Where Do We Go From Here?

Previously: Frankenstein Delenda Est | Roll for Sanity | The Great Project
Or perhaps: Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the 21st Century | An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

I.

Well.

Joe Biden will in all likelihood be the next American President come January. You can practically feel left-leaning elites the world over unclench their weary paranoia. Much remains to be dealt with as the last few votes are counted and legal challenges get addressed by the courts, but the climax is past. The denouement, of course, will last decades. It always does.

Well.

The pandemic rages on. More than a million people are dead, and thousands more are dying every day. Imagine a medium-sized city, slowly crumbling as every last inhabitant dies over the course of a single year. Only the bones remain. And yet we adapt: deaths per thousand cases continues to fall. The world’s most populous country, more than a billion people, has reported only a single COVID-19 death since April. The rest of the world is slowly learning, through trial and terrible error, which parts of the economy can be reopened or adapted, and which cannot.

Well.

Technology rushes on, heedless of the rest of the world. Competitive satellite internet. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Newer, faster, stronger, better. The pope is praying for friendly AI.

I just finished re-reading A Canticle for Liebowitz. [spoilers follow] A monastic order tries to preserve human knowledge for hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse. They succeed, civilization is reborn, and their reward is a second nuclear apocalypse, far worse. Humanity is not to be trusted with great power, nor great responsibility.

Well.

II.

America is increasingly divided. Biden may have won, but those hoping for a repudiation of Trump must be bitterly disappointed. The long future is violently uncertain. Healing? Secession? Civil war?

Beliefs are not isolated things. The human brain is remarkably adept at ignoring inconsistencies, but doesn’t necessarily resolve them correctly, even when forced to. Whichever side you take in this battle, your enemies believe in gravity. They believe in food, and air, and airplanes which fly. Their epistemology is intact.

Where people on both sides go wrong is that their priors create a self-reinforcing web of false beliefs that are too far removed from immediate empirical evidence to be emotionally falsified. The media could report that hotdogs cause COVID-19. Whether you believe that hotdogs cause COVID-19 has nothing to do with your beliefs about hotdogs, or COVID-19. The only way those beliefs could actually be related in your mind is if you see someone eat a hotdog, and then become deathly ill moments later. Instead, whether you believe in hotdogs-causing-COVID-19 has everything to do with whether you think the media lies. Fake news?

The next time the media reports something, you remember. Didn’t they run that hotdogs-cause-COVID-19 story? Your priors have shifted. The gyre widens.

Rationalists believe that demanding consistency from your beliefs raises the sanity waterline. I believe that consistency, on balance, would give us more false beliefs, not fewer. Too much of the world we believe in is disconnected from direct observation. Science, democracy, journalism… all merely webs of hearsay becoming webs of heresy.

III.

The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

The printing press. The New World. Machines. Electricity. Computers. Internet. We feast on these whales, and for a time, we flourish. But whales are finite beings, and their corpses must eventually return to the dust.

Some Republicans view Donald Trump as a sign of the apocalypse, and long for the return of Mitt Romney. I view Mitt Romney as the unwitting sign of a far worse apocalypse; not because he is a Republican, but because he is a Mormon. Low first-world birth rates in the last fifty years are a blip, a memetic aberration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, by all indications, a decisive first-mover advantage among the next wave of Malthusian population-promoting memeplexes. The birth rate will recover when America is mostly Mormon. Evolution requires it.

We can hunt new whales, new technologies, new vistas, and prolong our civilization one flickering light at a time. This is a worthy goal. But we are Ahab, and the whales we hunt will surely destroy us in time.

We can coordinate, cooperate, and create a world where consuming the whale does not consume the world. This is also a worthy goal. It is, in fact, part of the goal; step two of The Great Project.

But we cannot compromise with our enemies, and so our enemies must become our friends.

IV.

And yet? And yet nothing. There is no one else. If civilization is to flourish, it must survive, and it must grow so mighty that even Moloch trembles before it.

So go, live your life, dream your dreams, hunt your whales. But to save civilization we must unite it, and to unite it we need a shared belief that unity is important.

Spread the good word.

“I Was Wrong” on Reopening Ottawa

Roughly two weeks ago I wrote a post Against Reopening Ottawa. Since then, my predictions have turned out to be mostly wrong.

First, here’s same the chart I published at the time showing a moving average of new cases in Ottawa:

And now here’s the same chart updated as of the data available today from Ottawa Public Health:

At first glance I sort of feel vindicated, since I predicted cases would keep going up, and they definitely did. But pretty much all of the particulars of my predictions were wrong. In relation to Ottawa cases, my three predictions were:

  • Based on the original data I inferred a steady doubling time of two weeks; actual new cases went up way faster than that, and then flattened completely, and now seem to be decreasing again.
  • I predicted a brief slowdown in new cases starting around July 21st, due to Ottawa’s mandatory mask bylaw going into effect on July 7th. If you squint a little it kinda looks like that part might have been right, but on closer inspection it isn’t. The timing is off (the graph flattens well before masks would have an impact, and starts decreasing well after) and the sharp drop in new cases is so recent that it’s liable to disappear in the next few days anyway (Ottawa reports cases by first symptom where possible, so each new day’s data tends to backfill more cases over the last week or so).
  • I predicted that starting August 3rd or shortly after, cases would spike again due to stage 3 of reopening. This one isn’t right or wrong yet as we haven’t gotten there, but I’d no longer make the same prediction today.

I also made some less rigorous province-level predictions that turned out to be (mostly) wrong:

  • Ontario did see a brief more general increase in cases after my post, but that has stopped, and if you zoom out cases still seem to be trending clearly downward everywhere but Ottawa. I’ll give myself a win for predicting that Peel and other previous hot spots were mostly under control at that point, but Ottawa is now one of the regions with the most reported daily cases, making it an outlier, not a pack leader.
  • British Columbia cases have continued to pick up again, but apparently in the same ways as Ontario; they have one region that’s become a hot spot and everywhere else is well under control. The main difference is that BC’s infections are so low to begin with that their hot spot is swamping their general numbers and making it look like the whole province is in trouble.
  • Alberta I admit I don’t really understand. Their data seems to have done the same thing as Ottawa: a sharp increase followed by an immediate flattening. But they only have two major population centres (Edmonton and Calgary) and neither city on its own shows this pattern. If anybody has a better understanding, please leave a comment.

Finally, there’s a few other miscellaneous points I wanted to make:

  • As I mentioned parenthetically above, Ottawa reports cases by date of first symptom where possible (or even date of infection, if the source is known), which means that new cases reported on a given day are almost always backdated by a few days and up to two weeks. Thus we should expect the last week or so of numbers to show up as lower than they will be in the final tally. This is why I’m not convinced by the magnitude of the recent “dip” in new cases in my chart above, and explains why what was a gradual uptick in my previous post turned into a sudden spike. It does also vindicate me “reading too much into the graph”, although I didn’t realize this at the time so I can’t take credit for it.
  • Ottawa Public Health addressed the recent spike shortly after I published my last post, claiming that it was unrelated to reopening and more related to private parties and lack of distancing in private spaces (in particular among younger age groups). This seems like a generally plausible explanation, and I don’t have any better guesses that explain the weird shape of the data. There’s been so much garbage floating around from the WHO and the CDC, it’s nice to get evidence that my local health authorities actually know more than I do about COVID.

Against Reopening Ottawa

I.

This is not the COVID post I thought I would be writing a few weeks ago. I honestly didn’t think I’d be writing a COVID post at all.

A few weeks ago, most of Canada seemed to be under control. There were a few hot spots left in e.g. Southern Ontario, but almost any other graph you looked at showed a nice, clean downward trend. How quickly things change. I live in Ottawa, so I’m going to focus there. This data comes directly from Ottawa Public Health (though the graph is mine):

You can see things getting consistently better in May, staying quite steady throughout June, and then starting to creep back up around the beginning of July.

This is a huge problem.

It may seem like I’m exaggerating slightly – after all, Ottawa (a city of 1 million people) went from roughly 4 new cases a day, to roughly 8 new cases a day, over the span of two weeks. That hardly seems comparable to the huge surges being seen in the southern United States or other problem areas. Ottawa’s health care system and hospitals have plenty of capacity. Our testing turn-around time remains under 48h, and our testing throughput remains high. We have a mandatory mask bylaw in place. There seem to be a lot of things going right.

In point of fact there are a lot of things going right – I’d still rather be in Ottawa than in any part of the US. But just because some things are going well, doesn’t mean we’re not still in trouble. Going from 4 to 8 new cases a day is an increase, and any increase is really bad news.

II.

At the risk of rehashing a topic everybody is sick of at this point: virus spread is modelled exponentially (this exponent is the “R0” everybody keeps talking about). R0 isn’t a magical fixed value; when something changes (e.g. people start wearing masks) then R0 for the virus changes too. When R0 is less than one, the virus gradually fades out of the population, as was happening in Ottawa in May. When R0 is exactly one, then the number of new cases stays flat, as was happening in June. When R0 is greater than one, the virus starts picking up steam and spreading again.

R0 in Ottawa is, clearly, greater than one at this point, and has been since roughly the beginning of July (or maybe a little later, depending on how much you’re willing to smooth the graph). This isn’t a big deal for today – we can still handle 8 new cases a day, or 10, or 12. But the thing about positive exponential growth is that it keeps going up, faster, and faster, and faster. As a very rough approximation, let’s assume that the last two weeks are representative of R0 in Ottawa right now, and that our new cases continue to double every two weeks. That would mean that August 1st we’d be dealing with 16 new cases per day. Not too bad. By the end of August, 64 new cases a day – bad (until very recently we had fewer than 60 active cases total), but still manageable. By the end of September though… 250 cases a day, which is probably more than we can handle. And so on. If the trend continued through to Christmas (which is, granted, very unlikely) then we’d be looking at roughly 16000 new cases a day.

Now there’s a lot of reasons we’re very unlikely to hit 250 cases a day, let alone 16000. If new cases increased that much I assume the city would re-institute some kind of lockdown, and at that kind of load other factors like herd immunity would start kicking in as well. But when cases are already increasing it seems like a really bad time to start reopening even more. And yet…

III.

The general consensus seems to be that there’s a minimum of two weeks of lag between the development of actual cases, and reporting. This time accounts for how long it takes somebody who’s been exposed to incubate the virus, develop symptoms and go get tested. Of course in some places where testing is overloaded, the delay can be much more than that, but Ottawa is not overloaded, so let’s assume two weeks.

Ottawa officially entered “phase 2” of our reopening on June 12th, though in practice most businesses were not ready on the day of, and reopened piecemeal over the following week; let’s take an average reopening date of June 15th. Two weeks after that brings us to June 29th, which is, (surprise!), right at the beginning of our uptick in cases. This is a bit of evidence that our “phase 2” reopening was in fact too much; R0 is now back above one, and the virus is spreading.

In worse news, despite phase 2 already being too much, Ottawa officially entered “phase 3” of our reopening yesterday (July 17th). Not only does this seem like a bad idea in general given that R0 is already back above one, but phase 3 includes a huge swath of very risky activities whose impact on R0 will almost certainly be far greater than the impact of phase 2: indoor service at restaurants and bars, movie theatres, museums, etc. As with phase 2, a lot of businesses weren’t ready day of; if we take an actual phase 3 reopening date of July 20th, and add two weeks, it’s easy to see an even bigger spike of cases coming down the pipe, starting around August 3rd. (August 3rd is a statutory holiday here, so in practice I expect the data might not show up until a few days later.)

The one bright spot in all this is that Ottawa made masks mandatory while indoors, starting July 7th. That will presumably have a big impact on transmission rates, and was less than two weeks ago, so we won’t see it in the data yet. Hopefully new cases start to drop again around July 21st (two weeks after mandatory masks), and if we’re very lucky then that decrease will entirely counter-act the increase from both stage 2 and stage 3 reopenings. But that seems like a lot to ask, especially since many people were already voluntarily wearing masks even before the mandate. Only time will tell.

Ultimately, I predict continued increases in Ottawa until around July 21st, at which point the trend will reverse due to mandatory masks, and we see decreases again until August 3rd or shortly afterwards. Then we’ll see the impact of phase 3 reopening, but I can only imagine that it’s going to be bad. I suspect by late August it will be clear that phase 3 is unsustainable and will have to be rolled back. I only hope we don’t learn that lesson too much the hard way.

IV.

[This section is more of an appendix of other little things I didn’t fit in the main post.]

Somebody I discussed this with argued that I’m reading too much into the graph I presented. The data from end of June up to July 9th actually looks well in line with the rest of June, and the growth after that point could very well just be random variance as was likely the case with the brief spike from June 7th to 13th. I suppose this is possible, though it feels unlikely to me. Time will tell, if cases continue to rise or not.

Alberta and BC (two other provinces) are also seeing recent spikes in cases after reopening, though oddly Ontario (the province that Ottawa is actually in) has not. I haven’t dug into the regional data to back this up, but I imagine it’s because the Peel region and the other “hot spots” I referenced earlier are finally under control and decreasing rapidly, which is balancing out the gradual increase in Ottawa and other places. Again, time will tell. I expect we’re already at the bottom of that particular wave, so Ontario-wide cases should start ticking up again (slowly) this week.

COVID-19

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (but checking my blog?), the worst pandemic in a generation is gripping the world. If you’re looking for the bare minimum of what you should do:

  • Stay home. Do not leave your home except to buy food or medication.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Properly. With soap.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Take it seriously. People you know will be dead before it’s over.

That’s pretty much it really.


I wanted that version to be punchy, so I simplified a little bit. Here’s a few elaborations:

  • Technically it’s fine to leave your home as long as you:
    • Stay 6 feet away from other people at all times.
    • Avoid enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.
    • Don’t touch anything that other people have touched.
  • It’s possible that nobody you know will die from this, if:
    • You are a hermit who doesn’t know anybody to begin with.
    • You live in China, South Korea, or Japan. Those three countries are the only ones who have successfully contained the outbreak.

For a more in-depth look at the situation we’re in and possible outcomes I would recommend The Hammer and the Dance.

For statistics I would recommend WorldOMeter. Though be aware that with delays in incubation and delays in testing, any numbers are likely to be a week or more out of date. At least 4x any number you see.

For more information on your local situation and laws, check with your local government; I don’t know where you live. But do be aware that government response has been really really bad in most parts of the world (again excepting China, South Korea, and Japan). Take it more seriously than your government does.

For general advice on planning for disasters, I recommend this fantastic guide. It’s a bit late for a lot of the advice now, but some of it is still useful, and a lot of it will be useful if you survive this round.

International Conflict X-Risk in the Era of COVID-19

Jeremy Hussel had a great comment pointing out something which is easy to forget – major disasters often have multiple quasi-independent causes. Many things go wrong all at once, and any safeguards are overwhelmed by the repeated issues. COVID-19 could clearly be one of those root causes. What might be others?

Another clear source of turmoil for the western world right now is domestic politics. America has a historically unpredictable president and is heading into a divisive election year where the two candidates are both likely to be very old. The UK is finally going to leave the EU and hasn’t yet struck a deal to determine what that actually means. Canada (where I live, though less critical on the world stage) was in the middle of its own domestic crisis around Native American land rights and infrastructure projects before that got overshadowed by COVID-19 – our railroads and as such some parts of our supply chain had been shut down for weeks already by protesters.

A third source of problems might be the “oil war” between OPEC and Russia, but I don’t know enough about that to really write about it usefully.

With all that said, the thing that I am most afraid of right now is China. China has been very aggressive on the world stage in the last couple of days, and I fully expect them to continue that pattern. Why wouldn’t they? Just as their country is recovering from the virus and starting to pick back up, the crisis in America and Europe is still growing. They are feeling strong while Western democracies are weak, divided, and looking inwards, and we should fully expect them to take advantage of that power imbalance in the short term to do things like finally and properly annexing Hong Kong (predict 50% that by the time COVID-19 has run its course in North America, Hong Kong has lost whatever quasi-independence it might have had).

The question is how far they will go, and how will we (our governments) react? In normal times I would expect them to be cautious but I would also expect a cautious response from western governments. With the current volatility in the American system and the antagonism built up over the previous Chinese-American trade war, there is substantial risk of something escalating out of control. A full military conflict between world powers at this point in time would truly be something else going terribly, terribly wrong.

Winning vs Truth – Infohazard Trade-Offs

This post on the credibility of the CDC has sparked a great deal of discussion on the ethics of posts like it. Some people claim that the post itself is harmful, arguing that anything which reduces trust in the CDC will likely kill people as they ignore or reject important advice for dealing with SARS-CoV-2 and (in the long-run) other issues like vaccination. This argument has been met with two very different responses.

One response has been to argue that the CDC’s advice is so bad that reducing trust in it will actually have a net positive effect in the long run. This is an ultimately empirical question which somebody should probably address, but I do not have the skills or interest to attempt that.

The other response is much more interesting, arguing that appeals to consequences are generally bad, and that meta-level considerations mean we should generally speak the truth even if the immediate consequences are bad. I find this really interesting because it is ultimately about infohazards: those rare cases where there is a conflict between epistemic and instrumental rationality. Typically, we believe that having more truth (via epistemic rationality) is a positive trait that allows you to “win” more (thus aligning with instrumental rationality). But when more truth becomes harmful, which do we preference: truth, or winning?

Some people will just decide to value truth more than winning as an axiom of their value system. But for most of us, ultimately I think this also boils down to an empirical question of just how bad “not winning” will end up being. It’s easy to see that for sufficiently severe cases, natural selection takes over: any meme/person/thing that prefers truth over winning in those cases will die out, to be replaced by memes/people/things that choose to win. I personally will prefer winning in those cases. It’s also true that most of the time, truth actually helps you win in the long run. We should probably reject untrue claims even if they provide a small amount of extra short-term winning, since in the long run having an untrue belief is likely to prevent us from winning in ways we can’t predict.

Figuring out where the cut-over point lies between truth and winning seems non-trivial. Based on my examples above we can derive two simple heuristics to start off:

  • Prefer truth over winning by default.
  • Prefer winning over truth if the cost of not winning is destruction of yourself or your community. (It’s interesting to note that this heuristic arguably already applies to SARS-Cov-2, at least for some people in at-risk demographics.)

What other heuristics do other people use for this question? How do they come out on the CDC post and SARS-CoV-2?