A Few Things We Know About Covid-19

Preface

I’ve included some links to sources here. If I’d spent much more time, I’m fairly sure I could source most of these statements well–but I haven’t done so. That means that you’re reading the general impressions of a person without medical expertise, without any formal scientific expertise, and with relatively poor sourcing–the general impressions of a layperson who has spent a fair amount of time following scientists. Please bear that in mind, and use this document as a jumping-off point for further research. At the end of this document, I’ve listed a number of “people to follow”, most of whom have relevant expertise and are much closer to the sources of data than I.

I wrote this document hastily over several hours, with a specific audience in mind. I beg your forgiveness for any factual errors–which are likely, given the haste in which I wrote–and your help in correcting them. Note that I’m assuming a framework of Christian ethics, though I’m hopeful that much of the document will be helpful to some regardless of ethical framework.

There’s the possibility of subsequent edits to this document. I’ll try to document significant changes.

2020-07-04: added a link to this encouraging interview w/ Francis Collins, a public Christian, leader of the Human Genome Project, and current director of the National Institutes of Health.

2020-07-05: added a link to a helpful explanation of how we know that increased case counts are not simply due to increased testing.

2020-07-12: edited to reflect CDC’s update of best estimate of infection fatality rate (estimated percent of those actually infected, not just of those confirmed via testing, who die of the disease), from 0.40% to 0.65%. Also, in that scenario, that 50% of transmission occurs prior to symptom onset.

What are we dealing with?

How bad is it if you get it? 

Most people, especially younger people, are relatively unlikely to experience the most severe symptoms. The CDC estimates a fatality rate somewhere between 0.2% and 1% of those showing symptoms, with a “best estimate” of 0.65%. Other experts see this number as too low. Not included in the “fatality” rate are people who survive and no longer have the virus, but who suffer long-lasting health consequences, ranging from major permanent damage to lungs or other organs, through extreme fatigue lasting for months.

In a group of 500 symptomatic people reflecting the overall population, this implies between 1 and 5 deaths due to Covid-19. Among people older than the overall population, the death rate would be substantially higher. This ignores “survival, but” scenarios. In a population of 300 million, maxing out at 70% infection, the given range implies between 420K and 2.1 million deaths over the course of the disease’s growth.

Haven’t a lot of people already gotten it, and are immune?

No, as far as we can tell. Certainly, a lot of people have had mild cases without ever being tested and being included in confirmed numbers–but best estimates are that they’re still a very small, single-digit percentage of the US population. You may have seen videos from the California doctors who own an urgent-care chain arguing otherwise; their use of statistics was either incompetent or dishonest. Some early studies, using antibody tests that were at the time FDA-approved under “emergency use” without the typical screening for validity, likely substantially over-estimated prevalence of antibodies. We’re still a very long way from the number of immune people that we need for “herd immunity”.

The upshot: most of the population remains vulnerable to Covid-19, and we don’t know much about how long immunity persists after having it–whether it’s more like the common cold or more like chicken pox  in how long immunity lasts. If it’s more like the common cold, there is no substantial herd immunity without an effective vaccine. If it’s more like chicken pox, it will eventually burn through enough of the population, either turning them immune or killing them,  that it can’t easily spread.

Aren’t most of us going to get it eventually anyway?

Besides the “flattening the curve” that you’ve heard about (to avoid overwhelming medical systems), the other advantage of slowing the virus’s spread is that it buys us time–time to discover helpful therapies that keep the worst cases from being so bad, time to develop vaccines that get us to herd immunity without burning through bodies, or time to do both. If we can stay away from exponential growth, (in other words, if every person who gets it infects, on average, less than one new person), the chances of most people not getting it before we have better therapies or vaccines are relatively good. Neither is a certainty, however. One minor note of encouragement is that, among the many vaccine candidates in development, China has recently approved a vaccine for military use. (That particular one doesn’t sound like a good candidate for the general population, with imperfect coverage and frequent side effects.)

(2020-07-04: This interview with Francis Collins, who’s been prominent in science as a Christian for a while and is currently director of the National Institutes of Health, is encouraging and insightful in a various ways, and worth reading. Of relevance here, Dr. Collins notes that at least four vaccine candidates are entering large trials as early as this month, and he’s “guardedly optimistic that by the end of 2020 we will have at least one vaccine that has been proven safe and effective in a large-scale trial”, without taking safety shortcuts. He adds the caveat that we are in uncharted territory.)

Aren’t a lot of deaths being misreported as due to Covid-19?

It’s more likely that deaths due to Covid-19 are under-reported, through people dying at home without testing. Guidelines for reporting Covid-19 as a cause of death are the same as for other diseases, relying on the doctor’s assessment of the causes that actually contributed to a death. You’ve probably also seen rumors of financial incentives for Covid-19 diagnoses. Don’t believe them, but I won’t work to debunk them here.

Another approach is simply to look at how many deaths have been reported in the US over the last few months, compared to typical years–”excess deaths”. There have been far more total deaths than usual, in a pattern roughly corresponding to the lagging effects of lockdowns on deaths. Adam Nisbett has created a helpful graph from CDC data, linked below, to illustrate this. Also, see the FT.com link for some impressive graphs of “excess deaths” around the world.

But isn’t Covid-19 just something like a really bad flu, in terms of deaths? 

This question comes from the comparison of known deaths due to Covid-19 thus far with deaths in a “typical” flu season–for example, comparing the 130K deaths in the US thus far due to Covid-19 with the 20-80K deaths in a typical US flu season.

