The End of an Essential Freedom

I’m not sure there’s much I can say about the overturning of Roe v Wade which hasn’t been said better – and many, many times – by other people in the last few days.

I’ve long felt that the right to abortion is a litmus test for a free society. The United States now fails that litmus test, and over a dozen states fail it with extreme prejudice. It’s a national tragedy.

Everyone tries to prognosticate where things are going in the future, but I think it’s clear that the Republican Party – who are quite simply the American Nazi Party at this point – are willing to do anything to bring about their state of white protestant Christian nationalism. Will they succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that they will do anything and everything they’re not prevented from doing.

(Remember when John Roberts was the swing vote on the court, supposedly concerned with its reputation and legitimacy? Yeah, with a 6-3 majority he’s shown his true colors. With its reputation in tatters, how much longer will it still be regarded as legitimate?)

I was especially enraged by this NPR interview with law professor Helen Alvare, in which she says:

[T]here will be efforts to ensure that, you know, corporations in particular, but also government and other institutions, value caregiving (laughter).

[…]

I can’t emphasize enough how much they would like pro-choice groups to step in instead of just focusing on providing abortion, to step in and provide assistance…

I say to Alvare: Fuck you, all of you forced birth fascists. This is all on you. Pro-choice groups – individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments – have a job to continue to provide access to safe abortions. You fascists own every single death, health condition, and child living in poverty as a result of your forced birther actions, and it’s on you to care for them. The caregiving is your job, because you made it necessary. Grow up and for once in your life take some personal responsibility for your actions.

(Spoiler: They won’t.)

We must resist fascists like Alvare. And anyone who believes people like her when they say the Supreme Court isn’t coming for gay marriage, contraceptives and interracial marriage in the next few years is deluding themselves.

The Great Filter

Earlier this year I participated in a thread on Facebook about where all the aliens are, since none seem to have contacted us – i.e., the Fermi paradox. Through this I learned about the Great Filter, a theory that we haven’t encountered aliens because a series of obstacles eventually prevents any species from being able to contact other planets before they die out.

Current events and (relatively) recent history have made me think that the Great Filter seems very plausible. Consider some of the threats to our species’ survival over the last hundred years:

  • Global thermonuclear war. We seem to have dodged this bullet (although, since the genie can never be put back in the bottle, there’s always some chance of this).
  • Resource Exhaustion. It’s unclear whether this will happen in a meaningful way, since it seems likely that we’ll transition to renewable energy before we use up all the fossil fuels, and it’s basically unknown whether we’ll use up any other key resources before we manage to get into space to get access to more.
  • Climate change. This is the current threat of great concern, and it is looking less and less likely that we’ll overcome it. It might not actually wipe humanity out – we could stop it and be forced to live farther from the equator for some centuries or millennia – but it could still result in a Great Pause in our species’ development.
  • Biological genocide. I.e., being wiped out through a virus or other biological agent, either that we developed, or which evolved naturally. There’s always a risk here, but my guess is that unless we engineer something ourselves it’s unlikely that this is the way we’ll go.
  • The Internet.

This last is the one that’s been on my mind lately, as we’ve watched a slide in many nations towards authoritarianism and fascism, combined with a growing populism rooted in conspiracy theories, disdain for science and education, and extremism. I think what’s been happening is that the advent of the Internet – and generally global, cheap mass and one-to-one communication – has amplified the voices who believe in those things, while taking advantage of an innate tendency to treat things that sound authoritative as being authoritative. Combining this with the human mind’s tendency to see patterns even where none exist, and I think this is pushing a significant and growing fraction of humanity down the authoritarian/fascist path.

Not that the pre-Internet days were perfect, of course (one large and obvious drawback being rampant gatekeeping by the dominant culture), but it seemed that the limits of communication before the Internet were a natural – if accidental – check on the ability of the more lunatic voices to spread and gain an audience. Again, not perfect, as plenty of lunatic ideas ended up being ingrained in human cultures (slavery, anyone?). And of course the Internet allows supports the spread of sane voices that were formerly on the fringe. But the results so far are not making it look like the Internet has been a good thing for humanity.

The Internet itself isn’t going to destroy humanity, but I think its effects make it more likely that something else will. For example, the crazy resistance to reasonable measures to combat COVID-19, including to simply being vaccinated. And even as we have mounting evidence of, and scientific consensus regarding, climate change, there is strong opposition to doing anything to fight it, including a large contingent who don’t believe it’s even happening. Moreover, authoritarian leadership – especially of the narcissistic, incompetent Donald Trump variety – could even revive the prospect of global thermonuclear war.

So my take on the Great Filter is that any time a civilization develops an Internet, it becomes a significant impediment to fighting threats to that civilization’s survival, making it much less likely that that civilization is able to solve the in-and-of-themselves huge obstacles to interstellar space flight. Granted, all of this is very human-centric, but there may well be characteristics of many (theoretical) sentient species which are susceptible to the Internet, even if they’re not the same characteristics that humanity has.

Even assuming developing interstellar civilization – or at least colonization – is possible, and even if there are (or have been) billions of technological civilizations in the galaxy, it doesn’t seem at all implausible to me that they’ve all killed themselves off before they got there.

And these days, it seems like we’re well on our way to doing the same.

(Postscript: If this sort of thing interests you, I recommend the audio drama Out of Place, the second season of which explores a dozen ways that humanity could go extinct. I think most of them are unlikely-to-implausible, but they arguably make for better drama than the ones above.)

This is as Good as it’s Going to Get

This is another COVID-19 entry. It’s a long one, and it’s not a very positive entry, because my feelings about it can be summed up thus:

In the United States, the pandemic is as over as it’s going to get. You may or may not feel that the pandemic is “over”, but I don’t believe it’s ever going to get more over than it is now. At least in my lifetime, and maybe in that of anyone alive today.

I’ll talk about why I think this further down, but I want to lead with what this means for us in our day-to-day lives. It means that the world isn’t going to become much more comfortable for you than it is now. Cases may go up and down, extra measures may come and go, but if you’re not comfortable doing things now, the only way you’re going to get more comfortable is by adjusting your own mind. And if you’re convinced that your current comfort levels are warranted, then what you’re comfortable doing now is what you’ll be comfortable doing for the rest of your life.

For example:

  • If you’re not comfortable eating at a restaurant, nothing’s going to change in the future to make you feel more comfortable. More likely I think there will be fewer restrictions on restaurant patrons with respect to masking and vaccinations over time.
  • If you’re not comfortable flying on an airplane, that’s not going to get better either. (From what I’ve read, flying is one of the least-risky group activities, but it’s not surprising that our lizard brains look at flying in a narrow metal cylinder with a couple hundred other people and think “Nope.”)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to work in a group environment – an office, a retail store, a warehouse, or wherever – that’s not going to get any better. (And I bet we’ll see employers start pressuring people to return to in-person work in the next year. Or, at the latest, in 2025 if the Republicans capture the White House and Congress.)
  • If you’re not comfortable going to an art fair, movie, concert, wedding, funeral, or other event where there will be lots of people around, indoor or outdoor, masked or not, don’t expect much to change in these areas either.
  • If you’ve been looking forward to getting to the point where you don’t need to wear a mask to suppress the transmission of COVID, don’t expect the need for that to change either. But don’t be surprised if lots of other people decide that they’ve had it with masks and just stop wearing them unless required to (and also expect requirements for masking to slowly go away over the next few years).

When people talk about “the pandemic being over” or “the pandemic not being over yet”, or “the pandemic ending”, I don’t think things have appreciably changed in the U.S. in the last few months, and I don’t think they’ll appreciably change in the future – ever. There’s never going to be less need for mask wearing, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds or indoor events, until and unless there’s some significant unforeseen development.

I am not an infectious disease expert, so there may certainly be important things I don’t know. But here’s why I feel this way:

  • A little under 60% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. This is likely to continue rising slowly (with a slightly larger bump this month and next as 5-11 year olds get vaxxed), but I think it’s likely that we’ll peak at around 70% vaxxed. I suspect that last 30% will never get vaccinated voluntarily.
  • More importantly, only about 42% of the world population is fully vaxxed, and that also needs to get much, much higher. I bet it will peak at around the same level as the U.S. – around 70% – or possibly a bit higher if more authoritarian governments impose vaccinations requirements than prohibit them.
  • The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID is never going to go away. Even if we manage to eradicate it among humans – which I doubt we will – it’s likely to survive in animals (such as deer) and retransmit back into humans periodically.
  • The existing COVID vaccines are great at preventing infections and preventing serious symptoms against those with breakthrough infections, but it doesn’t eliminate transmission even among the vaccinated, and I believe we’ll never get to the much-greater-than-90% vaccination rate we need for vaccination to eradicate the virus among humans.

An important caveat is that I believe all of this to be the case assuming there are no unexpected developments. By “unexpected” I mean developments that we either don’t know about or don’t expect will happen. I think we can reasonably expect the world to get to a 70% or slightly higher vaccination rate, but getting to a rate of true herd immunity – above 90% – does not seem like something that’s reasonable to expect.

