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His Watch

Donald J Trump, President of the United States 2016-2020

According to the Johns-Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineerin, May 20, 2020, 91,938 died and 1,528,661 cases of covid-19 in the United States. This image of the President comes to mind.

The number of deaths from covid-19 is equivalent to 33 attacks on the World Trade Center, so far, and the carnage continues.

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2.1% of the U.S. is Paved

In 1969, the amount of surface area of the United States that had been paved had just passed the 1% mark. This is a map of New York State drawn by tracing all of the roads throughout the state and nothing but roads. Currently, 2.1% of the surface area of the United States is paved. It fairly reflects the population of the state. Nearly 50% of the state’s population lives in New York City.

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AI, Covid-19, and Social Distancing

In the age of Covid-19 someone should write a social distancing app. For example: Ping GPS data, available for every smartphone to report when people come close together too often or use bluetooth. GPS data is accurate to within four meters. Generally, bluetooth broadcasts a maximum of between 15 and 78 meters depending upon several factors. The app could record when it encounters another smartphone within certain distances, when and for how long was the encounter. Over time, a log file would be recorded. Statistics would be established for what constitutes good social distancing using these stats. An ideal application for this app might be a construction site or golf course.

If a golf course were 35 acres and was occupied by 250 people, as they spread out over the course there might be an average of 4 contacts per person at any one time. 250 x 4 = 1000 contacts. The app, registering a number higher than 1000, suggests a wider social distancing may be required. An alert is displayed: CONGESTION.

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Mulvaney Defies Trump

Donald Trump is not known for nuance. Anyone defying him runs the risk of a expulsion from Camelot, or rather, Kompromat. So it comes as an eye-opener that the Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, sent his lawyer to court Friday night to join a lawsuit brought by Charles M. Kupperman, the president’s former Deputy National Security Adviser, who has also been subpoenaed by the House and is someone already on the outs with the president. Kupperman is asking the courts to tell him whether to remain silent (Trump’s preference) or comply with a House subpoena.

This is different from the other administration officials who have simply defied the House subpoenas for Mulvaney, accepting the president’s order not to cooperate, as sufficient to justify their contempt of court status, which is sure to follow. 

This is the natural result of a strained relationship between Mulvaney and Trump since his spectacular press conference debacle which resulted in Mulvaney having to walk back his “get over it” remark. In it he declared that “Quid Pro Quo” threats are made all the time.  After all, Mick Mulvaney is still the “acting” Chief of Staff ten months in as Trump’s uses his Chief of Staffs as high-level go-fers, nothing more.

The Chief of Staff is key to so many important aspects of the Presidency and is yet another benefit the office of the presidency extends to Trump which he then, in turn, squanders for self-serving greed, vane-glory. What a far cry from the utopian ideal of a relationship between an important figurehead and the Chief of Staff we might have had were this president not Donald Trump. 

In Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, Roger Tribby, the Secretary of Agriculture, was chosen to stay behind in the White House during the State of the Union address. President Bartlet, before the speech, is giving him tips on what to do in the unlikely event he becomes president.

BARTLET: You have a best friend?

ROGER: Yes, sir.

BARTLET: Is he smarter than you?

ROGER: Yes, sir.

BARTLET: Would you trust him with your life?

ROGER: Yes, sir.

BARTLET: That’s your chief of staff.

Since he has no friends, is the self-professed smartest man on the planet, and trusts no one, Trump would have answered NO sir, NO sir, and NO sir. 

It’s hard to imagine how vulnerable Trump is right now and how threatened he must feel. Beware cornered animals.   

200530 COVID-19 NYC

COVID-19’s nature* is to spread as widely as possible. All of humanity is its domain. Slowing its spread is a choice we make. Wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing to delay the inevitable range of COVID-19 are the tools we use. How hard and how serious we are willing to work to that end is also a choice. Life goes on in any event.