 This is a really bad comparison, for several reasons–and it leads to far underestimating how bad Covid-19 is, relative to the flu, at a population level. 

First: the typical flu is something that most of us have some immunity to. Even if we haven’t had a specific strain, and even if we become sick, our bodies have some “priming”, from exposure to the various flu viruses around, in learning how to deal with new strains. So, a flu virus has to fight its way through a population that’s already somewhat resistant to it (a level of “herd immunity”), and then, once it finds a host, has to fight its way through that person’s immune defenses, before it can make someone sick–and even as that’s happening, your immune system has a head start on fighting it to minimize the damage.

Now, when a new virus comes around (you may have heard the term “novel coronavirus”), no one’s immune system has seen it before, and they don’t know yet how to fight it. So, the virus can spread easily through a population, and it can invade someone’s body without a lot of initial resistance–and the immune system is left scrambling to catch up.

The seasonal flu happens each year in a context of something close to “herd immunity”, and kills 20-80 thousand per year before “burning out” in the number it manages to  infect and kill. The novel coronavirus is happening in a context of very little herd immunity, and has most of the population to burn through before we get to a death-count number we can compare with the flu. (Note that there are some glimmers of hope in the possibility that some of the other, pre-existing  coronaviruses might offer a bit of help in cross-immunity with SARS-CoV-2–but no certainty whatsoever at this point.)

Next: the seasonal flu number is an estimate, likely substantially inflated. If we looked at known cases, flu deaths would be far lower than the reported 20-80K. So, to make the comparison on the same terms, we’d need to use a very low number of flu deaths, or a much higher estimate of Covid-19 deaths.

Didn’t WHO say asymptomatic spread isn’t common?

No, not really. There was brief confusion, due to someone speaking off the cuff in an interview and spread widely by some sources–but it seems like most spread comes from “pre-symptomatic” people, a few days before they recognize that they have symptoms. This is why the disease is so hard to contain, and why assuming the disease’s presence even if nobody “seems sick” is so essential. The CDC’s best-estimate scenario is that 50% of transmission occurs when people aren’t symptomatic.

But aren’t we seeing Covid-19 backing off (at least locally)?

Well, sort of–but not really. In Reno County in the last few days, we recently went from 13 (IIRC) active cases down to six (due to “recovery”), which is lovely. And then, we added 4 new cases yesterday, and 4 again so far by mid-morning today (2 July). These numbers exclude “probable” cases that KDHE includes.) A substantial fraction of recent cases were from “unknown sources”, which means they got it from someone who had it and wasn’t recognized–which means those people may well have passed it on to others. When it’s circulating in the community, we don’t have a handle on it.

As Dr. Jessie Hawkins (link at end) put it, everything you see is a lagging indicator. Symptoms lag infection and contagion. Doctor visits lag symptoms. Tested cases lag actual cases, because people often don’t get tested until they have symptoms, and the tests take time to come back. Hospitalizations lag tested cases. Deaths lag hospitalizations by quite a bit. And so, lower deaths right now in Kansas than we’ve had at times are the results of actions taken “long ago”, in terms of the disease, to reduce spread. The upward trend in cases in Kansas and the nation is already a lagging indicator of actual cases, and a predictor of hospitalizations and deaths. And no, the increased numbers are not just due to increased testing; the percentage of positive test results is going up in a lot of places, which means that tests are catching a smaller portion of the actual cases than they were catching previously.  (See this article for a great deeper explanation of why that is.)

In counties next door to Reno (see especially Sedgwick), as in the state overall, case counts show unnerving recent patterns that seem likely to lead to substantial growth. And, due to disease spreading multiplicatively rather than additively, numbers can move to entirely different scales (from tens to multiple hundreds) much more quickly than is intuitive. So–no, we’re far from being in a good place to pretend we’ve collectively survived the coronavirus experience. That will continue to be true as long as we have community spread. This doesn’t have to mean life comes to a standstill (see following sections), but it represents the reality of how the virus works.

Nationally, we’ve moved well beyond April’s peak in the number of new cases per day. The graph looks like the start of an exponential growth curve, and hospitalizations, as one would expect, are lagging it by just a bit. This increase in numbers is not simply because of increased testing; the percentage of tests that come back positive has been increasing, indicating that we’re missing more cases than we have in the past. The daily US deaths have trailed off to around 600 per day, which seems like an encouraging direction–but many of those deaths are from illness contracted weeks ago, when there were far fewer cases than there are now.

My impression is that there are some hints that the virus might be decreasing in average severity, but the increases in hospitalizations, tracking with case numbers, are not an encouraging sign.

How should we deal with it?

On lockdowns

After a short phase in the US of encouraging people to “be careful”, much of the US entered some form of “lockdown” or “stay at home order” in an effort to short-circuit the virus and buy time to figure out how to deal with it. The economic and social costs of this, of course, are tremendous, with businesses suffering and closing, layoffs, weddings postponed or shrunken, funerals taken to just a few people, and huge disruption to people’s social habits and even mental health. The lockdowns were costly, and no one is cheering the damage they caused. 

The lockdowns were the equivalent of throwing a train’s emergency brake: deemed necessary to avoid a crash, but damaging to the train, the rails, and possibly the passengers in its own way. They were meant to short-circuit the growth pattern of the virus, so that we could deal with a controlled outbreak rather than a forest fire, and develop the tools to deal with it. Unlike countries such as New Zealand, we didn’t pull it off, and we now have both the negative effects of the lockdown and a forest fire to deal with. It seems unlikely that we will re-enter “stay at home” situations.

