Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Perspective on Covid-19 from an Unexpected Source

Growing up in the 1980's, the virus making headlines was HIV/AIDS. An audio book I recently listened to mentioned how early treatments to this virus were developed. This inspired me to look at how the AIDS epidemic unfolded and I was surprised to see similarities with our battle against Covid-19.

Consider these milestones:

Milestone AIDS/HIV Covid-19
#1 The virus is identified. A rare lung infection is noticed in a cluster of previously healthy gay men. Reports of a 'viral pnuemonia' are detected in Wuhan China.
#2 The virus is named, with some false starts. AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is used to describe the disease. The name 'Gay-related immune deficiency' is used, but quickly discarded. Covid-19 is named, though phrases like the 'Chinese Flu' are also used and discarded.
#3 Develop an early understanding of how the disease is transmitted. It's understood that AIDS can be transmitted through sex. More importantly, fears that AIDS could be transmitted through casual contact are debunked. Covid is thought to be transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets. Concerns that Covid can be transmitted through mail and other common touch surfaces are shown to be unlikely.
#4 Develop early public health measures to combat the disease. The first needle exchange programs are setup and businesses with high-risk sex activity are shuttered. We get our first mantra: Stay home, wash your hands, socially distance.
#5 A celebrity contracts the virus and makes headlines. Rock Hudson dies of AIDS, being the first celebrity fatality Tom Hanks and his wife contract Covid-19.
#10 The virus claims the lives of over 100,000 Americans

Looking at the above chart you could be forgiven for being unimpressed. Those milestones would match up with countless diseases. What's the big deal?

The mind blowing part for me: in the case of HIV/AIDS each milestone above represents one year. In about half the time it took name AIDS, Covid-19 has killed nearly 150,000 Americans.

Put another way: AIDS killed 100,00 Americans in 10 years; Covid-19 did this in 5 months.

I was a kid in the 1980s, but even I understood how scary AIDS was. In the early days, to contract the disease was to be given a death sentence. And yet, despite experts understanding and reacting to Covid-19 at comparably breakneck speed, the disease is killing at rate that far exceeds AIDS. Amazing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Gonna Be a Hot One

From two recent at-dawn runs:

Our heatwave continues with another crazy day:

Perhaps there's no better description of the heat than this screen capture of the DC Panda Cam:

That's all of us: Ugh. I give up. I'm so done with this heat.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown

It seems that nearly everything I know about the American Revolution is either incomplete or flat out wrong.

Take militias. Yes, this common man force had its moments of glory. But it had more than its fair share of failures and was often an ineffective fighting force. The Continental Army that I pictured in rags was indeed under staffed and underfunded. But that wasn't solely because the country was poor or lacked fighting age individuals. At the time, Congress didn't have the power to raise taxes and there were large swaths of Americans who simply didn't want to fund, much less fight, in the war.

The fighting force that did help win the day: the French. And it wasn't just land troops that made the difference, but the French Navy played a key role as well.

And that image in my head of soldiers facing off in straight lines opposite each other is only part of the story. Creative battle tactics were employed, including massive sieges where armies deployed engineers to help strategically strangle a city.

My understanding of how black soldiers participated in the war was also incomplete. On a positive note, there were black soldiers who served with distinction. On the troubling side of things was George Washington's relationship with slavery. His behavior goes beyond ignorance or being blinded by the time he lived in. He saw black troops performing well and knew of proposals that would add much needed soldiers to his ranks by allowing slaves to earn their freedom by serving their country. He had none of it. He was a slave owner through and through, working hard to track down his own runaway slaves and insuring others could do the same. His opinions apparently softened later in life.

Before you write off Washington, however, it's worth noting that one long held fact of mine does continue to hold true. It really was suggested that Washington take on the role of king, and he really did vehemently oppose the idea. Washington was a true believer in the idea of self governance long before anyone imagined such a scheme could work. In that respect, he was a man far ahead of his time.

Perhaps the greatest bit of misinformation I carried with me has to do with the state of our Union after the war. Ready for this: at the time the war ended the constitution hadn't been written, much less ratified. We were a collection of states winging it. The fact that 13 states constructed and agreed to the constitution before the American experimented fizzled out due to infighting is nothing short of miraculous.

