Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

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.

Flashback: Getting Past Nagasaki

I ran the first Contrapositive Diary Flashback in February, and I’m doing it again. I won’t do it a lot, but with August being the 75th Anniversary of the end of WWII, I want to re-post a few pertinent things I wrote fifteen years ago that bear saying again. Some of you have seen this before, back in 2005. Many of you haven’t. This entry is a particularly grim one, but human history hands us grim sometimes. We don’t get the history we want. We have to deal with the history we get.


We’re approaching the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of the end of World War II. I have something odd and upbeat to post on VJ-Day, assuming I can find the files. [I did. You’ll see them.] If not, I have some scanning and OCRing to do again, sigh.

Sigh, indeed. Yesterday was the 60th [now 75th] anniversary of our dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. Many or even most people who are not completely ignorant of the history of WWII or totally wigged out by nuclear weapons understand the necessity of Hiroshima. The world stood stunned as the smoke cleared, and against a threat like that, Imperial Japan would have caved in days. Then there was August 9. Why did we have to do it again?

First of all, avoid the temptation to second guess and judge the people who lived the era and bore the responsibility. People were dying across the world, not by hundreds or thousands, but by millions. Whole nations and peoples were virtually wiped off the planet. How well would you have handled it?

I’ve been boning up on my 20th century history lately, through several books like The Great Influenza, The Fall of the Dynasties, and The War Against the Weak, along with a quick flip through the marvelous 1966 American Heritage Picture History of WWII, though I wept when I read my father’s notes in the margins. Good God, he was there, in the thick of all that hell, dust, and death. He, at least, got back alive, as a man named Robert Williams, who might otherwise have been my father, did not.

I think I understand Nagasaki. I don’t like the understanding I have, but I understand: WWI ended scarcely twenty years before WWII began. The death-stink of Verdun remained vivid in the memories of those who survived it. (They are still digging unexploded ordnance from those now-peaceful fields!) The world seemed to be recognizing a pattern: Every generation, a strange psychosis reached some sort of critical mass, and erupted in increasingly deadly conflicts between nation-states that (by 1945) should long have known better. Even as Nazi Germany collapsed, I think that forward-looking people were charting the line between 1870, 1914, and 1939, and did not like the shadow they saw ahead. The points were growing closer, and the death toll higher, each time that the world went to war. Patton knew what Stalin was, and although he was forbidden his plan to take Moscow, I think his superiors came to understand Patton’s insight. I’m almost certain that the next European war would have come by 1955, and a nuclear-powered Soviet Union would have reduced much of Europe to sizzling ash.

Instead, we took Nagasaki. One might have been a fluke, or good luck. Two in four days was a statement that could not be ignored. In a sense, the American leadership was telling the rest of the world, Stalin and every other emerging nationalist psychopath who might be watching: This..nonsense..will..stop…now.

I mourn for Nagasaki, as I mourn for the Jews, and the Russians, and the Ukraine, and my mother’s high-school sweetheart. It’s been quiet now for sixty years. There has never been another nuclear attack. In my view, there has never actually been another war. (Those who consider Iraq I or II or even Vietnam a “war” need to read more history.) The world turned a corner in 1945. We stopped connecting the dots, and there is some hope that the horrible line between 1870, 1914, and 1939 will not be drawn again. 75,000 people died at Nagasaki, but had they not died, 100,000,000 would almost certainly have perished the next time the world erupted.

Remember: There is no such thing as pacifism. Doing nothing is doing something. There is no escaping responsibility. There are no good choices. All we can do is bless our dead for what their lives have purchased, and move on.

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.

Birthdaywander

68 today. About this place in each decade there are a couple of years where it’s not immediately obvious to me which birthday I’m having. 2020 being what it is and will likely continue to be, I have had no trouble remembering that this is my 68th birthday.

A lot of this is the virus, which from the demographic stats clearly has a target on my forehead. (See this compendium of stats as of June 23.) My age bracket represents 21% of COVID-19 deaths, and COVID-19 represented 9.4% of total deaths from all causes in my age bracket between February 1 and June 17. Them’s bad odds, at least from where I sit. So we’re staying home, and the most human contact we’ve had in a couple of months is talking to the neighbors out in the middle of the street.

I have some bitches about the numbers. In a lot of places, anyone who dies with tested SARS-CoV-2 in their bodies is listed as dying of the virus, even if they died of cancer, alcohol poisoning, car accidents, or lots of other unrelated conditions. Granted, it’s often hard to tell what actually causes death. So although I’m willing to accept the huge numbers of newly identified cases (where a “case” is anyone who tests postive for the virus) the mortality numbers are almost certainly higher than they would be if people who caught the virus but died of something else were not counted.