Associated costs/harms

There will always be some trade-offs between the costs of experiencing the virus and the costs of managing the virus. The virus hits us directly through its effects on infected people and the secondary effects of consuming medical capacity. And in trying to manage the virus, we also may incur a lot of economic, social, mental-health, and even “spiritual” costs.

The costs are unequally distributed. Many of those earning money or producing goods are not those most likely to suffer the greatest damage from the virus. We can’t completely stop economic production for the long term, or we’ll all suffer greatly. We can’t stop human connection of some sort, or the effects on all will likely be worse than that of the virus. And yet, the core criterion for assessing whether someone is following Christ is whether they “love their neighbor as themself”–which, at a minimum, involves weighting harms to others at least as heavily as one weights harms to oneself.

We won’t get this absolutely “right”–but if we’re followers of Christ, we’ll try to act in wisdom and love.

On managing harms

Some of the disruptions of the last few months have shone helpful light on problems in “normal” life. In many ways, though, most of us wish for much of the “old normal”: for business and personal income to continue, for the ability to visit others or gather with groups “normally”, for weddings, funerals, and graduations to go forward, for the simple rituals of community to resume or continue. People experience great loss in being deprived of these things.

In this case, the medical costs seem especially focused on older or medically vulnerable people. We could eliminate the costs of “loss of normal life” if we simply resumed normal life, ignoring the cost to these groups and some unlucky others–but in so doing, would declare our allegiance to a kingdom that doesn’t have a suffering-servant King. The harms are not only to others individually, but to the validity of the Way of Christian faith, and to the one Christians claim to follow.

Faced with the impossibility of completely “shutting down” indefinitely–a scenario in which everyone suffers greatly, not just a few–we have at least to look for ways that minimize the harms to all. This requires, among other things, that we know what are the things most likely to cause harm, and exploration of ways to meet everyone’s needs while minimizing the harms.

What are the most likely causes of harm?

I’ve already alluded to some of the harms from trying to contain Covid-19: economic pain, feelings of isolation, disruption to normal routines, etc. In this section, I’m looking mostly at the things that are most likely to increase harm from the virus itself, by smoothing its path to new hosts.

The science involving Covid-19 has been happening at a record pace, and as a result, we in the public have seen a lot of changing and “preliminary” information. Add to that the fact that journalists, on average, are notoriously bad at understanding and conveying the content and implications of scientific studies, and it can be hard to keep up with good information. But, here’s a layperson’s understanding of what we currently know–with strong encouragement to go to more-qualified people (listed later) for better information than I can give here.

It seems as though most transmission happens through inhaled respiratory droplets from others, which carry lots of viruses with them from infected people and deposit them into someone else’s respiratory system. This isn’t just bits of phlegm, spittle, or sneeze droplets; one person noted that when you see your breath, you’re seeing respiratory droplets. Since infection depends on the quantity of viral particles one is exposed to, a brief, outdoor interaction with an infected person at a distance is much less likely to result in infection than is an indoor, close-by, extended interaction.

Earlier on, there was substantial concern about the possibility of “fomites”–if I understand correctly, basically the dried-up droplets–depositing virus particles on surfaces, and then the virus being carried to new victims by their touching those surfaces and then touching mouths, etc. My understanding is that this is probably not a major means of transmission, though appropriate caution is still reasonable.

Different people, and different activities, produce different amounts of respiratory droplets, and project them different distances. There are a few things we know to increase the likelihood of infected people passing on the disease to others:

  • Spending extended periods “in the same air” as someone else, regardless of “six-foot” rules. Mixing of room air, along with the duration of exposure, means that sharing a closed indoor space with someone else for an hour will overwhelm the effects of social distancing. Having a lot of circulation of outside air may help somewhat with this. Being outside, with the chance for infectious particles to be quickly blown away, is much better.
  • Being in close proximity. Keeping six feet away from someone minimizes the number of viral particles that move from one person to another in a short time, on average. This is because most droplets tend to fall toward the floor–but it does not eliminate the risk, which increases with time and with what the other person’s doing. (There’s a lot of variation among people in the number of respiratory droplets that they produce in normal speech.)
  • Singing, exercising, or possibly even speaking loudly in an enclosed space. These activities dramatically increase the number of respiratory droplets produced and the distance they may travel. These have been factors in several super-spreading events.
  • Mixing with a lot of people. A person is often most infectious in the several days before they notice symptoms. If they’ve been in potentially infectious situations with three people during that time, they’re probably going to infect fewer people than if they’ve been in similar situations with 50. When one person (or a few) infect a lot of people all at once, this is known as a “super-spreading event”.

Beyond managing transmission, options for managing harm from the virus itself are limited. Once one has it, the disease will, generally, take its course, though medical intervention may help in the more serious cases.

Minimizing harms, maximizing benefits

In the early days of the US’s encounter with the pandemic, the WHO and the CDC discouraged public use of masks. This was, I think, largely driven by the huge shortage of masks for medical personnel–but the messaging was a mistake.

