31 May 2020

AAAS Science: “Why do some COVID-19 patients infect many others, whereas most don’t spread the virus at all?”

That’s why in addition to R, scientists use a value called the dispersion factor (k), which describes how much a disease clusters. The lower k is, the more transmission comes from a small number of people. In a seminal 2005 Nature paper, Lloyd-Smith and co-authors estimated that SARS—in which superspreading played a major role—had a k of 0.16. The estimated k for MERS, which emerged in 2012, is about 0.25. In the flu pandemic of 1918, in contrast, the value was about one, indicating that clusters played less of a role.

Estimates of k for SARS-CoV-2 vary. In January, Julien Riou and Christian Althaus at the University of Bern simulated the epidemic in China for different combinations of R and k and compared the outcomes with what had actually taken place. They concluded that k for COVID-19 is somewhat higher than for SARS and MERS. That seems about right, says Gabriel Leung, a modeler at the University of Hong Kong. “I don’t think this is quite like SARS or MERS, where we observed very large superspreading clusters”, Leung says. “But we are certainly seeing a lot of concentrated clusters where a small proportion of people are responsible for a large proportion of infections.” But in a recent preprint, Adam Kucharski of LSHTM estimated that k for COVID-19 is as low as 0.1. “Probably about 10% of cases lead to 80% of the spread”, Kucharski says.

That could explain some puzzling aspects of this pandemic, including why the virus did not take off around the world sooner after it emerged in China, and why some very early cases elsewhere—such as one in France in late December 2019, reported on 3 May—apparently failed to ignite a wider outbreak. If k is really 0.1, then most chains of infection die out by themselves and SARS-CoV-2 needs to be introduced undetected into a new country at least four times to have an even chance of establishing itself, Kucharski says. If the Chinese epidemic was a big fire that sent sparks flying around the world, most of the sparks simply fizzled out.

Kai Kupferschmidt

That is an interesting avenue of research, which supports other recommendations for avoiding large groups of people, particularly indoors, and at the same time offers plausible explanations for some of the strange spreading patterns of this virus. As I noticed in my first article about the pandemic, there are significant differences in the initial patterns of outbreak between countries: some see exponential growth very early after the first reported cases, while others remain around a dozen cases for up to a month. In Romania as well superspreading was a big factor; official reports from March mention that 63% of localized spreading was traced back to just four people – the one in the capital ended up infecting 47 others!

28 May 2020

Erin Bromage PhD: “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them”

The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.

Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside.

When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers - all day; customers - an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low. But, for the store worker, the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky.

Erin Bromage

A large part of the reason why this recent coronavirus outbreak has provoked harsh lockdown measures and caused unprecedented disruptions in society is simply the novelty of the virus. While many would like to dismiss the danger by comparing this virus with the flu, the analogy is moot because influenza has been around for millennia, and extensively researched since the dawn of modern medicine. In contrast, SARS‑CoV2 first infected humans late last year, so there is still a long list of unknowns about how the virus spreads and its effects on the human body, about the mortality rate and how long immunity lasts after recovery. Faced with many poorly quantifiable risks, the best course of action is to assume the worst; that is why I consider imposing strict lockdowns is necessary in the first stages.

27 May 2020

G Suite Updates Blog: “Create and use multiple signatures in Gmail”

It’s now possible to use multiple signatures in Gmail. Multiple signatures give you the flexibility to use different signatures for different situations such as:

  • Communicating across teams, organizations, or products
  • Communicating across languages
  • Using different default signatures for new emails and replies, and more.
G Suite Updates Blog

Even though it was announced on the G Suite blog – and immediately delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic – I noticed this neat new feature on my personal Gmail account a couple of days ago. Until now it remained a relatively advanced feature, to my knowledge only available in desktop mail clients such as Outlook. Nevertheless it can prove useful for personal communication as well; despite the growing popularity of messaging apps, where most of my interactions with distant friends have moved over the years, there are some instances where it’s more convenient to communicate by email. When you apply for jobs, for example, you can now create and reuse a more professional looking signature straight from Gmail. It helps that the formatting options for signatures have been expanded to include colors, bullets and images – last I remember they were very basic.

