Covid Musings

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Vera Lyn

Covid-19 is at the top of everyone’s agenda, so I’m going with the flow. Here are some miscellaneous musings of mine…

  • There’s no standard way of writing it yet. I think the fully-capitalised COVID-19 is ahead, but I’m sticking to the Guardian’s upper/lower case version: Covid-19. After all, it’s not as if each letter stands for a word (as in ‘Carelessly Opened Vial of Incurable Disease’).
  • The artistic world, amateur as well as professional, has responded with amazing creativity and diversity. One might say that from adversity has been born a new genre. Click on these links for the Covid-19 versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘One Day More’ if you haven’t seen and heard them yet.
  • Newspapers and magazines are full of advice on how to fill one’s days of home-incarceration, as though we’ve all become so dependent on our work and external stimuli that we’ll go bonkers if deprived of them. I do hope that’s not the case.
  • We’ve suddenly been made aware of how numerous and big cruise ships are. At any time on the oceans of the world there’s a waterborne population the size of a fair-sized city.
  • Due to panic buying our usual supermarket was out of low-fat milk, so Mrs Stroppy Git went elsewhere and bought a different brand. I compared the nutritional information (that’s how I find amusement in these trying times) and saw the list of ingredients: “Skim milk, milk, milk solids. Contains milk.”
  • The Queen’s speech-writer should get an MBE (or better) for the final line of her Address to the Nation: “We will meet again.” With those four words she referenced Vera Lyn’s great wartime song, evoking an ocean of memories and associations that still resonate powerfully with her British subjects.

COVID-19: How Many Will Die?

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It seems perverse of me not to have pontificated or at least propounded about the biggest news story since Harry and Meghan took off – beyond blogging about bog paper. I’m talking about Corona Viral Disease No.19, aka COVID-19.

No-one knows how bad things will get or how soon a vaccine will become available, but I have amused myself by running some plausible numbers. Let’s say that one-third of humanity is infected; that’s within the range that we’ve heard from experts. Then let’s assume that 1% of those unlucky people die. That’s below the rates that are being talked about; but those are based only on the known cases of infection, which are almost certainly the minority of actual cases.

There are about 7.5 billion people alive today, so my assumptions would mean a death toll of 7,500 million x 1/3 x 1% = 25 million. That’s a lot of people, but it’s equivalent to:

  • No more than 50% of the number who died of the Spanish Flu a century ago, when the global population was only 1.8 billion.
  • Less than 50% of the usual number of deaths in a year.
  • About four months of humanity’s natural growth rate (births minus deaths).

Moreover, mortality is going to occur much more than proportionately among the old and the sick, many of whom would die soon anyway. So when future students of demography examine a graph of human population growth they will notice a deceleration in 2020. It may pique their interest enough to glance at a footnote that mentions COVID-19.

Covid-19 and Toilet Paper

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Relative to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, Australia has a handful of Covid-19 cases. But intense media attention and Government exhortations to keep calm have predictably given rise to panic buying. Hand sanitizer disappeared first from supermarket shelves, followed closely by… toilet paper. There have even been scuffles in the aisles as people try to prise the last pack of this prized commodity from the arms of rival shoppers.

This morning I received an email from the Australian supermarket chain Coles, where we do most of our shopping. It informed me that the limit of 4 packs per customer had now been replaced by a 1 pack limit, and they had told their suppliers to concentrate on the 30-roll pack size. The email added:

“… a pack of 30 rolls should last an average family for around 3 weeks.”

As is my habit, I did a little arithmetic. Let’s say that an average family has 5 members. The toilet paper we have in stock (bog standard, and not a stockpile), has 180 sheets per roll. So if 5 people get through 30 rolls in 3 weeks they are each using (30×180)/(5x3x7) = 51.4 sheets per day.

What on earth are they doing with the stuff? Eating it?!

Sometimes I wonder if I was born into the right species. Do you ever feel like that?

Citizenship

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I live in Australia, where we have a Prime Minister (Scott Morrison, pictured) who is admired for winning an election against the odds and almost single-handed. But few people like him and fewer trust him. Like Boris Johnson, he won because people couldn’t stomach the alternative.

We were recently visited by the Prime Minister of our smaller, poorer sister-state New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern, also pictured). I’d hazard a guess that if the Australian electorate were given the choice they’d vote overwhelmingly for Jacinda to replace Scott. She comes across as sincere, principled, compassionate, straight-talking… the qualities that seem to be disqualifications for high political office in Australia.