Substantial evidence has accrued for the public use of cloth masks (or any masks other than respirators) as a way to reduce the virus’s spread. They’re far from perfect, and need to be used well and regularly washed, but they’re helpful in keeping anyone who has the virus (remember–lots of people have it and don’t yet know that they do) from passing it on. Remember, most viruses ride out of an infected person’s body on respiratory droplets. And a cloth mask is fairly effective at making those droplets fall to the ground a lot sooner for someone wearing a mask than for someone who isn’t–and there, they won’t be inhaled. A cloth mask doesn’t do much at all to protect the person wearing it, but it does a lot to reduce the risk of their passing on disease to someone else. Indeed, wearing masks may have enough of an effect to enable an otherwise “mostly normal” life and contain the virus’s spread–greatly reducing the harm from disease and the harms of economic and social losses. They may or may not get us fully to disease containment, but they’d let us minimize the costs to all, rather than having to decide who suffers greatly.

Dr. Jennifer Koontz, from Newton, has been offering regular updates regarding the disease, and has an excellent summary of what we currently know about masks, here: https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.koontz.161/posts/10158296214682604

Without widespread use of masks, we’re likely to suffer all the costs the virus wants to demand and the economic and social consequences. This is an inconvenient, but relatively costless, opportunity to love our neighbors in significant ways–or to reject that opportunity.

Beyond this, we need a lot of systemic work to understand where the virus is and how to contain it–but much of that has to be done at a system level, rather than being something that individuals can do.

But masks…

I’ve seen various objections to masks, including violation of personal rights, concern about CO2 buildup, and concern about fungal infections. And, of course, people claiming OSHA authority to discredit cloth masks, and people claiming that cloth masks don’t protect you.

Regarding assertion of one’s right not to wear a mask: I think the precedent and teaching of Christ are clear regarding caring for others, as are the implications of rejecting that teaching. 

Regarding concern about CO2 buildup: there is a small portion of the adult population who shouldn’t wear masks, due to specific health issues. They are joined by young children. For everyone else, cloth masks may be uncomfortable and annoying, but don’t present health issues–and are far less restrictive to air flow than the respirators or masks that many medical professionals or others use for periods much longer than the average person.

Anecdotally, I’ve spent a lot of hours (not during the pandemic) cycling hard in hot weather, wearing a mask with a neoprene shell, carbon filter, and HEPA filter layered together, in “hazardous”-level polluted air, with filters often well-overdue for change–and haven’t experienced the oxygen deprivation that is sometimes claimed as an effect of masks.

Regarding fungal infections: masks should be washed each day you use them, for multiple reasons–including keeping weird stuff from growing. One recommendation I saw stated it simply: treat a mask like you treat your underclothes.

Regarding a post attributed to someone “OSHA-certified” that you may have seen: this post directly contradicts information available on the OSHA website, while citing the writer’s OSHA expertise. This may help in assessing the writer’s credibility.

Regarding the claim that cloth masks don’t protect you–that’s right, mostly; they’re minimally effective at protecting the wearer from incoming germs. That’s not why you wear them–you wear them for the sake of other people, and hope that they have the kindness to do the same for you. Incidentally, this is also why valved masks aren’t good in public; rather than keeping you from passing on your germs, they may actually make them spread further through concentrated, unfiltered airflow on exhalation.

For much more, see the Jennifer Koontz summary that I linked in the “Minimizing harms, maximizing benefits” section.

Some people to follow

Here are a few people with pretty consistently helpful (and generally apolitical) commentary. (Vince Staggs might be an exception to the “apolitical” description, at least by some reckonings, and writes on subjects ranging beyond Covid-19–so skip if you must, but if you do you’ll miss a terrific, intelligent and passionate, perspective on the practical intersection of Christian faith and public life.)

Other helpful resources for churches

The “Reopening the Church” website (https://www.reopeningthechurch.com/) appears to have some terrific resources, including manuals and checklists, for working through processes of decision and implementation regarding re-opening churches (oriented toward churches) and resuming in-person attendance (for individuals), considering both science and faith.

Teaching Kids to Code

Before my family had a computer, I knew I wanted to program. I told that story in an earlier post. I’d like my kids to learn to code as well–but they’re growing up in a world very different from that of my childhood, and I haven’t been sure how to recreate for them the empowerment that I felt. I think I’ve found one “magic bullet” entree to the game, and am sharing a brief review of it and of several other resources.

BitsBox

First–our first BitsBox arrived yesterday, and our kids (7 and 6) love it! The company delivers a highly-scaffolded programming environment. The first project has the child type in two lines of code to draw a monster on screen, and then have him burst into flame on a tap. And then, there’s a question: can you make the monster dance instead of burning? And the learning begins.

What I’ve loved about our kids’ interaction with BitsBox so far is they’re exploring. One didn’t like the music that came with the first assignment, so I helped her figure out how to play something else instead (choose a different name from the library and use the song function). Another wanted the monster in another assignment to say something besides “peekaboo”. She tried sound(“hi, you”), but there wasn’t a sound by that name. But, text(“hi, you”) worked to display a message!

Most learning comes from wanting to accomplish something, and then figuring out how to do it. I’m ecstatic that BitsBox seems to be facilitating this kind of learning in our kids!

I hope that BitsBox adds layers of complexity as it progresses, but for the moment, it’s lovely. It even allows kid coders to share their apps with other people, via email or QR code scan. It’s a monthly subscription, our kids are excited about it, and therefore I’m excited about it, for now. I don’t have an affiliate arrangement with them, so no kickbacks are involved in this review. 🙂

Note that both of our kids are proficient readers, and comfortable with the idea of keyboards (though still slow, hunt-and-peck typists). Those are likely prerequisites to enjoying BitsBox, as is the occasional (though not extensive) involvement of an adult “coach”.