24 May 2020

Asking the Wrong Questions: “Deus Ex: Thoughts on Westworld’s Third Season”

in Bucharest, Romania
Westworld season 3 on HBO

Take, for example, the crux of the season, the concept of an AI-run society. On paper, this is a brilliant expansion of the show’s central conceit – that there is effectively no difference between humans and hosts except that the latter have been designated, through the logic of capitalism far more than the realities of technology and biology, as inherently disposable, their suffering and death justified because they provide entertainment and distraction for the rich and powerful. What Dolores discovers when she arrives in the real world is that most humans live exactly the same kind of life. Like hosts, they have “loops” and “storylines” decided upon by a god-like AI of whom they aren't even aware. Like some hosts, they can be rewritten, assigned to new roles and stories with only a faint awareness of the life they once lived – Caleb, we learn, was once designated a troublemaker, one of the small percentage of humans who don’t take to Rehoboam's guidance, and was subjected to personality-altering treatments and the erasure of his memory in order to make him a constructive member of society. When Dolores releases Rehoboam’s profiles of each citizen, allowing them to see how their lives have been guided and constrained, she likens it to revealing the reality of the park to the hosts, and the result is entirely similar – violence and destruction (and, as in the park, it eventually turns out that these are false flag operations, funded and directed by Dolores as a cover for her attempts to get to Rehoboam).

Abigail Nussbaum

After a rather disappointing season two, I had almost no expectations for this series. The third season was similarly met with bad reviews and criticism online, but this time I do not fully agree with this sentiment. Maybe I am biased precisely because of my low expectations, but I enjoyed the ideas and themes laid out throughout the season, which reminded me of the philosophical aspects of the first season.

The primary thread underlying the action is the analogy between the former existence of hosts in the park in the first season and the life of humans in the real world, both shaped and controlled by obscure forces, beyond their knowledge and reach. Whereas hosts were created this way, programmed with sets of predefined actions to fit certain scenarios, humans were driven into a similar situation by a massive hidden surveillance complex, controlled by an AI and its reclusive maker for the overt goal of insuring humanity’s security and continued survival. This naturally touches on current questions in our society, from the manipulation of voter intentions through data collected on social networks, to the balance between safety and freedom, between the Western liberal society and the Chinese authoritarian society, to something as recent as the pandemic response (how many people can we sacrifice for the overall ‘good’ of society, and more importantly, who gets to decide that). On a more general level, the central theme continues to be free will, with Dolores on a crusade to return free will to humans, after liberating the hosts.

15 May 2020

Coronavirus in Romania and elsewhere – a May update

Like many others around the world, I have been following the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic closely. I planned to do an update on the situation in Romania at the start of May, but this seems an equally valid moment, since today the government is ending the emergency situation established two months ago, switching to a lighter ‘alert status’. Small shops are allowed to reopen, but not larger commercial spaces like malls; people are allowed to circulate more freely, but traveling outside your town of residence is restricted to specific cases; wearing masks in closed spaces and public transportation is mandatory; medium and large gatherings like weddings and funerals are still forbidden.

But how did the number of cases evolve during this lockdown period? Unfortunately, the results so far look mixed: new cases of COVID‑19 have remained mostly stagnant, oscillating between 300 and 400 daily since the beginning of April; deaths stayed in the average range of 15 to 25 per day. While it is a good thing the epidemic did not spread at an accelerated pace, a long period of stagnation implies that the measures did not have the desired impact. Most countries in Europe saw clear declines in daily cases and deaths; meanwhile Romania is among the few countries stuck on a plateau. Ironically, this negative context prompted one of the rare mentions of my country in international news, along with Poland, the UK and Sweden. I recently discovered a local website with multiple graphs about the evolution in Romania, including one of the reproduction number; as expected from the long plateau, R0 hovered around 1 from April 7th to May 4th, an entire month with little progress on this front.

13 May 2020

Collections in Chromium-based Microsoft Edge

In past articles I’ve criticized Microsoft’s strategy around Microsoft Edge – or better said the lack thereof. In some ways, it feels like they have yet to learn the right lessons from its market failure. Months after the official launch of its new version, this time rebuilt around the Chromium rendering engine, Microsoft has yet to push this update to Windows 10 users around the world. Sure, there are constant reminders in old Edge about a new version, but let’s face it, no average user is going around installing new browsers just for fun, and promoting Edge via its old incarnation is never going to reach the crucial market I assume Microsoft is going for, existing Google Chrome users.

But enough complaining about this. This time I want to write about a useful feature that comes with ChrEdge: Collections. The original Edge had attempted to offer something similar with two different features, inking and Reading list. In every-day use they were both frustrating and lacking – I can only imagine they were built in the early days of original Edge by some lone, enthusiastic software engineer, then completely abandoned as priorities shifted. I was disappointed in inking because you could not save notes and highlights in a text-based, searchable format; sending the page to OneNote would save an image of the annotations, not the actual text. The reading list was nothing more than an alternate bookmarking tool: the articles were not saved offline, and it wasn’t even integrated with Reading view.