Bit by bit the numbers improve, especially now that tests are easy to come by. An awful lot of young people are carrying the virus, but an awfuller lot of those are completely asymptomatic. Whether they’re contagious is still under heated discussion.

Catching the virus outdoors is unlikely. I’m not one of those who blame the protests for the rising number of cases in young people. Oh, I’m sure it helped raise the case numbers a little. But in watching the appalling videos of the riots, what I see is a lot of people in fast chaotic motion, outside, probably with a light breeze. What this means is that the spreaders are unlikely to be in close proximity to the same people for more than a few seconds. This is not what happens at choir practice, really.

A lot of the protesters were wearing masks. Forgive me for thinking that a lot of them weren’t worried about acquiring the virus half as much as a police record.

Oh–masks. Let’s talk about masks. What I’m seeing in recent weeks is a peculiar psychology of constant harping about masks that does two things:

1. It makes a certain number of otherwise reasonable people annoyed enough to refuse to wear masks in public.

2. It makes a larger number of reasonable but naive people feel that with a mask on, they’re invulnerable and cannot catch the virus. This is major magical thinking.

I wear a mask to keep peace in the valley, mostly. Getting yelled at by every uberkaren in the supermarket is not on my bucket list. Nonetheless, I am under no illusions that the masks will prevent me from either catching or spreading the disease. There is plenty of research showing that SARS-CoV-2 spreads in aerosol form. (That is, as free particles rather than inside mucus or saliva droplets.) The masks available to the public will not stop isolated virus particles drifting in the air. For that you need properly fitted N95 masks or better, and I’m among those who think that front-line health care personnel should get them before the rest of us.

Consider this article, by a skeptical MD with 36 years of clinical experience. He knows medical masks. Woodworking masks or cowboy bandanas are of zero effectiveness, and even surgical masks are not effective in filtering aerosols. The virus itself is 120 nm in size; basically, a tenth of a micron. Your workaday snotrag is not gonna stop that. Droplets, possibly–at least big ones. But let me ask you this: What happens when a droplet that was stopped by your bandana dries out? It seems to me (I’ve seen no research on this issue) that absent their droplets, individual viruses can be inhaled through the cloth, or blown out into the invironment again by exhaled air.

Especially here in Phoenix, where the humidity is often in single digits, those droplets will dry out fast. Maybe they’ll remain stuck to the cloth fibers. Maybe. Bet your life on it? Not me.

So, again, we’re staying home. I’m trying to work out how to get the ball rolling on my new novel The Molten Flesh. The first chapter is a flashback, to twelve years before The Cunning Blood takes place. We’re focusing on a different nanotech society this time: Protea, which is designed to optimize the human body. Sangruse 9 can do a little of that, but Protea literally rebuilds the interior structure of the body to make it much more resistant to trauma, radiation, cancer, infectious microorganisms and aging. It’s not as smart as Sangruse 9, nor as good with physical chemistry. Still, once you understand the full reality of what it can do, it’s a pretty scary item. And that’s the canonical Protea. In 2354, Protea was forked. A renegade Protea Society member breaks with the others and starts tweaking the device. The story emerges from that.

I’m trying to put together an action scene where renegade Ron Uhlein steals the 1Earth starship Vancouver. He succeeds (with Protea’s constant assistance) and in the process demonstrates to Sophia Gorganis that starships can be stolen. What she does with that knowledge is told in The Cunning Blood.

I need to catch up a little on Contra entries here. I have one partly written involving my All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything idea, and another about the COVID-19 coin shortage. Really. Remember: The universe is stranger than you can imagine…and I can imagine a lot.

Odd Lots

Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

  • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
  • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
  • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
  • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
  • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
  • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
  • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
  • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
  • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
  • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
  • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.

Plaguewander

How serious is this lockdown thing? Well, I’ve won all 1600 boards on Mah Jong Titan. That includes all available premium board packs. If there were more I’d buy them. There aren’t. That doesn’t surprise me, given the work it must take to produce another 300 boards that only the occasional crazy like me will ever play.

I’ve played Mah Jong for decades, and not just to kill time. For me it’s a sort of mental palate-cleanser: I play a board or two when I need to shift gears from one project to another. When I move from working on Dreamhealer to some construction project out in the shop, I play a board to stop me from thinking about Dreamhealer, or at least to pull me down from obsession territory. It does work. I’m not sure why, given that Bejeweled doesn’t provide the same benefit, nor do any of several other games I’ve tried. My theory: Mah Jong depends to a great extent on memory. Playing well requires remembering which tiles are where on the board. You’d think that that would be no big trick, given that the board is already laid out in plain view. Not so. A few tiles stand out from the crowd. Most do not. If a move uncovers a four of bamboo, you had better know if there’s a four of bamboo elsewhere on the board. The games I play, at least, are played against a clock. You don’t have a minute to scan the whole board to spot that four of bamboo over in the lower-right corner. Dead-time adds up, and each board has a time limit. To win the board, you have to empty it within that time limit.

The creative life is all about memory. This is true of fiction, especially the fiction that I write, which is heavy on ideas, foreshadowing, and gradual reveals. Getting away from fiction means remembering other things for awhile. And because Mah Jong is a shallow memory challenge, it takes little or no effect to push a board full of tiles out of the forefront of my mind when it’s time to turn to something else.

-…- -…-

Carol and I did some shopping at Wal-Mart today. I don’t know if this was their innovation, but aisles at Wal-Mart are now one-way. This makes it easier to stay away from other shoppers, though it can be a nuisance at times. I tend not to go shopping when I’m feeling impatient. Mercifully, I was not feeling impatient this morning.

-…- -…-

While at Wal-Mart, we looked at Polish sausage and other sausage products. I typically eat a bratwurst or some other similar sausage for lunch. There was a run on such things for awhile, and I was unable to find the Hillshire Farms smoked sausage that I’d been lunching on for some time. We saw them at Wal-Mart today. I picked up a pack, and scanned the list of ingredients. Yikes; they now put MSG in their smoked sausage products. I originally chose them because they did not include MSG. Johnsonville sausage products, on the other hand, have been nonstarters here for years, because all their sausages contain MSG. Well, since I was reading labels anyway, I picked up a package of Johnsonville smoked bratwursts and scanned its ingredients. No MSG! So I bought some.

It is a puzzlement. Given how many people react badly to MSG, I have to wonder why sausage companies insist on using it. Does a sausage really taste better with MSG than without? I can’t tell the difference and never have.

-…- -…-

Cutting Board Before-500 Wide.jpg

54 years ago, I took wood shop at Lane Tech in Chicago. We built a number of projects, but the only one that survives is the heavy oak cutting board. My mom used it while I stilled lived at home, and I took it with me when I moved out and married Carol. So it’s been in use for all 54 of those years. The board’s saggita is now half an inch, so we flipped it over and now cut on what was the bottom face.

Alas, the two outer oak layers on the board started peeling away from the rest a few years ago. Food was getting caught in the resultant cracks, and I was afraid I’d have to toss it out. Not so: A little careful work with my chop saw and some belt sander time yielded a narrower but now far more hygienic cutting board. This may not last, and the day may come when I can’t cut any more layers off the edges. Still, 54 years is a long time to be using an artifact that you built yourself with your own hands.

-…- -…-

My fellow hams don’t need me to tell them that the bands are dead right now. The very occasional sunspot is so small I often wonder if it’s dirt on some telescope’s lens. Propagation is lousy. Working Wisconsin was a delight. Working Seattle almost knocked me off my chair. But beyond the current sunspot dearth, what really annoys me is the noise level. I thought for a long time that this was caused by the crappy switching power supplies inside every LED bulb in the house, which would be all of them but two. (The two incandescents are grow lamps for Carol’s African violets.) So I did the experiment last week: I shut off every piece of electronics (including the AC) and every damned lightbulb in the house.

The noise level did not change at all.

I can’t shut off the security system and really don’t want to. But I’ve had security systems in every house we’ve lived in since 1990, and have never had noise levels like this. The houses here are widely spaced (this is the land of half- to one-acre lots) so I suspect I’m not hearing the neighbors’ stuff. All the more reason to buy a 12V battery pack and enable the Icom IC-729 to run on battery power. If the power ever goes out in our neighborhood, I’ll make a beeline for the shack, to see if the noise level drops. That won’t help me work Wisconsin once the power comes back on, but at least it’ll narrow down the culprit list a little.

-…- -…-

Dreamhealer is coming along. I’m still doing some edits, but in truth, I’m waiting for the artist to finish the cover. I was going to release it at LibertyCon in June, but there will be no LibertyCon this year. My deadline, being dead, no longer has much force.

