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.

Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Vaccinations or Not

I only became aware of people opposed to childhood vaccinations a few months ago. Wired has an interesting article about the subject. (via The Angry Drunk) As with Nova‘s show about intelligent design, the piece is worth reading not just for its subject matter, but for its examination of science and pseudoscience, and how they each operate.

I wonder whether families who decide not to vaccinate their children are going to experience some natural selection over the coming decades. I just hope the effects don’t spill over to the rest of us.

(I hated getting shots when I was a kid, but I sure am glad now that I got them. I get a flu shot every year, too, mainly because they’re made conveniently available at work.)

Moon Memory

My earliest memory is of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred 40 years ago this week. What’s remarkable about this is that I was barely 6 months old at the time. Yet I remember it with remarkable clarity, and I’m convinced that it’s a real memory.

My specific memory of the landing itself is only of footage of men on the moon on TV, and it’s somewhat fuzzy. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, so the landing occurred at 3:17 pm local time, and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface at 9:39 pm local time. Whether we watched his descent as it was originally broadcast or watched a later broadcast or a news summary the next day, I have no idea.

My more specific memory is of my Mom taking me out to the balcony of our apartment at night and directing my attention to the moon, saying “There are people up there!” I recall thinking that I could actually see them on the moon while we were out there, although obviously I was imagining that; I might have even thought that seeing them on TV was the same thing as seeing them directly. It’s hard to say.

It’s possible this is just a constructed memory, although there seems to be a little evidence to suggest that it could be a true memory. I recall details like the little balcony we had, and the metal railing around it, details which were later confirmed to be accurate, which makes it feel real to me, but that’s hardly conclusive. I’ll probably never know, and I’m not really interested in arguing about it.

About returning to the moon? I think Charles Stross addressed the practical obstacles to going back pretty well. More blunt was a cartoon many years ago by Tom Toles which pointed out that there’s nothing on the moon, and nothing on Mars, either. Going there has no evident practical rewards, so the primary motivations for going there are not practical ones – and it’s hard to get funding for that. What practical rewards there are seem to be long-term and rather speculative ones.

I remember as a teenager talking to my friend Rob, who told me that he was frustrated – maybe even angry – that our presence in space had been cut back so much, and that he was probably not going to go into space or walk on the moon in his lifetime. I’m not sure why it’s never bothered me very much. Would it be nice to go into space? Well… maybe. Space travel is a high-risk endeavor, and unlikely to become either cheaper or safer anytime soon. If there were really somewhere to go then I might feel more strongly about it, but just experiencing zero gravity and walking on a dusty rock doesn’t hold a strong appeal for me.

Someday maybe something will change and humanity will finally head out to the planets and the stars. But I think in my lifetime all we’re going to have are our memories.

Intelligent Design on Trial

After posting about Richard Dawkins on Expelled! I realized I ought to post the following review I wrote way back around the time of our trip back east last November:

While out there on vacation, I caught the Nova special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which as I mentioned previously is about the 2005 Dover trial in which parents sued the school board to prevent Intelligent Design (ID) from being taught in schools.

It’s a remarkable show. Inspiring, even. Watching it one really sees what the scientific community can do when it brings both barrels to bear on a pseudo-scientific idea like ID: Not only were the expert witnesses able to demonstrate the extent to which evolution has been repeatedly tested and found to be reliable (and thereby demonstrate the scientific method at work), but they neatly dissected ID and showed how useless it is as a scientific theory. The principle of irreducible complexity – a key tenet of ID – was shown to be reducibly weak through the demolishing of examples of it (supposedly) in action, and without that there just wasn’t a leg for ID to stand on. One commentator observed that ID is essentially a negative argument, summing it up by saying “Evolution doesn’t work, therefore we win by default.” But of course evolution does work – it’s passed test after test – and even if it didn’t, that doesn’t make ID a theory, it just makes it an idea: It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t provide a testable hypothesis, it has no practical benefits. It’s really just a pipe dream.

The plaintiffs managed to win an even loftier goal than that, though: Through savvy investigative research, they demonstrated a concrete link between the supposedly neutral Intelligent Design and the religious doctrine of Creationism, by tracing the history of Of Pandas and People, the ID book at the center of the trial. The smoking gun in the investigation is a beautiful moment, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it made my jaw drop. (There are several jaw-dropping moments on the science end of their arguments, too.)

The judge in the trial, John E. Jones III, came across as quite intelligent and perceptive, and his ruling against the ID proponents was sweeping, and his own commentary in the show made the wise point that in an era when we need good science and competitive educational systems as much as ever, teaching bad science to high school students seemed counterproductive.

Apparently only a few ID proponents were willing to be interviewed for the show. Two of the school board members who tried to introduce ID into the schools were an interesting contrast to each other: William Buckingham seemed utterly inflexible in his beliefs, unable to see where science and religion might be able to coincide, and thinking the judge to be a “jackass”. Alan Bonsell was more measured in his statements, saying that he only wanted to make the school district the best one it could be. Which is a fair enough goal, but it leaves open the question of what practical benefits teaching bad science – or, at the most, a simpleminded idea with negligible evidence to support it – would benefit students or society.

The other memorable ID proponent was Philip E. Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a member of the Discovery Institute, an ID-favoring think tank. He says that he’d hoped the case would be a breakthrough in restructuring the nation’s educational system in his lifetime, but now he suspects it will be a lot longer. It’s baffling to me that he would have had such high hopes, since their case was based on nearly nothing – certainly nothing demonstrable or testable – so their hopes seemed mainly to lie in the Bush-appointed judge and the support the case received from the Bush administration. This just seems to underscore that the ID crowd are mainly pushing a political and social agenda without any rational basis underlying it. There’s nothing wrong with having irrational beliefs – the world would be a pretty colorless place if logic dominated every field of human endeavor – but such things are antithetical to science, and should not be presented as such.

Another take-home point to this show is how specious the argument that the fact that “many reputable scientists” believe or disbelieve in a theory is not a basis for arguing for or against that theory. “Many reputable scientists” may believe in ID or disbelieve in global warming, but how many of them there are, or what their reputations are, is irrelevant. Science is not a popularity contest, science is a quest to understand how the world works, and to validate or disprove theories through observation and testing. It’s those scientists’ results, not their numbers, which we should pay attention to.

And whether or not ID is long on numbers, it’s certainly short on results.

Naturally, Judgment Day is available on DVD.

Richard Dawkins on Expelled!

Richard Dawkins reviews the creationist film Expelled!, including recounting that he was able to view the premiere while his friend PZ Myers, who was Dawkins’ viewing companion, was, uh, expelled from the line to get into the theater (lots more links on this here, and Myers also wrote a follow-up).

Dawkins was even among the scientists interviewed by the filmmakers before he realized that their agenda was rather different than he’d understood.

Humanity Evolving Rapidly

Contrary to previous theory, it appears that the rate of human evolution has increased over the last few thousand years (via the San Jose Mercury News):

Until recently, anthropologists believed evolutionary pressures on humans eased after the transition to a more stable agrarian lifestyle. But in the past few years, they realized the opposite was true – diseases swept through societies in which large groups lived in close quarters for a long period.

Natural selection has affected humanity in many ways since the species appeared. My favorite concrete example from the article:

Although children were able to drink milk, they typically developed lactose intolerance as they grew up. But after cattle and goats were domesticated in Europe and yaks and mares were domesticated in Asia, adults with a mutation that allowed them to digest milk had a nutritional advantage over those who didn’t. As a result, they were more likely to have healthy offspring, prompting the mutation to spread, [University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John] Hawks said.

Humans in certain parts of the world have evolved slightly differently due to local conditions, too. This is a tenet of natural selection which often seems to be ignored: If local conditions differ significantly in two regions over a long period of time, a species which exists in both regions will see its two populations diverge as the populations adapt to their local conditions. (This assumes the conditions don’t kill off the population in one region, and also that there’s not significant interbreeding between the populations.)

This is really neat. It’s also good news, because it indicates that the human species is still quite diverse. Why is that good? Because monocultures tend to be a bad thing for a species’ long-term survival, since it makes them more susceptible to individual contagious elements against which they have no defense (such a problem seen in bananas and Microsoft Windows).

The article indicates that the rate of human evolution has increased since we became “domesticated”:

In the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, as agriculture was able to support increasingly large societies, the rate of evolutionary change rose to more than 100 times historical levels, the study concluded.

I have my own idea to add to this: I suspect people have assumed that evolution slowed down because there we tamed many hostile environments, so there were fewer pressures exerting natural selection upon us. Instead, I think that civilization has made our environments more constant and consistent, meaning what pressures there are are more persistent, and so we evolve in more of a straight line due to those pressures, rather than meandering around due to conditions that change every few years (or decades, or centures). With less genetic confusion, what evolution that does occur can occur far more rapidly.

On another, related note, the common wisdom seems to be that language has tended to evolve more slowly since writing and writing became more widespread, since writing fixes spelling and grammar in the mind of the literate population. I don’t know if language is subject to something like natural selection, but there seem to be some parallels there, and this makes me wonder if we’ll find that (for example) English is also evolving more rapidly than we think, just in a more constant direction and a more systematic manner than it used to.

John Scalzi Visits the Creation Museum

If you’re not a regular reader of John Scalzi’s blog, nip over there to read his hilarious report about visiting the Creation Museum:

  1. Start with the photographic tour on Flikr.
  2. Then read the accompanying essay, which features liberal use of the word “horseshit”.

It’s well worth the time to read through it all, especially the photo set.

(For more hilarity, visit the Creation Museum’s web site, too.)

Then you can enter Scalzi’s LOLCreashun contest.

In related news, the long-running PBS science program Nova last night ran an episode about the 2005 trial involving the Dover, PA school board which rejected Intelligent Design’s claims to be a rational alternative to evolution. I unfortunately missed the episode (hopefully I can catch it some other time), but Ars Technica has some additional info about the Dover trial’s impact on the ID movement and what the ID people are up to these days.

It’s too bad we sometimes have to take these people seriously in order to refute their silliness. It’s much more fun to just mock them like Scalzi does. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to decisively and finally win a battle against what amounts to rampant (if not willful) ignorance.

The Creation Museum on Science Talk

Some of you may know that John Scalzi went to the Creation Museum and plans to post about his trip real soon now.

However, Scientific American‘s weekly podcast Science Talk ran an interview in their July 25 episode interviewing Stephen Asma of Columbia College, who also visited the Creation Museum and wrote about it for Skeptic magazine. It’s frightening stuff (albeit predictably frightening for anyone familiar with the religious right), describing how the Creation Museum’s proprietors see modern science as a direct cause of many of the perceived (by them) ills of western culture.

You can listen to the episode in MP3 format.