(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19

“It is what it is”*…

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have topped 700,000, which means that more Americans have died in the pandemic than died in every foreign conflict the U.S. has ever fought (combined combat deaths in all U.S foreign wars are estimated at 659,267).

This graphic is from r/dataisbeautiful.

Two things to note:

  1. Deaths in the American Civil War were equal or higher (they’re estimated to have been 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead, along with an undetermined number of civilian casualties).
  2. On a death-per-100,000-population basis, COVID-19 deaths are at roughly 211 per 100,000. That’s materially more than deaths in any U.S. foreign war except World War II (which had a death toll of 307 per 100,000). See here and here for the underlying data.

then-President Donald Trump, on COVID deaths

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As we mourn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Desmond Doss received the U.S. Medal of Honor. A conscientious objector serving as a U.S. Army medic, he saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. (Prior to that, he had twice been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in Guam and the Philippines.) He was the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during the war; his story has been told in several books, a documentary (The Conscientious Objector), and the 2016 Oscar-winning film Hacksaw Ridge.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 12, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”*…

Historian Adam Tooze‘s new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, is released today. You can (and, I’d suggest, should) read excerpts from its introduction in The Guardian and The New York Times.

In his newsletter, he unpacks the fundamental historiographic challenge that he encountered in writing it, why that challenge matters… and why we must all face (and face up to) it:

I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice. I prefer the deliberate and obvious break in the linear flow produced by a flashback – “now we interrupt the action to explain something you really need to know” – to the apparent simplicity and calm of “beginning at the beginning”, which in its own way begs all the same questions, but smuggles the answers into the smooth flow of a linear narrative.

As [critic Perry] Anderson suggested [here], this stylistic preference also reflects a certain understanding of politics and agency and their relationship to history, which might broadly be described as Keynesian left-liberalism. As he puts it, “a ‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand determines entry to” the subject matter “in medias res”. It mirrors my preoccupation with “pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency”.

I side with those who see “in medias res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition – apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions. If they do come with instructions we should probably not trust them. We have to perform enquiries to figure out how we got here, what our options are and where we might be headed. To do the work of figuring out our situation we might resort to the tools of social science, like statistics or economic concepts. Political theory may help. But history writing too is part of the effort at rendering our situations more intelligible.

For some colleagues, history is distinctive because it studies the distant past, or because it takes the archive as its source. For me, self-consciously inhabiting our situatedness in time is what differentiates historical enquiry and writing from other forms of social knowledge. History is the attempt to produce knowledge of the flux from within the flux. As Croce remarks: “All true history is contemporary history.”

The speed, intensity and generality of the COVID pandemic and the cognitive challenges it posed, gave this entanglement a new intensity. Even at the best of times, however, the problem is that being in medias res it is easier said than done. It is both inescapable and, at the same time, mysterious.

We are in medias res you say? In the middle of things? But which things? And how do those things relate to us and define us? Who or what are we in relation to these things? How do we chart the middle of this world? Who has the map? Who has the compass?…

@adam_tooze goes on to propose if not concrete answers to those questions, then a approach that can keep one honest. Eminently worth reading in full. History in the thick of it: “Writing in medias res.”

*  Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we ponder perspective, we might spare a thought for Alan John Percivale (A. J. P.) Taylor; he died on this date in 1990. A historian, he wrote (albeit not overtly in media res) and taught briefly at Manchester Uinversity, then for most of his career at Oxford, focused largely on 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy. But he gained a popular audience of millions via his journalism and broadcast lectures. His combination of academic rigor and popular appeal led the historian Richard Overy to describe him as “the Macaulay of our age.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Demographics are destiny”*…

And demographics can help us shape our destiny…

The research seemed straightforward: Analyze 2020 death records in Minnesota and, among other things, quantify which deaths were attributable to Covid-19 in various slices of the population — young and old, black and white, people living in advantaged versus disadvantaged neighborhoods.

But when University of Minnesota demographer Elizabeth Wrigley-Field began to dig in, the numbers revealed complex trends.

