Archive for March, 2020

BEING SOOOO OUT OF DATE

March 29, 2020

In my daily analysis of Covid-19 statistics, I went to a twitter feed by Marc Lipsitch of Harvard, a leading epidemiologist.  I almost became an epidemiologist rather than being a statistician.  I thought at the time that statistics was more appropriate for my math background, but epidemiology might have meshed better with my medical background. It would have been more helpful now.  I probably would have found work as an epidemiologist back then, too, although maybe I wouldn’t have written as much, and maybe I wouldn’t have gone to so many wild places in this country.

Anyway, I never used Twitter, which is my first Luddite confession. I can go online to Twitter feeds without dealing with the rest of the platform.  I haven’t missed it, either. That is sort of how I look at my past.  If I have regrets, I am sorry, I missed something.  If I have no regrets, then so be it.  I look at Twitter feeds online with meteorology, climate change, and now Covid.  Those people are smart, really smart. I wish they would be heard. 

From Lipsitch, I went to a data group about Covid, where they welcomed new people.  I was interested, since I have what I thought were a few data skills, so I clicked on and saw a list of people who gave their skills. 

OMG, I was immediately over my head. I had never heard of Python, at least the non-slithering kind, and at least two-thirds of the recipients (I count that sort of stuff, but it’s kind of low tech) had machine learning, AI (Artificial Intelligence), and a host of other skills I clearly didn’t have. I realized that I was so far out of my league that I left the site.  I then looked at python online and realized that I could probably learn it, but why would I want to at this stage?  First, I need to survive this virus, which at may age is about an 86-95% probability, maybe less because of gender, maybe more because of my current health.  Second, I have done fine the last nineteen years after grad school without doing this.  I never even learned the new statistical program “R,” which was called “old” on the python web site.

You know you are old when the things you didn’t learned when they were brand new are now considered old, and you still haven’t learned them.  

I have gone from being a guy who counts everything in his life and does mental arithmetic for kicks to a has been in the field of data analysis.  If the economy totally meteor craters I am out of luck for any data analyst job.  Nobody wants a guy who as a kid updated batting averages every Sunday from the results on Saturday, doing it by long division. Or can multiply two digit numbers by two digit numbers every time he sees them—during a conversation without missing a beat.  If you have ever talked to me, there is a good chance I once did that. Scary, isn’t it?  

On the other hand, I got back to being me.  I have the data from China, Italy, Spain, Germany, Iran, and the US, and I am checking the UK and Netherlands, too.  I was doing doubling time analysis before I read about them online.  I didn’t need the graphs; I could visualize what the data were doing. I could look at long strings of numbers and decide what ratios I needed to look at: Deaths to Cases, Deaths to Recoveries, doubling time of cases, deaths, daily changes, where a country was on its curve.  It’s not like these statistics are the final word—deaths to cases is definitely NOT a mortality percentage because of lag time—but the change in them is useful.  My watch altimeter I hike with isn’t accurate, but the absolute change is accurate and exceedingly useful.  

So, my data skills and a few bucks will buy one a medium, hot, decaf white chocolate mocha with almond milk at Dutch Brothers, where they know me at the Franklin Street kiosk, but they don’t take cash right now, and I would have to walk up to the drive-in window if I want anything these days. I go by on my 4 mile loop every day.

Italy is slowly seeing the doubling time increase. That’s easier to comprehend than the percentage rise is dropping each day.  While true, it is the first derivative of the curve, and a decrease of something that is increasing confuses people.  Lengthening doubling time doesn’t.  I read a lot, I look at good graphics, which I am not good at creating myself, I do my own poor ones, and because I lost my calculator, I am doing it with a phone calculator until I get a new one.  Heck, last week, when I was having trouble getting back to sleep, I was doing logs in my head.  I got them right.  I made a prediction of the world cases and deaths for the next day and was within 500 for both of them.  

While I can’t do data analysis that will help save the world from this pandemic, I can keep myself busy looking at the data, comparing my conclusions to others’, and when it is all over, go back to tutoring math, explaining things to people who need someone competent  who can do that.  After more than 60 years, I can qualify as that person for at least some things.  The community college has had me for six years, and they still want me.

No, I don’t have Vimeo on my computer, I tried DropBox, and it was a pain, so I don’t use it. I left Oovoo and I haven’t used Viber in years. I still use WhatsApp and Telegram, I can’t make sense out of the Safeway app, and probably a third of the apps on my phone I haven’t used in months, if ever.  

I’ve got a meeting on Zoom next week with the Cascade Volunteer board. A month ago, I had never heard of it.  Should be interesting.  

Cherry blossoms
Great Blue Heron nests

ETHICS AND OTHER THOUGHTS IN THE ERA OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

March 24, 2020

I was one of the first hike leaders in the Club to lead a group hike after the world changed, and I appear to be the last for awhile.  We normally do a Wednesday hike up Spencer Butte, meeting as a group at the bottom, and hiking up 3 miles with 1400’ elevation gain.  Several usually walk up together, although I go ahead if I can, using the hike as both conditioning time and as alone time, unless I end up being the Pied Piper with several breathing down my neck behind me but not passing.  I hate that.

Last snowshoe before I left the high country for quarantine. Arrowhead Lake, Diamond Peak Wilderness, Pacific Crest Trail.

Anyway, social distancing comes naturally to me, since I have always been one of those who stands in a corner at a party, assuming I even go to one.  As hike leader, I started by having the sign up sheet in my control, the bag for money several feet away on the ground ($1 per person), and as people came to sign in, I signed them up myself, had them drop the dollar in and start up the trail.  I went last, which worked worked well.  At the top, I had to dodge a couple of children who were running around and ask a few hikers to leave the larger group which had congregated up there. It’s difficult for many to avoid being close to another person.  I’ve seen it in camping, where people camp near me despite having a lot of area to use, and in parking lots, where they park next to me when there is more room elsewhere.

On the way down, I was last, but I saw the front group too close together following one another.  This is a bad habit on the trail, especially during this time. The Butte gets a lot of use, and somebody trying to pass a large group (it was once 18) has difficulty doing it when the front two are taking their time, and the people in the back just join in the parade.  I’ve not been able to change that. I got back to the trailhead and left.

Later, I got a text from someone telling me the coffee shop was open.  I didn’t answer.  On the trip description, I told people what they did after the hike was their business.  I should have been more forceful, recommending people not go to the coffee shop.  That seemed obvious to me, but we are in a new era: right now, get food, medicine, or exercise.  That’s it.  Not socializing. 

Pandemics have bookended both ends of my life.  I remember dimly the polio ones of summers when I was a young boy; my brother caught it. Now I am old and have another RNA virus to worry about.  

I walk daily in Alton Baker Park, where there are dirt and paved paths close together, the former for only pedestrians.  The problem is that I see pairs of pedestrians, not likely living together, walking maybe 3 feet apart, leaving no space for me. If one doesn’t move behind the other, so I can pass, I have to step off and waiting or even going to the asphalt trail. It’s one of the few times I am less annoyed about unleashed dogs.

The suddenness at which I changed surprised me. On 10 March I tutored at the community college, only wiping down the desk, with close contact with several students. The next day, I went to a meeting with the board of the Cascade Volunteers, feeling a little uncomfortable in the room, sitting about 3 feet away from anybody else.  Thursday, I did trail work, but two of us drove ourselves; others still carpooled. That day, 12 March, the world changed. Friday, I called in to the community college, saying I wouldn’t be coming. I went shopping that night, deciding not to wait another 12 hours, but I was what I would consider now “sloppy.”  Between my age and my sex, I am high risk.  I will not likely qualify for ventilator support should we run low on them. I am 14 days since the last time tutoring, 13 days since the last meeting, 4 days since I went to the UPS store. Counting to 14 matters a lot these days.

Upper Trestle Falls, Brice Creek, Umpqua National Forest. Trail work doesn’t mean one never sees anything; I had my lunch here that day repairing trail away from the group.

Counting the doubling time of cases and deaths matters, too. Increasing the doubling time is a quantitative way to see if we are flattening the curve.  The number of cases in the US is doubling a little more than two days, although some of that is on the basis of more testing finally being done. I am watching doubling times carefully, because it is easy to do, and Increase Doubling Time is a quantitative way of Flatten the Curve. 

Exponential growth doubling time per unit time is easy to learn. Divide 70 or 72 (easier to work with) by the time it takes to double, and one has the growth rate in per cent.  Doubling every two days is a growth rate of 35%; Spain is at 4 days (18%). 

Another way to look at it is that 29 consecutive doubling times are more than the US population, and right now we are between the 15th and 16th doubling times (32768 and 65536).  At a continued rate every two days, in less than a month the whole country would be infected.  If we push the doubling time back to 4 days, we would have closer to two months, same number of cases, but twice as much time to care for them, have more equipment, maybe have some anti-viral treatment.

I have a daily routine right now, and I was happy to see astronaut Scott Kelly suggest that. I learned last night that we can still exercise, so long as we stay apart from people.  My park is perfect for that.  I can walk four miles every morning, the hyacinths, Persian speedwells, wild cherries, and Oregon grape are in bloom.  The song sparrows call; the redwing blackbirds are building nests. A Great Blue heron is at the canoe canal.  Several are nesting upstream.

I just want to get through this time. My wife, the cats, a routine, math, and nature are all a big part of it.  

Riley, adopted from the Humane Society about 18 months ago. We kept the name.

OPEN SCHEDULE AND AT PEACE

March 15, 2020

Last Thursday, I went with the trail crew to work the Clark Nature Trail over in Fall Creek.  Half the crew would be doing puncheon work with the Forest Service crew; the rest of us would do grunt work on the trail.  That was fine by me. I have become more and more comfortable doing trail work, widening trails, removing rocks, closing trails, diverting them. 

We met at the Shell station south of town for our “tailgate season” where we discuss what we will be doing, specific safety hazards and review general safety behavior.  Normally, we then divide up into vehicles to carpool to the trail head, but this time I said I would be driving myself.  I had decided to do that two days before; I didn’t want to ride in close contact to several others. I wasn’t the only one doing this in a group of 60 and 70 year-olds. 

At the trailhead, we had another tailgate session with the Forest Service and a specific discussion of the job we were to do. Several of us started by each picking up a 4 by 4, about 9 feet long, and we had to carry it through the woods uphill a half mile to the work site.  That is a cubic foot of wood, and it was heavy. I hoisted mine and was last in the group heading out.  I wasn’t sure how long I could walk without having to take a break, but I found that by stretching my right arm out along the wood ahead of me, it was like carrying a canoe.  

I stayed in the back of the group, but about half way there, the person ahead of me set his 4 x 4 down to change arms.  I told him I was passing, so I wouldn’t get hit by his wood, went around him and then kept on to the top. It wasn’t a competition, but I wanted to get to the top without stopping, and I did.  I walked back down to the bottom, got a second 4 x 4, and did the same thing.  After that, we did trail work in the mud, making a new trail and closing off an old one with nearby downed branches and logs. We made a small stream diversion, filled in holes from past posts, and pulled out a fence post deep in the ground.  It was a pleasant day in the woods among the pioneer violets, trilliums, snow queens, running streams, giant trees, Pacific wrens and spotted towhees. 

Before leaving that afternoon, I talked with one of the other guys, very experienced from working years for the Park Service.  He is about my age, has had cancer, and drove alone, too.  Neither of us was scared of the coronavirus, but we both knew that we needed to be cautious.  In the woods that day, the outside world had changed.  When I left that morning, many things were still planned, I had  a schedule with some things I needed to do.  When I returned, the stock market had plummeted again, basketball was over, baseball too, my trip to Nebraska in April was cancelled, Forest Service meetings I was to go to, scheduled for next week, became virtual, It was a different country, almost the way it was after 9/11, 1/28/86, or 11/22/63.

I was asked if I were panicked.  I answered no, and I’m still not.  I am at peace. My schedule is empty. I don’t have to get up earlier for anything, although I will still do trail work if I can.  I lost money on plane reservations that I can’t keep, but I am not trapped on another continent or a cruise ship in quarantine.  Or worse, sick. At least not yet. I won’t be tutoring in person, but I can do it online. I can still snowshoe and hike. I am concerned, yes.  Three days ago I was tutoring in the math lab.  Two days ago, I was at a meeting, but I sat separately from others. A week ago, I had two long distance trips planned. Now, I have none.

I read how retired physicians might be able to help.  I am not sure what is meant by help, in that we are at high risk by age and many of us have additional risk factors for severe or fatal illness.  Aside from liability issues, it seemed obvious that prolonged close contact to sick patients led to more severe illnesses among medical workers. Now, if they wanted to have my ideas on system design, that would be fine, but only if we did it by telemetry. 

I want to be one less person who needs to be tested, brought to a hospital, given supportive treatment, and adds more stress to the medical care system. Our hospitals are not geared for this, and nor is our national system, if one can call it that. We got hit with a bad virus that was certainly predictable, if not knowing when. If not a virus, an earthquake would have stressed the system in some areas.  But when one is working to make a profit, getting the right patient mix, advertising, minimizing costs wherever possible, usually by limiting personnel, and asking first about insurance and second what is wrong with the patient, there can be no room in such a system for idle beds, idle machines, or idle people. I suspect many hospitals are near full capacity without coronavirus.  If they haven’t been, they are likely to soon go under.  When everything depends upon workers staying healthy, nothing going wrong, a pandemic is going to be a disaster.  The system is taxed with routine care; here where I live, it is overtaxed and medical issues of the population require month long waits. It is sort of like Canadian care that people complain about.  It isn’t like there is a lot of elective surgery that can be cancelled to free up beds; there is plenty of emergency and necessary surgery, requiring ventilators, every day.  

Many have resisted increased public support of medical care or public health because they aren’t affected by certain conditions.  I’ve long said that each of us is subject to a cancer, a ruptured aneurysm, a drunk driver, or a mutation.  Now, we have an example where any of us can become ill.  Each of us is subject to a virus that has a significant likelihood of killing us. Good public health helps all of us, yet public health has had its budget cut severely in the last decade.  For each dollar spent, public health delivers far more value than any other branch of medicine.

So, as I do the some of the things I like outdoors, hope I won’t be quarantined on the basis of age, or fall ill, I am at peace.  Nothing major to do tomorrow. No big trips on the horizon, no meetings, just a lot of reading, maybe a snowshoe, trail work, or even tutor math online.

I hope that out of this time we find our way to decent coverage of medical conditions, recognize we are all in this together, and make sure public health—where all the major strides in longevity are made—is funded far better than it has been.

For once, being an introvert in a land of extroverts is a blessing.  

Avoid crowds?  No problem.

Pioneer violet (yellow) with Snowqueens

Diverted trail (left), with old trail (right)
The nice thing about trail work is I can usually find time to count the tree rings. This Doug fir was 430 years old, at least.