Category Archives: News

Coronavirus Update 26/03/2020

Whilst both the UK and the US can be said to have been slow in initiating forceful measures to deal with the Coronavirus epidemics in their countries, the UK government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now, albeit not always with the necessary clarity, announced shutdowns of most social-mixing in Britain. Only ‘essential workers’ – a term yet to be satisfactorily defined – should be leaving their homes except for shopping for necessary goods, healthcare access or for suitably distancing exercise. There are problems in obtaining adequate protective equipment for front-line health-workers, but central government do seem to be making some effort to address this.

Unfortunately, in the US, the leadership vacuum in the shape of Donald Trump is more interested in spreading misinformation and bigging-up his own desultory (frankly negative) role in efforts to combat the virus and its consequences. Any effective efforts to counsel isolation of those with symptoms and general social-distancing, and to provide additional equipment and space in anticipation of the inevitable rise in the number of cases needing hospitalisation, have been taken by State governors, and mainly Democratic ones. Worse still, Trump is now touting the idea that ‘the cure is worse than the disease’ and that such restrictions as there are should be relaxed after another two weeks to allow business (and from his point of view the stock market) to recover. Apart from the fact that cases and deaths will almost certainly still be rising at that time, the degree of complacency this signals is likely to be extremely damaging to ongoing suppression efforts in the United States.

Chart 1 – Data from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

These different approaches by the executives in the two countries are paralleled by the tracks of the case and death growth rates, although it is impossible to say at this stage whether there is any causal relation. Be that as it may, there is some evidence that the UK growth curves are beginning to slope a little more shallowly, while the slopes of the US curves are static at best (Chart 1). The track of the 5-day average growth rates confirms this, particularly when it comes to the growth rate in deaths which with variable testing regimes is probably a better guide to progress, with the UK growth rate at 21.5% now falling below that of the US at 27% (Chart 2).

Chart 2 – Data from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

Coronavirus Update 20/03/2020

Current Trends in the UK and the US

More or less as I was posting my previous piece, the UK government was publicly rolling back on the idea that the aim of ‘herd immunity’ was the optimal strategy in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic. At the same time it published the scenario modelling of the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, which contained the following passage.

In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict [under a mitigation strategy] there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US. In the UK, this conclusion has only been reached in the last few days, with the refinement of estimates of likely ICU demand due to COVID-19 based on experience in Italy and the UK (previous planning estimates assumed half the demand now estimated) and with the NHS providing increasing certainty around the limits of hospital surge capacity.

Yet, as I described in my previous post, a figure in the region of 250,000 deaths could have been reached by somewhat simpler calculation.

There is little sign of any alteration to the trajectory I outlined previously. The UK growth in cases over the last 7 days averages at around 0.25, whereas that in the US is close to 0.3. This means that new confirmed cases each day in the UK are around a quarter of the total cases from the day before, but in the US this is closer to one third. These differences may represent policy changes in each country, with the UK restricting testing to hospitalised cases, and the US attempting to ramp up testing from its previous relatively low level. We can project these rates of growth into the future however to suggest that the UK will have reached 10,000 cases in around five days, and the US 100,000 cases in about 1 week (Chart 1). Over the last few days the UK death rate has risen alarmingly, currently running at around 0.35 (35% additional deaths each day), considerably higher than the US mortality growth rate which as would be expected appears to be converging on the case growth rate. If this trend were to continue, the UK would have experienced 1,000 Covid-19 deaths in 5 days time, 1 day earlier than the US. It’s not clear why the UK death rate should be increasing so rapidly; maybe because of the lag in time between case detections and deaths, maybe because of the populations initially infected. The most concerning reason would be that even at this early stage the NHS is being stretched beyond capacity by the epidemic.

Chart 1 – Data from https://www.worldometers.info/
Continue reading Coronavirus Update 20/03/2020

The Mathematics of the Coronavirus

Epidemics and Exponential Growth

Some of the most important information about the Coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic is to be found not from medical knowledge or in the lab but from basic mathematics. The key to understanding this behaviour is in the mathematics of exponential growth. What does this mean? There are two ways in which regular increases of anything can occur – either by constant addition – arithmetic growth – or by constant multiplication – exponential growth. We can illustrate the difference by starting from 1. If there is daily arithmetic growth of 2, then on the second day the total will be 1 + 2, so 3, on the third day the total will be 1 + 2 + 2, so 5, on the fourth day 1 + 2 + 2 + 2, so 7, and so on. If there is daily exponential growth of 2, then on the second day the total will be 1 × 2, so 2, on the third day 1 × 2 × 2, so 4, on the fourth day 1 × 2 × 2 × 2, so 8, and so on. The difference is in the sign – a plus sign in the case of arithmetic growth, a multiplication sign in the case of exponential growth. As is made clear by Chart 1 below, although the arithmetic growth gives higher totals initially, exponential growth very quickly afterwards leads to higher and rapidly increasing values.

Chart 1

Epidemics cause exponentially increasing numbers of cases because for every person who is infected, that person can in turn infect another. The number of people each infected person in turn infects every day multiplies the number of cases. If we start off with one person who then infects one other over 24 hours, and these two each infect another over the following 24 hours, and all four infected each in turn infect one other the next day, and so on, then we have the daily exponential growth of 2 we described above. This might be quite an extreme epidemic, but in any case where the number of new infections is increasing each day, the growth will be exponential, rather than arithmetic.

Continue reading The Mathematics of the Coronavirus

Labour Must Not Reverse on Policy

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader (Image from the Press Gazette – Joe Giddens/PA)

So there we have it. The polls were right, and produced the electoral results that could have been anticipated from them. To the extent that is a surprise it is only because of the unexpected result of the 2017 election and the rarely-fulfilled dream of some substantial tactical voting. Of course Scotland is a rather different story, and one that looks likely to run and run.

As far as England is concerned, Labour seem to have been caught in a Brexit trap – divided both within and without by the either/or nature of the question. It could neither fully embrace what was always primarily a right-wing nihilist project, nor fully reject a referendum result that was backed by many in ‘working class Labour heartlands’ – irrespective of which side actual Labour voters had supported in that referendum. At least the Conservative majority gives that issue some clarity; whatever Brexit brings over the next five years – and it is unlikely to be anything particularly good – it will be entirely at the doors of Boris Johnson (if he survives without terminal scandal) and the Tories.

Continue reading Labour Must Not Reverse on Policy

A Second Brexit Referendum?

Returns to Scale in Frankfurt's business district
Returns to Scale in Frankfurt’s business district ©www.diarmidweirphotography.co.uk

In my last piece on Brexit I somewhat underplayed the role of a second referendum – suggesting that it would only probably come into play after a further general election, probably one that Labour won.

Things have moved on from then in that the negotiations have coalesced into a deal with which, rather remarkably, neither the desires of the ultra-Brexiteers for a clean break with Europe, nor those of the DUP for the guaranteed absence of Irish Sea trade barriers, are satisfied. This took some doing, and now gives Labour the potential role of maintaining a Conservative government that otherwise might fall – one they will not, and effectively cannot, play.

Continue reading A Second Brexit Referendum?

Trump in Scotland – Let’s Protest for Mary

Mary Anne Macleod Trump in 1935. By Source, <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Anne_Trump.jpg" title="Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Mary Anne MacLeod Trump">Fair use</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52325059">Link</a>
Mary Anne Macleod Trump in 1935. By Source, Fair use, Link

Donald Trump is coming to Scotland. He claims a special link to this country due to his Lewiswoman mother, Mary Anne Macleod. How should we respond to his visit – is it really an unacceptable violation of our liberal democratic culture for this American President to visit the UK and Scotland in particular? Is it right to think we should protest against him?

Trump is a unique figure among – modern at any rate – US Presidents. He pays no lip-service whatsoever to the norms of civility, respect, presidential communications and policy-making that have generally been accepted by holders of the office in living (and earlier) memory. He is a man with a reputation for dubious moral conduct, shoddy business practices and multiple bankruptcies. In setting up ‘Trump University’ he was guilty of outright fraud, for which he was required to pay a $25 million legal settlement. Continue reading Trump in Scotland – Let’s Protest for Mary

Brexit Endgames

Chequers - photo by Stephen Simpson (Public Domain)
Chequers – photo by Stephen Simpson (Public Domain)