11 May 2020

The New Republic: “Grim Reapers”

This is why the 2020 pandemic is, at its root, the story of two deeply flawed leaders, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, who for too long minimized the coronavirus threat—and who, because of the enormous, largely unaccountable power they wield, must share responsibility for its global scale. At key moments when their mutual transparency and collaboration might have spared the world a catastrophic pandemic, the world’s two most powerful men fought a war of words over trade policies, and charged each other with responsibility for the spread of the disease. When scientists worldwide could have benefited from details of China’s new disease, perhaps thereby preventing thousands of hospitalizations and deaths, the Chinese Communist Party’s instincts were to arrest conveyors of information, shut down social media, and prohibit visiting teams of World Health Organization and foreign disease-control experts.

Laurie Garrett

An excellent article by Laurie Garrett, who has been an excellent source of information since the beginning of the pandemic through her Twitter account. I think the paragraph above gets to the heart of the issue: in this global crisis, the world’s two most powerful leaders have failed to take responsibility and to show leadership, instead resorting to shifting the blame, covering up facts and lying to the public, delaying proper measures, and, worst of all, sabotaging the efforts of others.

10 May 2020

Vanity Fair: “Astronaut Chris Hadfield Reviews Space Movies, from ‘Gravity’ to ‘Interstellar’”

Retired astronaut and engineer Chris Hadfield fact checks notable space movies using his NASA experience and vast knowledge of outer space, including ’Gravity’, ‘Passengers’, ‘Armageddon’, ‘The Martian’, ‘Interstellar’, ‘First Man’, ‘Hidden Figures’, ‘Ad Astra’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘WALL-E’

I’ve had pretty much the same reaction watching Gravity, and that whole ending based on ‘the power of love’ spoiled Interstellar for me as well. I mostly agree with the opinions of Chris Hadfield from this YouTube video, for the sci-fi movies I’ve watched anyway. Some supposedly ‘science-based’ stories veer so far from reality that it’s hard to enjoy them instead of criticizing their questionable writing and ideas. I may not be a scientist, but I have read enough good science-fiction books to develop low tolerance for faulty logic and bogus science.

Approaching Pavonis Mons by balloon: “The Far Future in science fiction”

If the far future is a recurring staple of literary SF, it is remarkable how infrequently it is a setting in the visual media. Star Wars may feel estranged from our own era by a vast gulf of time, but we are told explicitly that the action takes place in the past. Star Trek, for all its forays into Earth’s history, rarely had anything to say about events significantly further into the future. Other than the aforementioned Time Machine, filmed twice, and various efforts to translate Frank Herbert’s Dune into visual terms, cinema has not been much interested in distant times. Perhaps the concern is that audiences need a familiar proxy, easier to achieve when the setting is close to the present. Guardians of the Galaxy may look and feel like a golden age space opera, but the action is near the present and the main character is a contemporary human with a handy liking for antiquated pop-rock.

Modern science fiction cinema rarely ventures more than a few decades into the future, and even when it does the setting is purposefully set-dressed so as not to be too estranging. Characters might pilot starships or drive flying cars, but they will also wear jeans and leather jackets and affect a taste for contemporary rock music. Known brand names will proliferate, and reassuring anachronisms abound. The future is really just the present, but with more stuff in it. Attempts to visualise more remote times, such as the far future strands in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, adapted from the David Mitchell novel, have not generally been met with unanimous critical or commercial success, although the efforts should be applauded. It would be a brave director, though, who trusted her audience to embrace a story set a million or more years in the future.

Alastair Reynolds

Interesting essay by one of my favorite science-fiction authors, Alastair Reynolds. The observation quoted above is one of the reasons I’m skeptical that the upcoming adaptation of Dune will achieve box office success. It feels almost a paradox: if the complex story of Dune is adapted faithfully, it will probably be too arcane for viewers and it won’t be a movie hit; but if it’s distilled enough to be popular, it will lose its essence and originality.

The essay is also full of great recommendations for science fiction novels set in the far future, imagining worlds vastly different from our mundane society. I was glad to see many of my favorites getting mentioned, from Schild’s Ladder to Ninefox Gambit, including one of Alastair Reynolds’ best works so far, House of Suns.

