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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

Proposal: A New Standard for Encloseable Small Computers

Monitors are getting big. Computers are getting small. I think I’ve mentioned this idea before: a cavity in a monitor big enough to hold a Raspberry Pi, with the monitor providing power, video display, and a couple of USB ports for connecting peripherals like mice, keyboards, and thumb drives. Several of my Dell monitors have a coaxial power jack intended for speaker bars, and a USB hub as well. I’ve opened up a couple of those monitors to replace bad electrolytics, and as with most computer hardware, a lot of that internal volume is dead space.

The idea of a display with an internal computer has long been realized in TVs, many of which come with Android computers inside. That said, I’ve found them more a nuisance than useful, especially since I can’t inspect and don’t control the software. These days I outsource TV computing to a Windows 10 Intel NUC sitting on the TV cabinet behind the TV.

The top model of the Raspberry Pi 4, with 8 GB RAM, is basically as powerful as a lot of intermediate desktops, with more than enough crunch for typical office work; Web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. With the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) and its suite of open-source applications, you’ve got a desktop PC. More recently, the company has released the Raspberry Pi 400, which is a custom 4GB RPi 4 built into a keyboard, with I/O brought out the back edge. (In truth, I’d rather have it built into a display, as I am extremely fussy about my keyboards.) Computers within keyboards have a long history, going back to (I think) the now-forgotten Sol-20 or perhaps the Exidy Sorcerer. (Both appeared in 1978.)

What I want is breadth, which means the ability to install any of the modern small single-board computers, like the Beaglebone and its many peers. Breadth requires standardization, both in the monitor and in the computer. And if a standard existed, it could be implemented in monitors, keyboards, printers, standalone cases, robot chassis, and anything else that might be useful with a tiny computer in its tummy.

A standard would require both physical and electrical elements. Electrical design would be necessary to bring video, networking, and USB outside the enclosure, whatever the enclosure is. (I reject the bottom-feeder option of just leaving a hole in the back of the enclosure to bring out conventional cables.) This means the boards themselves would have to be designed to mate with the enclosure. What I’m envisioning is something with a card slot in it, and a slot spec for video, network, i2s, and USB connections. (GPIO might not be available through the slot.) The boards themselves would have slot connectors along one edge, designed to the standard. The redesigned boards could be smaller and thinner (and cheaper) without the need for conventional video, network, audio, and USB jacks. (Network connectors are increasingly unnecessary now that many boards have on-board WiFi and Bluetooth antennas.) Picture something like the Raspberry Pi Zero with edge connectors for I/O.

Defining such a standard would be a minor exercise in electrical engineering. The big challenge would be getting a standards body like ANSI interested in adopting it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has the engineering chops, obviously, and once a standard has been created and proven out, groups like IEEE or ANSI might be more inclined to adopt it and make it “official.”

I understand that this might “fork” the small-board computing market between GPIO boards and non-GPIO boards. Leaving the GPIO pads on the opposite edge of the board is of course possible, and would allow the board to be enclosed or out in the open, or inside some other sort of enclosure that leaves room for GPIO connections. A big part of the draw of the small boards is the ability to add hardware functionality in a “hat” that plugs into the GPIO bus, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that there’s a market for non-GPIO boards that vanish inside some larger device or enclosure that provides jacks for connections to the outside world. The Raspberry Pi 400 is an excellent example of this, with GPIO header access as well. What I’m proposing is a standard that would allow a single enclosure device to be available to any board designed to the standard.

Ok, it would be hard–for small values of hard. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be well worth doing.

The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.

