Technology News and Views Since 1983
the Spy with this column breaks a many years’ long tradition, for there will be no levity (or levitation for that matter) this foolish month. There are more serious matters of the techie and wider world to ponder.
as the Spy’s regular geeky reader surely well knows, is defined as a measure of change per unit of time. Directionality matters (it is a vector) and we usually use it for change of position, but more generally it is simply the slope of a graph at a point in time, or as her dim distant memory of calculus may supply, the functional derivative of a quantity versus time graph. If one then graphs velocity versus time, that slope in turn (second derivative) is called acceleration, and for the real knurd, the slope of an acceleration versus time graph is termed its jerk (third derivative). Related considerations for an object include the forces acting on it and its mass (F = ma). The mass of an object in turn depends on its density and volume. (m = Vd) In the simplest terms, the bigger they are the harder they are to accelerate. Obviously, this applies in the negative sense as well–more massive objects require more force to slow them down.
Exhibit One is COVID-19
Which has, as viruses go, a relatively high velocity or rate of spread. And in an anti-analogous fashion, the greater the population density, the higher the acceleration. Epidemiologists use R0 (R-naught–subscripts don’t always render well online), the reproduction number, as a measure of the rate of spread of a disease in a population with no immunity, no available vaccination, and no intervention to prevent its spread. This is a rough index of how many people are likely to be infected by a carrier in the worst case scenario, and combines all the factors of natural velocity and population density into a gross average.
If R0 is less than one, the disease will soon die out. If it equals one, the population with the disease will become stable, and if it is greater than one, it will spread widely, become epidemic. In heavily densified areas or places where large numbers gather such as sporting events, weddings, funerals, or churches, this number will be much larger than in rural ones. The 1918 H1H1 flu virus had an estimated R0 value between 1.4 and 2.8 and it killed somewhere between 50 and 80 million people, but when it returned in 2009 its R0 was between 1.4 and 1.6 and far fewer died because of immunity, vaccinations, and anti-viral agents. Influenza in general has an R0 between two and three, and persists because it has a high mutation rate, and immunity therefore varies with time and the success of predictions that go into the annual vaccine mix. Measles, on the other hand has an R0 estimated to be in the 12-18 range among the unvaccinated.
The COVID-19 virus pandemic is still in its early stages and figures remain rough, but estimates for its R0 seem to range between 1.5 and 3.5, though as noted above, the value is much higher in some populations than others, depending on population density, social habits, genetic susceptibility, general population health, specific pre-existing conditions such as, but not limited to, heart disease and diabetes, demographics, government action (or not), the capacity of the health system, and other factors as yet determined. Similar considerations affect the percentage of serious cases and the death rate–lower in the young and otherwise healthy, and much higher in the elderly and health-challenged. The Spy is (i) male (ii) over 70 (iii) with a history of respiratory problems–has had pneumonia a few times (v) has an overactive immune system. The latter is worse than a compromised immune system in this situation, as systemic overreaction to the disease entering the lungs (a sort of hyper-pneumonia) is reported to the main proximate cause of death.
If the acceleration of a disease through the population is sufficiently high (the slope of the velocity curve increases) the peak of sickness and death can overwhelm health system capacity, and people will die in the multiple millions. If strict isolation and distancing is widely employed, particularly among the most susceptible, the number of infections will not rise so quickly, the health system, though strained, will cope, and there will be fewer deaths. Given sufficient time, medical countermeasures such as anti-viral treatments and vaccines will become available, and this coronavirus, like the older flu ones, will likely be reduced to a seasonal hazard with a much lower death rate.
China and South Korea, though initially strongly infected, were able to contain and tame the disease (for now), but in the less authoritarian societies of the west this is more problematic. Moreover, political blame games, general stubbornness, quackery around bogus cures (even in the highest offices), and conspiracy theories, together conspire (sic) to hamper mitigation. Short of a major change in attitude, the Spy must stand by his comments of a month ago that by Summer’s end, we may well all have been exposed, and a lot of us will not still be living in this life, but in the next. Doesn’t that give anyone pause to think? Even more is at stake than our bodies living or dying.
Exhibit Two is the economy
which itself has had the brakes slammed on hard, and is rapidly decelerating into at least a severe recession, more likely a deep and lingering depression. The health of an economy depends on the availability and utility in, say, a given week, of the medium of exchange–that is, currency, most of which lives in virtual form as rapidly moving transfers between deposits and loans in a wealth-multiplying loop.
Begin, quite arbitrarily, with the pay cheque. By electronic funds transfer, a deposit is made in a worker’s credit union or bank account. Some immediately and perhaps automatically goes to pay bills–credit cards, utilities, taxes, rent, mortgages, other loans, interest. More is soon spent on restaurants, travel, food, clothing, entertainment, sports, and major purchases such as automobiles, appliances, computers, software, and gadgets. Money is therefore transferred to many others, and for people living from paycheque to paycheque, it is all soon gone elsewhere. Each transaction is small, but when multiplied by tens or hundreds of millions of workers, vast sums are recirculated in short order.
Some accumulates in individual, retail, or corporate deposit accounts for a time, so the financial institution is able loan it out to other entities for construction, renovation, hiring more and paying employees, procuring capital goods, paying shareholder dividends, buying back stock, and so on. Also, with time, stocks and real estate tend on the whole to be bid upward, increasing their value (say, as collateral for a loan). If one could track a given dollar (pound, lira, shekel, shilling, kopek) it might reside in numerous bank accounts during a single day, its velocity multiplying its effect on the total economy.
But there is, or was, friction. Two thousand years ago, a draft on a bank in Rome might not be cashed in, say, Alexandria, Corinth, or Jerusalem for up to several months. By the nineteenth century, most transactions were completed in weeks or days, by the twentieth in under a couple of days, and now they happen instantaneously by electronic funds transfers. These delays represent the force of friction against the velocity of money. It has now declined almost to zero. The supply of money would grow toward infinity if central banks did not both require a percentage of bank deposits to be placed in their care, and limit the percentage of the remainder that is allowed to be loaned.
In addition, for decades national governments have spent money they did not have, issuing debt instruments such as Treasury bonds to make up the difference, effectively increasing the money supply, and living with the resulting inflation (more money chasing the same goods causes prices to rise). Large percentages of most national, regional, and local government budgets therefore are spent servicing unproductive and even crippling debt, with no intention of ever paying it back. In most of the world, the gap between those who hold stocks and/or government debt OTOH and the indebted working population OTOH has grown much wider, but the velocity of money has allowed the system to remain workable, despite that if most governments were commercial enterprises, they would have long ago been bankrupt.
Meanwhile, central banks also assist one another in moving enormous daily sums between currencies to settle international transactions. These are called “swaps”, and attract some short-term interest to grease the monetary gears. In recent months, due to uneasiness about the size and viability of the monies involved (and other technical factors) these interest rates have occasionally spiked, and central banks have had to create money to pump into the system in order to keep it functional. Moreover, when governments find that the usual buyers are reluctant to buy their debt, they can always have the central bank make the purchases, creating even more money to do so from…nothing. All this is risky, inflationary, and symptomatic of a monetary system that was already showing severe cracks.
Now, COVID-19 has slammed the brakes on the movement of money, and therefore sharply reduced its supply. Millions have lost their means of livelihood, and tens to hundreds of millions of more will yet do so before this is over. They have little or no money for purchases or to pay even the interest on loans. Businesses are therefore shrinking or closing, many never to re-open. Stock markets are still in shock and disbelief, and barring some dramatic and unlikely positive turn of events such as the rapid development of a vaccine, they probably have some distance to go to reach bottom. Governments, used to spending on every politician’s favourite project to buy votes and remain in office, have no surpluses stashed against a rainy day, let alone a health and economic catastrophe, and are attempting to spend vast sums of money they do not have to prop up the economy, effectively creating expensive second mortgages on the future.