08 May 2020

Thumbnails for Canon RAW files on Windows 10

As a photographer working with digital cameras, it’s always a good idea to shoot in Raw format to preserve the most details for future editing. I prefer to shoot Raw-only, skipping the in-camera jpeg to save space and make managing files easier. That does come with a downside though because most of Canon’s RAW files cannot be read natively by Windows, so there are no previews or thumbnails in file explorer. Combined with their consecutive folder naming, it can be difficult to keep track of large collections of photos once you copy them to a PC, or to double-check if everything was backed up from a memory card before wiping it. The best bet is to organize everything in dedicated photo management software like Lightroom.

Recently, I came across a reddit post mentioning a Microsoft Store app to add native viewing support for images captured in raw file formats: ‘RAW Image Extension’. I installed it right away, but at first it seemed the codecs added by the extension were not very recent. Windows Explorer started displaying thumbnails for Raw files from my older Canon EOS cameras, but not from the new EOS RP, which I tested several times last year and purchased this January. In the past days though, the extension received an update with a fresh set of codecs, because as of today the newer CR3 format from Canon is supported as well. According to the reddit post, you need at least version 1.0.30761.0 of the app for the latest codecs, but I cannot verify this because I have no idea where to find version numbers for Windows Store apps. The extension is also limited to recent Windows 10 versions, beginning with 1903, the May 2019 Update.

Cornell University: “What if Planet 9 is a Primordial Black Hole?”

We highlight that the anomalous orbits of Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and an excess in microlensing events in the 5-year OGLE dataset can be simultaneously explained by a new population of astrophysical bodies with mass several times that of Earth (M). We take these objects to be primordial black holes (PBHs) and point out the orbits of TNOs would be altered if one of these PBHs was captured by the Solar System, inline with the Planet 9 hypothesis. Capture of a free floating planet is a leading explanation for the origin of Planet 9 and we show that the probability of capturing a PBH instead is comparable. The observational constraints on a PBH in the outer Solar System significantly differ from the case of a new ninth planet. This scenario could be confirmed through annihilation signals from the dark matter microhalo around the PBH.

Jakub Scholtz & James Unwin

The possibility that out solar system is hiding another large planet, several times more massive that Earth, in its outer regions, has since lead to other research, some seeking to disprove the conclusion, others trying to find alternative explanations for the anomalous orbital patterns of TNOs. One of the most exciting – but also rather unlikely – is the idea that the Sun is orbited not by a distant Super‑Earth, but by… a tiny black hole! Tiny by diameter at least, an estimated 5 cm for a black hole of 5 Earth masses. The gravitational effect on the outer Solar System would be the same, but a black hole would not be detectable in the visible spectrum, but through gamma ray emissions and gravitational lensing.

A black hole so close-by would make an excellent target for observations and experiments, but an exploration mission could be difficult. A probe might take decades to reach it (after another decade of developing experiments and designing the probe) and entering orbit would probably prove challenging at that distance, with significant time lag; the probe would have to be autonomous enough to manage operations on its own. Personally, I still suspect there is no massive object shaping TNO orbits from a wide orbit around the Sun; most likely the effect will fade as we discover more and more small objects, or was caused in the distant past by the passage of a near-by star.

06 May 2020

The Guardian: “The great American tax haven: why the super-rich love South Dakota”

A decade ago, South Dakotan trust companies held $57.3bn in assets. By the end of 2020, that total will have risen to $355.2bn. Those hundreds of billions of dollars are being regulated by a state with a population smaller than Norfolk, a part-time legislature heavily lobbied by trust lawyers, and an administration committed to welcoming as much of the world’s money as it can. US politicians like to boast that their country is the best place in the world to get rich, but South Dakota has become something else: the best place in the world to stay rich.

At the heart of South Dakota’s business success is a crucial but overlooked fact: globalisation is incomplete. In our modern financial system, money travels where its owners like, but laws are still made at a local level. So money inevitably flows to the places where governments offer the lowest taxes and the highest security. Anyone who can afford the legal fees to profit from this mismatch is able to keep wealth that the rest of us would lose, which helps to explain why – all over the world – the rich have become so much richer and the rest of us have not.

How was a rich person to protect his wealth from the government in this scary new transparent world? Fortunately, there was a loophole. CRS had been created by lots of countries together, and they all committed to telling each other their financial secrets. But the US was not part of CRS, and its own system – Fatca – only gathers information from foreign countries; it does not send information back to them. This loophole was unintentional, but vast: keep your money in Switzerland, and the world knows about it; put it in the US and, if you were clever about it, no one need ever find out. The US was on its way to becoming a truly world-class tax haven.

Oliver Bullough

Speaking of South Dakota, apparently this US state is not only home to eccentric men with paranoid business ideas, but also a major tax haven, for all intents and purposes outside any outside scrutiny – another instance where ‘American exceptionalism’ is undermining just policies and international collaboration. The implications remind me of the analysis of Thomas Piketty about the growing income inequality in recent decades: exploiting tax reductions and loopholes, the rich can accumulate more wealth and political power, but also preserve the wealth and pass it on to their families and children, effectively creating a new aristocratic class.

03 May 2020

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Telling

in Bucharest, Romania
Ursula K. Le Guin - The Telling

În comunitatea interstelară a Ecumenului, procesul de adeziune se desfășoară de regulă treptat, în ritmul fiecărei specii noi. Strămoșii tuturor umanoizilor care fac parte din Ecumen provin de pe Hain, o cultură străveche, care a trecut de numeroase ori prin propriile‑i faze de expansiune, timp în care au răspândit colonii pe planetele vecine, și de izolare, în care coloniile, lipsite de influența planetei-mamă, au crescut în direcții diferite dezvoltând propriile culturi și obiceiuri. De aceea contactul inițial dinspre Hain este discret, măsurat, prudent, pentru a nu genera șocuri inutile în aceste civilizații mult mai tinere. După descoperirea ansiblu‑lui, Ecumenul căpătă brusc o nouă metodă de coeziune, capacitatea de a comunica instantaneu între planete, deși călătoriile rămân limitate sub viteza luminii.

În ciuda politicii prudente, unele misiuni de prim-contact nu decurg conform planului. Însuși Pământul, aflat sub mâna de fier a unei teocrații anti-științifice la momentul contactului cu Ecumenul, a fost cauza unui astfel de contact nepregătit: cu puțin înainte de destrămarea teocrației, un grup rebel a transmis un mesaj neautorizat prin ansiblu către o planetă recent contactată de Ecumen, Aka. Decenii mai târziu, Observatoarea Sutty de pe Pământ sosește pe Aka pentru a evalua consecințele acestui gest necugetat: de la recepționarea mesajului terran, societatea akană a suferit o metamorfoză majoră. Vechea lor cultură de milenii a fost complet ștearsă din analele istoriei, fiind înlocuită de o ideologie aproape fanatic științifică, care reglementează până în cele mai mici detalii viețile cetățenilor. Misiunea de istoric a lui Sutty este se scoată la iveală ultimele vestigii ale culturii originale, dacă ele mai există pe undeva – și să contemple prejudiciile ireparabile cauzate de acțiunile necugetate ale concetățenilor ei.

“Read this and listen to the music here in the library, please, and then erase it”, he said. “Erasure is an art we must learn from the Akans. Seriously! I mean it. The Hainish want to hang on to everything. The Akans want to throw everything away. Maybe there’s a middle way? At any rate, we have our first chance to get into an area where maybe history wasn’t erased so thoroughly.”

02 May 2020

The Guardian: “Real estate for the apocalypse: my journey into a survival bunker”

I have some sympathy for the builders of bunkers, the hoarders of freeze-dried foodstuffs. I understand the fear, the desire for it to be assuaged. But more than I want my fear assuaged, I want to resist the urge to climb into a hole, to withdraw from an ailing world, to bolt the door after myself and my family. When I think of Vicino’s project, his product, what comes to mind is the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s judgment of what it means to secure oneself inside a shelter: a withdrawal from any notion that our fate might be communal, that we might live together rather than survive alone.

The bunker, purchased and tricked out by the individual consumer, is a nightmare inversion of the American dream. It’s a subterranean abundance of luxury goods and creature comforts, a little kingdom of reinforced concrete and steel, safeguarding the survival of the individual and his family amid the disintegration of the world.

It was so quiet here I could hear the soft buzzing of electricity in the power lines above me, the brittle snap and hum of technological civilisation itself. I thought about the US’s twin obsessions with a frontier past and an apocalyptic future. What was Vicino offering in this place, after all, other than a return to the life of the old frontier, a new beginning in the wake of the end, one that retained as many consumer-facing luxuries as possible?

Mark O’Connell

Reading this article during the coronavirus outbreak, I was struck by how ridiculous the concept of surviving for years in an isolated bunker felt. There I was, isolating from the community to reduce the spread of a nasty virus, but still I had to go out weekly to buy food, I consumed running water, gas and electricity provided to the utility companies, as well as online entertainment. To keep people alive – and preferably sane – a shelter has to provide all these services independently, in the absence of centralized government, without the global network of food supply, manufacturing and services that exists today. Simply the amount of food required seemed staggering to me. Ironically, the same people constantly preparing for a possible apocalypse are currently protesting across America, demanding to return to their regular lives. Somehow this situation puts apocalyptic sci-fi in a different perspective.