RIP BEA

BookExpo America (BEA) and BookCon are folding. The shows’ organizers are blaming the shutdown on SARS-CoV-2, but the mask slips a little when they add, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.” That’s corporate doubletalk for “The shows were both in trouble before the virus, and the virus was a plausible excuse to shut them down.”
I used to go to BEA every year. (I’ve never been to BookCon, which is a sort of combined fan and publisher gathering in NYC, targeted at consumers and mostly about fiction.) BEA was useful in a number of ways, not least of which was to see how our competitors were doing in the ’90s. I kept going for a few years after Coriolis folded, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and spot trends. That pulse has been harder and harder to find in recent years. Ginormous publishing conglomerates are merging. This generally means that the smaller one is in trouble, and the bigger one wants their cash flow. Penguin Random House is buying Simon & Schuster, assuming antitrust challenges don’t emerge. What used to be The Big 5 is about to become The Big 4.
Two (related) things seem to me as behind publisher consolidation and the loss of big trade shows like BEA:
  1. The large publishers never wanted ebooks and don’t know how to deal with them.
  2. Independent publishing (indie) is catching on in a very big way.

The business model of traditional book publishing is complex, and weird. (Weird, even to me, and I worked in it for fifteen years.) The biggest single problem is that large and very large presses are fixated on hardcovers. This fixation goes back a very long way, and cooks down to the notion that hardcovers are books, and everything else (primarily ebooks and paperbacks) are secondary markets that depend on hardcovers to exist at all. It’s true that if you go back to the 1800s, vitually all books were hardcovers. Granted, there are exceptions: I have a paperback edition of Oliver Twist from 1882, which indicates that cheap books on cheap paper were there in the shadows all along, but were all too often slandered as “dime novels” that corrupted young minds. The money and prestige were in hardcovers.

Paperback originals emerged as a force in the 1950s, roughly concurrent with the emergence of the mass-market paperback (MMPB.) Because early MMPBs were reprints of hardcover editions, the notion of paperbacks as a secondary market was logical. When paperback originals emerged, larger presses used them to build the audience for their hardcovers, and to a lesser extent, a midlist from which promising new authors could be promoted to hardcover. Hardcover pricing was what kept the doors open and paychecks going out. Secondary markets were gravy.

Various forces are now turning the hardcover-centric business model on its ear. The single most important force here is not simply the ebook, but the fact that you can read ebooks on smartphones. Ebooks were dismissed early on because “nobody’s going to buy an expensive gadget just to read books on.” Well, dedicated ebook readers are no longer necessary. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because it’s easier on my eyes, but I’ve read plenty of books on my Galaxy Tab S3 and three different smartphones. Today, everybody has a smartphone, which means that everybody can read ebooks. It’s no longer a niche market.

This scares the crap out of traditional publishers. They have kept the cover prices of ebooks close to (or in some crazy cases higher than) hardcover prices, insisting that it costs just as much to create an ebook as it does to create a hardcover, dodging the truth that it’s all about physical inventory, returns, and unit cost. The unit cost of an ebook is zero. Inventory and returns no longer exist.

The second most important force is, of course, Amazon, home of The World’s Richest Man. Amazon did not create the notion of ebooks or ebook readers, but the Kindle Store allowed the emergence of independent publishing, more on which shortly. And the smartphone, in turn, created the market for the Kindle Store.

Amazon has systematically undermined the hardcover price point by allowing a nearly frictionless market for hardcovers that were read once and then sold through associate accounts for a third the cover price–or less–of the same book new. Amazon Prime created all-you-can-slurp shipping, and with improvements in logistics allows a book to be ordered in the morning and delivered in late afternoon. Why bother fighting traffic to get down to the last Barnes & Noble in town, when you can get the book just as fast (and more easily) with a few taps on your smartphone? (Yes, I’ll miss bookstores. But I won’t miss tchotchke stores.)

And last but by no means least, we have indie publishing. There are a number of platforms on which ebooks may be published, but realistically, it’s Amazon plus debris. They have wisely combined ebook and POD print book publishing into one entity. (90% or more of my sales are ebooks.) The system is straightforward enough to allow anybody with half a brain to publish their own books and short items on the Kindle store.

This means that a great deal of what is published isn’t worth looking at. We all worried a lot about that. But as it happened, people are discovering ebooks they same way they discovered print books in the old days: By word-of-mouth, which these days includes word-of-Web. Discovery sites like Goodreads help a great deal, as do Web forums with a topic focus. Amazon’s reviews are generally good, though you have to read a lot of them and average things out in your mind. Some people are hard to please, and others please way too easily. All that said, I’m very surprised at how few Kindle ebooks I have bought and then hated. Sure, some were better than others. But I did an odd kind of crosstime quality spot-check on marginal ebooks and SFF MMPBs from 50-55 years ago. Pull a passage from a 55-year-old no-name SF potboiler (easier now that the pages are coming loose as you turn them) and compare it to a no-name ebook SF potboiler you took a chance on for $2.99 based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon book wins almost every time. Why? Automated discovery, via reviews and recommendations. All we had to go on 50 years ago was the back cover, and a quick flip through the pages. Now we can be as fussy as we like, or at least as fussy as we have time for.

The bottom line on ebooks is that with automated discovery and online recommendations, you no longer need traditional publishing at all. I’ve bought some ebooks from the few traditional publishers (like Baen) who embrace them. But at least 75% of the SFF I’ve read in the last year has been from indie authors. Some books were better than others. Remarkably, all but a couple that I took chances on were worth reading.

I’ll miss BEA–a little. I had fun there and met some interesting people. I will not miss hardcover culture and its attendant weirdness. If the Big 5, er, 4 can’t shed that weirdness, the reading public will shed them, sooner than later.

In the meantime, it’s a marvelous time to be a reader–and an even better time to be a writer.

Where Have All the Pirates Gone?

Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey.

Well, good luck finding anybody to talk to.

Long-time readers will recall that I followed the file-sharing subculture closely back when it was a Rilly Big Thing. So when I saw Talk Like a Pirate Day mentioned, I had to stop and think: Wow, I haven’t thought about that stuff for awhile. So I took a look around. Here are some bullets to duck:

  • Whoever currently owns The Pirate Bay has put two domains up for auction: piratebay.org and thepiratebay.com. (The site is currently at thepiratebay.org, but as followers of file sharing know, it bounces around a lot.)
  • There may be a method to this madness: Go to piratebay.org and you’ll see a funding pitch for The Torrent Man, an indie film about the file sharing phenomenon and the people behind it. Hey, I’d pay five bucks to see that. Or at least stream it on Prime Video.
  • Two of the file sharing news aggregator sites I used to check are now defunct: zeropaid.com and slyck.com. Torrentfreak.com is still out there, and maybe one such site is enough.
  • LAN parties, at which gamers played networked games locally to eliminate latency, are gone. (And that article is itself over five years old.) Several people have told me that purely local LAN parties were at least in part an opportunity to swap files around without worrying about the copyright cops. Modern games built on the progression model are constantly phoning home, so isolating yourself from the greater Internet is no longer possible.
  • Wikipedia has a list of file-sharing utilities, few of which I’ve even heard of. The page includes a list of defunct apps, which contains most of those I had heard of. So non-torrent peer-to-peer is still out there, though I wonder how many people are actually using it.
  • Torrenting is now the dominant file-sharing method. A great deal of torrenting has gone underground to private trackers, making me wonder how many casual users there still are. Government busts have gotten much more aggressive recently, greatly reducing the number of newly released files, especially games and ebooks.
  • I canceled my Usenet service provider account several years ago after not using it much since 2012 or so. I realized I was monitoring one or two groups and not much else. The binaries groups were all spam, most of it unrelated to the groups in which they were posted, and largely malware or porn. Shortly before I canceled my account people had begun posting large encrypted multipart files which were never adequately explained and may have been a clever backup scheme. There’s probably still pirated stuff on Usenet, but bring a big shovel to find it.

There may be more to it than that, of course, but I’m only willing to explore such fringe topics for an hour or so.

Ok. Where did all the pirates go? I think a lot of them simply went legit. You can get spectacular classical music tracks on Amazon for only 99 cents, with no DRM. We rent videos on Prime for a couple of bucks, and there’s plenty of good stuff on Netflix, like STTOS with improved effects. If getting media is cheap and easy, there’s not a lot of reason to go through technical and sometimes hazardous contortions to steal it. I also think that most of what piracy remains is concentrated among far fewer users who hide really well.

I guess if there’s no stopping it entirely, I’m good with that.

The All-Volunteer Federated Encyclopedia of (Really!) Absolutely Everything

My regular readers will recall that I wrote an article in the June/July 1994 issue of PC Techniques, describing a distributed virtual encyclopedia that pretty much predicted Wikipedia’s function, if not the details of its implementation. My discontent with Wikipedia is not only well-known but not specific to me: The organization has become political, and editor zealots have various tricks to make their ideological opponents either look bad, or disappear altogether. Key here is their concept of notability, which is Wikipedia’s universal excuse for excluding the organization’s ideological opponents from coverage.

In one of the decade’s great hacks, Vox Day created Infogalactic, which is a separate instance of the MediaWiki software underlying Wikipedia and a fair number of other, more specialized encyclopedias. Infogalactic has a lot of its own articles. However, when a user searches for something that is not already in the Infogalactic database, Infogalactic passes the search along to Wikipedia, and then displays the returned results. I don’t know whether or to what extent Infogalactic keeps results from Wikipedia on its own servers. It’s completely legal to do so, and they may have a system that keeps track of frequent searches and maintains frequently searched-for Wikipedia pages in local storage. Or they may just keep them all. We have no way to know.

Infogalactic’s relationship with Wikipedia immediately suggested a form of federation to me, though Infogalactic does not use that term. (Federation means a peer-to-peer network of nodes that are independently hosted and maintained yet query one another.) The Mastodon social network system is the best example of online federation that I could offer. (It’s not shaped like an encyclopedia, so don’t take the comparison too far.) There is something else called the Fediverse, which I have not investigated closely. In a sense, the Fediverse is meta-federation, as it federates already federated platforms like Mastodon. For that matter, Usenet is also a form of federation. It’s been around a long time.

The MediaWiki software is open-source and freely available to anyone. There are a lot of special-interest wikis online. One is about Lego. (Brickipedia, heh.) For that matter, there’s one about Mega Bloks. Hortipedia is about gardening and plants generally. It’s a huge list; give it a scan. You might find something useful.

My suggestion is this: Devise a MediaWiki mod like Infogalactic’s, but take it farther. Have a “federation panel” that allows the creation of lists of MediaWiki instances for searches falling outside the local instance. A list would generally start with the local instance. It might then search instances focusing on related topics. The last item on most lists would be a full general encyclopedia like Wikipedia or Infogalactic.

Here’s a simple example, which could defeat Wikipedia’s notability fetish for biographies and a lot of other things: Begin a search for a given person (or other topic) with Infogalactic, which, remember, searches Wikipedia if its own database doesn’t satisfy the query. So if that search fails, submit the same search to EverybodyWiki, which doesn’t apply notability criteria to biographies. In fact, EverybodyWiki does what I suggested be done a number of years ago: It collects articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia, of which it currently has over 100,000. I’m tempted to post a biography on Wikipedia just to see if, when it’s deleted (and it would be) EverybodyWiki picks it up.

(As an aside: I just found EverybodyWiki a month or so ago, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. It has more than just biographies and is definitely worth a little poking-around time.)

Now, the tough part: How would this be accomplished? I don’t know enough about MediaWiki internals to attempt it myself. There’s an API, and I’ve been surfing through the API doc. There’s even an API sandbox, which is a cool idea all by itself. Alas, there are remarkably few technical books on MediaWiki, and the ones I would be most interested in get terrible reviews. Given how important MediaWiki is, I don’t understand why tech publishers have skated past it. My guess is that few people bother to do more than custom-skin MediaWiki. (There’s a book on that, at least.) If the demand were there, the books would probably happen. If you know enough about MediaWiki modding, I’ll bet you could find a publisher.