Robot Turtles

We got the Robot Turtles board game a while ago. The basic idea is similar to the old “Logo” programming approach: you create a set of instructions for a turtle to follow on its way to the prize. Except, in this case, there’s an adult, the “Turtle Mover”, involved, who “executes” the instructions (potentially including loops and maybe other constructs), making suitable dramatic noises as the turtle turns, moves forward, activates lasers to blast through ice walls, etc.

Our daughters enjoyed this game. I loved the idea. But the “problem space” felt a bit too simplistic, and–I’ll admit it–the role of the Turtle Mover doesn’t get more interesting with time. It still, though, might be worth a try for you. The pieces are lovely, and our daughters enjoyed it.

Lightbot and Lightbot Jr.

This is a great little “puzzle” game for mobile. You give instructions to a robot, which then executes them to turn on all the lights in a “board”. The boards, of course, increase in complexity as you progress, and new options and coding constructs become available.

Links:

Scratch and Scratch Jr.

These are free programs to let kids play with programming. Scratch Jr. is completely graphical; Scratch includes some text, with substantial graphical elements. They’re terrific environments for free-form programming. Our kids have played with Scratch Jr., but haven’t tapped much of the potential, and I haven’t been equipped to guide them. I have a book from No Starch Press on the way that I hope will help me with that. (They also have books on Scratch.)

Other resources

Khan Academy has a course in programming that uses JavaScript and graphics extensively. CodeCombat is a paid subscription that includes a lot of scaffolding. CodeWizards HQ appears to have actual online classes for kids in programming. I haven’t tried any of these.

If you search for “teach children programming” or “teach children Python”, you’ll find an abundance of resources.

Your recommendations?

If you have personal experience with other resources for teaching kids to code, I’d love to hear about them in comments!

Hope’s Hard Edges

Photo by Josh Nuttall on Unsplash

Around the year 2000, I stopped listening to most contemporary Christian music. I’d enjoyed some of the upbeat rhythms, some of the sentiments…but I found myself listening to the most recent WOW collection and nauseated at the sugary, substanceless positivity that I heard. It wasn’t good Christian music. It wasn’t good art of any sort. It was a lie.

The story is told that Siddhartha Gautama grew up as a privileged prince, carefully isolated from the outside world to protect him from physical, mental, or emotional harm. But one day a funeral procession went by outside the palace, and he realized that a world of death existed outside. His ensuing grappling with suffering, we’re told, took him a long way from the palace and into reality, and produced the eightfold path of Buddhism.

The story is told in other forms. In Watership Down, the wanderers find a warren where everything is peaceful, there are no predators, and all eat well…but learn that scaffolding this peace was a maze of farmers’ snares, and a code of silence about them. The peace of the warren depended on it. In The Stepford Wives, a couple moves into an idyllic suburb. The charm and competence of their neighbors is delightful, and incredible…and then the cost becomes clear.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in her haunting fable The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, imagines a society of broad freedom, aesthetic delight, and human achievement, and of all those in it. (Search out the story and read it. Really.)

Hope nauseates me. Hope keeps me sane and alive.

Real hope begins with what is true–with the sadness, the horror, the fear, the pain, the injustice that are endemic to the world. And it somehow, often ridiculously, holds on to a belief that things can, that things may, get better. Somehow. Through one’s own actions, through outside factors, perhaps through both.

And there’s the other kind of hope, that is no hope at all. The “hope” of convincing oneself that nothing is wrong, and that no solutions are needed. The hope that tells the musicians in the palace to play more loudly as the funeral procession passes by outside. The hope that proffers weary and worn-through “spiritual” prescriptions to the starving of body or soul. The hope that tells others “be warmed and fed” and prays earnestly for their good, and goes on its way knowing that God is in control and all shall be well. The “hope” that rejects hope, for there is nothing to improve on and nothing to hope for, that constructs an inner idyll as it destroys the world around it.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I see the shadows. I’m immersed in them, surrounded by them, even suffused by them. And yet, I act in hope. In hope that the flickering particle of light in me is real, that it might survive, might strengthen others, and that someday it will, somehow, be meaningful. And that the presence of shadows may indicate a light source–and that that possibility is worth everything. Worth survival, worth pain, worth kindness and integrity.

But don’t tell me that all is justice and peace, for there is no peace. If redemption comes, it will come for reality, not for fantasies. It will come for the hard edges of pain and truth, not for the spun candy of niceness. It will incinerate imagined worlds, leaving only the glowing gold of reality. It will come through people who know reality, and live in it.

I do believe in a metaphysical reality–but in that reality, a transcendent God chose to enter, and to submit to, reality as we know it, and worse than most of us know it. God chose to enter human life as a Jewish man under Roman occupation, to become a political victim both of Rome and of Judea, and to be tortured to death. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection (I realize I’m losing some people here, and perhaps gaining some back) and the inauguration of the Church, God’s metaphysical involvement with the world quickly returned to deep, empowered engagement in a very human and physical world. As one of the New Testament letters noted, “How can you say you love God, whom you can’t see, when you hate your brother, whom you can?”

Hope is real, or we are hopeless. What is real, hurts. Hope has hard edges.

30-minute thoughts: Living spaces

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Having recently moved back to the US, we’re re-engaging with America’s largest irrigated crop: the lawn. As with many issues, I find myself in inner conflict. I like the idea of having a nice, tidy green lawn of soft, cool grass where our daughters can play, without worrying overmuch about ticks and other beasties. But I hate the idea of pumping and pouring precious groundwater into something that’s not meant to grow here, of dumping chemicals on the ground purely for the sake of aesthetics, of being a contributor to the mass death of insects (and the threat that poses to the rest of the biome, including the species homo sapiens), of killing off all plant life except a certain species or two of grass in an area in the pursuit of some cultural ideal.

We’re hoping to pasture a few chickens on the lawn, using the ingenious Egg Cart’n “chicken tractor” as a movable coop–which offers an extra incentive to limit chemicals applied. (Disclosure: my father-in-law designed and sells these things. And they are ingenious.)

We have, perhaps, a quarter-acre plot (with power lines close by), which limits, for example, the ability to plant a forest in our backyard. We’ve dedicated a bit of the space to growing vegetables, using a variant of “Square Foot Gardening” (raised beds). I did end up “nuking” some big, solid patches of dandelions with glyphosate. We hope to experiment with planting some buffalo-grass plugs and over-seeding a drought-tolerant fescue, without chemically burning down most of the many weeds (and some grasses) we have in the lawn right now–for something of a grass-based lawn (if it “takes”) without going to extremes. We’ll till up one area and seed a “bed” with a mix of lots of wildflowers. May they be helpful to some pollinators and other insects. We’d like to plant some more bushes and small trees, ideally ones friendly to birds and maybe other small wildlife.

I recently found High Country Gardens, which looks like an awesome source for sustainable lawns and plants; they have some books I’m very much looking forward to reading. Their “lawn alternative” wildflower mix looks awesome…but a bit of a stretch for our small-ish backyard. Facebook’s “Healthy Yards” page offers helpful reminders in my feed. I’ve looked a bit at the Kansas Forestry Service’s website and trees-list, and a bit (esp. re. grasses) at KS Extension Service resources. But overall, I’m running on a dearth of knowledge, a dearth of energy to explore and learn, and with competing ideals of cultural aesthetic mandates (especially in a small town, vs. completely rural–but some of which are internalized) and of responsibly living on the earth.

I find nature deeply nourishing. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature. I like growing things. I don’t feel like I have huge amounts of time to invest in them. I want to minimize use of chemicals. I do use them somewhat, and prefer not to buy things branded “organic” or “non-GMO”. I dread the depletion of the aquifer under us…and I use a water softener, reverse-osmosis system, and irrigate my lawn. I love the idea of wild, emergent natural spaces, with an ecosystem sorting itself out. I live on a plot in a small town, and think about ticks or leeches (depending on the place) and poison ivy when I’m in woods or grasses. I enjoy, and shudder at, carefully manicured English gardens. I’m deeply refreshed at the oh-so-carefully-shaped wildness of Japanese gardens. I, um, have a few internal paradoxes.

What resources do you recommend for exploring the creation of “living spaces”, with both human living and the sphere of “life” of which we’re a small part in mind?

My Mental Milieu (Covid-19 edition)

Hi all,

I’ve come to realize that my view of the world differs substantially from that of a number of friends and acquaintances. I’m also increasingly hesitant to enter the pig-pen wrestling events that constitute much of Facebook “debate”–both for my own mental health, and from an increasingly low assessment of “benefit” in cost/benefit calculations. And yet, I think some of the sources I follow do offer perspectives that others would find helpful, and are worth sharing.

So–this post is written as though a friend, who trusts me in multiple dimensions and whom I trust, had asked me for input on helpful/interesting sources of information. It’s not soliciting debate, and it’s not intended as a forum for others–I’m being closeminded and tyrannical that way. Please assume that comments submitted on blog post or FB post will be, by default, deleted or not published, with no personal insult intended. I may let some through, at my discretion. If there’s something you think would be valuable to include in this list, and that it’s likely that I’d agree, feel free to PM me or submit a comment on the blog (it’ll get snagged awaiting moderation)–again with the caveat that I may or may not respond, with no personal insult intended.

If you’re a friend, you probably have a decent idea of my biases, and we probably approximately agree about what they are. If you aren’t, you’re hereby released from the obligation to educate me about what biases you detect.

OK–so some of the sources I’ve been found helpful for good information on Covid-19 (and related subjects):

Specifically followed recently re. Covid-19:

(I don’t know either how it happened that there are three medical/bioscience professionals named Jennifer in this list!)

Jennifer Gruenke, retired biologist w/ background in virology, immunologyhttps://www.facebook.com/jennifer.gruenke.5

Jennifer L Kasten, MD, MSc, MSc – repeated source of informative posts and helpful links
https://www.facebook.com/jenniferkastenmd/
Vince Staggs – biostatistician, health services researcherhttps://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008029755306
Adam Nisbetthttps://www.facebook.com/adam.nisbett
Jennifer Koontz, MD (semi-local doctor in KS, often helpful+relevant interpretations of what’s happening broadly and in KS specifically)https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.koontz.161
Dr. Erin Bromage (PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from James Cook University, Australia; says “I am not claiming to be an expert in coronaviruses, medicine, or preparedness.”)https://erinbromage.wixsite.com/covid19/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them
Whitney Tilson – I’ve actually followed him for a number of years on other subjects. His cross-promotion is a bit annoying, but he seems generally to have a good sense of numbers and trends, intellectual humility and honesty, and goodwill (and willingness to act on it), and I’ve found his Covid-19 newsletter to be a valuable input.send me a PM and I’ll send you a subscribe address for his free COVID-19 email newsletter.