The records showed that last year more Minnesotans — especially non-whites — died at home than in a typical year, having avoided hospitals because of the pandemic. Such deaths were almost never reported as Covid-related, even though many probably were. The analysis suggested that Covid deaths in minority groups were going underreported.

It’s the sort of intriguing finding that is likely to percolate to the surface more frequently as researchers study Covid-19 from a population — or demographic — perspective.

Soon after the pandemic hit, demographers leaped into action. Today, there are studies afoot to examine a broad swath of inquiry: from questions about life expectancy to whether school closures really averted infections to how a single Covid death affects surviving family members’ physical and mental health. Even the relationship between exercise habits and social-distancing trends in US counties is under scrutiny…

A sample of the findings that could– and surely should– shape the future of public health: “Demographers tackle Covid-19,” from Eryn Brown (@TheErynBrown).

[Via David Kotok]

* Arthur Kemp, Peter Peterson, Bill Campbell, and many others

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As we count on counting, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the U.K. recorded its first automotive fatality. While on a terrace in the grounds of Crystal Palace, London, Mrs. Bridget Driscoll was knocked down by a car owned by the Anglo-French Motor Car (Roger-Benz) Company that was giving demonstration rides to the public, driven by employee Arthur Edsell. It was said that he was talking to the young lady passenger beside him. He had had been driving for only 3 weeks, and had tampered with a belt to cause the car to travel faster than the 4 mph to which it was meant to be limited. After a six-hour inquest, the jury’s verdict was “Accidental Death,” and no prosecution resulted against the driver or the company. The first car-driver crash fatality in Britain occurred in 1898.

Mrs. Driscoll, circled

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 17, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The loudest of doomsayers, so often, carry the weightiest of sin”*…

A quick look at how some of the grimmest prognoses for the pandemic’s effect have turned out…

When misfortunes multiplied during the coronavirus pandemic, observers seized on a four-letter word signaling end of days for the largest state with one-eighth the U.S. population and 14% of its gross domestic product. “California doom: Staggering $54 billion deficit looms,” the Associated Press concluded a year ago in May. “California Is Doomed,” declared Business Insider two months earlier. “Is California doomed to keep burning?” queried the New Republic in October. California is “Doomed” because of rising sea levels, according to an April EcoNews Report. Bulletins of people leaving the world’s fifth-biggest economy for lower-cost states because of high taxes and too much regulation stifling business continue unabated.

No one anticipated the latest data readout showing the Golden State has no peers among developed economies for expanding GDP, creating jobs, raising household income, manufacturing growth, investment in innovation, producing clean energy and unprecedented wealth through its stocks and bonds. All of which underlines Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement last month of the biggest state tax rebate in American history.

By adding 1.3 million people to its non-farm payrolls since April last year — equal to the entire workforce of Nevada — California easily surpassed also-rans Texas and New York. At the same time, California household income increased $164 billion, almost as much as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania combined, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. No wonder California’s operating budget surplus, fueled by its surging economy and capital gains taxes, swelled to a record $75 billion

If anything, Covid-19 accelerated California’s record productivity. Quarterly revenue per employee of the publicly traded companies based in the state climbed to an all-time high of $1.5 million in May, 63% greater than its similar milestone a decade ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The rest of the U.S. was nothing special, with productivity among those members of the Russell 3000 Index, which is made up of both large and small companies, little changed during the past 10 years.

While pundits have long insisted California policies are bad for business, reality belies them. In a sign of investor demand, the weight of California companies in the benchmark S&P 500 Index increased 3 percentage points since a year ago, the most among all states, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Faith in California credit was similarly superlative, with the weight of corporate bonds sold by companies based in the state rising the most among all states, to 12.5 percentage points from 11.7 percentage points, according to the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Bond Index. Translation: Investors had the greatest confidence in California companies during the pandemic.

