Saturday 16 May 2020

What now? and I've tried to be gentle

Now many countries are starting to lift the lockdown measures and most of us are looking forward to getting back to normal, whatever that was for you. The pandemic is over in the minds of many and since we have been allowed to make plans to get back to work, school, shopping, and even think about booking up our summer holidays. Except it’s not. The curve has been flattened in some countries while in others it is still heading determinedly north! The virus is still out there, it’s just we have been in here and relatively safe. Going out there again means square one.

Let’s not forget that this all started from one, a handful of cases in Wuhan. There are at present more than 2.5 million active cases (WHO) in the world and estimates should be considered maybe multiples larger than that.

So where do we go from here?

There are only two ways this will end.

  1. A vaccine is developed
  2. Herd immunity is achieved
  3. We all die

A Vaccine

genome sequencing, a process of decoding the virus and taking out the death part
some really tough maths
Since Edward Jenner realised that milkmaids didn’t catch small pox, we have been able to safeguard ourselves against a whole host of viral infections. The simple principle of vaccines is to deliberately infect someone with a very mild form of a virus to let the body do its thing and create lovely antibodies and thus develop immunity to the virus. The milkmaids caught cowpox, a mild form of the more aggressive smallpox, from pustules on the cows’ udders. He basically harvested this puss and infected others and bingo! Antibodies and immunity (Vaccine from vacca the Latin for cow). It wasn’t until the 1960s that this process was synthesized and now with genome sequencing, a process of decoding the virus and taking out the death part, it‘s a cinch! But genomes are very complicated and take some really tough number crunching to work out. This is what is happening now and some really clever people in tweed jackets are frantically scribbling Greek letters on blackboards to figure it out. Thing is, no matter how smart they are and how tweed their jackets are, it is going to take ages. The SARS vaccine took about 18 months to reach viability and that was damn quick. The top people in the world are working this problem from a number of different angles but it is going to take time.


Well, basically because they need to make something that works and works well. If it is less than 100% effective there will be outrage and panic (clue: No vaccines are flawless). If, as is equally possible, it actually causes some deaths (Clue: it happens), there will be outrage and the antivaxers and flat-earthers will have a party… then die!
Then… there is the little matter of making and distributing the stuff when it’s done. Vaccine is not Coca Cola, it cannot be produced by the gallons per second but we will need similar amounts. In order for a vaccine to be effective there needs to be more than 60% coverage and unless you hadn’t noticed there are around 7.5 billion of us, that’s about 4.5 billion who need to be effectively immunised for the virus to slow down and fade to black. The reason for this is more maths, the present reproductive ratio (R0) of COVID-19 is about 3, now this varies but it is much more than 1 and that is bad. Now, if one person can infect 3 people, and each of those three can in turn infect 3 each and so on you get one happy shopper in a wet market reaching 5 million in 5 months WITH lockdown measures in place. If more than half the population are immune, then 1 person, on average, will not have more than 1 person to infect. When the R0  goes below 1, then it’s end of days for the virus are nigh.
Vaccines are effective after a couple of weeks but what about whoever discovers an effective vaccine, will they play nicely and share or will they capitalise on the golden goose. After all they will have spent ages scribbling Greek letters on a blackboard and shaking test tubes. My thoughts are that they will want a big payday for their labours.
That gives us a timeline of about 18-22 months if, and if all goes well. To date we have over 300,000 deaths.
As epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh, UK, told New Scientist in early April: “I do not think waiting for a vaccine should be dignified with the word ‘strategy’. It’s not a strategy, it’s a hope.”
Starvation is a known killer for which sandwiches are a known vaccine

Herd immunity

This works similar to the vaccine scenario, well over 60% of the world’s population needs to go through the virus and come out the other side with immunity. And, as we know many do not. The mortality rate for COVID-19 is anywhere between 1% and 3.4% but many of the statistics have been cooked in different sauces. Some countries count those who have died who have been diagnosed positive, some only those without underlying health issues. Let’s say 2% of 60% of the world population, that’s 90,000,000 or there about. And, as health services crumble due to a lack of ICU beds and ventilators, it will rise. Basically those who might have been saved will not.
I’m sure Prof. Woolhouse would agree that this is not really a strategy either.

We all die

Now, there is so much talk about the economy and this always conjures images of designer-suited traders in London or Wall Street, it is you and me. We need to earn a penny and pay our bills, we need people to grow food and roll toilet paper and deliver it and teach our kids and all the other stuff we used to do. Without this we will starve. And starvation is a known killer for which sandwiches are a known vaccine. People like you and me will need to bake the bread and make the cheese. The economy is not Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, it is the life support system that keeps us fed.