If you’ve chosen to live, you are probably in mourning right now. The sacrifices necessary for you to ensure survival are considerable. You’re crying for the people you won’t see, the places you won’t visit, and the difficulties you’ll have to endure. If you’re young, these will seem small and mostly insignificant. If you’re old, especially if you’re frail or have health issues and are not already catatonically frozen by fear, you will be soon.

We might see a vaccine sooner or later. It won’t change much. You will not be afraid of catching the disease, that’s true. When there are 40% of the population vaccinated, plus 30% who already had antibodies in their bloodstream, we will have herd immunity. That’s a politician’s speech. That’s only true in the aggregate. As an individual, you are just as susceptible to contracting the illness as ever. You may even be more prone to catching the disease since vaccinated people, and those with antibody immunities will get sloppy and less caring about their hygiene habits.

We have made similar risk/reward choices before. We “choose” to not drink from stagnant ponds because we know harmful bacteria to live there. We “choose” to cleanse a wound because we fear infection. We “choose” to not share silverware, dishes, or napkins with strangers. We “choose” to wash and clothe and protect ourselves in thousands of ways every day. We also ‘choose’ not to defend ourselves when the effort would be too high and the rewards too little. For example, we do not wipe down the seat in the doctor’s waiting room since there was only ever a very slight chance of contracting disease there. Although you could get sick just looking at my dentist’s waiting room furniture, it was that bad. But that’s another story.

*The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Coronavirus ORF3a

Our protein folding group, Fold.it, University of Washington, is giving us known sequences of coronavirus protein to figure out its geometry.

Instructions from the group read as follows: The viral genome of SARS-CoV-2 encodes its proteins. This portion of a protein in SARS-CoV-2 is encoded in a region of the genome called ORF3a, but the protein’s structure and function are still unknown. If scientists knew how this protein folds, they might be able to figure out its function. The image shows SS (secondary structures) predictions from PSIPRED (a website devoted to predicting likely protein folds from known sequences) and hints which parts of the protein might fold into helices or sheets. Refolding this protein helps scientists to find possible conformations, which tell us how this protein is most likely to fold!

Sequence of amino acids in the protein:

WKCRSKNPLLYDANYFLCWHTNCYDYCIPYNSVTSSIVITSGDGTTSPISEHDYQIGGYTEKWESGVKDCVVLHSYFTSDYYQLYSTQLSTDTGVEHVTFFIYNKIVDEPEEHVQIHTIDGSSGVVNPVMEPIYDEPTTTTSVPL

There are twenty amino acids; each letter represents a different amino acid in the sequence.

For each unique sequence of amino acids, there is a uniquely folded protein, a basic tenet of protein folding.

The point of this exercise is to figure out the geometry of the coronavirus proteins. Knowing that is the first step in devising cures, treatments, vaccines, or medications that can stop the spread and devastation caused by this virus.

The New ‘Normal’

Friday, May 29, 2020: Financial District, Manhattan, New York City, New York State, US.

The numbers the New York Times posts daily are vastly improved compared with where we were but remain high and very discouraging. At this rate, we may never see an end to the infections and carnage.

New York City has half of the state’s population and half of the covid-19 infections,

and half of the covid-19 deaths. Yesterday was one of the best days we’ve had since this all began and yet there were 1,758 new cases and 99 new deaths reported in the State. When I think of all the hand sanitizer, washing of hands, gloves, masks, and social distancing New Yorkers have done and still registering 1,700 new cases in a single day its so disheartening.

Covid-19 is a severe and genuine threat. With the promise of a vaccine months, if not years, from availability, and the prospect of having to wait months before enough are manufactured and distributed, we live in a world where we must always be vigilant to avoid possible infection, the new ‘normal.’

Entropy and Coronavirus

Manhattan by Joseph Albers, hung in the lobby of the Met Life Building until a redesign in 2000, reinstalled in Grand Central Station in 2019.

Why does everything in the known universe want to become more diffuse, chaotic, and disorderly when all humanity wants to do is organize?

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, painting, 1949

In his book, Entropy and Art, Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007) attempted to reconcile the contradiction between the organizing tendencies in our nature and the principle of entropy implicit in the second law of thermodynamics; that is to say, between the tendency toward more significant organization and the general trend of the material universe toward chaos and disorder. Entropy and art may sound like an esoteric concern but was of paramount importance to me as a first-year architecture student.

The year was 1969. I fell in love with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, his new organizing principles for structures found in the geometry of biology. At the same time, however, there was this pesky problem of the chaos theory. If nature wants to devolve everything into chaos, why is everything we touch energized, organized, and coming together? In a campfire, the wood burns and becomes ash, smoke, and gases, all of which spread energy outwards more quickly than solid wood. But we use fire to melt iron, cook food, and make steam. My conclusion: Life was the only antientropic force in the universe. Life brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. I lived with this mistaken fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of things for the next fifty years. 

I discovered that if life appeared to act as an energizer, organizing and powering local phenomenon, it was because life only serves as a shepherd getting its local neighborhood to move in the same direction if need be, if only for a short while. Other than that, life does not add energy so much as it reorganizes it.

Why does this matter now? Humankind faces one of the most significant challenges it has ever had to negotiate, the coronavirus pandemic. No one had any immunity to the new pathogen, when it first appeared in 2019, in Wuhan, China. In a few short months, it infected 4.5 million people around the world and killed nearly 312,000. The new case count goes up almost in a straight line. The pandemic gives no hint of letting up any time soon. 

The virus tends to do what all life does. That is, life wants to spread out and dissipate within the domain it inhabits, that is, human beings. It ‘wants’ to infect every one of us, which is fundamental to the laws of the universe, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy. We may socially distance ourselves, wear gloves, masks, body armor, or what have you. In the end, the virus infects all except those that acquire immunity. Short of a widely produced and distributed vaccine, nothing will stop the spread of this virus. We slow down its ability to spread, at best.

Our bodies, indeed the entire biosphere, is covered with tens of trillions of microbes. We don’t think of them as a pandemic or infectious; most are benign, so we ignore them. Billions of tiny creatures, some more infectious than coronavirus, inhabit our bodies, biosphere, and biome, but cause no harm. In fact, many live symbiotically within. 

There is a difference between the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919 and the covid-19 pandemic of 2019. We were obliged to wait for nature to takes its course in 1919. Now we participate in the evolution of the pathogen. Who knows how deadly the Spanish flu would have been having the sick been able to climb aboard a jet and spread out over the entire planet in a matter of hours. As nature does what nature does, and, the coronavirus diffuses through its domain, we become the limiting factor. 

We are now an instrument in our evolution. This pandemic, unchecked, may have dire consequences for humanity as a whole. Even if the death toll is limited to a fraction of the total population, millions will die. Perhaps an even more significant threat: our economy and means of production to providing food and shelter for 7.5 billion people on the planet is in jeopardy. We must halt the pandemic and limit the destruction it causes. Fortunately, we now have the means to do that. We understand enough about DNA, RNA, microbes, gene splicing, and protein folding that we participate in the design, production, and deployment of a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus. We’ve done it before; we’ve created over 150 other vaccines. The only question is how fast can we get it done. 

I’ve invented a new word to describe our participation: homopartic, to mean humans’ involvement. As a species, we must control our evolution if we are to go any further. The world’s humanity understands what’s at stake. Evolution is homopartic.

Dead Man Walking

When daily walks around the neighborhood feel like scenes from The Walking Dead or Twelve Monkeys, it’s hard to argue with people who want to get out of Dodge. 1 in 42 New Yorkers has contracted the virus. 1 in 403 New Yorkers is dead from COVID-19. Even in places that are seeing second waves for not sheltering-in-place or wearing masks, their numbers are only half as bad as NYC. Why would anyone want to stay when there is now talk of reopening here in NYC, too? The New York we knew and loved is gone, if not for good, for a very long time to come. The kicker… New York is doing much better than many of the other states getting its numbers down.

Reason for Optimism

The date is May 28, 2020. Most of the U.S. has been in lockdown mode for ten weeks or more. While the numbers improve in about one-third of the states, in another third the numbers increase still. The number of dead Americans passed 100,000.

The problem is this: If you believe that we are going back to the way things were before the coronavirus pandemic, you are in a sit-and-wait mode. There’s nothing to be done but fuss over why things aren’t going back to the way things were fast enough. But, if you believe we’re never going back to the way it was, the goal becomes how fast we can reinvent ourselves. Case in point: if we’re waiting, air travel is unsafe, and it’s discouraging to think of how much time we waste when we could be traveling. If, on the other hand, we believe we cannot move until we figure out how to deal with this new twist on air travel, then engineers will get to work on how to refit airplanes so that they are safe, minimizing the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Of course, work continues on a vaccine and finding alternatives to travel.

As soon as we adopt the attitude that we reinvent ourselves for these new circumstances, the better off we are.

We must accept the POV that we’re never going back to the way things were and work to reinvent ourselves for our current circumstances. For example, there has been a 90% reduction in air travel. Boeing announced drastic cuts in future orders for new aircraft and necessary layoffs of assembly-line workers. Announcing reductions in staffing is a shocking transformation for a company that had orders lined up for the next ten years, just a few short months ago. Even if there is a vaccine sometime soon, it might be years before air travel is safe enough for people to travel again. Boeing should adopt the POV that we are never going back to pre-pandemic travel and begin refitting aircraft so that people can fly without fear of infection. That might be a challenging but not impossible engineering problem to solve.

New Rule: Shared space over time spells disaster. Areas that force visitors to share the air they breathe are rife for spreading the coronavirus.

Restaurants, automobiles, trucks, busses, airplanes, cruise ships, schools, theaters, gyms, studios, shops, salons, saloons, grills, bars, hospitals, offices, showrooms, reception areas, hotels, swimming pools, playgrounds, airports, bus terminals, train stations, roadside rest areas, and grocery stores are not safe. All of these spaces must be reinvented or remain closed.

There are countries that have done a better job of controlling the coronavirus pandemic. Some, such as New Zealand, have nearly eliminated the threat. But we live in a mobile society, and unless those places remain closed to people such as us, they must also embrace the idea that we are not going back to a pre-coronavirus world any time soon.

A Moment in Time

After an exciting night and exhausting morning in the delivery room, Joan, who had just given birth to our daughter Zoë, decided she and the baby would nap. We were at NYU Hospital on First Avenue in Manhattan. Finding myself with some downtime, I decided to get a coffee and the New York Times. These were the pre-smartphone, pre-Starbucks days when you read the newspaper, cover to cover, and the coffee came with or without milk and sugar .

I left the hospital and headed down First Avenue. Daybreak on Wednesday morning, there didn’t seem to be much promise to finding an open delicatessen nearby. I asked an old lady on the street who appeared to be from the neighborhood if she knew of a place where I could get a coffee and newspaper.

“Sure, just a minute over there,” she said, pointing West.

I walked in the direction she pointed. Sure enough, there was the store, just as she described, but it was at least a twenty-minute walk from where we were standing in front of the hospital. It was then that I realized that I had been talking to a much older person.

You see, as one gets older, time compresses. The old lady’s “just a minute” twenty-minute walk WAS probably just a moment to her. They say that unique events in your life mark the time. Periods with many unique moments take on an expanded time-frame. The time, as well as what transpires, seems to take more time.

I had just been through one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, the birth of my second child, before taking this walk. I would be able to recall with exquisite detail, this event thirty-six years later. For me, getting that coffee and paper was part of that event, too. For her, it was a walk that she had taken a thousand times before. Her ‘moment’ was my “twenty minutes.”

