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Dark Thoughts From Ground Zero

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

I don’t like to start with a disclaimer, but let me say that I’m inherently an optimist and that I think we’ll get through this Corona-virus experience and get back to “normal”. It might take 6 months or 16 but, as I said, I’m an optimist.

Given than I’m stuck at home, however, let me reveal some dark thoughts that I’ve been having.

Dark thought #1: There is no cure, as yet, or vaccine for Covid 19. It’s estimated that 50-70% of the population will eventually get it and that 3-6% will die. That’s a lot of people: 100-300m people. Three World War 2’s worth.

In the US, the numbers will be between 4.5-12.8m people.

Whether the mortality rate is 3% or 6%, we hope, depends on how much we can slow the rate of infection. In theory, if we can avoid overwhelming our hospitals, death rates will be lower. There’s not a lot of data to bear this out, however. Hospitals and ventilators may not help to do more than keep people a little more comfortable as they die.

Dark thought number 2: The damage to the world economy is huge. A 10% hit to US GDP is $2 trillion. If you divide that by our population is about $6700 per person.

We are paying a tax of $6700 per person in the hope that we will save 8m people.

Lest you think the $2T is going to be paid by the rich, you’re wrong. This is going to be a very regressive tax as it’s going to be small businesses that bear the brunt of bankruptcies. It’s going to be the employees of these businesses that are going to lose their jobs.

I’m happy to pay this tax; I could not bear the thought of letting millions of people die without at least trying to help them. I think the vast majority of Americans feel the same way. It’s a testament to our humanity and our, perhaps unfounded, hopes that our hospitals can help. Perhaps the silver lining here is that people will realize that sometimes rugged individualism isn’t the best strategy. Sometimes community takes precedence.

Dark thought number 3: This is the new normal. After Covid-19, there will be “Covid-20” or something worse. Our current situation is but a dry-run for the next one.

There is no systemic way of fighting viruses. Each has its own genetic structure and binding mechanism. We can strengthen our immune systems but viruses can mutate to defeat these. We’re having the same problem with bacteria, it’s just that those are a bit easier to avoid.

One interesting development here is that CRISPR (Google it if you don’t know what it is) is being adapted to target RNA sequences. This might facilitate the quick development of medicines that target the virus itself.

Dark thought number 4: all “systems” – in this case, the global biological ecosystem – seek balance. If you see a lot of bunnies in your neighborhood, you will soon see a lot of coyotes, foxes and birds of prey. If you see a lot of humans tightly packed together, you will soon see a lot of rapidly propagating viruses. Eventually, humans will be born with stronger immune systems but so will new viruses develop with more nefarious binding and propagation mechanisms.

Unless we can figure out a way to identify and attack viruses systemically, our only recourse is to address the propagation mechanisms: lower population density and less human contact.

Dark thought number 5: whoever wins the US presidential race will get a “windfall”: a recovering economy and fewer old people on social security. This of course, barring the arrival of another virus.

On Beauty

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

“What is the biological basis for perceiving nature as beautiful?”

I asked this question of Jim, my daughter’s S.O.. He’s a biologist, soon to receive his PhD in the subject. Our group pondered this for a while as we continued our hike, but didn’t come up with a great answer. We posited that, perhaps, there’s no inherent survival advantage to perceiving beauty but that perceptive humans are more inclined to explore, inquire and seek answers to questions. Perhaps it’s not that perceiving beauty makes us better mating partners but that perceptiveness makes us better problem solvers and more likely to follow the path to the next valley or the end of the rainbow. There we find the better farmland, the richer game or the girl next door.

I’m typing this, sitting outside in 40 degree weather, watching a rainstorm wash away snow from my backyard. On my deck speakers, Pachabel’s Canon is unfolding its overlapping melody and I can’t help but tear up, overwhelmed with the sense that it’s all so beautiful.

As I often do when bored, I surf the web and read posts where children receive puppies for Christmas or brothers reunite or deaf people receive cochlear implants. Their joy, too, is beautiful and, again, I cry.

It’s all so human. Perhaps dogs or horses or even chickens feel something similar but I can’t imagine anything more primally human than the intensity of emotions and how these emotions can inspire us to act.

I’m, at heart, a scientist, but I think cognition and Reason (intentional caps) are overrated. In this age of alternate facts and polarized belief systems, I’ve begun to argue that Reason and Truth are “fungible”. Relying on them, exclusively, to make decisions and to guide our lives is a fools errand.

Pursue beauty. Find things that make you cry tears of joy and do things to make others feel the same way. Surround yourself with people that your heart knows are good. Avoid things and people that feel wrong. Explore the valley next door. You won’t regret it.

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Friday, November 1st, 2019

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