So, where to from here?

We must get life back on track with the knowledge that it will not be simple. Lockdown has retarded the progress of the virus but it is still out there and so is starvation and bankruptcy. We must find new safer ways to live our lives, we must accept that people will die, we must brace for a whole lot of shit to come. Around 50,000,000 died during the Spanish flu pandemic, it came in 3 phases and blew itself out in 18 months. We should be able to count on not repeating that but bear in mind that the world’s population back then was little more than 1.6 billion, there are 5 time more of us now.
Before lockdown came in March, I said in this article why this would be the most significant event of the 21st Century, as significant as WWI was to the 20th (and not because of the death toll). I missed some bits but I stand by that more than I did then.   
For the time being this is our normal, there is no magic wand, we and our superior brains are the only magic.

Be safe, be smart and be humane to others around you

Sunday 22 March 2020

The Prize

It was a beautiful day, day number 1984. The sun drew lines through the branches of the trees that surrounded the apartment block. The rays fragmenting through the tape that held the glass in place, making rainbows in the dark room. Only broken by the bright orange Alibaba liveried grocery drones that criss-crossed the sky overhead.

Nearly 2000 days ago, I closed the door for the last time.

I was lucky, I had a skill that easily translated to the new modular online work-space, I was a teacher and while my subject had changed from English that now had no use, I now taught social skills to those who had little memory of how we used to interact with others, how to look the webcam in the eye, how to understand the difference between web-lag and a pause waiting for an answer, how to make questions and wait for an answer, how to feign interest in others. I had been saved from the fulfilment centres, that was a one-way career, 30 days quarantine then confined to the centre.
Shortly after Lockdown and the beginning of the Days of Safety, the virus had swept through the governments in most countries and being a bunch of old self-abusing narcissists, it took them all. Amazon was the only organisation that had on-the-ground supply networks, so it was only logical that it take over running most countries. Shortly after Alibaba took over the rest and then took over Amazon.
The 2000 days of quarantine were approaching and there was talk of a celebration, we would celebrate anything these days.
The quarantine came quickly, one day we were hearing about some flu virus that was sweeping the Chinese away, I mean, who was really worried, there were billions of them, still are hundreds of millions, I guess, hard to be sure. Next thing, we are stockpiling toilet rolls. The schools were closed and the only life left to us was our online life. I had just got my first tinder account when it all started, I still have it but the geo-setting don’t exist anymore, nor the language, quarantine takes care of one and Google translate takes care of the other.
The screen flashes, I scan my eye and fill in the Amazon Wellness questions before it’s time to start my morning sessions, “intermediate social skills” his avatar springs onto the screen with a huge smile, I still haven’t seen his real face. We are working on compliments today. I had brushed my hair especially but I doubted he would notice. I sometimes have a shower for this module but it wasn’t worth the effort.
He talks for nearly ten minutes about a game he is playing. His avatar blinks and smiles in tune with his voice. I manage to ask him how he is today, then he goes back into the game. There will be a test in 8 days but he will pass, they always do, as long as he gives me thumbs up, we’re okay. They usually give you thumbs down only if you insist on covering the course material, I let him explain his victories and conquests. I don’t even umm and ahh anymore.
After four almost identical hours, I break for lunch. I scroll through the choices and tap. About 15 minutes later I hear the delivery drone in the corridor and my mouth waters. It stops and I hear the characteristic clunck of the delivery flap… in the next apartment. I look at the app and it flashes delivered! with a branded smiley. Third time this 10-day, I hit the contact tab then the challenge tab, not the problem tab, not the complaint tab, these are no longer words, we don’t have problems or complaints anymore just challenges and opportunities. Then the reason for challenge, then delivery, then my finger hovered over the greyed-out unreceived button. A pop-up informed me that delivery was complete with one button confirm, I try to back-step but the button remains Please confirm delivery I tried to swipe it but its “Confirm” button began to pulse gently, I close the app and the confirm button remains. I looked for the contact button but the confirm continues to pulse. I tap it then hit the contact button, the call connected and a voice told me that my delivery had been confirmed, then thanked me for my order. My screen flashed with my next avatar.
