Good Things From Bad Infections

Standard

Covid-19 inspires dread and may bring about the deepest economic recession of the twenty-first century. But it also inspires creativity, kindness and a true sense of community. Oh, and criminality and cruel hoaxes too, but let’s leave them aside for now. Let me mention two examples of what I mean…

Today is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, when we recognise the heroism of our armed forces and mourn the fallen. The day starts with a Dawn Service in every city, every town and everywhere worldwide where there are more than a handful of Aussies and Kiwis. These are always well attended.

Because of Covid-19 the normal gatherings were not allowed today, so our local RSL (Returned and Services League) delivered invitations to surrounding houses inviting us to stand in our driveways at 0615 holding candles, to at least hear the sounding of Last Post and the reading of “They shall grow not old…”; and then walk to the RSL Club for tea and an Anzac biscuit and a chat with club members – observing the obligatory 1.5m social distancing rule of course.

We accepted the invitation and it was a moving experience. We also got to meet neighbours whom I usually see only when I’m collecting for the Salvation Army. I’m expecting a repeat, without the social distancing, in future years.

My second example is the astounding success of an old soldier’s fund-raising on behalf of the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service). 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore resolved to walk 100 laps of his garden, with online sponsorship to raise a targeted GBP1,000 before his 100th birthday. He has actually raised close to GBP30 million. And to top it off, he now holds the record as the oldest person to have a single at No.1 in the British charts. If you haven’t seen and heard the video-clip already, click here now.

This is not the same record as ‘Ground Control to Captain Tom’. Click here if you haven’t seen that one.

Tom Moore’s effort is not directly related to Covid-19, but I have no doubt that the stupendous scale of the public response has everything to do with it.

Covid Musings

Standard

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?

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.]

This Year’s Stroppy

Standard

We had some strong nominations this year, but after much internal debate the Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle goes to … drum roll … Ram Charan and Julia Yang, authors of a new book called ‘The Amazon Management System’, published by Ideapress Publishing and available… well, in most places where you’d look for a book these days. My old friend Ron Allan, who made the nomination, selected the following gem:

“Moreover, transparency of such ultra-detailed, end-to-end (cross-silo and cross-layer) real-time and inputs-oriented data and metrics makes the usual uphill battle for cross-functional collaboration much easier.”

With management advice like this, who needs saboteurs? Thanks to Ron, and congratulations to Ram and Julia.

Oh, and the picture is a visual pun on ‘Amazon’, not an intended likeness of anyone either living, dead, extinct or mythical..

Pride

Standard

No-one is greater than Greta;
Humanity should fête her.
Tho’ belittled and trolled
She’s outspoken and bold –
If I were younger I’d date her.

Even without the photo you’d know which Greta I was talking about, wouldn’t you? Greta Thunberg has joined the small group of people for whom a single name is sufficient: Donald, Gandhi, Madonna, Mao, Meghan and the rest.

The reason I’m featured Miss Thunberg is that I heard her father interviewed on ABC radio the other day. The interviewer’s final question was “Are you proud of your daughter?” He answered “No,” having already explained that he and his wife had tried hard to dissuade Greta from becoming an activist for a cause they initially had little interest in.

It made me think about the word ‘proud’ and its derivatives. I remember as a child being told that I should be proud of my school uniform, and wondering why, since I’d had no hand in its design or manufacture. Moreover, I knew that pride came before a fall and in Religious Instruction I’d been taught that pride was altogether a Bad Thing. Even without knowing what ‘contumely’ meant, I got that Hamlet was not keen on proud men.

Of course it’s natural to feel pride in one’s own achievements – coming top of the class, winning a prize, scoring a goal – even though prophets, psalmists, apostles and Shakespeare are united in disapproval. But how can one possibly be proud of something that one has made no contribution to? How can I be proud that a person or persons unknown have won a match, or confronted a terrorist, or put out a fire?

I suppose a parent can feel pride in having brought up a child who does something good, and perhaps that’s what the ABC’s interviewer had in mind. But evidently Mr Thunberg believes that Greta did it all by herself; indeed, she did it despite her parents’ efforts to stop her. Good for him for giving an honest answer.

Or perhaps ‘proud’ and ‘pride’ are ambiguous words that mean different things to different people. ‘Respect’ is certainly such a word, and I’ve made a mental note to post something about that too.

While we’re on the subject of language, don’t forget that the announcement of this year’s Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle (aka ‘the Stroppy’) will be made on 17 January. Get your nomination in now! Deadline: 2359 hours GMT, Thursday 16 January.