Flat lines, flat out lies

Those of us old enough to remember the days before Kung Flu might recall the original reason we had our liberty, income, mental health and freedoms massively impacted by our elected leaders.

Do you remember the reason?

Let me give you some clues; it was late March when Australians were instructed to stay home. The reason given was to…..

What’s the word?

Flatten.

That was it! “Flatten the curve“.

And why did the curve need flattening?

To not overwhelm the hospitals

There was even a pretty chart to illustrate the concept:

At some point between March and June, important factors changed.

Firstly, we flattened the curve. Has a political leader confirmed that explicitly? If they have, I’ve missed it.

Secondly, as a consequence of flattening the curve, we didn’t overwhelm the hospitals. We didn’t even use the emergency field hospitals set up and the regular hospitals weren’t overwhelmed, not even close to it.

Thirdly, and more worryingly, quietly and without any acknowledgement, the policy was changed from flattening the curve to completely eradicating all cases everywhere.

Let me repeat that; we are now clearly attempting to prevent anyone at all ever catching the virus.

Don’t believe me? Please explain why the state of Victoria has just re-implemented it’s lockdown due to 25 new cases being discovered?

A quick reminder, in case you’ve forgotten, there is currently no vaccine for the virus. Also, we’ve never found a vaccine for a coronavirus in the history of humankind.

Bill’s Opinion

The year 2020 is the year we collectively forgot many truths we’ve known for centuries. One of these is the fact that we have accepted the risk of illness and death from seasonal viruses for the far greater reward of all of the benefits of living in a highly connected global economy.

Without seeking our permission, our politicians have reversed this situation and have implemented a policy of zero harm.

Of course, it’s a false choice; harm is occurring as a consequence of their response to COVID19, we just haven’t started the reckoning process yet.

The Dreamtime Phoney War

On the June 1st episode of the podcast, TRIGGERnometry, Peter Hitchens made an interesting observation on the the current attitude of many people in the UK (but it applies equally to any other country undergoing government Kung Flu largesse):

He describes many people as living in a happy dreamtime where most, if not all, of their wages are being paid for by government relief schemes, the weather is pleasant and the consequences of incurring the biggest peacetime national debt have not yet been felt.

His opinion is this cannot continue and, when the plug is pulled on these various furlough schemes, there will be a difficult and tragic reckoning to be had.

The likely timeline for this mean reversion differs by jurisdiction but the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2020 is generally when these government cash drops are due to either finish or begin to taper off.

I say this without any hint of glee, but there are individuals and entire industries that are going to experience the financial equivalent of cold turkey.

What’s cold turkey feel like? Let’s ask a professional:

I can’t imagine what other people think cold turkey is like. It is fucking awful. On the scale of things, it’s better than having your leg blown off in the trenches. It’s better than starving to death.

But you don’t want to go there. The whole body just sort of turns itself inside out and rejects itself for three days. You know in three days it’s going to calm down. It’s going to be the longest three days you’ve spent in your life, and you wonder why you’re doing this to yourself when you could be living a perfectly normal fucking rich rock star life.

And there you are puking and climbing walls. Why do you do that to yourself? I don’t know. I still don’t know. Your skin crawling, your guts churning, you can’t stop your limbs from jerking and moving about, and you’re throwing up and shitting at the same time, and shit’s coming out your nose and your eyes, and the first time that happens for real, that’s when a reasonable man says, “I’m hooked.” But even that doesn’t stop a reasonable man from going back on it.

Keith Richards

Bill’s Opinion

Governments and central banks are about to discover restarting an economy is a significantly different prospect to stopping one.

I have no doubt our money, our children’s money and our grandchildren’s money will be generously thrown at the problem.

Some of it may even stick.

In fact, the Australian Government is mooting plans to throw figures like $20,000 at new home builds or to renovate existing homes. Obviously, this will have the effect of increasing the price of everything by a leveraged ratio of $20,000.

