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We Stop for Stop Signs July 1, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Well, of course we do.  We obey stop signs and other traffic signals without even thinking about them.  Even if no other cars are in sight, we stop at stop signs and look both ways before continuing.  Even in the middle of the night, the vast majority of drivers stop at a red light until the light turns green.

Yet a very vocal minority of people remain up in arms, in some cases literally, over wearing a face mask in public.  We’ve had armed resistance and even brutal killings of innocent people in the name of a purported Constitutional right not to wear a mask.

The principle between face masks and stop signs is the same.  It’s clearly not in our individual interest to stop at a stop sign.  We can watch traffic for ourselves, and don’t need a red sign or silly light to tell us to do so.  Should we want, we can even claim it as a Constitutional right not to stop.  We are being told what to do, which clearly rubs some people the wrong way.  And we are being told to yield our right to keep our foot off the brake should be worth fighting for to the same group of people.

So what is the fundamental difference here?  I honestly don’t know.  It’s rather akin to a portion of the population deciding to run through every stop sign they encounter.

Further, stop signs and traffic signals will always be with us (even if the day comes when we are all riding in autonomous vehicles).  Any use of masks will out of necessity have an expiration date, probably in the fairly near term.

Public health is just what it says.  The purpose of public health rules and recommendations is to help ensure a healthy society, and especially to help prevent illness or death among a vulnerable population.  Rules surrounding that are situational, and will expire after the pandemic is defeated (which despite our political leadership’s absurd claims, is nowhere close).

It’s beyond selfish that some of us don’t.  It demonstrates a lack of any consideration for society.  It’s a textbook case of the Tragedy of the Commons, in which a common resource is destroyed by mass me-first attitudes rather than shared equably.

It’s not macho to be without a mask, and it’s not an expression of individual liberty.  Like stop signs, we all make accommodations for the freedoms we have.  For the sake of all of society, and because we are all dependent on civilized society, wear your mask.

About History June 27, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I have a true affection for history.  Beyond events, dates, and outcomes, I voraciously did outside reading on trends, motivations, the context, and the personalities of historical events and figures.  I have my favorite historical times, but consume whatever history I can find.  Learning about them teaches about human nature.

Like most of us, I learned my fundamentals of history in fits and starts in various junior high and high school history and civics classes.  It was only in retrospect that I was able to put these various classes and their lessons into perspective.

I discovered that we learn history in waves, from the simplest to gradually more complex.  So from elementary school we learned that Columbus discovered the New World.  Later through school, we gradually learn that there were other people here first, that his motives were largely venal, that he and other early explorers knowingly and unknowingly spread disease, and that his contemporaries were much the same.

I don’t necessarily begrudge him for very much of that, although it did make me wonder why he alone held an exalted place in our history.  It was similar to the robber barons of the late 19th century.  Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and their ilk built the foundations of a mighty nation, but did so on the bodies (literally) of immigrant workers like my grandparents.  It almost certainly didn’t have to be like that.

If we are to build monuments to their memory, it behooves us to thoroughly understand the context and times under which they lived.  A monument without context invites, no, demands misinterpretation.

I have no strong feelings one way or the other in the matter of removing historical monuments and statues.  I simply want to point out two things.

1) History gets written by the winners.  By this criterion, it seems odd that the country would have many monuments to specific Confederate leaders.  They were, after all, the losers.

2) It’s dangerous to us and society to worship a man through his monument (I say “man” because the vast majority are).  Few if any historical figures have fully admirable records, and while it can be constructive to learn from them, the monument itself teaches us nothing.  We need to do better there.

About Rolling Averages in Time Series Data March 29, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Okay, you can stop yawning now.  This is about coronavirus.  I have heard multiple claims today that coronavirus is “only” killing one percent of the people who have been infected in the United States.  Which is less than the flu kills annually.  So it can’t be as bad, and the media is dramatizing it.

This is grossly misleading enough so as to constitute a baldfaced lie.  Let’s examine why.

The fatality rate of the flu (whichever strain, and it varies) is a relatively static number, measured over a period of years.

