Planning for pandemics (repeat repost from 2005)

Vaccinations against Covid-19 have started in many countries. In lots of places, it’s been a chaotic mess but Israel has already vaccinated 10 per cent of its population. Meanwhile, in Australia we not only have to wait for an approval process, but for a lengthy planning period to manage such an exercise. I’m not a public health expert, but I could see the need for such a capability 15 years ago (see post below). How can we have missed the boat so badly on this?

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Where do you get your ideas?

The most memorable answer to this question came from science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who said “Poughkeepsie” (on checking Wikipedia, I learn that he died a couple of years ago).

But in the context of discussions about remote work, I’m interested in the claim that random physical meetings (the archetypal example being corridor or water-cooler encounters with colleagues) are an important source of ideas, and therefore a reason for not working remotely.

This seems to be the kind of topic for which the data will consist mostly of anecdotes and introspection. A marginal improvement is too look over my own list of publications to see if I can identify any where the source arose from some particular interaction.

Looking at my 100 most-cited papers in Google Scholar, most collaborations are the result of planning rather than chance. In pre-Internet days, most of my collaborations started from seminars and conferences I spoke at or attended because the topic was of interest, or else from direct approaches by a colleague, usually in the same department. From the early 1990s onwards, direct approaches mostly came by email, and work has been done the same way. In several cases, I have written joint papers before ever meeting my co-author(s), though in other cases in-person collaboration with one or two co-authors works better.

More interesting to me, are the cases where the idea has come from blogging. Some notable examples

  • My Zombie Economics book. Starting with blog discussions, the idea for a book came from blog commenter Max Sawicky, and was picked up by Seth Ditchik at Princeton UP, who also commissioned Economics in Two Lessons and my current book-in-progress Economic Consequences of the Pandemic
  • Cross-disciplinary collaborations with Henry Farrell and LA Paul both arising from my involvement with Crooked Timber
  • This paper, which started with a comment on a blog post to the effect that “future generations” are in fact already alive (At least I think that’s how it happened. I could never locate the comment to acknowledge the source.)

It seems to me that that these are much more like the kind of serendipitous links that are supposed to be generated by water coolers.

Of course, academic research is a special kind of work, and I’m much more involved with the Internet than most of my colleagues (or, at least, a few years ahead of the general adoption trend). So, I’d be interested in anecdotes from others and links to actual research, if there is any.

Levelling up: a solution to antivaxerism

There’s been some good news on the local vaccine front, with a UQ vaccine project passing safety tests and showing early indications of effectiveness. With so many projects going ahead around the world, it seems likely we will have some usable vaccines by next year. On the other hand, based on past experience with similar diseases like influenza, it seems unlikely that vaccines will be perfectly effective. So, we’ll be living with some kinds of restrictions for the foreseeable future.

The prospect of a vaccine has, unsurprisingly, raised a lot of concern about anti-vaxerism and vaccine hesitancy, not helped by Scott Morrison’s short-lived suggestion that the vaccine should be mandatory. While there has been a fair bit of handwringing on this topic, our experience with varying levels of restrictions means that we have a fairly straightforward solution to the problem.

The characteristic of a pandemic is that everyone poses some level of risk to everyone else with whom they come into contact. Restrictions impose costs but reduce that risk.

The same is true of vaccines. As well as protecting those vaccinated to some extent, vaccines help to reduce the risk that we will infect others. On the other hand, they hurt, they pose a (probably small) risk of side-effects, and even if they aren’t actually dangerous, they are scary.

The crucial implication of this is that restrictions and vaccines are substitutes. A vaccinated person leading a normal, pre-Covid life poses a risk to others that can be matched by an unvaccinated person operating under some of the restrictions we have all experienced so far. Similarly, a vaccinated person who observes the basic restrictions (social distancing, masks, handwashing) might be comparable to an unvaccinated person on Level 2 or Level 3 restrictions (no bars, restaurant dining, large family groups and so on).

Assuming that we can get an expert assessment of the risks, we can make vaccination a matter of personal choice: the vaccine and low-level restrictions, or no vaccine and higher restrictions. Just as with that other highly risky activity, driving, this could be implemented through a license. But of course, starting from scratch, most of us wouldn’t need a physical license – this could be done with a QR code stored on phones, something much simpler than the ill-fated CovidSafe app.

Of course, there will still be objectors, like those who refuse both vaccines and other measures like masks, not to mention unlicensed drivers. But we are already working out how to deal with mask-refusers, border-hoppers and others. Even if compliance isn’t perfect, we will have a solution that works for most.

The simple but difficult physics of losing weight

Following up this CT post on health living,, everyone has their own story and their own health. That’s true, but we are all subject to the same physical laws. So, here’s my story and some thoughts on the physics.

I managed to lose about 12 Kg over a couple of years, almost entirely through exercise.

The basic physics is simple
(1) weight loss = (kilojoules burnt – kilojoules consumed)*k,
(2) kilojoules burnt = base metabolism + work done

where k ≃ 0.025 is a constant reflecting the rate at which your body converts kilojoules of food energy into kilograms of fat. If you can alter the right hand side of (1) through any combination of diet and exercise then you will lose weight.

The problem is that altering either of these, or even altering while holding the other constant is really hard. Dieting makes you tired and slows your metabolism. Exercise increases your appetite, and also encourages you to flop once you stop exercising. All that’s because your body isn’t evolved to lose weight easily. Hunger and fatigue are both adaptations to stop you doing that. And, even if you can shift (1) enough to lose some weight, (2) puts a limit on how much you can lose. Balance is restored by the fact that your lighter body takes less energy to maintain and move around.