I understand the Keynsian theory is it doesn’t matter what the money is spent on but, now we’ve just run the biggest experiment to prove most people don’t need to live 8km from the CBD to be productive, why are we installing granite kitchen worktops in Mosman rather than building high speed rail links to an open plain in the middle of nowhere for developers to build around?

In the meantime, this organ has been sadly missing a previous regular commentator from Brisbane who frequented this place with gleeful tales of his investing prowess and acumen.

If he were to return, we might ask him to review this updated chart and answer the question, “what happens next?“.

Cradle to grave

It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be REDUCED to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours?… Was he, then, ALONE in the possession of a memory?

Some of are us may be old enough to remember, all those long years ago, when the official line was the following:

Bill’s Opinion

If 2020 has no other positive consequences than a massive realisation that the government isn’t your Mum or Dad, perhaps that’s enough.

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Faulty maps have brought the earth to a halt

Caught between the twisted stars the plotted lines the faulty map that brought Columbus to New York

Betwixt between the East and west he calls on her wearing a leather vest, the earth squeals and shudders to a halt.

“Romeo had Juliette” Lou Reed

The Drake Equation was created by Dr. Frank Drake. From wiki:

The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

The equation relies on 7 variables to produce the answer to the question, how many alien civilisations are there out there?

The 7 variables are:

R∗ = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy.

fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets.

ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets.

fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point.

fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations).

fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Depending on the estimated values of each of these variables, we find that the number of alien civilisations in the universe sits somewhere in a range between zero and 50 million.

Let me repeat that. Between zero to 50 million.

So, the Drake Equation is an interesting intellectual exercise but of absolutely no use in determining any kind of tangible action to be taken. We’re not going to start sending Matthew McConaughay out light years away to make contact. Similarly, it’s probably a waste of time and resources building global defences against invading Martians.

Which brings us to the infamous Imperial College computer model used to produce the report which the UK and many other world governments relied on to determine their response to the China Flu.

Spoiler alert; the model is shit.

You didn’t need a programming expert to tell you that though, the evidence is flooding in from around the globe.

The model’s predictions are falling apart wherever we look. Hospitals are not overwhelmed anywhere. No, not even in New York City.

Awkwardly, Sweden seems to have magically saved tens of thousands of predicted fatalities despite ignoring the report’s recommended actions.

The holy church of the UK’s National Health Service is being applauded every Thursday evening like an inverse Emmanuel Goldstein whilst having barely any of the predicted volume of patients.

What’s going on? Well, one possible explanation is that we’ve made the biggest peacetime policy decision ever, based on shit maths.

How shit? Really fucking shit.

But it’s ok though, no need worry, the UK government have a plan out of this mess. Boris Johnson is basing his decisions to release the public and economy on the “R number”.

Great!

Curious minds might have one or two questions perhaps, such as:

What is the R number currently, and how is it measured?

To which the answers are, dunno and using guesswork.

Bill’s Opinion

The infamous pederast, John Maynard Keynes, said, “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?“.

My current opinion is that the initial responses to close borders and enforce some restrictions on public gatherings was correct and rational behaviour in the face of a new virus that has reached pandemic status.

However, the justification given for these suspensions of freedom was that we couldn’t afford to overwhelm our hospitals.

Tick. We didn’t overwhelm the hospitals.

It is not at all clear how using the R number as a reason to release restrictions can be reconciled to that original justification.

If we have managed to flatten the curve (remember when that phrase was fashionable?), it doesn’t mean the area beneath the curve has reduced. To be clear; the same number of infections and deaths occur under every model where hospitals are not overwhelmed.

Has any politician had the cojones to come out and say that yet? Of course not.

And this is the problem; going into lockdown was easy by comparison with the political courage required to end it.

As the Chinese (oh, the irony) proverb says:

He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.

Casually sinister, Prime Minister

Headlines are often misleading, usually written by someone other than the article’s author.

Regardless of that, the casual manner in which this is written, seemingly without considering the alternate ways it might be read and received, is truly frightening:

Earn“. As in, “earn” your freedom.

…more app downloads are needed“. All that’s needed to complete the sentence is, “or else“.

Perhaps the headline doesn’t reflect the facts contained within the story. After all, the Sydney Morning Herald had hundreds of headlines about Russian hacking of various elections without providing any evidence within those articles.

Sadly, no; The Prime Minister really went there:

About 3.6 million people, or 15 per cent of the population, have downloaded the CovidSafe app, used to determine who has had contact with an individual carrying the virus, since its release last Sunday. This is far short of the government’s target for 40 per cent adoption, with a focus on those over the age of 16.

“That is the ticket to opening up our economy – to getting people back into jobs and getting businesses open again,” Mr Morrison said.

Great. Suddenly that “voluntary” app (that still hasn’t had the associated privacy legislation passed, by the way) is starting to feel a little less of a free choice with no negative consequences for conscientious objectors.

In fact, who else wonders whether, if 80% of the population vote “nien danke” to the app, there won’t be further legislation defining what public services and spaces one is unable to use without showing it running on your device?

Bill’s Opinion

The opinions about this app are polarised. It’s yet again another Brexit/Trump/gay marriage type issue; if you’re on one side of the conversation, you are able to loudly express your opinion without fear of censure. The other side, however, sit quietly seething in the knowledge they will be shouted down for even suggesting there may be a microscopic smidgen of merit to the suggestion the app is government overreach.

Personally, I’m not downloading the app voluntarily. If I find myself restricted in society as a consequence, I’d reconsider that for precisely as long as it takes me to emigrate.

The question would be at that point, to where? The entire globe seems to have pivoted overnight to a socialist, Keynesian, semi-authoritarian dystopia.

Appy clappy people of faith

Whenever there were skirmishes in satellite states during the Cold War, some wag would always crack the joke that, to compensate for being late for the first and second world wars, America was determined to be early for the third.

Now that the data starts to arrive from many locations around the world suggesting the infection fatality rate of the Kung Flu is a fraction of the first estimates, governments are demonstrating the sunk cost fallacy to compensate for their previous tardiness.

One example is the multiple “tracing” apps developed for mobile phones, ostensibly to enable the tracking of contacts once an individual has been diagnosed with the virus.

Both the UK and Australia have launched their versions of this, despite the now obvious fact that the health systems have not been overwhelmed and the less obvious but increasingly likely calculation that the death rate is only a little higher than seasonal ‘flu, a risk we have long since accepted as part of daily life.

This is a classic sunk cost fallacy – spending money on this development was possibly the right decision at the time given the contemporaneous information, but events have overtaken us in the meantime, yet we are still pressing ahead with the roll out.

The Australian app is particularly pointless; new cases have decreased to a trickle and happily, new deaths are in the single digits. An Australian resident currently has more chance of winning the lottery jackpot than meeting an infected person.

Yet, the app was launched yesterday to much fanfare and, frankly, virtue signalling by our media-political class. “Download this app and save lives“, is our generation’s “Dig for victory“, it would seem.

What is most remarkable is the cognitive dissonance required to accept the triple proposition that this app will, 1) be effective, 2), won’t be used maliciously or for a new purpose and 3) won’t be subject to the usual data leaks, cyber weaknesses and failures of every government IT project.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Australian Federal government and all of its security and intelligence departments couldn’t prevent “a sophisticated state actor” from hacking the parliamentary email system.

Ah, those naive and simpler days back in, erm, February last year.

What is most remarkable though, are the loudest voices proclaiming their virtue regarding the questionable app.

The same people who recently were ascribing mendacity and duplicity as motives to the current governing political party with regards their actions on refugees, climate change, bush fires, Julian Assange, same sex marriage, etc. are now the loudest voices calling for absolute trust in both the motives and competency of the current administration.

You can find your own celebrity examples of this, I’m sure, but even the most cursory wander in the sewers of social media will provide evidence of this miraculous volte face by the government’s previously most vociferous critics.

Bill’s Opinion

I would like to offer a pertinent and relevant axiom;

Anyone who believes the government is benign and/or competent has either never met a politician or civil servant or has achieved an almost Jedi level of cognitive dissonance.

Freedom ‘20

1993

Many lifetimes ago, a young worker in the City of London watched as, in response to a large IRA bomb attack, armed police officers were deployed to patrol the streets and the road entrances to the area had permanent checkpoints installed and manned around the clock.

That young worker watched in horror as his fellow citizens happily accepted this radical change to the method of policing in response to a single event which, arguably, was a result of a multiple failures of policing and intelligence-gathering (for example; how did a purchase of 1 tonne of ammonia nitrate go unrecorded?).

2001, 2005, 2006

Eight years later, further radical changes were made to anti-terror legislation following the 911 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC. A further increase in powers was implemented in 2005 and yet again the following year as a reaction to the London attacks in 2005, including the ability to hold suspects without charge for 28 days and impose house arrest without a conviction.

Similar legislation was passed in other countries throughout this period.

Australia, for example, has passed 82 anti-terrorism laws since 2001. It might be argued that, given the comparative low level of attacks since 2001 (12 deaths, including the perpetrators) in Australia, this legislation has been incredibly successful. An alternate opinion might be that there’s been significant overreach relative to the low level of domestic threat.

2018

A decade following the financial crisis of 2008, Australia passed the Financial Sector Legislation Amendment (Crisis Resolution Powers and Other Measures) Act 2018 creating further powers to handle future financial crises.

The media scrutiny of this legislation was woefully shallow, otherwise you might have read somewhere, anywhere, that the legislation allows for “bail-ins”. That is, the funds in your bank account can be accessed by the Reserve Bank of Australia to bail out the retail banks.

2020

In response to the unclear threat of the China virus, legislative and policing precedents were overturned in a matter of days by governments around the world. In the largest abuse of Eminent Domain since 1066, businesses were ordered to cease trading, police were given powers to fine and arrest those who were not complying with highly dubious and contradictory guidelines for social distancing.

Social and tradition media has plenty of examples of police overreach as a consequence, from police drones buzzing hikers in the Derbyshire Peak District, to Yorkshire police threatening, “to make something up, who they gonna believe, me or you?”, and a lone swimmer manhandled and arrested in Bondi for the crime of exercising alone.

The Australian Prime Minister expressed a desire for a social tracking app to be made compulsory for all citizens (and then changed his mind after some horror was expressed by anyone with the IQ above a gnat).

Many of these emergency measures will eventually be challenged in the courts and will be overturned or reduced in severity. The precedent suggested by the chronology described above is the legislation will then be amended to a form less likely to fail in the courts. i.e. the powers will remain, just with tighter legal wording.

Bill’s Opinion

As far as I’m aware, none of this legislation has ever been wound back. For example, the UK’s prevention of terrorism acts were initially designed to be temporary and had to be frequently renewed by Parliament. These measures are now permanent.

Similarly, financial and taxation legislation has only moved in one direction since, well, since the creation of the concept of income tax to pay for the Napoleonic Wars.

It is looking increasingly likely the fatality rate of this virus is nowhere near that predicted by the experts (who’d have thought that multi-variable computer models might not give accurate results?). Potentially, the final fatality rate is going to fall within the range of 0.1 – 0.6%, or about as bad as strong version of the seasonal ‘flu.

In which case, the global governmental response is disproportionate and should be wound back immediately.

But that’s not the point. Even if this virus was as dangerous or worse than, say, the Spanish Flu (2.5% fatality rate), there’s a bigger question you need to ask yourself:

“Am I OK with all of this?”.

Well punk, are ya?