The fatality rate of coronavirus, by contrast, is a moving average.  We haven’t yet completed a single season of the infection; in fact, probably less than three months.

There is a time lag between when a person is infected, and when it is fatal.  As near as I can tell, that time period is usually somewhere between two and six weeks, although there are also outlyers.  But what this means is that comparing those who are infected to date, with those who have died to date, is grossly underestimating the fatality rate.

And I’m not even looking at the millions of people who will likely be infected in the future months.  Further, we test and diagnose many more people for the flu than we are currently doing for coronavirus.  We are so far behind in testing that we really don’t know how many are infected.  That was why West Virginia had no cases until recently; they weren’t testing anyone.

To be fair, I’m not an epidemiologist by any means.  I was trained as a mathematician and statistician, however, and have a solid grounding in the experimental method.

Are we really so ignorant as to compare ongoing time series data to established (and static) averages over the years?  That seems to be what is happening.  And that’s equivalent to comparing apples with red wine.  Our infection growth rate, and fatality growth rate, are still growing on an exponential curve.

Pay attention, folks.  And stay safe.

What is Civilization? March 23, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in travel, Uncategorized.
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I never thought I would have to have an answer to that question before today.  To be fair, I’m not a particularly deep thinker, so I mostly see civilization as a gradual but extended run of increasing concern and action for our fellow human beings.

Today I learned otherwise.  Our collective response to coronavirus has severely shaken that.  Young Germans spitting on older people, shouting “Corona!”  French citizens who openly flout attempts to bring order to the chaos.  And of course, worst in my mind, American college students on spring break who don’t care who they may be infecting.  Of course they became infected.  The big question then becomes who might else they infect?

Because there seems to be a rather large segment of our population, in the US certainly but also worldwide, that views civilization as a form of, well, hedonism.  Civilization exists to benefit the individual, personally, in a large way.  They don’t care about what happens to anyone else, but they need to get something out of it, an advantage.  And if I have to step on some other people to do so, so be it.

I realize that it isn’t probably a majority of the population, but based on the last several weeks, it seems to be significant.

I am greatly troubled by this trend.  I had a somewhat personal involvement in 9/11.  After 9/11, it seemed that many people pulled together to help one another.  What has changed so much over the last twenty years?  I regret that I don’t know the answer to that, but even if I did, I couldn’t change the tsunami of time.

I am not a curmudgeon in the sense that I think that subsequent generations are inferior.  Quite the opposite.  Throughout my adult life, I have strongly believed that those younger than me would be in a civilized sense better than me.  It’s disheartening to think that the exact opposite has happened.

So, pray tell, what has happened?

Road Races in an Era of Coronavirus March 18, 2020

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I’ve run two races so far this year – the 5K as a part of the Key West Half Marathon in January, and the Gateway to Space on March 1 – the Space Shuttle runway at Cape Canaveral.  I’m not sure what races are continuing right now (the Boston Marathon, a staple of the third week of April, has moved to September), although I am hoping that a couple of races this spring and summer will continue in coastal North Carolina, where much of my family lives.

One of my better races, several years ago, was the 10K that was a part of the Bilbao Night Marathon.  It shouldn’t have been a good race for me, because I have a moderate case of agoraphobia, or fear of enclosed or crowded places.  Prior to the start, the race organizers packed over twenty thousand people in chutes that should have held half of that number at most.

I wasn’t thinking of illness at that time, but rather the prospect that terrorists could have left undetected satchel charges directly outside of the chutes, in several adjacent outdoor restaurants.  Today the crowding would be an unacceptable health issue.

Smaller races don’t face quite that prospect of crowding.  You never had to put yourself in the crowd at Key West until the race started, and there was so much room on the runway at Gateway to Space that crowding wasn’t necessary.  I would still like to have to stand down for a few minutes so that a Space Shuttle can land, but we as a nation are unfortunately not in that position right now.

Many people run as a social activity.  Regrettably, right now we need to rethink that.  I am more of a loner in this regard, and run because I like the sense of accomplishment.  Some old fat guy placed several times in his age group.  Smaller races, such as the ones I prefer to participate in, tend to have less crowding, and more community.

And these are the races that need our help right now.  I’m going to name a couple of the ones from North Carolina – Oak Island Lighthouse Run, Battle for Independence (on Independence Blvd, no less), Summer Sizzler (which features the alligator).  But there are races in your neighborhood too that can use the support.  And if you’re not a runner, go ahead and walk them.  Let’s stay healthy.

You Can Tell a College Man March 16, 2020

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But you can’t tell him (or her) much, as adults know.

Okay, I’m going to write this.  I realize that I may be a curmudgeon.  To be fair, that’s probably a given, but I have some defenses.  While I did the usual residential college 18-22 years old in the late 1970s, I grew up working poor, and had to work during my breaks to pay the bills.

Apparently many college students today don’t.  Because they are not letting coronavirus upset their Spring Break partying.  This article is especially telling, although there are others.  “I am a slut,” one person says.  Another.  “No one at college told us we could get sick having sex on Spring Break.  They just said to not share drinks.”  “If there are no parties in Florida, we’ll go to someplace where there are.  Toronto maybe.”  Toronto, pay attention.

I’m sorry that you don’t realize the world has changed, not quite overnight like it did with 9/11.  And I’m sorry (not really) that the world has changed on you.  After all, it changed very dramatically on me with 9/11.  And we didn’t respond by going to Toronto.  In fact, if you want to read about the Canadian response to 9/11, read about Operation Yellow Ribbon.  I cried.

But you will live forever, and you will never infect anyone, ever.  Right now, you are the stupidest people in America.  And I don’t think that will change over time.  But you don’t care, because it’s all about you.  The problem is that you don’t even know how stupid you are.

I was always sanguine about getting older, because I had faith that the coming generations would do what was necessary.  But partying in the face of a worldwide pandemic is not only not necessary, it is criminal.

You need to grow up, really fast.  That is the world that we are in.

I Don’t Want to Insult People March 16, 2020

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I was going to write more about how college student Spring Breakers are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, except that the more I read, the more stupidity I see.  Seriously.  If you are okay to our youth saying that we will live forever, and we will not infect anyone else, okay.  I just can’t go there.

It Was Yesterday February 25, 2020

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Most of my years are undeniably behind me, but I still firmly believe that my best years are ahead of me.  That’s in large part because of my memory, which is both long-lasting and close to photographic.  I remember scenes from six years old like it was yesterday (though I may not always remember what I had for lunch yesterday.  Please, I know precisely what I’m saying.).

I’m listening to an Alexa shuffle of Jimmy Buffett right now, and he reminds me of a youth (disclosure: Jimmy is ten years older than me) with Pencil Thin Mustache.  Boston Blackie was before my time, I didn’t know beatniks, but Ricky Ricardo or Schyler and Penny were there (Sky King; Quiz: What was Sky King’s plane?).  And Brill Cream?  Yes, of course, although I only used Obsession.

In my pre-teens, I read James Gunn’s The Listeners.  In his 90s a couple of years ago, he kindly acknowledged my compliment.  In my thirties, I visited there, the Arecibo Radiotelescope.  Then James Bond did it on Goldeneye.  Many other noteworthy places over the years.  I contribute annually to SETI (yes, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, including the Allen Telescope Array).   I’m running the Space Shuttle Runway this weekend.

A good memory is both a blessing and a curse.  Despite the drudgery of day-to-day existence, I am often reminded of the rich life I have had, both as a career and as someone tentatively exploring his way through life.  It’s a curse in that you always remember your missteps, and they stand out from the rest, to your chagrin.

But while in retrospect I may have done some things different, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Answer:  Sky King flew a Cessna 310, twin engines, wingtip fuel tanks and all.  I remain surprised that he didn’t tear off the landing gear with some of his escapades.  Growing up, my family doctor (Dr. Thomas) flew a Cessna Skymaster, and did actually tear a landing gear off.  And, circa 1994, Jimmy Buffett flipped his Lake Buccaneer in Nantucket Harbor.  In the 1980s, I got right seat stick time on a Britten-Norman Islander between Charlotte Amalie and San Juan.  I miss flying.