I’m thinking about installing MediaWiki on my hosting services, just to poke at and try things on. Hell, I predicted this thing. I should at least know my way around it.

If you’ve done any hacking on MediaWiki, let me know how you learned its internals and what you did, and if there are any instructional websites or videos that I may not have encountered.

Teergrubing Twitter

I’m of two minds about Twitter. Maybe three. Maybe seventeen. I’m on it, and I post regularly, typically two items per day. That’s just how it averages out; I don’t post for the sake of posting, but only when I find something worth linking to.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. More people are on Twitter than cruise blog posts. By posting on Twitter, I make more people aware of me than I do when I post things here on Contra. Every time I tweet a link to one of my books, I sell a few copies.
  2. It’s one of the most gruesomely fascinating phenomena to come out of tech since the Web itself, thirty years ago.

I’ve written about Twitter before. Back in 2019, my proposed solution to Twitter toxicity was to remove the retweet function. That would certainly help, but only to an extent, and not to the extent that I would like. I’ve spent more time on Twitter in the last 18 months since I posted that entry than I did in the 5 years before that. And in doing that…

…I’ve changed my mind.

I generally lurk, but occasionally I join a Twitter rumble to watch how it all unfolds. I never stoop to profanity or unhinged emoting. Here and there I have politely called a few people on their BS. In doing so I made an observation that bears on today’s entry: When I get involved in a ruckus, my follower count goes up. When I just post odd lots, my follower count decays. The reason is simple: Twitter has made itself into a sort of deranged video game. The Analytics panel shows you how many people have looked at your tweets, how many have mentioned you, how many followers you’ve gained or lost, and more. In the same way that Twitter as a whole is an outrage amplifier, the Analytics panel is a vanity amplifier. You have a “score.” The object of the game is to raise your score. And the best way to do that is to create or partake in a ruckus. In fact, the more rucki you launch or dive into, the higher your score will climb.

I’ve thought quite a bit about how Twitter would change simply by removing the Analytics panel, or any other stats on your activity. Even if Twitter would agree to do that (highly unlikely) it would reduce the number of neutrons only modestly. A ruckus feeds the ancient tribal impulse. Tribal Twitter is a game whether or not you have an explicit score.

Very briefly, I wondered how Twitter might change if the platform removed limits on (or at least greatly increased) the allowable size of tweets. Again, it would help a little by changing Twitter’s DNA to be a little more like Facebook or other social networks. Because it takes more time to write longer, more thoughtful entries, people would spend their energy doing that and not trying to destroy one another.

Maybe a little. Or maybe not. Which brings us to the heart of what I’m about to propose: slowing Twitter down. To return to the metaphor of nuclear fission, it would be about inserting a neutron moderator. I don’t mean a control rod (which eats neutrons) but something that merely slows them down and therefore reduces their energy.

I’m reminded of the spam wars before centralized spam suppressors appeared. The idea was to reduce the effectiveness of email spam by slowing the rate at which an email server would accept commands. There are several ways to do this, including sending nonsense packets to the system requesting connections. This was called tar-pitting, which translated directly to the charming German neologism, teergrubing. Spamming works by throwing out a boggling number of emails. Teergrubing fixes that by making the process of throwing out a financially workable number of spam messages too lengthy to bother with.

I don’t know to what extent teergrubing is done today. Doesn’t matter. What I’m suggesting is this: Build a delay into the process of accepting replies to any given tweet. Make this delay increase exponentially as the number of replies increases. First reply, one minute. Second reply, two minutes. Third reply, four minutes, and so on. Once you get up to the eighth reply, the delay is over two hours. By the time a tweet could go viral, the delay would be up in days, not hours. At that point, most of the original outragees would have lost interest and gone elsewhere. Most ordinary Twitter conversations generate only a few replies, and those would arrive in less than an hour, the first several in minutes.

Outrage addicts might try to finesse the system by replying to replies and not the original tweet. This would quickly reduce a ruckus to incoherence, since people trying to read the mess would not be able to tell what tweet a replier was replying to.

Or it might not work at all. Certainly Twitter would not consent to a change like this short of legal action. That legal action may someday arrive. My point is that the heat in any argument dies down when the back-and-forth slows down. Some few diehards may choose to sit out a several days’ delay just to get the last word. But if nobody reads that last word, having the last word loses a lot of its shine.

And Twitter is all about shine.

The COVID-19 Coin Shortage

Well, I predicted Wikipedia in the early ’90s. How could I not have predicted this: Banks are rationing coins. Why? The US Mint cut back production of coins so it could distance its staff to reduce their chances of infection. Reasonable enough. However, something else happened during the lockdowns: People stopped going shopping as much. Bank lobbies were closed much or most of the time. And when people don’t hit the stores as often, they have fewer chances to cash in their piles of pocket change via CoinStar and other similar machines. At our usual grocery store, the coin machine was moved out to make room for a new curbside pickup system. Curbside pickup reduced the number of people entering the store, and thus traffic past the coin machine. In truth, I don’t even know if it’s still there.

So the pennies are piling up. Even I have more of them than I generally do. Last fall I noticed that I was getting a lot of old-ish pennies in change, and wrote up my theory that older people are dying, and their kids are cashing in the penny jars in the kitchen cabinets, nightstands, or other nooks and crannies. I was getting several a day for awhile. After the first of the year they became a lot less common. I still don’t know why. I now maybe get three a week. Maybe two. Some are old while still looking very recent: last week I got a 1992-D with about 90% of its mint luster. Not bad for a penny that’s old enough to vote.

My guess: Not only are the penny jars still out there, the old ones are filling up even faster and new ones have been started. Once we’re shut of the lockdowns, a yuge pile of pennies (and other coins) will surge into the bank lobbies and coin machines, and I will once again see 40-year-old mint luster when I pop for a coffee at McDonald’s.

More on Masks

I realize that I should have made the masks portion of yesterday’s wander its own post. What was supposed to be a casual collection of odd impressions of current events and what I’m up to turned into a mildly angry rant. That’s just how things work in the back of my head sometimes.

Anyway. I ran into some links this morning that are worth mentioning. The first one is a must-read: “Aerosols, Droplets, and Airborne Spread.” It didn’t answer all of my questions, but it answered a lot of them. It’s a very long, dense article. (I think it was intended for medical professionals.) Read it anyway. Yes, it’s almost three months old, but I sure don’t get the impression that we’ve learned much since that time. The big takeaway is that SARS-CoV-2 spreads via aerosols; that is, naked virus particles or droplets so small that they remain suspended in the air for a long time. (A lot of supposed experts deny this.) Ever watch cigarette smoke? It doesn’t drift toward the ground. It gradually spreads out until you can’t see it anymore. But take a whiff of the supposedly empty air, and you’ll know it’s still there.

Most droplets fall to the ground fairly quickly. But it’s true (as I mentioned yesterday) that in low-humidity environments, droplets evaporate quickly, and what may have been exhaled as a droplet large enough to fall can shrink to aerosol size before it hits the ground. We’re having a cool day here to close out June in Arizona. It won’t even break 100. The humidity is way up, at 16%. Tomorrow July comes in like a toaster oven (by most people’s standards) at 103. The humidity will be 10% or less. Even a 100┬Ám droplet will likely give up its water long before it hits the ground in that kind of humidity. After that, it floats for what may be 30,000 hours; i.e., indefinitely.

People are still getting into fistfights about whether there are enough viral particles in airborne aerosol droplets to cause infection. It’s not a yes/no kind of question. Like a lot of other things associated with health, it’s about probabilities. I’m thinking that if you spend an hour in a crowded bar where everybody is talking loud, laughing, and drinking, you’re likely to get enough virus to become infected, even if everybody in the bar is wearing a mask. If you pass somebody in the baking aisle at Safeway, probably not. Why do I say this? Two things:

  1. There is something called “time in proximity.” The longer you spend close to an infected person, the more likely you are to get sufficient viral load to come down with COVID-19. I don’t go to bars much for the bar experience, but my writers’ workshop took place in a sports bar for over three years. When there were important games, people were draped all over each other, talking loud and cheering when their side made a good play.
  2. You can catch this thing if you get enough viruses in your eyes. A couple of droplets is all it takes. Masks don’t protect your eyes. Nor do I think masks eliminate all exhaled aerosols. Sit in a bar for an hour with hordes of people cheering into their masks, well, you’ll probably get enough of the bad guy in your eyes to come down with it. Why? Badly fitted masks allow exhaled air to flow out the edges. I tried singing with a mask on to see if they leaked out the edges when I sang forcefully. They did.

I’m sure I’ll get yelled at for my contention that masks don’t help us anywhere near as much as our supposed health experts claim, but I’m past caring. Which leads us to another and probably more controversial link, which is one MD fisking a rah-rah hurray-for-masks post by another MD. This is a guest post on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, and you’re free to dial it down if that makes a difference to you. I don’t agree with all the points made, but there are some solid numbers and good explanations about some of the downsides of wearing masks, few of which ever come up in the current debate.

Something else that I knew but forgot to mention yesterday: A real N95 mask filters inbound air only. N95’s have one-way exhalation ports that remain closed until pressure in the mask indicates that the wearer has exhaled. Then it opens and releases the wearer’s breath through the port. No filtering of exhaled breath is done. None. N95’s exist specifically to keep patients from infecting medical personnel. They protect no one but the wearer. The tiresome bleat that “You wear a mask to reassure and protect others” simply doesn’t apply for N95 masks.

So where do I sit in all this? I’ll give you a list:

  1. We do not know a lot of things, particularly involving viral load, antibody generation, asymptomatic carriers, etc. Everything we know about SARS-CoV-2 and its effects (COVID-19) must be regarded as tentative. We’ll learn more as we go, but right now there is a lot of arguing and handwaving over significant issues.
  2. Wearing a mask is no guarantee that you won’t catch the virus, nor infect others. Everything is a matter of probabilities. The type of mask matters, some being worthless (handkerchiefs & bandanas etc.) and some a lot better. But none are any guarantee, especially if you wear a mask the wrong way. (I’ve seen a lot of that in grocery stores.)
  3. Time in proximity matters. It’s the crowded bar thing again, or any dense meeting of bodies talking, laughing, or lor’ ‘elp us, cheering. Spend enough time cheek-by-jowl with virus carriers, and you will almost certainly get the virus, mask or no mask.
  4. Masks can be overwhelmed by strong exhalation. I’ve tried this myself, as I said before: Cheering or singing into a mask will just force air out the sides when the material of which the mask is made can no longer pass the volume of air presented to it. That air is not filtered.
  5. Masks don’t protect your eyes. This should be self-explanatory, but it’s rarely discussed. Getting droplets in your eyes is apparently less likely to lead to infection than breathing them in. However, after enough time in dense gatherings, your eyes could put your viral load over the top into infection territory.
  6. And my conclusion: Put as much distance between yourself and others as you can. Even that’s no guarantee. Furthermore, for some people it may be all but impossible. But for people in my age bracket (I turned 68 yesterday) it could become a life-or-death issue.

Carol and I wear masks, and we stay home a lot. We certainly don’t go to bars or political rallies or protests or anywhere else you have screaming crowds. If you pin me down on it, I’ll express my opinion that masks don’t protect you anywhere near as well as ten feet of clear air. But as with almost everything else about the virus, your guess is as good as mine.

The Numbers Game

COVID-19 is a numbers game. Trouble is, we don’t know what any of the numbers are. Yes, we can tote up test positives and deaths, but that tells us surprisingly little about the things that matter in this case: How contagious is the virus? How many people are infected but don’t know it? How many people had it but thought they had the flu? All of that matters.

None of it is known.

We’ll learn more as new tests are devised, particularly for antibodies. Knowing how many people have caught the virus but threw it off would put a number of things into perspective, especially the critical issue: How close are we to herd immunity? That’s the most important known unknown in a big greasy sack of mixed unknowns.

In the meantime, people worry. I’m one of them. I’ve read others online. The worried ones tend to be older folks. And yeek! It was a little disorienting to internalize that I’m an older folk. I’ll be 68 in two months. I don’t care if 60 is the new 40. We have decent stats on whom the virus is taking out. And that curve heads for the sky at age 60.

As an aside, there’s the complicating factor in that anybody who dies with the virus in their system tends to be counted as a COVID-19 fatality, even if they had heart disease or stage 4 cancer. Sometimes the corpses aren’t even tested for coronavirus. If it looks like the virus, coughs like the virus, or kills like the virus, then…they write COVID-19 on the death certificate. That may be unavoidable in some cases, but it certainly does not help in our current numbers game.

This may all seem obvious, but I’m not done yet. The country has to open up soon. People are burning through their savings trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. (Alas, the people who are keeping us under house arrest never miss any paychecks.) Businesses are failing. My local art supplies store has closed forever. A lot of restaurants are not going to make it. Smithfield closed its ginormous pork-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the firm is supposedly working with the CDC to determine how and when the plant will reopen. Too much of that and we’ll have food shortages.

We’re not there yet. My local groceries have fresh meat again, at least. My hunch is that the hoarders have already filled their chest freezers, at least those hoarders who can find their chest freezers behind the mountains of toilet paper piled up in their basements.

I recognize that there will be a cost in letting people go back to work, particularly in monster cities like New York and Chicago where getting around is mostly done on jam-packed buses and subway/commuter trains. More people will be infected. Additional people will die. Those numbers can’t be known yet. (Computer models riddled with unknown parameters are utterly worthless.) Being my ever-hopeful self, it looks like the numbers won’t be nearly as bad as early models suggested. The big upside is rarely mentioned: Herd immunity happens because people catch the virus, develop antibodies, and throw off the virus. Some of that has happened already. It’s happening. More needs to.

We’re a ways off from a vaccine, though one will happen. In the meantime, we need to consider any drug or drug combo that shows promise through clinical experience. The media seems…peculiarly…opposed to hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and an antibiotic. Still, observational studies are being ramped up as quickly as possible, and early clinical experience looks good. If I suddenly got hit hard, I would ask for that first. When you’re looking death in the eye, you may not be as insistent on bureaucratic niceties.

People like me will probably have to stay home for awhile longer than those younger and not yet retired. I’m willing to do that…to a degree. Carol and I walk in local parks. If we need something at a store, we mask up and go. How effective are the masks? Nobody knows. But it’s worse than that. No matter how much you wear your mask, a virus or seventeen may land in one of your eyes. The mask reduces the likelihood of catching it. But it never reduces the likelihood to zero. The same goes for cleaning surfaces, which is harder now because the hoarders have snapped up all the cleaning supplies. Miss something with that soapy rag (you’d use alcohol if you could find some) and you could pick up the virus. Less likely, but possible. No matter what measures you might take, your chances of catching COVID-19 will never go to zero. And your chances of dying will never go to zero. We do not and cannot and will never know. Carol and I have had our family trust and wills together for awhile. We take whatever protective measures we can. That’s about the best we (or anybody) can do.

Irrepressibly perky gonzo optimist that I am, I do see something to be optimistic about: Evolution is a thing, and it works. Viruses that immobilize/kill their hosts quickly eventually lose out to related strains that infect and cause fewer and less severe symptoms. Over time, newly discovered viruses mutate toward more innocuous forms. It worked that way with HIV. It will work that way with our current coronavirus. It’s already working that way, even if we can’t measure it. How long will it take? No one knows. Get over it.

It comes down to this: Whether you like to gamble or not, you’re damned well gambling, and you will never know the odds. Come May 1, if we don’t begin opening up our economy, the virus could well become the least of our worries. Those odds are greater than zero. Greater, in fact, than you may think.