The death of Princess Diana, 2020 reboot

Initial results are in from a programme of antibody testing.

The first large-scale community test of 3,300 people in Santa Clara County found that 2.5 to 4.2% of those tested were positive for antibodies — a number suggesting a far higher past infection rate than the official count.

Based on the initial data, researchers estimate that the range of people who may have had the virus to be between 48,000 and 81,000 in the county of 2 million — as opposed to the approximately 1,000 in the county’s official tally at the time the samples were taken.

Early days, first proper study, risk of confirmation bias in terms of selection, etc. BUT…..

This takes us closer to learning at least the order of magnitude of the critically important denominator; how widespread is this virus already?

Extrapolating the mid-range of the estimated scale (50-80 times greater than originally thought), the UK’s infection rate might be 7 million (65 x 108,000).

With an idea of the denominator, we can apply the numerator – the official statistics suggest 14,000 COVID19 deaths. Assume it’s more than that due to a lag in reporting, let’s say 20,000.

20,000 / 7,000,000 x 100 = 0.3%

A “regular” ‘flu has a fatality rate of around 0.1%.

Bill’s Opinion

The probability of COVID19 killing millions in a short period of time is looking increasingly unlikely.

The probability of increased deaths, long term harm and hardship due to shutting the global economy is absolutely certain.

Which is more likely to be worse? Last week, we might have said the effects of the virus. This week, that’s not such a compelling argument.

The reasons given for the suspension of economic activity and personal freedoms were twofold; this is highly contagious and highly fatal and due to this, our health systems will be overwhelmed.

It’s starting to look like the “fatal” part of that argument was incorrect. Excess hospital capacity isn’t even close to being used in most locations. Our numerator/denominator question is starting to be answered.

In a moment of collective madness based on mendacious Chinese statistics and by listening to an Imperial College academic with a dubious track record, we’ve created The Great Depression 2020/21.

The antibody testing must continue in other locations and rapidly so we can make informed decisions about rebuilding what is left of the spark of the miracle that has saved more lives than any other invention; a freely moving economy.

In the meantime, reopen and keep a close watch on hotspots of infection as they arise.

There is a war….

There is a war between the rich and poor,

A war between the man and the woman.

There is a war between the ones who say there is a war

And the ones who say there isn’t.

Why don’t you come on back to the war, that’s right, get in it,

Why don’t you come on back to the war, it’s just beginning.

Leonard Cohen 1974

Modern wars are funny beasts; they happen all the time but very rarely does anyone ever bother to formally declare it.

In the USA, Congress has the Constitutional duty/sole prerogative to declare war. Did you know that? How many times do you think they’ve done so since, say, 1942?

That part of the USA Constitution was broken once intercontinental ballistic missiles were capable of delivering nuclear warheads and a 3 minute warning was not long enough to hold a vote.

To Marxists, the real war used to be between the workers and the owners of capital. Since the Soviets lost the argument, many Marxists pivoted to looking for wars between ethnicities and gender, resulting in much of the lunacy in which this organ finds hilarity.

In the meantime, a massive war is playing out, hiding in plain sight, as illustrated by our Hierarchy of Kung Flu:

Where do you sit on this scale? Have you been Instagramming pictures of inedible home-baked sourdough and stodgy cakes?

Chances are you’re currently on the winning side of the war.

Now flip all of those statements upside down and put yourself in the shoes of that person. Obviously, the lower levels regarding health are universal, they could happen to all of us.

The real point of bifurcation between the combatants is the level 3rd from top; “I am a keyboard warrior; my income is unaffected“.

Depending on whether this is true for you is the difference between this period being a relaxing skive on your sofa, consisting of lazy mornings, online yoga, perfecting your barista technique on your Gaggia, chatting with your colleagues on Zoom, baking sourdough like an 18th century crofter, some online shopping, an early start on the Briar Ridge rosé and a pleasant evening with the significant other binge watching a streaming series OR absolute desperation as you deplete your sparse savings and watch your livelihood destroyed in just a few days by the stroke of a ministerial pen.