“Science” pages and blogs

These are a number of pages I’ve followed for a while, and found quite valuable overall. Note that attitude, language, and other things some will find offensive are far from infrequent. If you find these valuable, I’m sure you can find other related pages that would also be interesting.

Science-Based Medicine (If I had to pick just one of these, this would probably be it.)https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/
The Credible Hulkhttps://www.facebook.com/therealcrediblehulk
Insufferably Intolerant Science Nerd*https://www.facebook.com/InsufferableIntolerance
* ( Double the “you might find content that offends you” warning for this one.)
SciBabehttps://www.facebook.com/scibabe
Respectful Insolencehttps://respectfulinsolence.com/

General Publications

New Scientist (a UK weekly science mag–far from a journal, I think far from PopSci, not sure how it compares to SciAm).https://www.newscientist.com
New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com
The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/
The Economisthttps://www.economist.com/
The Conversation – news from academicshttps://theconversation.com
The Atlantic (I don’t assess this as highly as I once did; still interesting. Something like a Never-Trump Republican editorial stance.)https://theatlantic.com
Be skeptical: New York Post, Washington Times
Dismiss without a second thought: Natural News; InfoWars. And a host of others.
Interesting, potentially valuable: I recently found Flipside, a newsletter that includes both left and right on its editorial board and tries to pull in thoughtful commentary from others on both sides. Attempted “bubble-buster”. I don’t know if it’s best in genre or not.https://www.theflipside.io/

Assorted topics (already somewhat dated)

Calling Bullshit course – I’ve started but not gone far, but it seems worthwhile. A primer on practically assessing claims and narratives. Relevance is, perhaps, self-evident.https://www.callingbullshit.org/
The Hammer and the Dance – increasingly dated, but helpful in understanding the need to “hit hard” to buy time to figure out equipment, therapies, and eventually vaccines. (Hint: some places did, some didn’t, and we haven’t made terrific use of the time we bought.)https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-the-hammer-and-the-dance-be9337092b56
The two docs who own that urgent-care chain made a lousy argument. There are many critiques. One collection is here.https://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2020/04/about-those-urgent-care-doctors-in-bakersfield-theyre-wrong-heres-why.html
If you get Covid-19, it’s not just dying or going “back to normal”; there can be long-lasting effects.(1) https://www.facebook.com/barry.mangione/posts/10157600661769272

(2) “Finally, A Virus Got Me”. “”Many people think COVID-19 kills 1% of patients, and the rest get away with some flulike symptoms. But the story gets more complicated. Many people will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems. Even their neural system is disrupted. There will be hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, possibly more, who will need treatments such as renal dialysis for the rest of their lives. The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more questions arise. We are learning while we are sailing. That’s why I get so annoyed by the many commentators on the sidelines who, without much insight, criticize the scientists and policymakers trying hard to get the epidemic under control. That’s very unfair.””
https://www.facebook.com/scibabe/posts/1844932738976826
“Plandemic” is full of falsehoods, and the people behind it untrustworthy. (Note that these are just a few links, and also note the caveat that I haven’t even completely read through all of them; they’re included only as representative sample.)(1) https://www.facebook.com/kathleen.weber.montgomery/posts/10113287265749743
(2) https://www.facebook.com/rickydhouse/posts/10107708071444999
(3) https://www.reddit.com/r/CovIdiots/comments/gezery/plandemic_documentary_debunked/
(4) https://respectfulinsolence.com/2020/05/06/judy-mikovits-pandemic/ (note that this doctor’s tone is far from conciliatory, which may be off-putting.)
Why antibody tests may overestimate (presumptive) immunity among the population. This is Bayesian statistics, with counterintuitive results–but ones that impressed me years ago with regard to other “mostly accurate” tests. (Note that one comment I recently saw indicated that https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/30/antibody-tests-might-be-deceptively-dangerous-blame-math/
Why conspiracy theories thrive in pandemicshttps://theconversation.com/why-pandemics-are-the-perfect-environment-for-conspiracy-theories-to-flourish-135475
Maskshttps://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/dont-wear-mask-yourself/610336/

Local Information

There’s a good chance many of my local friends already know about these sources of information–but for what it’s worth:

Reno County Emergency Management – the Facebook page seems like it gets the most focus in disseminating info.https://www.facebook.com/RENOEMA
KS Gov. Laura Kellyhttps://www.facebook.com/GovLauraKelly
Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce. Some good information.https://www.facebook.com/HutchChamber
Hutchinson Community Foundation – involved w/ a lot of organizations that are helping people.https://www.facebook.com/Hutchcf/
Kansas Dept of Health and Environment.https://www.facebook.com/KDHEnews

Quote: “Who Am I Being?”

“One of the different questions adult development theory lets us ask is, “Who am I being right now and is that the person I want to be?” You bring that question into your everyday life and it moves you.”

-Jennifer Garvey Berger, in Farnam Street/Knowledge Project interview. Great discussion of the self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored, and self-transforming ways of being. In general, a great map of growth in life and decision-making.

Words are the Footprints Of Thought

Photo by Bit Cloud on Unsplash

…further reflections on book summaries, Socrates, knowledge, and wisdom

It strikes me that words are the footprints of thought. Words aren’t thoughts themselves; words aren’t the things themselves; words aren’t knowledge or wisdom. Words are dead. But if the footprints follow a helpful path, and you follow the path, you may walk the path into wisdom or knowledge as well.

Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing, for much the same reasons I’m somewhat skeptical of book summaries. Indeed, I’d planned, but forgot, to mention his dislike of books in my prior post. Later, when I searched online, I found this excellent article (you should read it; it’s short), with a quote of Socrates from Plato’s The Phaedrus:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

The map is not the territory; the words in a book are not the author’s thoughts. If well-chosen, the words may be helpful guides along a path of thoughts similar to that which the author followed, but knowledge and wisdom are attributes of people, not of words.

In travel, guidebooks and tour guides can be helpful orientations to places, can even in themselves be enjoyable and educational experiences. And yet, a “guided tour” of a place is an entirely different experience than to inhabit that place. Perhaps it’s so with books and authors. The mere act of writing and reading (or speaking and listening) mediates the flow of wisdom and knowledge between two people, perhaps constricting it, certainly re-shaping it.

I’ve visited Darjeeling. It’s a lovely place, with mountain air, wonderful food, old hotels. I could recommend several restaurants, a lovely little hotel, and several experiences to you. Perhaps you could say I know a bit about Darjeeling.

But several years ago, tourism to Darjeeling stopped for a time. A community center was burned; there were burning tires in the streets. I could give you only a laughably sparse sketch of the reasons for this. I don’t know, in any meaningful way, the experience of those who live there, of the tensions within the community in Darjeeling and beyond.

I know a bit about Darjeeling. I’ve been there. But really, I don’t know Darjeeling. Those who live there know the place more than I–but even they know portions of it, from limited perspectives.

If you want to know Darjeeling, go there. Enjoy the experiences. Then seek out the people who live there, across the various ethnicities. Listen deeply to them; learn the joys and frustrations. Live there yourself. And then, you’ll actually know a portion of Darjeeling.

We read books seeking wisdom and knowledge. They’re often amazingly effective as guides of thought, for being only blots of ink on a sheet of plant fiber–but they are guides only, flawed mediators of thought, valuable only insofar as they lead us to “re-think”, or to think anew, things that are valuable.

Seek to think, to learn wisdom for yourself, to discover for yourself–and you’ll find the words on the page to be powerful allies. Seek a shallow knowledge, and you’ll receive it, a gilding for the lead of your being. Your guides will lead you to what you seek.

(Oh, curse self-awareness. The above felt really meaningful while I was writing it, but it faded to glurge. I’m publishing anyway. The core idea is at the start: words are “footprints”, they won’t do the work for you, and if you expect them to do so, you’ll end up with nothing worthwhile. Friends who write: constructive criticism welcome (here or via e-mail). I don’t mind rambling a bit, but how does one ramble well? Perhaps the biggest problem is that I started pontificating somewhere along the way. Generally a bad idea, probably especially when one’s tired.)

Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

Are book-summary services valuable innovation, or valueless semblance of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer. I do, though, have several thoughts.

Against: they’re abominations!

  • My instinct: they’re extreme abridgements, and can’t help but do violence to an author’s message. Shane Parrish, a gent I highly respect, describes book summaries as being put together by 22-year-olds who don’t have your life experience, insight, or context–and as really not useful.
  • They build an appetite for “snacking” rather than for thoughtful engagement. Even if they accurately represent the content, the work of reading is part of actual absorbing what you read in a meaningful way.
  • They kill the aesthetic in favor of the utilitarian.
  • They make you, and others, think you know more than you actually know, offering a shallow appearance of knowledge or wisdom rather than the real thing.
  • More than that, they let others seem more knowledgeable and wiser than they are! Grr!

For: they’re really useful!

  • All reading is skimming. I think that’s actually another insight I gained from Parrish. You’ll never read all the books out there. You might not even finish most books you start. Is it better to not encounter an idea at all, or to encounter it in possibly-distorted, possibly-oversimplified form?
  • Books are often way too wordy. Carol Dweck’s Mindset has a powerful idea, but struck me as stuffed full of fluff. Some other books bearing brilliant ideas have nonetheless been tortuous reads. Summaries get to the point!
  • A summary can be useful as a “preview” of a book, as a roadmap of the author’s ideas and the book’s structure.
  • A summary can be useful for a book you know you’ll never read.

And…

My gut reaction to summary services is abhorrence. And I just now downloaded a number of summaries, and also recently subscribed to a “summary-ish” service. I have getAbstract access through my membership in a professional association, and think I will find value in the summaries. I think there is value in them, in “tasting” books and ideas. But the idea of them is deeply prosaic, deeply “grey”, deeply…well, the medicine one must swallow, not the delightful confection one dreams of. And it’s really sad to have knowledge or insight as “medicine”, not the stuff of delight but the stuff of necessity.

I’m not going to gush over summary services, but I think they have a place, a useful role. And they feel like a desecration of the art of writing. Bah, humbug, and all that.

What are your thoughts?

Three-Minute Thought: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

Three-Minute Thought: On Facts and Understanding

It strikes me that to “know” something without a rich set of context is, at best, a weak and impoverished knowledge. It’s not a binary thing; all of us are imperfect “knowers”. But the more we rely on what we “know that we know” to order the world, the higher the barriers we erect to our own learning, and the further behind our potential we will fall. Books that come to mind:

  • Changing On the Job, by Jennifer Garvey Berger, on “forms of mind”.
  • The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, a speculation on life and afterlife as fulfillment of one’s desires. Offers a rich analogy with the “mundane” domain of knowledge.
  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregersen, a book I highly recommend that argues for the importance of seeking out “unknown unknowns” and that offers some tools to do so.