I think there are reasons for hope among things we could imagine happening, though. Here are some of those unexpected developments which could make a significant impact:

  • Better treatments for COVID symptoms are developed. There are two anti-viral pills which have been announced recently, and hopefully there will be more. This could mitigate the impact of people getting infections to the point that it really is like getting the flu rather than getting a dripping illness (not that the flu is anything to laugh at). It’s not clear to me that this will really move the needle in changing the need for masking, etc., but it might.
  • New, more effective vaccines are developed. I doubt anyone who isn’t researching such vaccines or in close touch with such people has any sense whether this is likely to happen. I’m optimistic that we will create better vaccines, maybe even one which prevents transmission or otherwise significantly reduces the spread of COVID among humans. I think this is the most likely path to returning life to complete pre-pandemic “normal” (for the vaccinated, anyway).
  • We achieve herd immunity levels of vaccination. As I said, I think this is pretty unlikely, but it’s possible.
  • COVID evolves to be basically harmless to humans. There’s a long-standing theory that viruses can evolve in this way, but there seems to be little evidence that this actually happens. (This may be what happened to the 1918 influenza virus.)
  • Humanity evolves immunity to COVID. Seems unlikely, and if it does it might only happen for future generations.

The other wild card is that the virus itself could evolve in various ways. (In a sense Delta has been a boon, because I’ve read that its high transmissibility without being much more deadly than the original virus might be blocking more deadly mutations from taking hold. They can’t replicate and transmit fast enough to beat out Delta.) The really bad mutation, of course, would be one that reliably breaks through the vaccines. Another bad one is that it might become more deadly to the unvaccinated but not substantially worse for the vaccinated.

This brings me to one of the worst parts of all of this, which is the thousands – maybe millions – of people who are unable to be vaccinated. While for people who can’t be vaccinated because of a reaction to something in the vaccine there is some hope that a vaccine might be reformulated to eliminate that problem, for the many others who are immunocompromised such that the vaccine either wouldn’t work for them or might itself be harmful, I don’t see a way forward. This is of course one of the main reasons why we needed to squash the virus through universal vaccination, but as I said I don’t think we’re going to achieve a high enough vax rate to do that, and so the unable-to-be-vaccinated are going to be stuck. While they can mask and physical distance like anyone else – like we did before vaccines – neither of those is a solution, it’s just a stopgap measure, especially in a world where many other people – both vaxxed and unvaxxed – will likely be doing less of both in the future. I expect many tragic stories in the future. We as a society are failing these people because of the shitheads who choose not to get vaccinated.

(This is one reason that I have little sympathy left for people who are unvaccinated by choice, catch COVID, and then die or experience long COVID. They made their choice, and it was the one that basically said fuck everyone else.)

A few days ago the New York Times published this piece which includes interviews with Dr. Bob Wachter, whom I’ve been following on Twitter for his COVID analysis over the last year and a half. He – and the piece’s author – make some points which are similar to my thoughts here. The point that we will likely transition to looking at illness counts rather than case counts as the factor which dictates how we adjust our precautions seems right on to me. Case counts are going to go up and down among the whole population, forever, but more and more of those cases will be vaccinated people testing positive but having no significant illness as a result of the virus. What this means for masking, and testing, and other measures remains to be seen. What exactly happens probably depends on to what extent people are willing to endure those measures. I don’t really have a guess as to what will happen – after all, we put up with an awful lot of security theater nonsense in order to fly.

But I think we’re now at the point where the substantive, enduring measures we can take have been taken, and the next few years will largely be us – as individuals and as groups – deciding what our social structures are going to evolve into.

Personally, I am so, so sick of working from home. But I don’t relish the prospect of wearing a mask for a whole day in the office, either. But at this point, what happens isn’t really up to me.

So Much Adulting

The last four days have been a whirlwind of adulting. It’s been kinda exhausting.

Friday we had someone from AAA Furnace over to service our HVAC. Everything seems to be in good shape. I hung out to do anything needed inside (mostly adjusting the thermostat while he did his tests), partly because COVID, and partly because kittens.

Saturday was the big day, though.

After working out in the morning we went to Airport Appliance to buy a new refrigerator (per previous entries). We decided to go with this French door model by Beko, a Turkish company which is apparently huge in Europe and has been in the U.S. for about five years. It’s devilishly hard to find out how reliable fridges are – even if you find that one has been great, it was probably made 5 or more years ago, been discontinued, and who knows if the current models are as good. Internet reviews are generally useless, partly because a lot of them are just complaining, and partly because a review from someone who’s had their fridge for 6 months or less isn’t that helpful for reliability.

We had an additional wrinkle in that the space for our fridge is only 70” tall, and many fridges are a bit taller than that. It turns out we actually have more space if we remove or trim the bracket immediately above the fridge, but we’d already made a decision when I realized that. Good to know for next time.

Anyway, we’re replacing a 13-year-old GE fridge, and not many companies make counter-depth fridges fridges that are 69” high. GE makes several, but I’ve heard bad things about their newer models, and frankly we were not very impressed with the apparent build quality or the styling of those models. Whereas the Beko seemed generally more solid and we really liked the look of it.

We did buy the extended warranty, which means it should work for at least that long, right? Right??

Afterwards we had lunch at Yiassoo (a longtime favorite which has substantially improved their patio seating during the pandemic), and then came home and took Jackson and Sadie to the vet for their annual checkup. This was the first time Sadie rode in a carrier by herself, since we’d always brought her with Roulette. And she yowled the whole way there and back. Jackson was also unhappy, and even peed in the carrier on the way home. But, both of them are healthy and that’s what matters.

(Simon and Edison seemed to barely notice that we were all gone.)

After all that I went down to pick up some books I’d ordered from Books Inc., and did a grocery run.

In the evening I managed to find COVID vaccinations for Monday, about which more later.

Sunday was finally a quieter day. We went to the farmer’s market in the morning, and in the afternoon I wrapped up our taxes, which will be filed this week. I also did a Magic draft which I am playing out this week before Strixhaven comes out, and the first game was totally bonkers, lasting well over half an hour. (I won with 6 cards left in my deck!)

This morning we found that our fridge has gone out again, so we moved stuff into our chest freezer (which has plenty of space even with the stuff we’ve already put in it) and mini-fridge (which is pretty packed now). The new fridge will be delivered on Thursday, and what a relief that will be.

And finally today we went to Levi’s Stadium to get vaccinated. Despite having a little trouble finding the entrance, everything otherwise was smooth and easy. It took about an hour and a half including driving time. We joined House Pfizer, and six hours later neither of us has had any reactions, though apparently they could show up tomorrow. It’s great to finally be on our way! We rewarded ourselves with treats from McDonald’s on the way home. And I’ve been telling cow-orkers about our experience so they have some idea what to expect when signing up.

And today there was the police shooting of Daunte Wright in Minneapolis. I’m sure smarter and more informed people than me (probably none of them Republicans) will have a lot useful to say about this, but one thought I have is that if we’re not going to take guns away from the cops, let’s take tasers away from them. Tasers aren’t particularly safe either, and cops mistaking their tasers for guns is bad news. If all they have to fire is a gun, then at least they know what they’re signing up for when they draw their weapon.

In any event, there’s nothing I’ve read that says to me that Wright’s actions even merited tasing. What the hell was the cop thinking? Were they even thinking?

So, that’s been a lot of stuff, even just considering our stuff. I’m looking forward to the fridge being delivered, and dealing with much less stuff for a couple of weeks.

Two Weeks of Relative Sanity

President Biden was sworn in just over two weeks ago, and I’m sure millions of Americans feel much like I do: Relief that things are getting better after hellacious four years under racist impeached president Donald Trump.

While Biden has taken a lot of criticism – and plenty of it justified, don’t get me wrong – the difference between the abject incompetent self-interested grifting that Trump and his cronies used in the White House and the quietly competent governance which Biden has brought is just such a huge relief.

I don’t think I’ve seen this more clearly than in the demeanor of epidemiologists on social media. Dr. Anthony Fauci of course has gotten the lion’s share of the press, but the increased optimism that we as a nation will be able to get COVID-19 under control has been palpable. There are still serious shortages of vaccines, and the roll-out of the vaccine supply we have has been haphazard-to-poor, but I think there’s hope that under Biden it can improve. These are problems which a competent administration can help with, whereas under Trump there was no hope: Trump did nothing for a year, and there was only more nothing in the future under him.

Congress has predictably been a shitshow, but then it was always going to be with such slim margins in both houses. I think it’s a sign of the Biden administration’s competence that its cabinet nominees have been getting confirmed with huge majorities (mainly opposed by the Republicans’ most extreme fascist wing). Even most Republicans recognize that having capable people running government is in everyone’s best interest.

It’s not that business-as-usual in the federal government is all that great, but compared to what we’ve had for the last four years it is a massive improvement. And if we didn’t have the sideshow of Republican fascists in Congress making America look like it’s half-governed by lunatics (even though the Republican Party is basically the fascist lunatic party at this point) we could be arguing about whether Biden is really nominating the best people. I mean, I’m sure some people are arguing about that, but Republican lunatics have sucked all the oxygen from the room.

It’s great to have adults back in charge. Adults can be plenty fucked up, sure, but at least they are adults, and many of them are trying to corral the toddlers (cough Marjorie Taylor Greene cough Lauren Boebert cough) to stop them from flinging applesauce and poo around the room. That’s an uphill battle, but it’s encouraging to see them trying.

I feel hope that fewer Americans will die this year than last, that fewer will fall seriously ill, that life is going to get better for many Americans. Especially the ones that won’t die.

Can we do better still? Sure. Despite the Republicans’ best efforts, we can keep trying.

But I feel like there’s hope now.

It’s such a relief.

It’s Been a Week

I’m feeling pretty exhausted by everything today. I’d managed to get through all of the chores I set for myself in time to spend the afternoon lazing around and watching football.

And then this morning we discovered that our freezer was no longer working. The refrigerator seems to be hanging in there, but the freezer’s temperature has now risen to almost the same temperature as the fridge. So, we took everything out and put it in our large cooler with some ice, and we’re hoping to have someone out to look at it tomorrow.

But it pretty much shot my ability to relax this afternoon.

Deets for people who care: Cold air is coming out of the vent in the freezer – just clearly not enough. The door seems to close fine, and the gasket doesn’t see compromised. I pulled it out and dusted under and behind it, and also dusted what I think are the coils, but no luck. The fan for the condenser seems to be running fine. Obviously something is not fine but we’ve been unable to diagnose it. We hope to have someone look at it in the next day or two.

Anyway, the fridge is about 12 years old, so it could just be time to buy a new fridge.

Last weekend I joined that group of people who celebrated their birthday during the pandemic. I didn’t mind so much, though, since I don’t often have parties anymore, although I might have gotten together with friends for dinner if things were normal. I took Friday off to have a 4-day weekend, which was nice. Didn’t do a lot, which was also nice.

As with most normal citizens of the U.S., I was delighted to see Racist Impeached President Donald Trump leave the White House on Wednesday, and glad to see Joe Biden sworn in as the new President. I am not a Biden fan specifically – he’s pretty much the definition of a moderate – but I am glad to have adults running the executive branch again.

And I admit I breathed a sign of relief that there were no assassination attempts during the ceremonies – I was really worried that there would be.

But this was a rough week for me. I think the pandemic and quarantine and the racists and insurrectionists have been slowly grinding me down, and by Thursday I was having a hard time moving forward at work. (The fact that I’m so ready to move on from my current project might have had something to do with it. Fortunately I think I’ve just about got the last issues resolved.) My productivity tend to be cyclical anyway, but the down times have been especially pronounced lately. The time off for the holidays didn’t really help, which suggests it’s not downtime that’s needed.

I’ve also been having some physical problems, which at first I thought was a reoccurrence of the pinched nerve I had back in 2009, but now I suspect it actually something below my shoulder. Massaging it helps, and it’s been gradually getting better, but it’s been frustratingly slow. It mainly affects me when driving or typing – good thing I never do any of those things! – and has therefore probably been a factor in the wall I’ve hit at work. It also bothers me when sleeping sometimes. I suspect its root cause is ultimately stress-related.

Fortunately it hasn’t really impacted my ability to run or walk – there’s actually some good news there, as knee soreness I was having for a while in late 2019 and early 2020 seems to have basically gone away.

I know we’re still incredibly lucky to be where we are compared to many people. But it still feels hard, and getting harder.

Anyway, lots of doom and gloom in this post. For those who have read this far, here’s a pic of my snuggly boi:

The Republican Insurrection

As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, on Wednesday during Congress’ counting of the Electoral College votes for President, racist impeached President Donald Trump wound up a crowd of his supporters, after which a large group of them stormed the Capitol building and broke in. This prompted the evacuation of Vice President Pence and the members of Congress, as the crowd wandered around the building. Eventually they left, although a number of people were injured in struggles with the Capitol Police, and to date five people – including one of those police – have died. At least two unexploded pipe bombs were found at the scene.

Since then, Twitter has permanently banned Trump, authorities are identifying and arresting many of the rioters (hilariously, many of them have either outed themselves or been outed by friends and family). Congress is considering impeaching Trump again. Conservatives are grumpily heading to Parler, resulting in them doxxing themselves and doxxing themselves again, leading people to wonder whether Parler should rename itself Evidence, or if Parler is actually an FBI honeypot. (Spoiler: The answer is that conservatives are the stupidest people alive.)

Schadenfreude aside, make no mistake: What happened Wednesday was an insurrection an an attempted coup. Moreover, it wasn’t just a Trumpist insurrection, it was a Republican insurrection, as the Republican Party has structurally and also tacitly encouraged this assault on our democracy for years. The Republican Party as a whole is culpable, and every person who is a Republican Party member, or who votes for or contributes to Republican candidates shares in the blame. The Republican Party clearly supports domestic terrorism and fascism, and we should be mindful of that whenever we engage with any Republican. We should also normalize characterizing the party and its members in these days. Move the Overton Window. Make it understood that if you are a Republican then you are part of the problem.

We should also continue to press for consequences for everyone who was involved in this insurrection, especially Trump (impeach him even after he’s left office), but also all of the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, and everyone who supported them. (A local business owner is already facing consequences in the form of public pressure. To which I say: Good.)

Additionally, 147 Republicans objected to the electoral college votes, and while what they did was technically legal, we should consider them to be enemies of democracy and supporters of fascism and insurrection. They should all resign or be ousted, and we should be suspicious of anyone who supports them as another probable enemy of democracy. Leaders should set good examples, and actions by them which destabilize democracy and lie to their followers about the election are not acceptable.

I’ve also been enjoying responding to various prominent Republicans on Twitter who have been whining about Trump being deplatformed. Usually with a comment along the line of “I see you’re another whiny Republican fascist.” Mock these people. Belittle them. They are terrible people and should be treated as such. They only want to “move on” and “heal the country” to avoid consequences for their actions. Don’t let them get away with it.

This has been building for most of my lifetime. The Republican Party might not be beyond redemption, but they have a lot of work to do to be worthy of being treated as equals. They need to evict their white supremacists and deal with their systemic racism. They need to stop evicting citizens from voter rolls. They need to stop lying about the security of U.S. elections.

Some have noted that historically failed coups often lead to successful coups later on. Hopefully we can buck that trend and this is instead the beginning of America starting to wake up to the fascists in our midst, controlling one of our two major parties.

Time will tell. Next stop: Inauguration day. Expect the Republican fascists to be out in force, even if they are short on brains.

COVID-19’s Darker Timeline

People sometimes joke (well, maybe they’re not joking) that this is “the darkest timeline”, between COVID-19, the idiots in the White House, the idiots in 10 Downing Street, etc. But it’s easy to imagine the development of COVID-19 taking even darker turns. I think about this sometimes, and wanted to write down some of my thoughts.

This is going to be a pretty dark post, so if this isn’t your thing, then you should skip it.

I have two what-ifs for you, one building on the other, and some thoughts on how they might go:

1) What if we never develop a vaccine?

This is possible. We’ve never developed a vaccine for the common cold, which can be caused by coronaviruses. We don’t yet know whether COVID-19 can be vaccinated against, and we probably won’t know for a year, if not several years.

What does it mean if we can’t develop a vaccine? Well, it means that almost everyone in the world will eventually contract the virus, which at a 1% fatality rate means that about 70 million people will die worldwide, 3.5 million in the United States, and many more will have serious health problems, probably for the rest of their lives. (I don’t know what percentage of infected survive but develop such problems.) I don’t think humans have the will to be able to go into the long-term total lockdown that would be necessary to prevent this.

It also seems likely that immunity to the virus provided by recovering from it won’t last forever – maybe it would last for 2-5 years. So if there’s no vaccine, then everyone who contracts it and recovers would contract it again a few years later. People who got seriously ill the first time around might not survive the second time, raising the fatality rate. And maybe people who came through fairly easily the first time would have a harder time the next time. Or the next. We might each of us end up living in fear of the day that the virus eventually hits us hard.

Moreover, we know that older people are more susceptible to the virus than younger ones, so as we age we may be aware that the next time we catch it could be the last time. People who before were expecting to live to age 70 or 80 might start thinking they’ll live 10 or 15 fewer years – and most of them might be right.

What might such a world look like? Well, we might just decide that since there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just go back to living the way we did before. Maybe we’d ramp up medical services to ameliorate the impact on individuals, but maybe not. (Many nations probably wouldn’t be able to. Some nations might not have the political will to do so.)

Alternately we might continue the lockdown for years, or forever, altering the way the economy works to accommodate. Office buildings would largely be a thing of the past, as would restaurants as we know them and many other social gatherings. Lots of things would move online further. We’d probably see a gradual reshaping of our cities and suburbs along lines it’s difficult to predict – more single-family homes? Fewer? No mass transit? As some have already predicted, people who work in jobs where they can telecommute would no longer be motivated to live near work, and housing prices in places like the Bay Area might plummet as people leave. On the other hand, jobs where people need to interact with other people might become less desirable – but no less critical. Maybe they’d start to pay better as a result.

Some people have already clamored for Internet to be classified as an essential service, regulated or free. That might be a necessity in such a world, but of course the need for medical care hasn’t prevented the U.S. from developing a for-profit health care system where people get raked over the financial coals for essential care. So Internet service might be no different. And even if it is, providing quality Internet service across as large a nation as the U.S. would take time, as many rural areas still have poor service.

If this were to continue into the future, one can imagine significant investments in robotic technology and other automation to serve people who are mostly living in their homes. Automated production, packaging, and delivery, overseen by a bare minimum of people. Restructuring of infrastructure around this sort of life, where cities have automated distribution centers and roads get narrower and mainly used by robots. At an extreme there’s the cheesy science-fictional idea where humanity becomes slaves to our machines, letting our physical bodies atrophy as we’re all living alone in our own homes without the interest in going anywhere. (Much like the “Seerons” in this comic book.)

But I digress. Maybe.

2) What if the virus mutates?

From what I’ve read, COVID-19 is not mutating very quickly. The reason we need to get a flu shot every year is because influenza mutates rapidly, so there are new strained every year. Fortunately we do a pretty good job creating influenza vaccines, though it’s not perfect. COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have this characteristic, and the strains we’re aware of seem to be closely related.

However, we could be wrong about how fast it’s mutating. Alternately, it might start to mutate faster. Either way, it might become more virulent, or more fatal, and mutations might also mean the temporary immunity gained from contracting one strain wouldn’t provide any immunity from another strain.

This isn’t necessarily game over for the human race. If the virus doesn’t become more fatal then it would just be a rougher form of the scenario above. If it does become more fatal, though, well… it probably means mass deaths, close to an extinction-level event. Our only hope as a species then is that it kills so many people that it kills off its ability to spread, and a few pockets of uninfected humans manage to survive long enough to restart the species, without being infected by the remnants of the virus left elsewhere. This is sort of how Europe survived the Black Death – exactly how things play out depends on how fatal the virus becomes.

A cheery picture, yes?

And so:

How likely is all this? Heck if I know. Probably not very likely. I choose to be optimistic that we will develop a vaccine, and that at worst we’ll all be getting an extra shot every year or two to stave off the virus. While it could take longer than the 18 month minimum, supposedly we were close to developing a vaccine for the 2012-13 MERS outbreak before it was determined to be much less virulent than feared and research funding petered out. If so, then hopefully we’ll be able to develop one for COVID-19.

Everyone keep your fingers crossed.

The Spread of the Virus

As I write this (and I say this mainly for posterity, not for anyone who reads this in the next few days), we’re about 5 months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and over 3 months into the shelter-in-place measures which have closed down much of the economy.

Just under 110,000 Americans have died from the virus, with about 2 million having tested positive. However, testing in the U.S. has been woefully inadequate, due in large part to the inaction of the Racist Impeached President Trump administration – since usually government action and coordination is key in driving nationwide efforts to deal with an emergency – so its likely far more people have been infected. A case fatality rate of 1% means that about 11 million people – around 3% – of the population has been infected. Adjust accordingly if you believe the fatality rate is actually higher (which would be bad) or lower (which would be good, but still pretty bad even at 0.5%).

In other words, the pandemic is a long, long way from being over.

Despite this, the nation is starting to “open up”. It differs by state – some states never really entered full ‘lockdown’ – but even California is allowing outdoor dining at restaurants, retail is reopening, and I think we’re on the cusp of hair and nail and similar stores reopening. (I honestly haven’t been following the details that closely as there are some businesses I just don’t plan to visit any time soon.)

We’ve also had the Black Lives Matter protests – as well as some other, smaller (and in some cases far stupider) gatherings – over the last few weeks, where mask wearing has been haphazard and physical distancing difficult or impossible.

COVID-19 has a gestation time of about 2 weeks, which means right about now we’d expect to be seeing additional cases, but it’s difficult to be sure due to the poor testing. The number of new cases reported nationally has been going down very slowly, but it’s going up in some states such as California and Texas. It’s hard to know whether this is due to more cases, or more testing. This is one reason that I look to the death rate rather than the reported case rate. We’ll probably know a lot more by the end of July, unfortunately in the form of a spike in deaths (or not).


The question I keep coming back to is: How many people will get the virus before we develop immunity?

Some people have advocated letting the virus run its course through the population for us to develop herd immunity. But if it takes at least 70% of the country catching the virus to develop herd immunity, that means 230 million people. And that means between 1 million and 4 million deaths – maybe more, if the medical infrastructure gets overwhelmed. Sweden elected not to enact significant social changes and it hasn’t been going well for them. The other issue with this approach is that we don’t yet know whether people who catch and then recover from the virus end up with durable immunity, and many people who survive have significant health problems. So it’s a painful and risky approach.

(When I’ve occasionally butted heads with someone who thinks herd immunity is the way to go, I’ve noted that they should be prepared to say goodbye to between 1 and 5 of every hundred people they know. This goes over about as well as you’d expect.)

Most experts think we’ll need to develop a vaccine. Putting aside the question of whether we can develop a vaccine (which we don’t yet know one way or the other), experts agree that it will take at least 18 months to develop a vaccine which we know works and is safe (i.e., that won’t kill or injure the people who get it) and it could take 3-to-4 years.

So even if we continue to impose physical distancing and masks and other measures, how many people are going to end up catching the virus anyway in that time? If 11 million people have been infected so far, that probably means 33 million by the end of the year, and double that before a vaccine is developed, assuming it’s developed in the 18-month window and is rolled out more-or-less instantaneously. 66 million a lot less than 230 million, but still a lot of deaths.

But now the country is starting to re-open, which means more people may be infected, at a faster rate. Humans are social animals, and our economy and social structures are based around getting together in groups. And it’s just very, very hard for humans as a group to make significant sacrifices over a long period of time to combat an emergency. Historically – for example, during war – this behavior is reinforced through strong leadership at many levels, but especially driven from a unifying force at the top. The United States obviously doesn’t have that – we have the opposite of that – and the mid-level leaders such as the governors don’t have the social capital to maintain this level of sacrifice indefinitely.

I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to find a way to start re-opening and country safely, but I don’t think the people motivating the re-opening are interested in “safely”, they’re just interested in “re-opening”. So I believe things are going to continue to open up, and then the virus will spread faster, people will get sick and die, medical facilities will be overwhelmed, and things will get worse.

I could be wrong. There are a lot of things we don’t know (for example, maybe face masks are a magic bulletif we can convince people to use them). But based on what we know so far, I think it’s going to be a long summer, possibly leading into a painful autumn.

We’re much closer to the beginning of this than the end.

Black Lives Matter

I was thinking that it was past time to provide a personal update about living during the pandemic, but something more important has obviously come up, the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Make no mistake, I support these protests. Like many, I worry that it will hasten the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, but I can’t in good conscience judge the protestors’ actions in this regard. Institutional racism has been holding down the country for centuries – literally centuries – and Racist Impeached President Trump has emboldened the plainer variety of racists for many years. The lives and well-being of millions of people are at stake, regardless of the pandemic.

The protests have been mixed with a dose of rioting as well, but it seems clear to me that the rioters were a combination of right-ring agitators trying to cast the protestors in a bad light, and opportunistic looters. In the last week peaceful protests have continued to grow – spreading across the world – while the rioting and looting has declined.

It’s been delightful seeing our Coward-in-Chief flailing around, talking tough while hiding behind ever-growing fencing between the White House and the rest of Washington, DC. And a smattering of his racist party showing their true colors, such as Boy Blunder Senator Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed calling for Trump to send in the troops against American citizens, which led to the Times editorial page editor resigning. (Honestly, what good is the Times these days? They seem like little more than apologists for the Trumpists.)

Far less delightful has been protests against police brutality being met with waves of police brutality. The latest news are people calling to “defund the police”. I don’t know what the answer is here, but the status quo clearly isn’t it.

I live in the suburbs and though a couple of neighboring cities have had some surprisingly-large protests, mine hasn’t. There were some curfews in nearby cities and a neighboring county, and there was at least one ugly incident in nearby San Jose. Across the country, though, science fiction & mystery bookstore Uncle Hugo’s & Uncle Edgar’s was burned to the ground in the Minneapolis riots, while fellow Twin Cities store Dreamhaven (which I’ve actually patronized) was vandalized. Moreover, the offices of one of my favorite Magic podcasts, Good Luck High Five, was damaged in a fire and I don’t think they’ve yet been able to access it to find out what state it’s in.

If this sounds like a “but” to my original statement of support, it’s not. It’s an accounting of some of the things that I’ve noted during the protests. There are many others, such as the arrests of the officers involved in the Floyd killing, and I hope we’ll see more people called to account for the attacks on the protesters.

But I do hope this leads to change. Fast change, slow change, durable and systemic change. I realize that I’m at the high end of the privilege scale in this country, but I recognize that this change needs to happen. I believe that we – individually and as a nation – are better off when we all are able to thrive.

And in order to get there, we need to understand, and act on the understanding, that black lives matter.