Coronavirus v. Flu

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Warning: The calculation of percentages was done by me and could be wrong. The other figures come from the CDC and WHO.

My friend Anne asked me to give her some statistics on the coronavirus that would help her understand it in relation to the flu. I have taken my numbers from the CDC but did my own percentage calculations. Please let me know if my math is wrong. Here is my simplified table of their statistics for the annual flu seasons in the United States. The percentage of people dying is in relation to those getting sick.

Annual flu statistics

I found the statistics for the coronavirus from the World Health Organization. As of February 17, 2020, there have been 71,429 confirmed cases with 1,772 deaths, which is the death rate of 2.48%. (Someone, check my calculations, that seems very high.) It would mean if the 2017-2018 flu season that infected 45,000,000 people had been the coronavirus, 1,116,000 people would have died, as compared to the 61,000 from regular influenza.

However, people don’t have any natural immunity to the coronavirus, and as of yet, there have been no vaccines created. If it hit America a good deal more than 45,000,000 might become infected. Supposedly 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide. But then the global population was only 1.8 billion as opposed to our 7, which suggests the coronavirus could be much less deadly than the Spanish flu. On the other hand, medical science wasn’t as advanced in 1918.

Let’s hope the Chinese can control the coronavirus. This could be very bad.

JWH

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH