Friday, July 31, 2020

A Virtual Enchanted Ground Bardic Circle

As some of you know, I am a long time participant in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation, mostly medieval and renaissance but including everything before the seventeenth century. I normally spend two weeks of each year camped out with ten thousand other crazy people in a private campground about an hour north of Pittsburgh. One of my contributions to the event is hosting a bardic circle, a group of people sitting around a campfire in my encampment in the evening entertaining each other with poems, stories, songs, music, and on one occasion a play. The idea is to create the illusion of a group of period people entertaining each other, so all conversation is "in persona," done from the point of view of the invented period person you are playing. Not "this song is late Elizabethan" but "this is a song popular at Her Majesty's court." Pieces do not have to be actually period, although period pieces are appreciated.

Due to the present unpleasantness, Pennsic was cancelled this year, I think for the first time in the fifty some years it has been happening. I am accordingly holding my bardic circle online using Zoom, starting this Sunday, which would have been the first night of the second week, when I normally start the circle.

Everyone is welcome, including people who only come to listen, but if you are going to be visible on Zoom you should be wearing something that looks plausibly period.

The schedule is:

Sunday, starting at noon Pacific time


Monday-Wednesday starting at 3:00 P.M.


Thursday starting at noon.


Friday starting at 6 PM.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A Density Query

One factor relevant to different rates of Covid deaths in different countries is population density. People often talk about herd immunity as if it required the same percentage of immune people everywhere, but that obviously is not true. In a society where the average individual only encounters someone else every three months, herd immunity starts at zero percent immune. The more people interact, the higher the fraction that must be immune in order that each infected person will, on average, pass the disease on to fewer than one more.

Frequency of interaction depends in part on population density, but not the density calculated by dividing population by area. Adding a million square miles with nobody living there to a country sharply reduces the average population density defined in that way but has no effect on the average density experienced by an individual. What the usual definition is measuring is  density per acre averaged over acres. What we want is the density averaged over people, giving heavier weight to acres that have more people on them. That difference is the reason that people in a country like the U.S., large parts of which are nearly empty, tend to greatly overestimate how crowded it is — almost all the places they observe are places with people in them.

Does anyone know of a source for the form of population density I want? It might turn out that some countries had a much higher density relative to others than the conventional figure implies.

More on Misleading Covid Reporting

I am seeing multiple news stories warning that Sweden is a horrible example of the bad result of not locking down. They report, correctly, that Sweden's deaths per capita figures is a little higher than that of the U.S., much higher than Denmark and Norway, although a little lower than the U.K.

What they do not mention is that the daily death rate has fallen by almost two orders of magnitude over the past three months, from a high of just over a hundred deaths per day to currently one or two deaths each day, making the Swedish per capita daily death rate less than a tenth the U.S. figure. By my calculations, if daily death rates stay the same in both countries, U.S. total deaths per capita will reach the Swedish figure in about two months.

Can anyone offer an explanation other than deliberate fraud for a news story that mentions the one figure but not the other? It is, after all, exactly the pattern we would expect if a strategy of getting to herd immunity had succeeded.

P.S. I have now seen a different figure for Sweden, with daily deaths about ten times higher. I have not yet figured out why different sources are giving strikingly different numbers, but if the second number is correct, what I wrote in this post is wrong.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pretending that Good News is Bad News

The headline of a news story today:

CDC study shows COVID-19 cases may be 10 times higher than reported

The story warns that this shows that states that are opening up are making a mistake, that the problem is worse than we thought. It does not seem to have occurred to the author that if there are ten times as many cases as we thought and the same number of deaths, that means that the disease is only a tenth as lethal as we thought it was, which is an argument in favor of opening up, not against. Nobody has been arguing that we should respond to each year's flu season with a lockdown.

The article also does not mention that this is the same result, in a somewhat stronger form, that was reported by people at Stanford quite a while back, on a similar basis, and for which they were severely criticized.

The explanation may be political bias. Trump has tended to downplay the seriousness of Covid, his opponents to do the opposite, and most reporters, probably including the author of this article, are opposed to Trump. But it may also be the bias that leads many people to believe that everyone else should be taking more precautions — against Covid, overweight, or anything else — than they are, hence to regard it as socially responsible to exaggerate any news that makes a threat look bigger, downplay or ignore news that makes it look smaller.

It is an issue I have discussed before, in other contexts, several times.

P.S. Looking at another source, it looks as though the claim is between two and thirteen times the number of known cases (for the U.S.). But I think previous mortality estimates already took account of some asymptomatic cases, so were using something larger than the known cases figure.

That said, the commentary continues to get precisely the wrong conclusion:

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security who was uninvolved in the study, told The Washington Post. “This study should put to bed any further argument that we should allow this virus to rip through our communities in order to achieve herd immunity.”

If the number of people who have had the virus is (say) twice the number we thought it was, then the deaths we have suffered so far have brought us twice as far towards herd immunity as we thought. Aiming at herd immunity may or may not make sense, but the new evidence makes the strategy look better than before, not worse, which is the opposite of Ms Nuzzo's claim.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

An Idea for Colleges in the Pandemic

The danger in realspace classes during the current pandemic is almost entirely to professors and staff, since students who catch Covid, unless they have some significant medical problem, have a very low chance of dying from it — as best I can tell under one in a thousand. For an adult over 65, which many professors nowadays are, the chance is much higher, perhaps two or three percent. The numbers are very uncertain because we do not know how many undiagnosed cases there are, but the relative risk is at least an order of magnitude greater, perhaps two orders of magnitude, for the older group.

That suggests a policy intermediate between realspace and VR classes — students free to interact in realspace, faculty in VR. Classes  work just as last year except that the professor has been replaced by a video screen. The class can see the professor on the screen, the professor can see the class via a video camera in the front of the classroom. It would be the same approach by which I once gave a talk in the country of Georgia from my office in San Jose. Judging by my experience, it works almost as well as a live talk.

Not all students or all teachers are the same. In an improved version of what I describe, students who are at serious risk could attend virtually, with the feed to the screen also feeding to their computer and with the option to ask questions of the professor over the internet. Teachers who are not at serious risk, such as graduate student teaching assistants, could if they wished attend in realspace, which would help for classes that involved more than verbal interaction.

The last year I taught at Santa Clara University, one of my classes consisted mostly of Saudi LLM students, including a women with whom I had some long conversations about how things worked in her country. A college is either for men or for women. A women's college not only has no male students, it has no males at all inside its walls. The only way a male professor can teach in it is over video.

If the Saudis can do it, surely we can.

One problem that remains is the risk of infected students passing the virus on to parents or, worse still, grandparents. To deal with that, isolate students for a week at the end of the school year, then test them to make sure they are not carrying the virus. Quarantine any who are. Students who have gotten the virus and recovered are free to go home for Christmas and spring break.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Andrew Sullivan on Leaving Print Media for Online Media

Andrew Sullivan has a very interesting column explaining why he is leaving New York Magazine. Unlike Bari Weiss, he has no complaints about how the editors of the magazine treated him. He is leaving because enough of the staff are intolerantly woke that someone with his views no longer fits in.
What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.
What is interesting is not what he is going from but to. He concludes that print media, at least the parts he has been associated with, is becoming too ideologically narrow and intolerant to be useful. The reason that is not a terrible problem is that there is another alternative, online media, which can be much more open and diverse. His view of what his old blog was like is very much like mine of the Slate Star Codex commenting community.
But here’s what I do truly and deeply miss: writing freely without being in a defensive crouch; airing tough, smart dissent and engaging with readers in a substantive way that avoids Twitter madness; a truly free intellectual space where anything, yes anything, can be debated without personal abuse or questioning of motives; and where readers can force me to change my mind (or not) by sheer logic or personal testimony. I miss a readership that truly was eclectic — left, liberal, centrist, right, reactionary — and that loved to be challenged by me and by each other. I miss just the sheer fun that used to be a part of being a hack before all these dreadfully earnest, humor-free puritans took over the press: jokes, window views, silly videos, contests, puns, rickrolls, and so on.
So he is restarting his blog and shifting his efforts to it.