When my shift finished I watched a movie about a guy who wakes up after a pandemic has swept through the city of London, the hero finds some people who have wisely stayed at home. They hear about another house to go to and have a harrowing adventure along the way before they reach another big house where the residents have confined themselves. Everyone who leaves the house dies and our hero lives out the rest of his days in the security of the house. It was called 28 days Later, I found it in the classic films directory. I looked around my flat and felt lucky.
The next morning I confirmed delivery of my coffee and went to the window to watch the cats in the branches outside. Its sweetness came as a surprise, I was sure I hadn’t ordered sugar. I put my hand to the glass, it was warm, sure sign that warmer days were coming. The cats leaped through the branches, one had a rat in its mouth. Down at ground level I could just make out the shapes of the dogs, one jumped and grabbed a cat from the low branches before running away. A mass of others snarling and chasing it then a yelp and the mass changed direction. The cats gathered in the high branches watching helplessly as the cat was torn apart beneath a circle of wagging tails.
My screen flashes URGENT MESSAGE! I tap it and read the message.
To celebrate 2000 days of safety, Amazon Wellness will announce great prizes for some lucky subscribers click here for participation in the biggest competition ever!
I clicked, last time I won a free movie and meal for one from Wagamama.
My screen flashes and I begin my shift.
“Greetings, my teacher. You take participation in wellness competition?” I could tell from the translation that this was one of my Asian students. I began to answer but was cut short. “I win a kitchen skin for Minecraft up or down 300 days before!” He, maybe she told me of the wok he had bought to compliment it and the hours he spent cooking exotic dishes, like in the old days that his or her grandma had told him of before the virus took her.
I ordered noodles for lunch but enjoyed the crispy locust that arrived.
Media platforms were awash with anticipation for the coming prizes. Each had their own idea of what they might be, a better-than-life wall screen, a virtual porn centre. One suggested a car, posting a photo of a bright red Ferrari, sitting on the bonnet was a tall old man with a smug grin on his face to ensure others understood what he was referring to. This provoked a backlash of trolling.
This man caused the virus!
I hope those things can climb trees
Didn’t Greta Thurnberg kill him?
Greta Thurnberg had been a great influence since the Days of Safety began and one thing was for sure, climate change had abated. The word was that Beijing air was pretty much breathable now and the weather had been much better behaved. But now I think of it, it has been hundreds of days since I saw any new announcements from her.
I enjoyed the trolling but I could feel the tension growing so I plugged into tinder for some relief. I couldn’t be sure who I was connected to but I sent her a gif with flowers and a “thanks” emoji.
The sun was still high so I watched the cats for a while. A kitten shuffled along the branch that pushed against my window and I stroked it through the glass with one hand, filming it with the other. Then shared it with all my friends. Hundreds of Pings of approval followed.
Day 1990 and the great prize had still not been announced, there were rumours that it was a big hoax. I checked Snopes but while it recognised this, their investigations were still inconclusive.
Some said it might be a holiday in Barbados, no one knew where Barbados had been but some low-def pictures looked good. It looked good but how long would it be before the virus got you and you coughed yourself into early incineration. I think I’d be happy with a new better-than-life wall.
1991 was a rest day, I took my wellness test and went back to bed to play LockDown IV on the Mibox.
I ordered coffee and donuts, which came exactly as I ordered. I chatted about the big prize with some of my friends, I had a couple of sessions on tinder. It was a good day.
1992 and the chat about the prize had changed. Over four billion entrants, what’s the chances? Others said that it was just a way to keep us happy, placated. I’d be happy to get my noodles when I order them!
1993, there was an announcement from Thurnberg foundation, not Greta herself, just an anonymous spokesperson. It said that global warming was showing signs of slowing, vast areas of the Amazon had been reforested and air pollution levels were at the lowest since the time of the industrial revolution. Official figures and a full report would be ready for the 2000 celebrations.
1994,I ordered crispy locust but got chicken noodles.
1995, I got a health warning from my tinder app. The run up the the great prize must have been causing me more anxiety than I realised.
1996 and rumours started of a new strain of the virus that had broken out in a place I’d never heard of. I couldn’t help wondering how. If we were all quarantined how had it “broken out”. The report noted that all Amazon fulfilment centres were free from infection. A spokesman for Amazon was proposing the expansion of the Fulfilment centre model as a new model for residential and industrial centres.
1997, and China Broadcasting Corporation ran a story about maybe as little as another 1000 days and we may be able to probably begin to lift quarantine, but it was early days and further studies needed to be carried out. I got a message from the agency saying that for the celebrations, all sessions would be cancelled, a day off for everyone. I received invitations to cyber-raves, concerts even tinder was organising a free-love day.
1998, I got a message from Amazon Wellness to tell me that “As a precautionary measure” to check my logs and change my access codes. Probably hacked again. That’s why my neighbour keeps getting my food orders! I made a mental note to do it later, after my morning sessions.
1999 and my screen flashed URGENT MESSAGE, I opened the message and punched the sky, I had won! I danced around the room until my chest hurt then sat down. What had I won? I had no idea but this little detail was not going to cool my enthusiasm. I went to the keyboard to share my joy.
“This is a very special prize,” the message read. “Any disclosure will result in immediate disqualification.”
I couldn’t sleep, well I did for a while, when I dreamt that the prize was the latest tinder hardware. The connection with the other was uncanny, like really being with someone, I could feel her, see her face, touch her skin. I awoke in elation, tinged with shame.
The sun was drawing rainbow lines into my room. My screen flashed, “YOU HAVE WON, your prize is courtesy of the Anonymous Foundation!” The screen shut down, the room fell dark with the only light coming through the taped window. My front door clicked then swung open. The light in the hallway flickered then lit brightly. I ventured to the threshold and took a step into the corridor where only drones had stepped for hundreds of days. The lights in the stairwell flickered and lit, I followed their light, some way down I had to hold the banister for support, I couldn’t remember walking so far, even before the days of safety, I had never been a fan. There was a big window looking out into the courtyard where the trees had grown through the concrete, reclaiming their dominion. The dogs were spooked, running in circles, chasing each other. I continued down. The door to the building had swung open to reveal the path through the trees, beaten by the drones. I looked at my feet, I was going to leave the building and all I was wearing was my iron-man slippers. Not that I had any shoes. I leant on the door frame to catch my breath and plan my route. I could see the trees, a forest had grown through the concrete and asphalt of the road, birds chirping in their branches. I shuffled toward the road where there seemed to be a break in the canopy. I stopped, a dog was moving in the undergrowth, breaking branches under foot. It was no dog, too upright, too clothed. I called out but there was no reaction, I pulled deep down in my chest to find some volume.
“HEY!” I called.
He, she turned. It was a man, judging by the hair around his face. He opened his mouth but I heard nothing. I shuffled toward him.
“HEY!” I heard from another direction.
Behind me, from my own building bodies moving. I walked toward the figure.
“I won the prize!” I heard a female voice, behind me.
We gathered in the clearing in the canopy.
“I won the prize!” another cried.
“Me too!”
“And me!”
“But what is it?”