So why am I bubbling over with American Revolution trivia? I listened to In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown by Nathaniel Philbrick and was blown away by both how little I know about this pivotal war, as well as how interesting it all is. Given the local history and my own research I've come to appreciate that the Civil War was packed with courageous fighting, unlikely victories and riveting tails of history hanging in the balance. Philbrick shows that the same can be said about the Revolutionary War.

A big part of my blindspot associated with this war is the fact that I've often studied the opening chapters. Philbrick's book skips all of this and focuses on the build up and execution of the final pivotal battle: Yorktown. There's no Paul Revere and Minutemen. Instead, there's a beloved, but exhausted General Washington wheeling and dealing to try keep the fight and his very country alive. Though perseverance and more than a good bit of luck, spoiler alert, he pulls it off.

The fact that I happened to read Philbrick's book on the end of the war was a happy accident. From the looks of it, he's written other books that when combined provide a complete narrative of the war.

I'm thankful that Philbrick's book was so well written. Not just because I enjoyed his recounting of this pivotal time in American history, but because he opened my eyes to a topic I know so little about. I look forward to fixing that.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

You wouldn't think that an audio book on calculus would be a page turner, or whatever the audio equivallent of a page turner is. And yet, I found Steven Strogatz's Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe to precisely this. Stogatz's text is blend of history, math concepts, and novel case studies.

On the history side, Stogatz adds real dimension to characters like Galileo, Newton and other classic names. He manages to both humanize these individuals as well as show them as the mathematic uber geniuses they were. I also learned about new folks like Sofia Kovalevsky, who holds a number of firsts for women in mathmatics.

And then there are the interesting case studies. Strogatz shows how calculus was deployed in topics ranging from GPS development to facial reconstruction surgery. With Covid-19 pandemic as context, I found the case study relating to AIDS drug therapies to be especially fascinating. But <insert name of teacher>, am I ever going to need to use <insert advanced math concept> in the real world? Strogatz makes the case, yes, yes you will.

The part of the text that I truly relished was when Strogatz switched into math-teacher mode. From his demonstration of using infinity as a problem solving tool, to his explanation of euler's number and countless topics in between, I loved how clearly he could break down complex material. I was blown away when he effortlessly explained why we can't divide by 0, something I'd taken as gospel but never considered the underlying reason. Being an audio book, however, some topics went beyond my ability to mentally visualize them.

Consider integration. Prior to listening to Infinite Powers I could have told you that one used integration to find the area under a curve. What I couldn't tell was: (a) how to perform an integration and (b) why finding the area under a curve is so useful. I still can't do (a) but thanks to Strogatz, I can explain (b). And in some respects the why is even more imporant than the how.

If you're still on the fence about Infinite Powers, here's another factor to consider: it makes a powerful sleep aid. Our 5 month old and I listened to this book, and on many occasions, it helped deliver him to dream land. And if the kid grows up to be a mathmetical genius, we'll be able to trace his first exposure to advanced mathematical topics to this book.

I'm telling you, stepping a back into 'math class' with Strogatz is a worthwhile endevor. You'll walk away fresh ideas percolating in your head and no pesky tests or homework to stress you out.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

That's So Covid

That's us picking blueberries for our 22nd wedding anniversary. In masks. Cause, you know, Covid.

Here's before and after pics from my first haircut during the pandemic. I got my hair cut right before July 4th, thinking there may be a spike in cases due to folks not social distancing during the holiday. Hopefully I'm wrong. Man, that was some special hair.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

A Local Guide to the Hazards of Covid-19

I love the seemingly endless ways to access and visualize Covid-19 data. Making sense of this data, however, is a different matter. That I've yet to crack. One of the best resources I've found to helps make sense of what's going on locally is Dr. Mike Silverman's Friday Night Facebook Update.

Dr. Silverman is the head of Arlington's Virginia Hospital Center's ER. Every Friday for the past couple of months he's been writing a summary of what he's seeing both in terms of local activity as well as national trends. It's become a tradition in our household for Shira to read the latest update aloud on Friday evening.

To get his take on the current status of the virus is to get hyperlocal information from an expert who's on the front lines. It doesn't hurt that he's a solid writer, too.

If you're an Arlingtonian, he's a must follow. If you're not, then you owe it to yourself to search out your own local Dr. Silverman.

My take away from recent updates: wear a mask, keep up the social distancing, don't panic, don't get cocky with the progress we've made and wear a mask.