Today Theresa May’s Cabinet are meeting at Chequers (the UK Prime Minister’s out-of-town residence) in an attempt to thrash out a final Brexit negotiating position with the European Union. As they do so, the biggest threat to Brexit seems not to be a realisation of its purposelessness, although that will surely come soon enough, but the process difficulty. This difficulty is entailed by a government reliant for its parliamentary majority on Northern Irish members who as extreme Unionists will not accept any further differentiation between rules and regulations applying between the UK mainland and their own country, as well as on extreme Brexiteers who will not stomach any residual taint of the EU single market and customs union. This sets up an irreconcilable clash with the EU’s shared commitment with its member, Ireland, who are adamantly opposed to any agreed additional barriers between the north and south parts of the island.[1] This opposition is both a matter of historical principle, as well as a practical concern over a reinstated ‘hard’ border being a focus for re-emerging intercommunity violence. Indeed Ireland and the EU both believe, a belief that implicitly is currently shared by the UK government, that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 commits all involved parties to the status quo in regard to the Irish border. Continue reading Brexit Endgames

The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 2

The Path to Brexit

David Cameron: Hapless Architect of Brexit (Apex via Daily Mirror)
David Cameron: Hapless Architect of Brexit (Apex via Daily Mirror)

At the root of the ‘Brexit’ mess is a possibly unprecedented act of self-serving recklessness by the leader of a government in a democracy. It is in large part one which lays bare the sham of the UK’s primary democratic process – its system for electing representatives to its governing Parliament. For some years the electoral prospects and the cohesion of the UK Conservative party have been threatened by a relatively small, but vociferous and unscrupulous cabal of individuals and groups opposed to the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation with other European countries – either because it was a proxy for a mixing of UK (read English) ‘culture’ with that of ‘foreigners’ of different ethnic or religious identity or it was a plutocratic rejection of the co-operation for setting anti-exploitation rules as a basis for national and economic competition, or in quite a few cases – both.

In the winner-takes-all electoral system created by First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) the leaking of Conservative Party support (and even Parliamentary personnel) toward the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage was not an incremental risk but an existential one. The party risked being out of power perhaps indefinitely and even being reduced to a rump of MPs with little compensatory chance of UKIP allies, as the right of centre vote became split, allowing more EU-friendly left of centre parties to dominate. The Conservative Party, having little in the way of clear principles or ideas to bind it, requires the prospect of power and career advancement above all else to unite its members – particularly its Parliamentary contingent.[1] Continue reading The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 2

The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 1

This is the first of three blog posts examining the past, present and future of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

The Role and Nature of the European Union

Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum)
Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum)

The great divide in politics (and perhaps human affairs in general) is between co-operation and competition – whether between individuals, businesses or countries. The role of co-operation is to pool decision-making for a greater shared benefit, including the benefit of avoiding foreseeable future conflicts. The role of competition is to pit resources, techniques and organisational structures against each other to find the ones that work best. The degree to which one or other is favoured – even to the extent of fetishisation – tends to define political outlooks.

There are two main arguments for the pre-eminence of co-operation, all else equal. Firstly, it is potentially less wasteful – all resources, techniques and structures are focussed on common goals, whereas under competition the losing approaches may have consumed much with little useable output. Secondly any worthwhile competition requires a co-operative base – to determine the winning criteria, and to set the framework of rules that makes the result meaningful. (Note that this latter even applies to the ultimate competitive scenario – that of war; conventions generally exist to avoid the destruction of the civilisations and the planet that are being fought over.) Continue reading The EU, Democracy and Brexit – Part 1

The Fragility of Bitcoin

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/BitCoin_Logo_With_US_Dollar.png
By Web-dev-chris (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Launched in 2009, and of wider interest since 2013, the ‘cryptocurrency’ Bitcoin has seen both a rise in its value in relation to existing national and supranational currencies, and in the discussion of its forming a partial or even complete replacement to those currencies. This article outlines the nature of Bitcoin and of traditional currencies and how they differ, and so examines the case for Bitcoin’s future acceptance and valuation.

The urtext of Bitcoin – the so called ‘White Paper’ by Satoshi Nakamoto – focuses on the reversibility of traditional electronic money transfers and how this necessitates banks as trusted third-parties in these transactions.[1] The ‘cryptographic proof’ method of transferring bitcoins was devised initially to lock-in successive electronic transactions as part of a ‘blockchain’ of data, so as to eliminate the role of banks in preventing reversibility and double spending. In essence the collaborative use of computing power is used to verify the chronological order of transactions. The security and anonymity aspects of conducting transactions in this way is not the subject of this piece. The transactions thus carried out and recorded could be actually be denominated in any existing currency. Chains of such transactions would need to be closed by the transfer of that currency (physical or electronic) from the initial donor to the final recipient. Continue reading The Fragility of Bitcoin