The crucial thing is to find some change for which you have both the willpower to adopt it initially and the willingness to maintain it indefinitely. For me, as I said, that’s been exercise. I aim to burn 4000 kj (about 1000 calories) a day in addition to base metabolism, which implies about 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. That’s logistically feasible for someone with flexible working hours and no kids at home, but very difficult otherwise. And it takes a long while to get to the point where you really enjoy it. That’s why the experts mostly recommend working on diet. But, if you can manage it, I think exercise is the better way to go.


Now that the World Health Organization has finally endorsed a recommendation for wearing masks in public, it’s time for Australia to do the same.

The most important case is that of public transport including air travel. Urban public transport is vital, but until we take the necessary steps on masks, we will be stuck with recommendations to avoid peak hour travel, guaranteeing a return to private cars and congestions

The airlines have been the biggest transporters of the pandemic and have continued to behave irresponsibly, packing planes as full as possible without any requirement for masks. It’s time for government to step in and order them to require masks as a condition of travel.

Update: I checked and Rex is doing the right thing here, upsetting some passengers who want to be free to infect fellow passengers

Fundraiser for MS

I haven’t done a fundraiser for a while, but this seems like a good time. Like everything, the Brissie to the Bay cycle fundraiser for Multiple Sclerosis isn’t going ahead as usual. It’s been replaced with a challenge where participants record their own efforts and set targets for distance and fundraising. I aim to cycle at least 400km in June (my average is around 200), and raise $1000 or more in the process.

Feel free to suggest challenges of your own, with a donation to back them. For example, if anyone is willing to stump up $100, I’ll cycle around Mt Coot-Tha in Brisbane (only 10km, but very tough).

You can donate here and also sign up yourself if interested.

Fundraiser for MS

I haven’t done a fundraiser for a while, but this seems like a good time. Like everything, the Brissie to the Bay cycle fundraiser for Multiple Sclerosis isn’t going ahead as usual. It’s been replaced with a challenge where participants record their own efforts and set targets for distance and fundraising. I aim to cycle at least 400km in June (my average is around 200), and raise $1000 or more in the process.

Feel free to suggest challenges of your own, with a donation to back them. For example, if anyone is willing to stump up $100, I’ll cycle around Mt Coot-Tha in Brisbane (only 10km, but very tough).

You can donate here and also sign up yourself if interested.

Pedestrians and pandemics

A couple of days ago, Adam Creighton had a piece in the Oz, downplaying the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, under the headline “Under 60, in good health? Crossing the road is more risky” Authors don’t choose headlines, but in this case, it’s an exact quote from the article.

There was no supporting analysis, so I decided to do the numbers myself. I looked at Sweden (quoted as a success by Creighton) which seems reasonably comparable to Australia, except that they haven’t gone for a lockdown. I started with some rough estimates on Twitter, and corrected them in response to comments. What follows is the final version.

In 2019, Australia had 172 pedestrian deaths a figure that has been stable for some years. As with the virus, over-60s are more at risk, accounting for 40 per cent of fatalities, compared to 15 per cent of the population. So, just over 100 pedestrians under 60 died last year in Australia. That’s about 2 per week.

Looking at Sweden, there have been 86 virus-related deaths of people under 60 so far, virtually all of them in the last three weeks. That’s about 28 per week, or 14 times the Australian rate

Now we need to adjust for the population difference. Sweden has about 10 million people and Australia about 25 million (ideally, we’d look at the under 60 population, but I’ll leave that adjustment for later). So, as of now, the virus risk to Swedes under 60 is approximately 35 times as great as the risk to Australian pedestrians under 60.

We don’t know how things will change in Sweden. Their strategy is one of “flattening the curve” while allowing the virus to spread slowly. Unless (as some have claimed) there are a huge number of undetected case, it will take a long time to reach herd immunity. Perhaps the current restrictions are sufficient to keep R below 1, but that seems unlikely to me. Even if it turns out that way, thousands more will die before the infection fizzles out.

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Noises off

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a video presentation about the likely employment effects in Australia, as part of my university’s response to the pandemic. The sound quality wasn’t great, what with reliance on my computer microphone, a spotty Internet connection and my accent, which is too strong even for some Aussies.

The communications people at the Uni got back to me and said it might have to have subtitles, but they could improve things by lowering the volume of the background music. My immediate reaction was unprintable, and while I managed to calm down, I wrote back to say that under no circumstances would I accept any kind of musical accompaniment. They cut out the music and managed to get it done with closed captions (the kind that are turned off my default).

But, obviously, I’m in an aging and shrinking minority here. David Attenborough’s documentaries, which I used to love, are now unwatchable (or rather unlistenable), with lush orchestral music crashing over his narration. If it’s not that, it’s an annoying metronomic repetition of the same five notes over and over. When people complain, the answer is “this isn’t a lecture”. But that’s exactly what I want from a documentary – a lecture with high-quality video combining to convey more information than either alone. Music, by contrast, conveys no information at all (except, I guess, “this is bad music”). If I wanted a content-free audiovisual experience, I’d far prefer a live band at the pub, with smoke and strobe lights, to someone’s musical interpretation of animal behavior overlaid on some barely audible talk.

Thinking about this brings up the more general issue of background music in films. It’s such an established convention you barely notice it most of the time. But I’ve quite often had the experience of hearing vaguely dissonant music as a character enters a room, and not knowing if this is part of the film, supposed to be audible to the character, or just part of the soundtrack. It’s just as artificial in its way as the characters in a musical bursting into song at the drop of a hat, and yet it’s a standard part of what is supposed to be realistic drama.

That’s it from my Grumpy Old Guy persona. Does anyone share my grumpiness, or want to persuade me out of it.