforce the fact that COVID19 is dangerous because it moves so fast. Of course now we have nearly 20 days more data, and Italy and Spain are much further “down the curve.” If we fit these lines, we end up with two additional estimates of our three parameters. The end point for Italy would seem to be about 2.9 deaths per 10,000 people. For Spain, it is on track to be higher, 3.1 per 10,000. Spain may be a bit high, due to two separate “epicenters” of their outbreak, but let’s stick with what the data says as a boundary. For reference, the end mortality rate for the unvaccinated population of H3N2 was 2.96 per 10,000. Netherlands and France are along similar tracks. Elsewhere, I think we can say that China and Iran are not really reasonable. South Korea is a special case – fast action, prepared health care system.
As you can see from the US state points, we’ve got a variety of things going on. Washington State, after being the initial epicenter, has done well in limiting the spread. NOLA scared everyone but is now below the projections – but I suspect that is a reporting artifact and will “jump” back up to the rest of the pack. NY and NJ are right on track. I’m having a really hard time believing the Georgia reports. I suspect munging.
So what does that mean for the US? The US is a big place with weeks separating the exposure times across the country. Some areas will be hit harder than others based on urbanization, how soon and how proactive the measures were taken, how patient folks are in sticking with them. Here are the end values using each of these four estimates, along with an estimate from a complex biological warfare model:
Whenever the models come in, they give a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. Generally, the reality is somewhere in the middle. I’ve never seen a model of the diseases that I’ve dealt with where the worst case actually came out … They always overshoot. I mean, looking at what we’re seeing now, you know, I would say between 100 and 200,000 (deaths). But I don’t want to be held to that.
All I can say is I’m with Dr. Fauci: I don’t want to be held to any of this either 😛
What does all this mean to you personally? To repeat: take this seriously, follow the CDC guidelines, limit interactions outside your immediate household (aka social distancing), keep strict hygiene protocols, and otherwise do everything you can to try to slow down the rate of spread. It’s more than likely not about you. It’s about that 1% of so of the population who will get very sick, and may not get enough care because the system will be overloaded. Don’t focus on the numbers, just take care of yourself, your family, and your neighbors, and in three or four weeks the worst should be over.
Don’t be scared by the numbers or media terms like “skyrocketing” and the heartbreaking individual stories. As you can see from the curves, that’s a natural part of the process. I understand the sensitivity around comparing COVID to influenza because it is moving so much faster, but as horrible as this is going to get for our health care professionals, the “good” news is from a whole population mortality rate it’s not all that different. The 2017 flu season probably killed 61,000 (1.87/10,000 whole pop, 2.96/10k unvaccinated). In the late 1990s, several years had rates well above 3/10k (1998 was 3.46, or with today’s population, 115 thousand deaths). As I have said, it’s not that we are taking COVID19 too seriously, it’s we don’t take influenza seriously enough most of the time.