Sunday, July 12, 2020

What I've been reading

I’ve been reading a bit lately. Recent books:

Agent Zero by Jack Mars

This is by a NYT bestselling author, which is a mystery. No, the plot is not a mystery, it’s the author’s bestseller status. Imagine a combination of Perils of Pauline, where every few minutes the lead character miraculously escapes gruesome death, and How Not to Conduct Espionage. Every detail of espionage is simply wrong.

No one uses his real name at home and a single cover identity for all covert or clandestine operations. That’s a guaranteed short career. Every operation requires its own cover name and legend, tailored to the needs of the source. If he doesn’t like Americans, you need to be a Bolivian or a Finn. If the source wants to feel as though he is of high interest, you need to know how to pronounce the names of the important people you’re supposedly briefing. If he is introverted, you probably should be, too. Or extraverted. This list could go on forever.

The safe houses are a joke. They simply don’t work that way. The same with cash. It may be advantageous for the source to believe money is of no concern to you; it’s of significant concern to the multiple layers of oversight imposed on your work. If you’re three cents off on your cash account, you’re chained to the railings until you can fix it.

Torture is the least reliable method of interrogation, but seems to be the only one with which the author has any familiarity. The more brutal the interrogator, the less reliable the information.

Perhaps the greatest fallacy is the world-famous spy. There are none. If you’re world famous you’ll probably get your sources killed. If to all outward appearance you are insignificant and inoffensive, the man nobody notices, you can operate at will. If you feel a need to brag about your work, you’re in the wrong profession.

The characters are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts with all the depth of an inebriated Valley Girl and all the empathy of a shark. The action scenes could have been found in a first grader’s “How I spent my summer being potty-trained and saving the world.”

Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdown, by Alex Berenson.

This non-fiction book is, to me, astounding. It’s quite short, full of science and logical deduction. I also felt as though I was reading my own autobiography. When we first became aware of a novel coronavirus, we knew several things. It’s a member of a family of viruses that cause the common cold, and usually results in respiratory infection. It’s almost certainly contagious and passed from human to human. Unless this is from another galaxy, it’s near certain that the worst thing to do is to lock people indoors. Transmission is rarer out doors because droplets are dispersed by breeze, and sunlight works against viruses.

We could predict that the most vulnerable would be the elderly, those with chronic heart, lung or kidney disease, and the immune-compromised. If we quarantined the most vulnerable and got them outdoors regularly, things should be tolerable. A lockdown is not a quarantine. The latter requires strictly limiting contact with the patient and banning anyone not in full protective gear.

Early information was covered in red flags. The Chinese, then the World Health Organization, assured us that it could not be transmitted human-to-human. If so, why did Taiwan close its borders on January 1 at great cost and difficulty? The Imperial College of London, using information provided by the World Health Organization, created a pandemic model that made no sense. It predicted 3.5% infection fatality rate, and that herd immunity couldn’t be achieved at levels below 70%. The two worst pandemics in history, the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu, never achieved more than 30 to 50% before herd immunity was achieved. And, the fatality rate was either much too high or much too low. There was no precedent in history of that level of infection fatality in a coronavirus.

Still, governments around the world relied on the model to make policy. They locked people down into their homes, the worst option. They ordered everyone to stop working. They provided no special protection to the most vulnerable. In the US, there was no science at all behind what a state permitted and what it didn’t. The closest estimate I could make was that activities that benefitted governors’ constituencies economically were “essential,” while those that favored a governor’s opponent were “not essential.”

Using epidemeological data from past widespread coronavirus, rhinovirus and influenza respiratory illnesses, I created a crude model that predicted an infection fatality rate of 0.35%, a full order of magnitude below the vaunted Imperial College model. I couldn’t share the information widely, because both Facebook and Youtube took down all content that disagreed with WHO, and labeled it false.

We never needed to crater the global economy. And we denied knowing what we already knew. There is a second volume promised; I plan to be at the front of the line.

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