In the short term, this may temporarily wallpaper over both the immediate and underlying financial problems. In the medium term as the pandemic continues, some nations could fall into fiscal and social ruin. So could their bondholders when they default. In the longer term, the states that muddle through will be much weakened, and will face severe consequences–reduced spending ability for necessary programs, reduction in government size, further erosion of trust, runaway inflation as the extra money created from nothing chases a diminished supply of goods, and severe damage, if not a breakdown, of institutional and personal social order.
The time will again be ripe for demagogues to rise to positions of dictatorship, perhaps to seek scapegoats. (Some of the latter is already happening.) Our reader will perhaps observe that in such a context the Spy declines to employ “right-wing” or “left-wing” designations. After all, the consequences for the ordinary Josephine on the street are identical. The practical difference between the two is insignificant–they may enter the stage from ostensibly different wings, but they act the same way.
Going forward, who will trust governments that were unprepared with surpluses, had underfunded their health systems, had never engaged disaster planning scenarios, had no contingencies, who downplayed the threat, who subscribed to conspiracy theories or blamed their favourite whipping-boy minority or foreign government, who responded slowly and weakly, who politicized the disaster, who put out false and dangerous statements about “cures” that were at best anecdotal and at worse quack and dangerous fraud, who squabbled over what to do and how, who ignored their own health authorities, who prioritized bailing out corporations or their rich friends over aiding the sick and the desperate? The piper will be paid. Many governments will not survive; some nations may not either. One could only wish, but perhaps not hope, that the kind of people who sue to force governments to declare gun sales an essential service at a time like this, and those who delight in destabilizing society for their own ends will also vanish from the scene.
What role technology in all this?
(After all that is the raison d’etre of this column.) The amount of research work that has been diverted into understanding how this coronavirus works and preparing various lines of attack is surely impressive. So is the general cooperation, at least among some national health authorities and public research facilities. Whether corporate cooperation will be as forthcoming remains to be seen. (Can anyone see a big pharma giving away its research results for the greater good rather than demanding gobs of cash?) But, several potential vaccines are being tested already, though practical distribution of an effective one is some time away–perhaps as much as a year or more.
Meanwhile as the detailed mechanism of the virus is better understood, the ability to interfere with it will also grow, so effective treatments may well emerge long before a vaccine is readily available. General lockdowns can “flatten the curve” and even reduce the R0 to well under one, as China and South Korea have shown for their first wave of the virus. (Can this work effectively in traditionally “free” societies?) Much production can also be (and indeed has been) shifted to protective and treatment gear, such as masks and ventilators.
We can shift some activities so they continue, albeit somewhat hampered, online. The Spy has recorded and posted online sufficient lectures, has assigned and is marking the necessary homework, will do live tutorials, and will conduct an “at home” final exam to allow his students to finish his advanced discrete math course reasonably well. Once the semester is over, he’ll initiate faculty-wide planning to find ways to get all the TWU science courses online in a less “bailing wire and chewing gum” fashion for the fall semester. His church, as most, is posting cut-down services for anyone who wishes to “attend”. Education and nourishment for the soul can at least carry on, even if in diminished capability. Many other activities obviously cannot. The biggest hit for the longest time will be for the travel industry, sports, the arts, and community activities–anything involving large in-person gatherings.
What technology alone cannot do is prevent inadequate health systems from being overwhelmed by the dying in the short term, promote accountability for inept government authorities in the medium term, and rescue a severely depressed (word used advisedly) economy in the longer. That will take uncommon sense. A greater and wiser common sense might involve asking eternal questions, such as whether this is a warning “shot across the bow”. Perhaps, as Amos 3 puts it, the lion has already roared.
More food for thought (sic!)
--The Northern Spy Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics, Interim Dean of Science, and Chair of the University Senate at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:
Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html
Other URLs of relevant interest:
BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information
Aberdeen Baptist lessons and Sermons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4DbcQZJphc1oH7icCUBTJg