Jury Trial and the Problem of Punishing Government Misdeeds

The problem of government agents, in particular police, doing bad things is currently a live issue. It is one I have been concerned with for a long time — ever since Chicago police murdered two sleeping Black Panthers back when I was a graduate student in Chicago and were never charged with the crime. Looking back over old blog entries, I was reminded of a more recent and arguably equally outrageous case, the treatment of the FLDS, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that advocated and practiced polygamy, by the Texas child protection services. That was ended when a unanimous verdict of the state appeals court, followed by a unanimous holding of the Supreme Court, held that the acts were illegal, compelling the agency to return four hundred children to their parents.

In the course of the events, the agency committed multiple acts that would, if done by a private person, be tortious or criminal. They extensively lied to the press about the facts, claiming that they had found a large number of minor women who were pregnant or mothers, a claim justified by ignoring documentary evidence of age and assigning ages to the women in their custody based on their own judgement. By the time the case got to the appeals court the total number was down from thirty-one to five, with no evidence that any of them were the result of anything illegal, Texas having had a minimum age of marriage, until a few years earlier, of fourteen, later sixteen. They held prisoner two adult women in late pregnancy on the claim that they were minors, one of whom had shown them her birth certificate and was in fact twenty-two. Only after their infants were born did the authorities admit they were both adults.

Insofar as there was any basis for the initial seizure, it was the belief that minor women might be forced into unwanted marriages. A minority of the Texas Supreme Court held that that would have justified the seizure of such women — there were 27 from 14-17 — but not the rest of the four hundred children seized. Insofar as any justification was offered for seizing boys it was to prevent them from being brought up to believe in polygamy. That makes the action an attempt to destroy a religion, which fits within the current broad definition of attempted genocide.

My feeling at the time, once it became clear how outrageous the behavior of the authorities had been, was that the victims should sue. Looking back at the case, my conclusion is that if they had sued, or if they had persuaded either Texas or Federal authorities to charge those responsible with crimes, they would have lost.

The reason is the jury system. The authorities lost the legal battle but mostly won the battle for public support. Most of the newspapers, with a few honorable exceptions, treated the claims of the authorities as true and ignored or downplayed later evidence that they were false. The perception in the minds of such of the public as read the papers and did not pay careful attention to the facts was that the FLDS was a cult that compelled underage women into the harems of older men, and ought to be suppressed. An honest judge, after carefully examining the evidence, might well have supported my conclusion — that the individuals responsible for the seizures ought to be in jail and the organization owed sizable damages to those they had imprisoned and slandered. The chance that every one of twelve jurors would have been willing to agree, to take the side of a generally despised minority against the authorities of the state of Texas, is close to zero.

The requirement of unanimous jury verdicts in the U.S. legal system is a good way of making it harder for the state to use the court system to misuse its power, to convict people of things they did not do or that were not crimes. But it makes it harder, even with an honest and competent judiciary, to use the court system to punish government actors for their misdeeds. In practice the most it can be expected to do is what the Texas court system, to its credit, eventually did, make them stop doing them.

A problem for current campaigns against unjustified killing by the police.

I discuss the issue of how to enforce law against law enforcers, in the context of a wide variety of legal systems, in one chapter of my most recent nonfiction book.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Covid 19 — A Question and a Comment

1. I have been wondering about the current evidence on mortality rates. Assuming, as I do, that the death figures are reasonably accurate — I calculated an upper bound for the number of people dying of something else while having Covid and being mislabeled in an earlier post — the uncertainty is the number infected. I gather that the high estimates of number infected, hence low estimates of the mortality rate, use the percentage of a random sample who show the relevant antibodies as evidence of how many have been infected.