-…- -…-

Arizona is opening up. Carol’s going to her hairdresser to get her hair done on Tuesday for the first time in quite awhile. The next time I need a haircut (I know, I know, during the next Ice Age) I’ll be doing the same thing. We’re being careful, but we’re no longer cowering at home. I’m watching Arizona stats for a number of reasons, the main one being that we’re already most of the way to a long hot summer. Viruses in the Sun die in seconds. No data on how long they last in triple-digit air out of direct sunlight, but I suspect it shortens their viable stage by a lot. Viral load is, as best we can tell, a factor. So we don’t go to concerts or political rallies. (Actually, I have never gone to a political rally. Viruses are not the reason.) We used to go to sit-down restaurants maybe once a month. We have carryout service accounts now and know how to use them. Total Wine is open, as are most other stores that we frequent. My motto remains what it is and has always been:

All will be well. And all will be well. And every damfool thing in the universe will be well!

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.

Hamsterin’

Hamsterin-500 Wide.jpg

Well. The Great Toiler Paper Famine of 2020 may be subsiding. We got a package of six rolls (one package only!) this morning, and we should have enough now for a couple of weeks.

We have the stores to thank for that. Both Fry’s and Safeway are now limiting quantities on hoardables and even non-hoardables like milk. One per household is the general rule. We know that Fry’s usually gets a truck on Monday nights, so we were there first thing in the morning. Like many other grocers across the country, Fry’s reserves the first hour for people over 60. We got there at 5:50, and there was already a considerable line. At 6 AM sharp, they opened the doors, and everybody made for the toilet paper aisle at a dead run. And lo and behold: Piles and piles of toilet paper! And paper towels. And baby wipes. And rubbing alcohol.

Alas, no bratwurst. What, they’re hoarding bratwursts now?

So we got our one package of TP and one package of paper towels. Carol got a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a few other things before we ran through Mickey D’s drive-thru for breakfast. All in all, a good and useful morning.

Oh–and at 5:45 AM when we backed out of the garage, I remembered that this morning is Mercury’s maximum elongation, so we jumped out of the Durango and searched for that most-difficult planet. Even at max elongation, the little snot is unholy hard to spot, but spot it we did. (It helps to have few trees and no two-story houses in our neighborhood.) Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were in a tight little group much higher in the southeast.

The lockdown here in Arizona has been cordial and mostly voluntary. Local government is not harrassing people who walk for exercise. My barber shop closed last Thursday, but others are still open, so if I get a little too pointy-haired, I have options. The Jewish Community Center is closed, so we’re not doing our usual weight training every Monday. I’m going to buy an 18-pound ketttlebell if I can find a store still selling 18-pound kettlebells. You can do a lot with an 18-pound kettlebell. We had to cancel our writers’ workshop because restaurants can’t provide indoor or patio seating. We meet in a biggish sandwich place, so we’re out of luck. We’re trying to figure out a reliable teleconferencing system for the interim.

We no longer go to Costco. That’s a shame, since I like their frozen blueberries, but with conventional grocery stores limiting quantities to stop hoarding, all the hamsterin’ is now being done at Costco. People line up around the block to get in and buy truckloads of TP and cart-sized bricks of plastic bottled water. I’ve seen photos. It’s surreal.

We’ve learned the secret: Go to small stores. I don’t mean convenience stores. I mean specialty stores, like the little Polish/Russian grocery down in Mesa. We bought six bags of their excellent hand-made pierogies a few days ago. They had a lot of other stuff I couldn’t quite identify, since I don’t read Polish, much less Russian. But nobody was hoarding pierogi.

Our days are heating up. It’s still snowing in Colorado Springs, but in Phoenix our daily highs are beginning to creep up into the 80s. We’re about to engage in an interesting experiment: Warmer temps slow down most viruses. There’s a debate raging about whether or not that’s true of COVID-19, but we’re going to find out. Arizona is not a virus hot zone by any means, with only 326 cases and 3 deaths. (New York has 26,000+ cases and 271 deaths.) Is it the warmer temps, or just good clean livin’? Nobody knows…yet.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that UV light can kill viruses, and we lead the nation in the production of UV light. In fact, when we get a package from Amazon, I put on gloves and take it out to the backyard, and set it down on the pool deck. I turn it a couple of times to make sure all surfaces get a dose, but if 15 minutes of Arizona sun can cause sunburn, it will damned well kill viruses.

So here we are. I read books, or write them. I program. I tinker in my workshop. I throw the ball around the yard for the dogs. I cook. And I wash my hands. Hoo-boy, do I wash my hands. So life goes on. Don’t let the panicmongers mong you any panic. We don’t know how bad COVID-19 will ultimately be, but it will almost certainly not be as bad as the media are insisting. I see a lot of people on Twitter trying to stir up panic, and they sure sound and act like paid operatives. If you catch them with a question they can’t answer, they vanish. If you ask them for their credentials, they vanish. Do whatever you can to discredit such screamers. And carry on. This too will pass, perhaps sooner than we think.