At its bluntest level, this is war between white-collar and blue-collar workers. Sure, it’s a fuzzy line; there are previously well-paid office workers who are now unemployed and wondering why they took out such large mortgages and there are blue collar workers who are still building and billing for their time.

In general though, the metropolitan types are having a lovely war, the people in the ‘burbs are staring down the barrel of destitution.

Magnify that out from your comfortable 1st world reality and look at the less developed countries.

India has hit “CTRL C/V” on the western world’s approach to COVID19 and enforced a 21 day lock down. Millions of the lowest paid workers have been told to somehow travel back to their home villages and have no additional source of income.

The human cost to this, in terms of malnutrition, riots, suicides, murders, etc. will clearly not be zero. Quite the opposite, in fact, it is probable there will be an appalling increase in harm to the population.

It puts the current 1st world problems into context but they are versions of the same issue.

Bill’s Opinion

The modern global economy has a complexity that is beyond the reach of current human understanding. Dismantling it at the stroke of a government pen has unintended consequences. It is not yet obvious from the available data which is worse; the effects of the virus or the consequences of the lockdowns.

It’s possibly a false dichotomy anyway. The choice isn’t and shouldn’t be framed as binary. Shutting down India as if it had an economy and society that operates like Switzerland seems like a regrettably poor choice.

Similarly, shutting down an economy in a consistent way across an entire national geography without reference to the multiple differentiating factors between regions isn’t logical.

The result is highly likely to be a continuation of the decades-old wealth transfer from the poorest to the richest. If you think you’re in the second category, I would warn against complacency; this trend is coming for you and yours.

Have a look at your luxury car, 2nd home, children’s private school, photos from expensive overseas holidays, etc. and take a moment to appreciate what might prove to be a view of the past during the “Roaring 2,000s“.

You gotta know when to Holden

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared Australians will be fuming after Holden allowed its business to “wither away” even as it pocketed $2 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies.

For non-Australian readers, Holden is was the brand name for General Motors in Australia and New Zealand, just like Vauxhall in the UK and Opel in Europe.

And, just like all the other brand names, the build quality of the vehicles was woeful. By which I mean, when compared to the overseas competitors’ products, the vehicles were like British Leyland’s Austin Allegro compared to the Toyota Corolla of the time; expensive, fewer features, less reliable, lower prestige.

Given the choice between a German, Japanese, Korean or even a French or Italian car, nobody with the mental age above a fish would choose to buy a Holden. Those few who did, did so out of some bizarre patriotic pride…. bizarre, because what’s the point of being proud of a shite product built by a foreign company?

Of course, this axiom played out over the decades in the Australian car market while market share declined annually as consumers bought every other vehicle brand rather than those locally-produced.

Politicians being, by their nature and the system within which they operate, incentivised only in the short term, pumped ever greater sums of taxpayers’ money into subsidising a company those same taxpayers (as consumers) were voting against.

Both sides of the political spectrum were guilty of this pointless profligacy, citing various fallacious arguments to justify their buying of votes with other people’s money; “saving Aussie jobs”, “ensuring the survival of adjacent industries”, etc.

Perhaps the most laughable reason was “strategic nationally”, by which people meant, “if China or Indonesia ever decide to invade, we can repurpose the Holden factories to make tanks in time to mount a credible defence”.

Yeah, just as long as the tank drivers had been trained in how to replace a faulty gear box ten minutes after driving out of the barracks.

Bill’s Opinion

Holden lingered on in stasis for at least 25 years longer than it should have been allowed. Every taxpayer dollar pumped into the balance sheet of General Motors or added on to the import cost of a foreign competitor, delayed the inevitable and cost Australians twice; once in tax and again in increased prices for a better quality Mitsubishi or Toyota.

Given a choice, politicians always do what’s expedient rather than what’s right.