But I have seen recent stories claiming that a large fraction of those who have been infected don't show the antibodies later. That is being discussed in the context of the question of whether having had it gives immunity, also relevant to whether a vaccine is possible. But it's also relevant to the death rate. If two-thirds of the recovered people fail to show antibodies, then a death rate calculated from the antibody data is three times as high as the real death rate.

Are there any competent webbed discussions of this issue? Anyone here done calculations?

2. I recently had an unpleasant thought about the politics of the response to Covid.

I think everyone agrees that the better the economic situation as of election day, the better the Republicans will do. It follows that Trump would weight economic costs of lockdowns and the like much more heavily, relative to health costs, especially health costs over the next couple of months, than his opponents.

According to which side you are on, you can describe that either as Trump killing people in order to make sure he wins the election or the Democrats trashing the economy in order to make sure he loses.

Of course, health costs also matter for voting, but my guess is that most people make their decision in terms of the current situation, not what it was several months earlier. It's even possible that voters judge by the amount of recent improvement as well as by conditions on election day, in which case bad conditions, economic or medical, a few months back, might actually benefit the incumbent: See how much better things have gotten.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Book from Blog

I've decided to see if I can make one or more books out of material from this blog. I don't have an exact calculation, but my rough estimate is that I have made more than a thousand posts, so probably upwards of half a million words. I am currently going through the blog, making a list of categories to sort posts into, with each category to end up as a chapter or section in a book. Obviously not all of the posts will be suitable to use but, looking through them, I think many will, so I should be able to get at least one book, possibly two or three, out of them.

Two question for readers, especially ones who have read the blog for a long time:

1. What categories do you think I should use?

2. Out of my list of categories below, which do you think most suitable for a book? The ones with a question mark are ones I am less sure of.

Climate + other environmental issues

Home Schooling (and education more generally)


            Law and econ

Gun control?

Cryptocurrencies and encryption?

Law and law enforcement




Republicans less nutty than they are represented as



My wish list

Science, inference, information sources and the like


Eugenic and genetic issues. Contraception. Polygamy.


            Adam Smith


Libertarianism and anarchy

Internet stuff and evaluating stuff

SCA stuff?

My writing? Novels?

My travels?






How to lie with statistics while telling the truth?

The FLDS Case



 Loaded Dice.

Robert Frank

Virtual Reality




Friday, July 10, 2020

Two Things

1. There is an annual "Friedman Conference" in Australia, which I had agreed to attend and speak at before the pandemic made travel too risky. This year they are doing it online, starting at 3 P.M. Pacific time this afternoon (Friday, July 10th). I am speaking on anarcho-capitalism, along with Bryan Caplan, at 6 P.M.

Everyone is welcome to come — here is the URL. I was told that the coupon code FRIEDMANFREE would give people free access to the conference, but I don't know how you are supposed to use it. There will apparently be an online social room, which should be a good place for conversation, as well as talks for 24 hours more or less nonstop by lots of interesting people.

2. For any readers who were readers of Slate Star Codex before it shut down, parts of the community have now moved to

Thursday, July 09, 2020

How do I filter .ru out of a Google search?

I routinely use Google to look for things online that mention me. Recently it's gotten much harder because of the increasing number of web pages that are constructed by taking chunks of text from elsewhere likely to get clicked on, mashing them together, and then showing you either a fake update of adobe flash player or a fake exchange about downloading some book for free, generally the book that one chunk of text referred to. Both are presumably ways of getting something onto your computer that you don't want there.

It would be nice if someone could provide a way of filtering out all of those, but that might be hard. But a large fraction, probably a majority, are .ru URL's, and it should be possible to filter those out of a search.

Can someone more familiar with the more advanced features of Google tell me how to do it?

Can You Sue Law Enforcement for Defamation?

I am  thinking of a recent high profile case in Florida. Law enforcement planted video cameras in massage parlors and filmed various sexual acts, including Robert Kraft, the wealthy owner of the New England Patriots, receiving a hand job. They eventually arrested nearly 300 men and more than ten people associated with the establishments.

The original public statements made a large point of accusations of human trafficking, sex slavery, and the like, but the prosecutors have so far failed to file any such charges — it seems to be a straightforward prostitution case. I haven't looked at the case carefully, but it sounds as though there was never any basis for any claim beyond consensual prostitution.

That, of course, is illegal. The question is whether someone arrested, in particular someone as prominent as Kraft, has a legal case for defamation on the grounds that being involved with human trafficking is a much more serious accusation than paying for a hand job in an illegal, but consensual, transaction. Alternatively, do the proprietors of those massage parlors, who are the ones actually being accused of human trafficking, have grounds for suit?

The question is not limited to this case. My impression is that it is common for law enforcement to arrest someone, make greatly exaggerated claims about what he has done, and then prosecute on much milder claims. I am a retired law professor but not a lawyer and don't know a lot about the relevant legal issues, but it occurred to me that some of my readers might.

Assuming the statements are defamatory and the people who made them had no reason to believe they were true, is the government shielded from liability by sovereign immunity, or the individual by qualified immunity?

New Yorker Article on the Slate Star Codex Controversy

The article is long, perceptive, reasonably fair. It's critical mostly of the overreaction of some in Silicon Valley, seen as part of a more general conflict between tech and media. And it doesn't give Scott's real name.

One interesting question is whether its publication will result in the NYT dropping its article as no longer timely. One can hope.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Cases vs Deaths: The Covid Puzzle

I have been looking at graphs showing new cases and deaths for Santa Clara Country, where I live, and the contrast between the two patterns is striking. Judged by new cases, things started to get worse around the beginning of June, and rose pretty steadily thereafter. The peak was June 23rd, at a level about ten times what it had been a month before.

The pattern of deaths is entirely different. It peaked in mid-April at six deaths a day, fell by May 8th to one death a day, and has been averaging a little less than one death a day ever since. There is no sign that the increase in cases led to an increase in deaths.

One would expect deaths to lag detected cases by two or three weeks, but the increase started in early June and, as of July 5th, a month later, there is no visible increase in the death rate.

Two possible explanations occur to me. One is that increased testing has resulted in detecting many more of the mild cases, in which case the apparent increase in cases is an illusion. The other is that, at this point, the most vulnerable people either are being very careful, as I am — my family has been self-quarantining since mid-March — or have already gotten the disease and either died or recovered. The people who are getting it now are younger, healthier, and much less likely to die of it.

(The pattern of five days high, two low, presumably reflects less testing on the weekend)

Looking at death rates for the U.S. as a whole, I see a similar pattern, minus the initial high, presumably because it was smeared out by happening at different times in different states. Death rates peaked on April 21, have been roughly constant ever since. The pattern of cases is again similar, but not identical, to that in Santa Clara Country, rising until the beginning of April, gradually declining until early June, then rising almost three-fold by the end of the month.

U.S. Cases

U.S. Deaths

The other striking thing, of course, is that this pattern doesn't seem to be mentioned in the media. There is a lot of talk about increasing number of cases, not accompanied, at least in what I have seen, by any mention of the fact that the number of deaths is not increasing.

Part of the reason may be that the pattern is less striking in the case of the U.S. as a whole, where effects are smeared out by different timing in different states. Allowing for about a three week lag between detection of a case and a resulting death, the effect of the increase in U.S. cases should be only starting to show up in the death rate. It's much clearer in the data from Santa Clara County.

The other part of the reason, I suspect, is bias. There is a lot of pressure to persuade people that Covid is a serious problem in order to get them to wear masks and engage in social distancing, so evidence that it is less of a problem than it seems, that the surge in cases is not resulting in a surge in deaths, is likely to be downplayed in most of the media. In addition, making Covid look bad makes Trump look bad, and most of the media are hostile to Trump.

P.S. A commenter points out that the topic has not been entirely missed by the media. The New York Times had an article on July 3d noting that the increase in cases had not yet been reflected in death rates and discussing possible explanations.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Audiobook Issues

I have just finished recording all of my nonfiction books except for Price Theory and the two SCA books coauthored with my wife, and all of them are, or in one case shortly will be, up on Amazon as audiobooks. A number of issues arose in doing it, so I thought I would ask for opinions.

The first is the problem of headers. In a printed book, a head or subhead is  usually centered, often bold face or larger print, with blank lines above and below it, making it obvious what it is. None of that exists in an audiobook. The header is simply a word or phrase, distinguished by not being a sentence. It can be set off a little, by a longer silence before and after, but that happens for other things as well. How can one make it obvious to the listener what it is?

One possibility I haven't tried would be to have someone else record the headers. Alternatively, I could use my recording software to add reverberation or change the pitch of my voice or something else along those lines. Would that work, or would it just sound odd and confusing?

A similar issue arises for quotations embedded in my text. The simplest solution is to use "quote, unquote" to mark them, but that feels a little clumsy. What I did for the most part was to change my voice tone, I think adequately, away from my normal recording tone. For one book, Future Imperfect, which has quite a lot of quotations in it, I  got other people to record some of the relevant passages for me. That seemed to work particularly well when the quote was from a female speaker or someone with a British accent, but I have not yet gotten any feedback from people who bought the audiobook as to whether they liked it.

Also, any other thoughts on audiobooks, especially from anyone here who has listened to one of mine? Recording a book is a lot less work than writing one, but now that all of them are recorded I may have to go back to work. One possibility is another novel, tentatively titled "The Long War" and set in the same world as Salamander and Brothers but starting about fifteen years earlier. Another is putting together old blog posts as a book. A third is working on more of the essays for my collection of short literature with interesting economic insights in it.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Part of the Covid Mortality Puzzle

We would like to know  the mortality rate, the percentage of people who get the disease who die as a result. That requires two numbers: number infected and number dead as a result.

The best estimates of number infected come from seroprevalence studies, testing a random sample of people for evidence that they have had the disease. There has been a good deal of discussion of the results, which generally indicate a much larger number, up to ten times as large, as the number of recorded cases.

I have not seen a careful discussion of problems with the other number. Under current circumstances, I think it unlikely that many deaths in developed countries will be missed, since the symptoms that suggest Covid are obvious and tests available. But we might err in the other direction, by counting deaths due to other causes but occurring to people infected with Covid. As a number of people have pointed out hospitals have a financial incentive to classify a death whose cause is ambiguous as due to Covid.

How large could that effect be?

I start with a high value of number infected in the U.S. — ten times the number of known cases, or 28 million. Assume, for simplicity, that those infections were spread out evenly over a period of four months and that each would test positive for a month. Then the number who would test positive at any given time was 7 million, or about 2% of the population.

The  U.S. mortality rate from all causes is 2,813,503 per year. I want to know how many of those would have died from causes other than Covid, over a four month period, while infected, so I multiply by .02 for number infected, divide by 3 for a third of a year of mortality. The result comes to about 19,000.

That should be an upper bound on by how much we are overcounting covid mortality by classifying deaths of people infected with Covid but due to other causes as due to Covid. The current count for total deaths in the U.S. due to Covid is 131,000. Assuming I haven't made any mistakes in my very rough calculation, that might be too high, but not by very much.

Readers are welcome to point out errors in either the logic or the numbers I am using, remembering that what I am looking for is an upper bound on the overcount.