A House Divided

If Mary had asked those strangers to curb their dogs, or stop smoking, instead of asking them to wear masks, would she be met with the same frame of mind. The first guy was hostile and wasn’t going to have a woman with ‘an attitude’ telling him what to do. Moreover, he took the FOX NEWS stance, that libtards spout false science. His tone was nasty and meanspirited. The second man genuinely tried to comfort Mary, showing her the mask he wore below his chin, and telling her he had antibodies. It sounds like he had a case of coronavirus and/or tested positive for antibodies. Telling her, “not to live in fear” is another FOX NEWS, red state, Trumpist cry.

Today’s politics do not only polarize; they anger and frustrate people as well. It’s a comment on the times in which we live.

These are challenging circumstances; coronavirus is not well understood. People are getting seriously ill and dying by the tens of thousands. We’ve never had a nationwide, shelter-in-place quarantine. Suddenly, 38 million people are unemployed and the school year was cut short by three months with no clear date to reopen. There is a long, stealthy incubation period whereby asymptomatic people are spreading the disease without knowing it. There is no cure or vaccine for covid-19. The disease affects different age groups unevenly; patients over the age of seventy have a 20% chance of dying. The best we can do to protect ourselves is to live in fear if you will.

Appreciate Abraham Lincoln’s words during another time of bitter disagreement between two halves of this country,


“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” — Abraham Lincoln

An address given by Abraham Lincoln on June 16, 1858, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, after he had accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination as US senator.

He was right. The Union did survive, and it did become entirely slave-free.

Today we face an even more significant threat than the divisions between slave and slave-free politics. Without unified Federal leadership we have no hope of controlling the covid-19 pandemic, especially if we are determined to reopen the economy.

So far, we have done everything wrong. Stopping flights from China had unintended consequences. It only managed to send travelers on a more circuitous, dangerous route through Europe to the U.S. The C.D.C. refused help from the WHO. Millions of faulty coronavirus tests were designed and distributed by the C.D.C. before the problems were discovered. This set us back weeks at a point in time when every day counted. As it was, social distancing and shelter in place quarantines were not put in place early enough. States without severe outbreaks mistakenly made less of an effort to protect themselves. While many other countries have controlled their internal covid-19 infestations and begin to reopen for business, Americans wanting to do the same have no hope of controlling the infection with this disfunctional approach and lack of leadership. The death toll is already over 100,000. We might not be at the halfway point. That’s a frightening thought.

Covid-19 American Style

Mary and I went for a walk in the neighborhood today. No sooner do we leave our building and cross the street than we come upon a father with his little boy, neither of whom are wearing masks. Mary says to the father, “You should be wearing a mask.” To which he replies, belligerently, “Why, are you a scientist?” There was an argument that follows but it goes nowhere.

Mary turns back to me, and we keep walking. Moments later, we see another man and a woman sitting on a park bench ahead of us. The man is wearing a mask; only it is below his chin. “You should be wearing a mask,” Mary says.

“I have a mask,” the man says as he shows us the mask under his chin. “You shouldn’t live in fear,” he says to Mary. “I have antibodies,” he continues, whatever that means.

Mary replies, “I don’t know that. I’m wearing this mask for you. You should have respect for others.” Again, an argument to no avail. Mary is now practically in tears.

“I don’t want to live in a country with these kinds of people,” she says.

Covid-19 American style.

Were You Too Cautious?

When it comes to coronavirus safety, how would you know if you were being cautious enough? Should you have worn a face mask? Should you have picked up the mail without gloves or crossed the street when someone without a face mask passed?

My friend Neal had a simple rule for getting a motorcycle license: “Anyone who wants a motorcycle license should first be given a motorcycle learner’s. If you’re still alive after nine months you should be given a motorcycle license.”

If you’re still alive after nine months living in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, you were probably doing enough.