Now I’ll come to the point. As well as making amicable noises about our common values and regional interests while she was here, Jacinda raised in public a very sharp-edged issue. Many New Zealanders live in Australia and some run foul of the law. If they are imprisoned for a year ior more, and have not obtained Australian citizenship, they are expelled to New Zealand on their release. Most of these people are long-term Australian residents and have little if any connection with New Zealand; in some cases they came here as babies. Jacinda Ardern asserts – reasonably in my view – that these people have made Australia their home and should be accepted as Australia’s problem. She threatened to introduce a reciprocal law in New Zealand if we did not change ours.

Scott Morrison stood firm, as he is wont to do (unless radio shock-jocks tell him not to). But there is another, equally hard-edged issue that undermines his intransigence. There are Australians among the ragged remnants of Daesh/ISIS held as prisoners in Syria. They are not wanted there, but are considered too dangerous to release. If citizenship is the criterion, surely Australia has a moral duty to take these people back, charge them with crimes, re-educate them, hand their children over to foster parents, keep them under surveillance, or let them go. But the Government says, “No.”

Scott Morrison likes to talk about keeping Australians safe. That’s fine, but as one of the world’s richest and most stable countries I’d say we have a bigger responsibility than that. Am I wrong?

Brexit

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So Brexit has happened: the folk
Of Britain are free of the yoke
Of the Brussels Beast.
Meanwhile to the east
Mr Putin’s enjoying the joke.

NIS Again: SA’s Interconnector

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I coined the phrase ‘Numeric Incompetence Syndrome’ a while back, and yesterday an article in my local newspaper delivered another glaring example. In summary…

South Australia’s connection to the national electrical grid is to be enhanced with a new 900km interconnector to New South Wales and Victoria. The capital cost is expected to be $1.53 billion. The article states: “To cover that, households would pay $9 a year in SA and $5 in NSW.”

Assuming an average household size of 2.7 persons (as in 2016 nationally), there are about 0.65 million households in SA and 3.11 million in NSW. So the total annual amount recovered from households would be ($9 x 0.65M) + ($5 x 3.11M) = $21.4 million. Even allowing for future population growth, this comes nowhere near “covering” an investment of $1.53 billion: to amortise such a sum over a 20-year life at a discount rate of 5%pa would cost $123 million per year, before considering any maintenance costs. So that’s error No.1.

The article goes on to say, “[ElectraNet] estimates the project would deliver overall benefits of $924 million over 20 years…” but adds that “the Australian Energy Regulator … has downsized the project’s 20-year benefit to $269 million.”

Who, in their right mind, would invest $1.53 billion in something that will deliver benefits of only $924 million over 20 years?! How can any sub-editor not see that this cannot be true?! Perhaps the word “net” was omitted, but surely “overall” was inserted to make clear that the writer means gross benefits.

My stroppiness is going off the scale. Journalism is not just about regurgitating people’s press releases; it has to involve some critical thought, some fact-checking, some exercise of common sense for heaven’s sake!

I have emailed the Editor of the newspaper with a link to this post and an invitation to respond and/or to publish a correction.

Surprising Numbers

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I’ve always been fascinated by results of calculations that seem disproportionate to the point of incredibility, but are correct. I get stroppy with people who are neither fascinated by such results nor moved to question and check them. Here are four that came to my attention recently:

  • I peeled an orange and weighed the peel. It was 31% of the unpeeled fruit, so a price of $2.99/kg turns out to be $4.33/kg of the edible part.
  • I read an article whose author decried the terrible devaluation of the US dollar over the past century: “A dollar in 1919 is now worth 5 cents!” That implies an average rate of inflation of 3.04%pa. A lot of central bankers would be very happy with that.
  • Imagine a globe with a diameter of 30cm (1 foot in the old money) representing Planet Earth. The depth of the atmosphere would be 0.3mm – the thickness of a child’s finger nail.
  • Research in the USA in 1997 found that average IQ had increased by 20 points since 1932. Eleven years later, similar research in the UK found a 14 point improvement since 1947. This is called the Flynn Effect. Other research suggests a pretty steady increase of about 3 points per decade – but only up to the late 1990s, when the trend appears to have petered out and reversed.
    [When originally posted, on 19 January, I mistyped “1970s” instead of “1990s”. Sorry.]