The most trusted measure of economic strength says California is the world-beater among democracies. The state’s gross domestic product increased 21% during the past five years, dwarfing No. 2 New York (14%) and No. 3 Texas (12%), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gains added $530 billion to the Golden State, 30% more than the increase for New York and Texas combined and equivalent to the entire economy of Sweden. Among the five largest economies, California outperforms the U.S., Japan and Germany with a growth rate exceeded only by China.

Even with the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, California cemented its position as the No. 1 state for global trade, with its Los Angeles and Long Beach ports seeing growth that led all U.S. rivals for the first time in nine years in 2020. Much has been made of the state reporting its first yearly loss in population, or 182,000 last year. Had it not been for the Trump administration preventing new visas, depriving as many as 150,000 people from moving to California from other countries annually, the 2020 outcome would have been more favorable.

Even so, Republicans, opposed to Newsom’s policies favoring immigration, criminal justice reform and greater benefits for housing, health and child care, want voters to decide whether he should be replaced in a potential recall election later this year. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who is among those running to succeed him, said Newsom, a Democrat, hurt the state’s small businesses.

That’s not what the data shows. The 373 California-based companies in the Russell 2000 Index, which includes small-cap companies across the U.S., appreciated 39% the past two years and 85% since 2016, beating the benchmark’s 34% and 67%, respectively. The same California companies reported revenue growth of 56% the past five years, dwarfing the benchmark’s 34%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More important, California companies invested 16% of their revenues in R&D, or their future, when the rest of the U.S. put aside just 1%. 

Investing in the future is California’s way, the opposite of doom.

The Golden State has no peers when it comes to expanding GDP, raising household income, investing in innovation, and a host of other key metrics: “California Defies Doom With No. 1 U.S. Economy.” From Matthew Winkler (@Matthew_Winkler).

Someone ought to publish a book about the doomsayers who keep publishing books about the end of publishing

Evgeny Morozov

* Ta-Nehisi Coates

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As we check the facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1978 that the Rainbow Flag was flown for the first time during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Created by Gilbert Baker, it has become a sign of LGBTQ pride worldwide.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 25, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it… Geniuses remove it.”*…

 

complexity

 

World War II bomber planes returned from their missions riddled with bullet holes. The first response was, not surprisingly, to add armor to those areas most heavily damaged. However, the statistician Abraham Wald made what seemed like the counterintuitive recommendation to add armor to those parts with no damage. Wald had uniquely understood that the planes that had been shot where no bullet holes were seen were the planes that never made it back. That’s, of course, where the real problem was. Armor was added to the seemingly undamaged places, and losses decreased dramatically.

The visible bullet holes of this pandemic are the virus and its transmission. Understandably, a near-universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to double down on those disciplines where we already possess deep and powerful knowledge: immunology and epidemiology. Massive resources have been directed at combating the virus by providing fast grants for disciplinary work on vaccines. Federal agencies have called for even more rapid response from the scientific community. This is a natural reaction to the immediate short-term crisis.

The damage we are not attending to is the deeper nature of the crisis—the collapse of multiple coupled complex systems.

Societies the world over are experiencing what might be called the first complexity crisis in history. We should not have been surprised that a random mutation of a virus in a far-off city in China could lead in just a few short months to the crash of financial markets worldwide, the end of football in Spain, a shortage of flour in the United Kingdom, the bankruptcy of Hertz and Niemann-Marcus in the United States, the collapse of travel, and to so much more.

As scientists who study complex systems, we conceive of a complexity crisis as a twofold event. First, it is the failure of multiple coupled systems—our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems. Second, it involves solutions, such as social distancing, that involve unavoidable tradeoffs, some of which amplify the primary failures. In other words, the way we respond to failing systems can accelerate their decline.

We and our colleagues in the Santa Fe Institute Transmission Project believe there are some non-obvious insights and solutions to this crisis that can be gleaned from studying complex systems and their universal properties…

The more complicated and efficient a system gets, the more likely it is to collapse altogether.  Scientists who study complex systems offer solutions to the pandemic: “The Damage We’re Not Attending To.”

See also: “Complex Systems Theory Explains Why Covid Crushed the World.”

* Alan Perlis

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronmer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)

 

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