Please subscribe to this blog if you like the stories I write and if you like them, share them with your friends and people you troll on facebook. I guess i'm going to have more time to do this for the foreseeable future. 

Be safe and stay sane!

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Why Coronavirus will be the most Significant event of 21st Century...

... and it's not the death toll.

The Novel Coronavirus has hit pandemic status and, I believe, will become the most significant event in 21st century history, as significant as WWII was to the 20th century. 

Covid-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus has affected 109,632 and killed 3,802 globally according to latest WHO figures (click the link to see the latest). But, this is not the significance of the epidemic, not even close! Did you know that seasonal influenza, the flu infects 3–5 million people each year, and that is only the number of people who seek treatment. How many times do you seek treatment for the flu? You may have known that but did you know that it claims the lives of up to 650,000 people each year from illnesses related to seasonal influenza. In fact, 79,228 people this year have died of flu-related illnesses. Nearly 1.4 million from cancer, 274,207 deaths from AIDS/HIV, 220,194 from road traffic accidents and 174,922 from suicides. Corona virus is not nearly the biggest threat to our lives today. Now, you may say that it is not, because of the draconian measures taken by China to prevent the spread of this disease and you would be partly right but it is these measures that will prove to be the most significant event of this century and we will see their impact develop in the coming years.
China has shut down most of the country to contain the infection, factories, offices, public transport and schools and with this it is learning a lot.
China has been leading the way in ecommerce through its cheap products sold through Alibaba, and even its growing domination of eBay listings. Cheap goods, copies of western goods and subsidised postage have given the Chinese a strong hold on ecommerce. Amazon may be the biggest ecommerce platform but no one has fully tapped the biggest growing market, China. Amazon will not be able to and it will not be long before domestic platforms do and grow far larger and dominate the market worldwide. The Chinese middle and upper economic strata have been early adopters of ecommerce but there are still hundreds of millions who have not. The quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese government have forced those who may not have been used to buying online to get connected and get a liking for one-click purchases. In 2015, the banks shut down in Greece and the number of credit and debit cards issued shot up as the lack of access to cash made card payments more appealing, card payments are now rewarded by the Greek government or punished for not, and are part of their strategy to reduce tax avoidance. A crisis raised a wave that is still rolling now. This epidemic will see the rise of a tsunami that will give Chinese platforms unprecedented leverage, worldwide.
Home schooling
For nearly 2 months now Chinese children have been taking classes at home through the internet. This was a measure that was put into action no more than a week after the schools were closed. Of course, the Chinese strategy relies heavily on education, something that seems to have been lost on many western countries. They could not allow this epidemic to slow down their hot-housing of the young. They started by placing themselves as the production centre of the world which allowed them to learn how the west makes things. The amount of Chinese students in Western universities has spiked in the last ten years and they are taking all that knowledge back home. They are now learning how to educate their children at home and since the abolition of the one-child policy in 2016, this is going to be a lot of children. In the west there have been reduced birth rates for many years but many areas in East Asia and Africa would welcome solutions to their education systems. Online schooling can be cost-effective, less teachers and buildings are necessary, many elements of grading can be automated. Existing school buildings could service many times the students that they now do by becoming studios for the teachers to record and broadcast their classes to hundreds of students, labs for practical lessons used on a rota basis by thousands of students and examination centres. Of course the child-care and socialisation aspects of schools would be outsourced back to parents but China has already proved that this is a barrier that can be overcome with the right legislation.
Working from home
Many of you reading this will have some days each month when you can work from home, some of you may work from home all the time. For those of you who have a couple of days here and there when you can, it may be so that you can look after the kids or save some commuting time or just work in your pyjamas. It has been predicted that we will all be working from home for many years but it still hasn’t happened for many of you. There are still many advantages to being in a collaborative environment. There are still many practical advantages to having the equipment or facilities to deal with clients, but just imagine if 30–40% more work hours could be done without leaving home.
Megacities have some huge problems when it comes to mass transit and pollution. A megacity will be familiar to fans of Judge Dredd but they are very much a reality. A megacity is defined as a city with more than 10 million inhabitants and China has 15 of them, the biggest with over 30 million and 36 of the world’s 47 are in the east. Yes, the economy has suffered and will continue for some time but lessons are being learned, not least by the workers themselves who in the beginning were eager to return to the office and have now gotten used to zero commuter times and working in their pyjamas.
Companies would relish the opportunity to reduce real estate expenses, city planners would relish the need to extend road networks, workers will appreciate the reduction of travel expenses and the country will leverage the reduced dependence on oil producers. This brings with it political benefits. Not to mention the environmental benefits which are long overdue.
China built not one but two hospitals in ten days, this is something that the west could not do. Bureaucracy, financing, compulsory land acquisition is significantly impeded by democracy. This will be the envy of many world leaders
China’s strategy is one of building infrastructure in the east, the belt and road initiative, what Peter Frankopan calls the New Silk Roads in his book of the same name, they have invested heavily not just in their own country but in their neighbours too. They have financed projects in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, in fact all around Asia through The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and even Africa, $299 billion between 2005 and 2018, to build political alliances with the developing world in a bid to unite and influence.
This virus may just have been the catalyst that they needed.

The Coronavirus was foretold and not by Nostradamus...

Impenetrable prophecies

Why are predictions only relevant after the fact, why are profits only recognised after they are dead? 

You will all be familiar with the predictions of Nostradamus, the 16th century French seer who published his book of prophesies, Les Proph├ęties in 1555. The book is a collection of 942 poetic quatrains, almost impenetrable four line stanzas that when interpreted with the power of hindsight “foretell” significant events in history and the future. The point is that his “Predictions” are vague and so open to interpretation that they only seem to be of any value after the event. The same cannot be said of this prediction from the 2008 book, End of days.

     “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This comes from Sylvia Browne’s End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies about the End of the World, originally published in June 2008. And, I think you’ll agree, it is pretty specific.

Sylvia Browne was an American psychic and fortune teller who gained huge notoriety for her predictions. She used her ‘gift’ to help in numerous missing persons cases and murders.

She was challenged by many, not least James Randi, stage magician and scientific sceptic who offered Browne $1 million to prove her skills under controlled conditions.

Of her own life, Browne predicted that she would live to the age of 88. She died in 2013, aged 77. I  guess you could say that she didn’t see that coming.  

Why it will be the most significant event of the 21st Century... and it's nothing to do with the death toll. 

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY