Our heroes have finally captured the First Horizon pirate base Zarra’s End, freed its captives and liberated the women and children who had been cowering in its bowels. Now after a little investigation they plan to fly on to Dabaran, to find the Hacker Livan who works for Samina’s Corsairs. The endgame is coming …

For this session we again have a full complement:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist
  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Al Hamra, captain and droid (with mystic powers)
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic

They have now learned the secrets of the strange society that had been built here, hanging in the Dark beyond Rigel’s ion storms, and had obtained a complete copy of the available data on the First Horizon that was still stored on the pirate base. They planned to sell this to the highest bidder when they arrived Dabaran, along with the location of the Zarra’s End, which they would sell off for scrap. They interviewed the three pirate doctors who had been responsible for installing and repairing cybergoggles on blind children, but soon lost interest and spaced all three. They showed no mercy to the people responsible for the horrors they had found here. They also discovered that one of the women on the ship, Clementine, was not blind, and had been born somehow immune to the disease that overwhelmed everyone on the ship, and had spent the last 15 years pretending to be blind as she taught herself mechanics and technology. With her help they were able to learn their way around Zarra’s End and unpick more of its secrets, and in return they took her and her infant child onto the Beast of Burden as new crew.

With that they flew on to Dabaran, negotiating the portals at Rigel without incidence and arriving just two days later at the starport of Atuta, home of the Dabaran shipbuilders. Here they relaxed, finding accommodation in an old passenger freighter near the outer docks of the huge spaceport and taking time to explore the wonders of this strange complex of jumbled together debris. They visited Atuta itself, the Unbroken, the original ship that the Shipbuilders had used to come to Dabaran, and wandered the huge, silent spaces of its central dome. They joined the people of Dabaran in their strange, austere prayers to the Messenger, and wandered the shipyards and warehouses of the spaceport’s huge, sprawling docks. After a few days of rest they organized repairs and small improvements on their ship, began negotiating bigger work, and set about looking for the hacker Livan.

They found him easily enough. Of course they had a friend in the port, a trader who knew the ins and outs of its myriad dockyards and slums, and he was able to direct them to a small, disused ice freighter, packed in amongst other tenements on the far side of the station. He was fairly sure that the hacker was holed up there, and they simply had to pay him a visit.

They did, taking a long series of ramshackle fliers and public shuttles and long vacuum-tube trains to a transport hub far from the centre of the spaceport. Here they found a long corridor carved out of the spine of an old class V ice hauler, stretching away into the distance and dotted with docking stations to individual tenement-ships and crumbling mini-habitats. At the 77th door they found their man, a docking station opening to an old ice hauler. They opened it easily enough and slipped inside.

They did not have to explore for long before they found themselves in the darkened cargo hold of the old hauler, peering into a shadowy mess of crates and workbenches and machinery. As they cautiously entered the room someone threw a grenade in their midst, which exploded with a loud but harmless whump, and then the nekatra attacked: four big, scary, frenzied monsters, all claws and anger, slamming into them from the shadows with unbridled ferocity. The team had fought nekatra before but not these: these were legion nekatra, ex-military grade beasts, bigger and much stronger than the ones they had fought before, fast and full of rage. Nonetheless, the group made short work of them, dodging the worst of their attacks and cutting through them with mercurium, thermal blasts and vicious heavy melee weapons. Once they had beaten down the nekatra they pinned down their gangmaster too, and finally Siladan sliced his spine through with a monosword, and the battle was done.

They stood amongst the wreckage of the room, suffused with the stink of burning hair and the tang of too much nekatra blood, thinking thankfully at last they had made it through a battle where the blood was mostly their own, and then wondering – how rich and connected was this hacker, that he could afford to keep four legion nekatra as his personal bodyguard? Someone had connections, and wasn’t afraid to use them to guard his stuff. They looked at each, adjusted their armour, grunted, and paid it no mind. Where were his connections now, in the darkness of the hold? Nothing but cooling flesh. He would talk! They looked upward, to the residence deck of the ice hauler, and prepared to march up to get their answers…

Since just over a week ago we have begun to see reports of changes to figures on deaths due to COVID-19 in many countries. The changes typically lead to upward revision of the death figures, and usually this seems to occur either because the daily reporting of deaths has not incorporated deaths occurring outside of hospitals, or because national organizations are catching up on deaths that are not due to COVID-19 and discovering large changes in non-COVID death patterns. For example, on 17th April we started to see reports that Wuhan city had increased its death count by about 50%, and today we find the BMJ reporting that deaths in care homes in the UK have increased rapidly. Of course as soon as China revises its figures we see accusations of cover-ups, and no doubt people are also wondering if the institutions in some hard-affected countries are competent enough to accurately report death figures. So in this post I want to explain a little about how these mortality data are collected, how deaths are reported, why figures can be suddenly revised, and what some of the data we’re seeing means, using British data revisions as an example.

How death data is collected

For people living in high-income countries it may come as something of a surprise to learn that vital registration systems – the systems that record births and deaths – are not actually very sophisticated or high-tech, and that for many countries they do not exist at all. In high-income countries these systems are often legacy systems, based on a network of paper-based reporting that is still quite far behind the needs of modern information-hungry media, and many countries have no such systems in place: the WHO estimates that 2/3 of all deaths that occur every year are not recorded in any registration system. In a pandemic like this, where media organizations want to report daily death numbers, the traditional systems in place to register deaths often cannot keep up.

Typically a vital registration system takes some time to update. After someone dies a doctor has to assign a cause of death, which in many cases will be recorded on a piece of paper that has to then be input into a computer system and slowly passed up a chain to a central authority, where it will be checked and certain data cleaning activities undertaken. In many cases the doctor’s original cause of death recording doesn’t make sense, so some checks have to be conducted to make sure that things are working. Then whatever the doctor wrote down has to be converted into a standardized cause of death (under the International Classification of Diseases) and entered into a database by its code, along with whatever local codings (for place of death, geocoding, etc) that the national jurisdiction calls for. Figure 1 (taken from the UN Stats handbook) shows the stages of the flow of vital registration.

Figure 1: Flow of data through the vital registration system

Many countries lack some or all stages of this process: for example, China still does not have a complete vital registration system, and mortality estimates are based on sample surveys outside of major cities[1]. In many countries deaths occurring in different locations may be processed at very different speeds, with death in prison, homes or elderly care facilities being reported much more slowly than in hospitals, and rural hospitals or smaller clinics reporting more slowly than major regional or teaching hospitals. When people want to know rapidly how many people are dying in a fast-evolving situation it is unlikely that we will get complete mortality estimates, and usually the only data that the health service can aggregate quickly is data on in-hospital deaths. It can take weeks, months or even a full year to obtain a full, accurate snapshot of mortality figures across the entire community. As an example, this Kaiser Foundation report on care-home deaths due to COVID-19 in the USA makes clear that there are very large differences in how completely death data is collected between states in the US, and differences in how rapidly that data is reported. Oregon, for example, presents fairly comprehensive data on cases and mortality in residents and staff, but only on a weekly basis. But 55% of deaths reported in Oregon occurred in care facilities, which likely means that the death data in Oregon is delayed by a week and there will likely be revisions to earlier totals that slip by in the rush to report information.

When media report daily deaths, what they are really doing is taking data in a relatively raw form from the first orange box (“Health services”) in figure 1, before a proper civil registration and vital statistics quality control process has been implemented. Then, subsequently, national statistical authorities release the actual figures, which can be much larger than those initial estimates, and require some large and rather embarrassing changes to the numbers. This is particularly likely if – as in the UK – care homes are understaffed and use primarily unskilled labour. During a pandemic that targets elderly people, those facilities are likely to be way too busy to process mortality data in the timely fashion the media demand!

How deaths are recorded

Another important part of the puzzle is how deaths are actually recorded. Death statistics are recorded in three different forms: the direct cause of death, which actually made the person die; contributing causes of death, which may have helped them along the line; and the underlying cause of death, which is the real reason they died. This is a matter of medicine and biology, not always easily determined: for example diabetes might be the underlying cause of death, there may have been a contributing factor from pneumonia, and the direct cause may have been some kind of organ failure. You can see this process in action in the example blue forms provided by the CDC. When a death is finally reported by the government the underlying cause will be reported, not the contributing cause; but in the case of a major pandemic we may have good reason to think that the death would not have happened without the contribution of COVID-19. Furthermore, deaths are certified by doctors, and there is not necessarily a common agreement on when something is underlying, direct or contributing, and death certificates can be notoriously low quality. This creates problems for assessments of mortality patterns generally, but it is particularly important when giving rapid assessments of mortality due to a disease that we still don’t properly understand, since a judgment about whether something contributed to or was the underlying cause of death requires a basic understanding of how that cause works. This can lead to repeated reassessments of numbers of deaths, as doctors change their understanding of how the disease kills and what comorbidities might be vulnerable to the disease.

When you see a change in mortality figures it will be because of either or both of these problems. It could arise because a new source of causes of death has finally been cleaned and added to the data; it could be that a computer system had to be updated to allow daily death records to include COVID-19; or it could be because experts decided that certain events that had previously seemed independent of COVID-19 were actually related; or it could be because the government decided to include (or exclude!) deaths where COVID-19 was a contributing (rather than underlying) cause of death.

Another possible reason for changes in death figures, and a very serious one, is that the daily figures media received were those on deaths due to confirmed COVID-19, which are accurate and precise, but that after a few weeks the statutory authorities realized that there had been a huge increase in non-COVID deaths due to pressure on the health system, and started recording those too. This is what has started to happen in Europe, and this is what we will examine using the UK as our base.

Sudden huge increase in mortality in the UK

The Office of National Statistics has finally been able to compile, clean and release the data on all causes of death in the UK over the past few weeks, and the findings are stark. In week 16 of this year (11-17 April) there were 22,351 deaths in the UK. This is 11,854 more deaths than the five year average for that week. Basically, the number of deaths in the UK in that week doubled. There were 8,756 deaths due to COVID-19 in that week, which suggests about 3,000 deaths occurred due to non-COVID causes, an excess mortality rate of about 30%. So in one week in April, the number of deaths in the UK doubled, and only 70% of those excess deaths were due to COVID-19: the other 30% were other causes which, I think it’s safe to assume, occurred because of pressure on the health system.

This ONS report also notes that for the whole year so far there have been 22,000 or so excess deaths compared to the five year average, an increase of about 10%. COVID-19 has been in full force in the UK for just 3-4 weeks, and it has already increased the year-to-date mortality rate by 10%. That was based on figures that are already basically two weeks old, so we can expect that with 3-4 more weeks of deaths still to come, the year-to-date mortality rate will increase even more – but we won’t know for a few more weeks because of the delay in reporting at-home deaths. Figure 2 (taken from the ONS report) shows this in stark relief.

Figure 2: Weekly mortality figures for the UK

 

I hope those lines in Figure 2 make very clear that COVID-19 is not “just flu” and that its impact on the UK population has been staggering. Had the government pursued its foolish “herd immunity” strategy things would have been much, much worse.

I hope this two-week-after-the-fact revision will help my reader(s) to understand that the adjustments that were made to Wuhan’s mortality figures 10 days ago are not unusual or evidence of any kind of cover up: it’s natural that a health system that is struggling to deal with a sudden massive surge in hospitalizations and deaths, and which already does not have a well-functioning mortality registration system, is going to miss some deaths on the initial pass, and is going to need a bit of time to collect all the data and make it available in a comprehensive format. Over the next few weeks we will see this happening in a lot of health systems, and additional components of COVID-19 mortality will become clearer as time passes. This does not reflect incompetence or dishonesty, just the efforts of a system that was designed for slow, annual stocktake-type processes to adapt to a rapidly-changing pandemic situation.

This also means that we should expect that the figures we see now are not the final toll of this virus. Whatever numbers we’re seeing now from the USA, for example, we should expect to grow considerably once the CDC has had the chance to compile all the separate, confusing sources of data and put together a comprehensive report.

And when they do that, it’s going to be bad. Very, very bad. This disease is very dangerous, and without major action on the part of every country it is going to exact a terrible toll.

Stay home and stay safe, people!


fn1: Like all things in China, this is changing rapidly, and the quality of mortality statistics regularly improving. The linked article is from 2015 and is probably already out of date.

There is a lot of pressure at present for the expansion of testing for COVID-19 to enable better understanding of the spread of the virus and possibly to help with reopening of the economy. Random population surveys have also been conducted in many countries, with a recent antibody survey in California, for example, finding 50 times more people infected than official estimates report. The WHO recognizes testing as a key part of the coronavirus response, and some countries are beginning to discuss the idea of “immunity passports”, in which people are given an antibody test and enabled to return to work if they test positive to antibodies and are well (since this indicates that they have been infected and gained immunity). The WHO advises against this approach because there is no evidence yet that people who have experienced COVID-19 and recovered are actually immune. But in addition to this virological concern, there is a larger, statistical concern about COVID-19 tests (especially antibody tests) and the consequence of widespread use of these tests as a policy guide: how reliable are they, and what are the consequences of deploying poor-quality tests?

My reader(s) may be familiar with my post on the use of Bayesian statistics to assess the impact of anti-trans bathroom laws on natal women. This study found that, since being transgender is a very low prevalence phenomenon, if we tried to actually enforce birth-gender bathroom laws almost everyone we kicked out of a woman’s toilet would actually be a cis woman. This is a consequence of Bayes’ Law, which basically tells us that when a condition has very low prevalence, any attempt to test for that condition will largely produce false positives unless the test is a very very accurate test. This applies to any attempt to discriminate between two classes of things (e.g. trans women vs. natal women, or coronavirus vs. no coronavirus). It is a universal mathematical theory, and there is no escaping it.

So what happens with testing for coronavirus. There are a couple of possible policies that can be enacted based on the result of testing:

  1. People testing positive are isolated from the rest of the community in special hospitals or accommodation, to be treated and managed until they recover
  2. People testing positive self-isolated and all their potential contacts are traced and tested, self-isolating as necessary
  3. People testing negative are allowed to return to ordinary life, working and traveling as normal
  4. People testing positive to antibodies with no illness are issued an “immunity passport” and allowed to take up essential work
  5. Health workers testing negative are allowed to return to hospital

Obviously, depending on the policy, mistakes in testing can have significant consequences. This is why the WHO has quite strict diagnostic criteria for the use of testing, which requires multiple tests at different specified time points with rules about test comparison and cautionary notes about low-prevalence areas[1]. Now that some antibody tests have achieved marketing status, I thought I would do a few brief calculations using Bayes’ rule to see how good they are and what the consequences will be. In particular let’s consider policy options 1, 3 and 4. I found a list of antibody tests currently being marketed or used in the USA here, and information on one PCR test, from Quantivirus. I assumed a testing program applied to a million people, and for each test under this program I calculated the following information:

  • The number of people testing positive and the number who are actually negative
  • The proportion of positive tests that are actually positive
  • The number of people testing negative and the number who are actually positive
  • The estimated prevalence of COVID-19 obtained from each of these tests

I used the current number of cases in the USA on 24th April (870,000), multiplied by 10 to include asymptomatic/untested cases and a US population of 330 million to estimate the true prevalence of coronavirus in USA at 2.6%.  Note that with 2.6% prevalence the true situation is 26,000 cases of COVID-19 and 974,000 people negative. I then compared the estimated prevalence for each test against this. Here are the results

Beckton-Dickinson/Biomedomics Covid-19 IgM/IgG Rapid Test

This test has 88.7% sensitivity and 90.6% specificity, and has been given emergency use authorization by the FDA. If used to test a million people in the context of disease prevalence of 2.6%, we would find the following results:

  • 114,906 people testing positive of whom 91,521 are actually negative
  • Only 20.4% of tests positive
  • 885,903 people testing negative, of whom 2,979 are positive
  • An estimated coronavirus prevalence of 11.4%

This would mean that under policy 1 (isolation of all positive cases) we would probably increase prevalence by a factor of 5, since 80% of the people we put into isolation with positive cases would be negative (and would then be infected). If we followed policy 3 or 4, we would be releasing 2,979 people into the community to work, get on trains etc., and infect others. We would also recalculate the case fatality rate of the virus to be 50 times lower than the actual observed estimate, because we had observed deaths among 870,000 cases (prevalence 0.26%) but were now dividing the confirmed deaths by a prevalence of 11.4%. This would make us think the disease is not much worse than influenza, while we were spreading it to five times as many people. Not good! Curing that epidemic is going to need a lot of bleach injections.

Cellex qSars-CoV-2 IgG/IgM Cassette Rapid Test

This test has also received emergency use authorization, and has 93.8% sensitivity and 95.6% specificity, which sounds good (very big numbers! Almost as good as Trump’s approval rating!) But if used to test 1,000,000 Americans with prevalence of 2.6% it still performs very poorly:

  • 67,569 people testing positive of whom 42840 are actually negative
  • Only 36.5% of tests positive
  • 932,430 people testing negative, of whom 1,635 are positive
  • An estimated coronavirus prevalence of 6.8%

This is still completely terrible. Isolating all the positive people (policy 1) would likely increase prevalence by a factor of 3, and we would allow 1,635 people to run around infecting others blithely assuming they were negative. Not a good outcome.

CTK Biotech OnSite Covid-19 IgG/IgM Rapid Test

This test has not yet received emergency use authorization, but has 96.9% sensitivity and 99.4% specificity. With this test:

  • 31,338 people test positive of whom 5,841 are actually negative
  • About 81% of tests are actually positive
  • 968,611 people test negative, of whom 817 are positive
  • An estimated coronavirus prevalence of 3.1%

This is much better – most people testing positive are actually positive, we aren’t releasing so many people into the wild to infect others, and our prevalence estimate is close to the true prevalence. But it still means a lot of people are being given incorrect information about their status, and are taking risks as a result.

Conclusion

Even slightly inaccurate tests have terrible consequences in epidemiology. As testing expands the ability to conduct it carefully and thoroughly – with multiple tests, sequenced tests, and clinical confirmation – drops, and the impact of even small imperfections in the testing regime grows rapidly. In the case of a highly contagious virus like COVID19 this can be catastrophic. It will expose uninfected people to increased risk of infection through hospitalization or isolation alongside positives, and if used for immunity passports significantly raises the risk of positive people returning to work in places where they can infect others. In comparison to widespread testing with low-quality tests, non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. lockdowns and social distancing) are far more effective, cheaper and less dangerous. It is very important that in our desire to reopen economies and restart our social lives we do not rush to use unreliable tests that will increase, rather than reduce, the risk to the community of social interactions. While testing early and often is a good, strong policy for this pandemic, this is only true when testing is conducted rigorously and using good quality tests, and not used recklessly to end social interventions that, while painful, are guaranteed to work.

 


fn1: It’s almost as if they know what they’re doing, and we should listen to them!

Our heroes have ambushed the First Horizon attack fleet and destroyed it, and now head into the First Horizon base, a ruined troop carrier called Zarra’s End. The roster for this mission[1]:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand and swordwoman
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Al Hamra, captain and droid (with mystic powers)
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Kaarlina, mystic

They flew to the Zarra’s End on a stolen spaceship, finding themselves drifting towards a poorly-lit, badly scarred 300m long block of grey steel, unattractive and undecorated with none of the commitment to aesthetics and iconic devotion beloved of starship designers in the Third Horizon, a simple streak of grey metal hanging in the darkness. It was so old, battered and poorly lit that from a distance it could almost appear to be a derelict, only a few faint winking lights visible from afar, but as they drew closer they realized that this was because the ship had almost no windows except for a few public viewing galleries, and these were poorly lit. They drifted into the ship’s hangar, faking loss of communications as they approached, and once they were in the ship they executed a very simple plan: they walked out of the loading bay doors and started shooting everyone they saw.

In the hangar this turned out to be two teams of four soldiers, led by hardened men in strong First Horizon armour. These men attacked them from two positions, and somehow during the fight Kaarlina and Dr. Delecta found themselves trapped in the hangar control room, fighting an automated defense system that Kaarlina somehow accidentally activated. They cleaned this fight up reasonably quickly, but not before Reiko Ando was seriously injured and the entire ship alerted to their presence.

Once they had killed those men they thought to activate their proximity sensor, and identified the rest of their enemies: 9 more men clustered around a stairwell a deck below, and 5 men in the bridge ahead of them. They decided to lay a trap for the 5 men on the bridge, embedding a breaching charge on the door to the hangar bay, and then to go down and kill the 9 downstairs, but unfortunately as they were preparing the booby trap the 9 men downstairs came up to get them. The ensuing battle was a hot-fought and vicious affair, which looked at one point as if it was slipping away from the PCs when the 5 men from the bridge slipped past the breaching charge trap and joined the fray, making the odds very uneven. They prevailed with heavy application of Adam’s machine gun, and judicious use of Kaarlina’s mystic powers to deactivate the soldiers’ cybergoggles and reduce them to blubbering piles of panic. However, as they were killing off the last few soldiers a single injured captain managed to slip away into the bridge and open the hangar bay door, ejecting everyone who wasn’t tied down into space…

… Somehow they all survived this catastrophe[2], except Reiko Ando, who was struck in the head by flying debris and blown out into space with a crushed skull. They all managed to somehow regather in decompression shelters or their spaceship’s raiding bay until it was safe to emerge, killed the last resister and set about exploring the ship. Reiko Ando was lost to the dark between the stars, spinning out of control into the vast emptiness of Rigel system, her life valiantly spent saving the captives and slaves of the Zarra’s End.

On the ship they captured the doctors who installed cybergoggles, and learnt much about the ship’s operation. Investigating one of the soldiers, they also discovered – through a combination of Saqr’s Mystical powers and Dr. Delecta’s medical skill – that the disease which rendered the occupants of the Zarra’s End blind was a strange mystic power drawn from the Dark between the stars and present throughout the system. This disease rendered people blind, but it also infected their soul with mystical poison, rendering them docile and terrified. However, if the blindness effect were countered by installing cybergoggles, this docility and terror was reveresed and became irrational, often uncontrollable rage. This explained the strange behavior they had seen on the videos of the Donald J Trump Jr 3rd, and also the behavior of their captives and the way soldiers collapsed into terrified foetal lumps when their goggles were rendered inactive by Kaarlina’s mystic powers. It seemed that undoubtedly the First Horizon was just as bad as they had always been taught to believe, but that this crew was even worse under the influence of this strange disease.

They also learnt from their captives the history of the Zarra’s End. During the final battles of the portal war there was a small engagement in the Rigel system, where a fleet of First Horizon ships heading to Dabaran to escape the Horizon were ambushed by a larger fleet. During the battle the remaining First Horizon ships fled through the portals to Dabaran and were chased by their attackers, but the Zarra’s End was hit by heavy fire and had her main reactors and drives blown out. She and all the ships that lacked portal transit capacity were left stranded in the system, unnoticed in the heat of battle and left to drift. In a heroic effort of engineering they managed to seal off the damaged and leaking areas, regain power in the emergency reactor, and establish the Zarra’s End as a base for all the survivors of the battle. But with their drives and stasis pods destroyed, and lacking the materials or technology to build more stasis pods, they were trapped in the system. Expecting to be hunted down they hid and turned to piracy for the first few years, stealing material from passing ships to restore parts of their ship and feed themselves. However after a few years they all began to go blind and, lacking any knowledge of the reason, the doctors on the Zarra’s End started building cybergoggles, starting of course with the leadership and the soldiers. This sealed their fate, since they began to become rage-filled violent thugs, and any chance of surrender or peace was lost. Over the ensuing centuries a new society grew, based on capturing prisoners from passing ships, using them for slavery and breeding, and raising the children in a violent society of blindness, rage and authoritarian piracy.

From the belowdecks of the Zarra’s End the PCs rescued a number of blind women; some captives from passing ships who, though traumatized, were still alive and still not completely affected by the disease; and some technicians and support staff with poor-quality goggles. Now they hung in space, proud possessors of a shattered and useless troop carrier and a large number of irrational, blind captives. What would they do? And how many of them must they space?


fn1: Now the whole world is in lockdown no one has any reason not to play, and al Hamra’s player is currently locked down in some plague-infested foreign shore so able to join remotely, and a colleague of Saqr’s player was asked to join to relieve her boredom. So beyond a full house! And hard to manage on roll20, which is where these two sessions were conducted …

fn2: Second use of the Survivor group talent!

Image note: the headline picture was taken from the deviantart page of a person called Synthesys.

I have just had a knee reconstruction and have spent the last 6 days wallowing in self-pity in a hospital bed in Tokyo, completing the last (I hope) uglinesses of three months of body horror (report to come). With little else to do I have resorted to Netflix, and of course I have watched Tiger King. So far I have just finished episode 5 (I was distracted by The Innocence Files, which I strongly recommend), but by the end of Episode 5 I was convinced that the main character of Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is very similar to Trump, and his public and political reception in America is an example of why Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. Americans, I think, have a problem with people with narcissistic personality disorders – too many Americans admire them – and are way too easily fooled by conmen. Here, I will explain why I think Joe Exotic is similar to Trump and what his public reception says about Trump’s rise.

First some basic background. Tiger King is a documentary about these super weird Americans who keep big cats as pets and money-machines, in these weird and horribly shitty rural zoos that should be closed down with extreme prejudice. The story is that it was meant to be a doco about one particularly weird and flamboyant member of this strange society, Joe Exotic, but during the making of the doco Joe tried to get a rival killed and so the whole thing spiraled out of control. I haven’t got to that bit yet, but everything leading up to is pretty disturbing. The main character is Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting zoo owner from Oklahoma who has two husbands (not legally I guess?), both of whom are straight, and has a menagerie of something like 220 lions and tigers that he shows off to the public in flamboyant performances. He makes a lot of his money from cub petting, in which he takes newborn cubs (before the mother can lick them!) and allows customers to snuggle and play with them, until they reach about 12 weeks old, after which he dumps them in the zoo with the rest of the adults, where they become mostly just a financial burden (so he killed them or trafficked them). His opponent is a woman called Carole Baskin who runs a (rather dubious looking!) animal sanctuary for abused big cats, and has spent years trying to shut down Joe’s operation, including using a sneaky (according to the doco!) copyright trick to force him massively into debt. Rumour has it that Baskin killed her first husband and fed him to a tiger, information the doco does very little to dispute even though it seems pretty obvious that her husband was up to something shonky in Costa Rica and probably got himself killed down there. There are a few other tiger owners – one called Antle who has a sex cult and another who is a dodgy former criminal – and there is a ragtag crew of people who work for Joe Exotic and go to enormous lengths for him (one of these, who apparently was misgendered in the doco, lost an arm to a tiger and kept working for Joe). In his little menagerie-kingdom Joe keeps a lot of guns and explosives (he is clearly not one of those super-rare “responsible gun owners” that his libertarian political campaign manager would have us believe is the norm), meth and pot, and a lot of boys toys. In general Joe treats the tigers badly, and his relationship with his cats is emotionally very hot and cold and is basically transactional. They make him money, and he plays with them, but he doesn’t trust them and he doesn’t particularly seem to respect them.

It should be added that this documentary is really not very objective and although it’s great viewing, as a documentary it’s shit. It obviously has taken Joe Exotic’s side (at least in the first 5 episodes) and doesn’t show much objectivity about its subject at all.

So how is Joe like Trump? Let us count the ways:

  • He has the same personality disorders: He obviously has narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, just like Trump, or as some might put it he has the Dark Triad. His relationships are entirely transactional (he basically buys his straight boyfriend with meth) and everything is all about him. This is most clearly seen at the funeral for his second husband, which he makes all about himself, and the subsequent marriage to his new boyfriend within two months, which he uses to humiliate and break his dead husband’s mother. It’s visible in the way he treats his animals, his insatiable need for fame, the way he treats his staff, and the way every emotion he ever shows is clearly and obviously a performance. He can never be wrong, nothing is ever his fault, and the whole world is out to get him.
  • He is deeply misogynist: The videos he makes of Carole Baskin are really shocking, and he cannot control himself when he is talking about her. Even when he is running a political campaign he is making campaign videos calling her a bitch and a whore, and on his youtube channel he put videos of her as a sex doll being face-fucked with dildos, and being fed to his cats. He has the same reaction to a woman challenging him as Trump does to female journalists.
  • He is messy and disorganized and terrible with money: Just like Trump, he is incapable of running or organizing anything, and only gets anything done because a group of strangely loyal misfits jump at his every order and do everything he wants, even when everything he wants is constantly contradictory and changing. He also obviously can barely keep the farm afloat, where a better manager would turn it into a cash-making machine. Whatever money he does get he squanders on bullshit, like meth and trucks for his straight husbands or guns and ammo. This is no clearer than in the stupid brace he wears on his knee for much of the series – he obviously has not got health insurance and hasn’t paid for it for his staff (likely the real reason Saffer chose to have his damaged arm amputated – with no health insurance he could not pay for the reconstruction surgery). He would rather flamboyantly suffer than buy one less truck a year for one of his husbands and pay for health insurance for himself, let alone his crew.
  • He has dodgy mob connections: He obviously has access to a regular supply of meth, and is able to traffick lions and tigers however he wants, and in the first (?) episode we see him cozying up to a drug dealer who is so shady it’s hard to believe. Not only does he have these dodgy criminal connections, but he also obviously admires them – and they obviously see him as an easy mark.
  • He is an easy mark: Like most of the senior figures in the GOP, while he is running a long con on his friends, associates and supporters, Joe Exotic is also easily being conned by others. He got done like a dinner by the Kirkham guy, and when Jeff Lowe gets to him he is so easily tricked into giving up control of everything. Trump is the same – this is why he is owned by Russia. The biggest con-artists are also the biggest marks.
  • He has no interest in truth: He is a classic bullshitter, just like Trump. Whatever he says is true, and if he contradicts himself two days in a row it doesn’t matter because he does not recognize the difference between truth and lies. Words don’t work for him as they do for us.

So of course, just like Trump he runs for political office. First of all he tries the presidential campaign but then failing that he runs for Governor of Oklahoma, with a libertarian (idiot) for a campaign manager and a platform of low regulation. His platform and campaign imagery are so Trumpian – there’s even a scene where he tells some shlubb that if he is elected there will be “someone as broke as you” in charge, trying to market himself as a man of the people. Unlike Trump he doesn’t win, but he does get 18% of the vote. And when people are interviewed about why they will vote for him they give exactly the same reasons as people give for Trump: he’s just like us, he tells it as it is, he’s not politically correct and that’s good, etc. The interviews with his supporters could have just as easily have been at a Trump rally.

Furthermore, his chief enemy (in business, not politics) is so obviously identifiable as a Hillary Clinton-like figure: an older white woman with a real set of goals, who is methodical and prepared and speaks clearly and with intent, who every single media outlet seems to have described with the same adjectives as Clinton – desperate to be liked, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc.

This is the enduring puzzle of American politics. How could an obvious fraud, grifter, gangster, womanizing rapist psychopath like Trump be popular in America? We see the same thing with Joe Exotic: in a Morning Consult poll of 400 viewers of the show he had the second-highest favorability ratings and Carole Baskin had the lowest, and her husband the second lowest – below a libertard gun nut, a tiger-killing narcissist, his meth-head husband, another tiger trader with five “wives” in a sex cult, a rich fraud from Vegas who uses tigers to fuck models (or at least put their pictures on instagram), and another tiger trader who wishes he could learn how to “control women” the way the sex cult dude does. How do Americans judge older white women on a mission to be at the bottom of this pile?

I previously described the Trump campaign as similar to WWF, a giant fraud that all its fans know is a fraud but love anyway. Tiger King is another insight into this strange cultural phenomenon that seems to be unique to America, where people fall easily for frauds and gangsters and love them even after their obvious shonkiness is revealed. There is nothing authentic or real about Joe Exotic – he is a narcissistic, manipulative and vicious bastard who uses people for his own ends, and has never shown a true part of himself in his life – but despite the rest of the world watching this doco and recognizing this immediately, somehow to Americans he is authentic and serious in a way that a softly-spoken older white woman can never be.

America has a problem with grifters, psychopaths and narcissistic frauds. Too many Americans cannot understand when they’re being taken for a ride, and too many Americans enjoy being fleeced. This is the essence of Republican politics – it’s a giant con job played on people who are eager to be fleeced by men the rest of the world would not consider fit to lick our boots. It’s terrifying, and if Americans can’t break out of this strange fugue state and start understanding the way they’re being conned, their country is done for.

Tokyo Zombie Movie

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread globally, and at this point in its progress very few high-income countries have escaped its grip. On a per-capita basis Spain has 38 times the rate of infection of China, the US 10 times and Australia 3 times, but plucky Japan has only 0.3 times the infection rate of China. Until now the rate of growth has been low, with only tens of cases per day being recorded over much of February and March, but since last week the alarm has been sounding, and the government is beginning to worry. We had our first lockdown on the weekend, a voluntary two days of 自粛 in which everyone was supposed to stay inside, and this week discussion of lockdown began. This is because the previous week was a bright, sunny weekend with the cherry blossoms blooming, and all of Tokyo turned out to see them despite the Governor’s request for everyone to be cautious. Over the two weeks leading up to that weekend, and for perhaps two days afterwards, the train system returned to normal and Tokyo was being its normal bustling, busy uncaring self. But then on the week after that event the numbers began to climb, and now the government is worried as it begins to watch the numbers slide out of control. I am also now hearing for the first time stories of doctors having to find alternative ICU beds for COVID patients – still not a huge deal, because any one hospital does not have a large supply, but enough cases are now appearing to force doctors to seek empty hospitals elsewhere.

It is possible to see the effect of this party atmosphere in the data, and it offers a strong example of how important social distancing is. Using the data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus tracker (and making a few tiny adjustments for missing data in their downloadable file), I obtained and plotted the number of new cases each day, shown in Figure 1 below. Here the x axis is the number of days since the first infection was identified, and the y-axis is the number of new cases. Day 70 is the 1st April. The red line is a basic lowess smooth, not a fancy model.

Figure 1: Daily new cases by time since the first case

It is clear from this figure that things changed perhaps a week ago. New case numbers were up and down a lot but generally clustered together, representing slow growth, but since about a week ago the gaps between each dot are growing, and more dots are above than below the line. This is cause for concern.

However, it is worth remembering that each day the total number of cases is increasing, which means also that if you add the same number of new cases on any day, it will have a proportionately smaller effect on the total. We can estimate this by calculating the percentage change each day due to the new cases added on that day. So for example if there are 10 cases in total and 10 new cases are detected we see a 100% change; but 10 new cases with 100 existing cases will lead to only a 10% change. From this we can calculate the daily doubling time: the time required for the number of cases to double if we keep adding cases at the same percentage increase that we saw today. So, for example, if there are 100 cases on day 9 and on day 10 there are 10 more cases, the percentage change is 10%, and from that I can estimate that the number of cases will double after 7.2 days if that 10% daily change continues. This gives a natural estimate of the rate at which the disease is growing, adjusting for its current size. Figure 2 shows the doubling time each day for Tokyo, again with the number of days since the first infection on the x-axis. I have trimmed the doubling time at 20 days, so a few early points are missing because they had unrealistically high doubling times, and added a lowess smooth to make the overall pattern stand out. The vertical red line corresponds with Friday March 20th, a national holiday and the first day of the long weekend where everyone went cherry blossom viewing.

Figure 2: Daily time required for case numbers to double in Japan

Since the infection hit Japan the doubling time has been growing slowly, so that in February it would take almost two weeks for the number of cases to double. The doubling time dropped in March[1], which was also the time that the government began putting in its first social distancing guidelines (probably about late February); work events were being canceled or postponed by early March, probably in response to government concern about the growing number of cases, and this appears after two weeks to have worked, bringing the doubling times back up to more than two weeks. And that was when the sunny weather came and everyone went to hanami, marked on the red line, at which point the doubling time dropped like a stone. Back in the middle of March we were seeing between 10 and 40 cases a day, slow changes; but then after that weekend the number of cases exploded, to 100 or 200 a day, pretty much 4-6 days after the long weekend started. The following weekend was when the government demanded everyone stay in, and the city shut up shop; but we won’t begin to see the effect of those measures until tomorrow or this weekend, and right now the number of new cases is still hovering around 200 a day.

It’s worth noting that not all of these cases are community transmission. About 10% are without symptoms, and another 20% are having symptoms confirmed (probably because they’re very mild), which indicates the effectiveness of contact tracing in tracking down asymptomatic contacts. A lot of these cases are foreigners (something like 20-25%), and this is likely because they’re residents returning from overseas, and likely identified during quarantine/self-isolation (so not especially risky to the community). But still, even 70% of 200 is a lot of cases.

It’s instructive to compare this doubling time with some heavily-affected countries. Figure 3 shows the smoothed doubling times for Japan, the US, Italy and Australia. It has the same axes, but I have dropped the data points for clarity (I make no promises about the quality of these hideous smooths). The legend shows which country has which colour. Italy and Australia start slightly later in this data because their first imported case was not at day 0.

Figure 3: Doubling times for four affected countries

As you can see, Italy’s doubling time was almost daily in the first week of its epidemic, but has been climbing rapidly since they introduce social distancing. Australia’s doubling time was consistently a week, but began to increase in the last two weeks as people locked in. The US tracked Japan for a couple of weeks and then took a nose dive, so that at one point the daily doubling time was 3 days. Italy provides a really instructive example of the power of social distancing, which was introduced in some areas on February 28th and nationally in increasingly serious steps from 1st March to 9th March. Figure 4 shows Italy’s doubling time over the epidemic.

Figure 4: Doubling time for Italy

 

It is very clear that as measures stepped up the doubling time gradually increased. In this figure day 40 is the first of March, the first day that national measures were announced. Despite this, we can see from Figure 3 that it took Italy about a month and a half from the first case to slow the spread enough that further doubling might take a week, and early inaction meant that a month of intensely aggressive measures were needed to slow the epidemic, at huge cost.

It is my hope that Japan’s early measures, and aggressive investigation of clusters at the beginning of the outbreak, will mean that we don’t need to go into a month-long lockdown. But if Japan’s population – and especially Tokyo’s – don’t take it seriously now, this week and this weekend, Tokyo will go the same way as London and Italy. It’s time for Tokyo to make a two week sacrifice for its own good. Let’s hope we can do it!


fn1: Which the smooth doesn’t show, by the way, it’s an awful smooth and I couldn’t improve it by fiddling with the bandwidth[2]

fn2: A better model would be a slowly increasing straight line with a peak at the hanami event and then a rapid drop, but I couldn’t get that to work and gave up[3].

fn3: Shoddy jobs done fast is my motto!

The Belle of the South

The crew of the Beast of Burden have disabled a pirate ship in the Rigel system, and are preparing to board. The cast for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand and swordwoman
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic

Two of their attackers have escaped, one has been reduced to shards of metal, and one lies paralyzed in space, Siladan’s data pulse still wreaking havoc in its systems and preventing it from escape or attack. They transferred all their fighters to the Beast of Burden and moved in to board the incapacitated vessel.

Onboard the Donald J Trump Jr 3rd

They drew close and attached their docking station, though it did not connect cleanly because the seal on their target was of a strange and unorthodox design, that did not fit their docking seal. Siladan fit a breaching charge and they blew the door open and prepared to enter.

Inside was a small open area, covering the majority of the space inside the ship, containing only four standing steel barricades set at even spaces in the room. Soldiers lay in wait behind these barricades, ready to open fire on anyone who entered. Unfortunately for the men waiting inside, Adam was carrying the group’s machine gun, and laid down an immediate barrage of bullets that decimated the crew. Siladan and Reiko charged forward under Oliver’s covering fire, and although some of them suffered light wounds, they were able to break into the room and close to melee range. Most of their enemies were firing vulcan carbines, which they used ineffectually to attempt to drive the fighters back, but one was using a strange energy weapon that seemed to fire a highly-focused and extremely dangerous laser. They had never seen this before, but after a couple of seconds of brutal and one-sided hand-to-hand combat its owner lay gurgling on the floor, the gun in Adam’s competent hands.

The rest of the ship consisted of just two small ready rooms that led from the docking area to the bridge. In the bridge they found two crew in their seats, dead, and a large and precise series of holes cut in the hull by the Beast of Burden‘s accelerator cannon. There was no atmosphere in the bridge, and when they entered they found a man hiding under a desk. They dragged him out, and when they did so they somehow broke a seal of duct tape on his exo suit, causing it to leak air. As he panicked they dragged him back into the ready room, sealed the door against the de-atmosphered bridge, and forced him to surrender. They had the ship, and a prisoner.

The Loser’s Flag

The ship yielded nothing interesting. It was an entirely functional, plainly dressed and frankly very primitive looking fighting vessel, with no decorations but for a picture of a strange orange-skinned fat man in one room, and a cross with a strangely sexualized semi-naked man crucified on it in another. They thought it might be a strangely perverted figure of one of the icons, but they could find no sign that anyone here was religious at all, and their prisoner obviously did not speak their language fluently. The only other icon they found was a strange flag, with many stars on it. It made no sense though, because it did not have enough stars to represent the Third Horizon, and too many for just this system. No one could remember how many stars were in the Dabaran circle, so it was a mystery to them. Stranger still, every crew member of the ship had replaced their natural eyes with poorly-made and rough-looking cybernetic goggles, which protruded from their skull and made them look like barbarians. Medical scans of the bodies revealed no other cyberwear – just the complete replacement of their visual system with these poorly-crafted cyber-eyes.

They attempted to loot the ship’s Exo suits but they were old, run down and heavily-repaired, and not worth much. When they investigated the dead pilot and gunner they found that they had died when the atmosphere exited the ship – their exo suits were not impermeable, and they had died of suffocation as the air drained out. This ship was obviously very old, very run down, and was running on tape and stitches. These pirates had not expected serious opposition, and had been flying in a vessel that was obviously not much longer going to be able to hold out the Dark.

The First Horizon

They tried to get their captive to show them where the ship’s data core was, but they could only learn that the ship had no data core, only separate partial data storage for each position on the ship. Worse still, their captive’s position was Data Djinn (though he called it “SIGINT Ops”), but he had to interact with the ship’s computer using a keyboard. They gave up on electronic information and resorted to interrogating the captured crewman.

This data djinn’s name was Alex “The Q”, and he was cooperative with their interrogation after a few threats. He first warned them that his mother ship would come back for him and then they would be in deep trouble, but after that he was happy to speak. They learnt that he and his fellows were the remnants of a First Horizon fleet that had been trapped in Rigel at the end of the portal wars some 200 years ago. They were based on a troopship called Zarra’s End, and at the last moments of a retreat in this system its drive systems and main reactor, as well as its stasis pods, had been destroyed by heavy fire. Unable to move, it and its complement of support ships had been abandoned by the last scattered survivors of the First Horizon’s fleet, and had been left to die in the Dark of the outer reaches of Rigel. They survived, however, and since then they had become pirates in this system. They used the ships they looted to repair their own ships, but would not take on any of their victims’ technology, and had no way to repair their own stasis beds and no technological skills to transfer stasis pods from the ships they captured. They had been stranded here for more than a century, building a pirate society in the barely-functioning remains of the Zarra’s End.

Further investigation revealed that the society on Zarra’s End was an unpleasant and abhorrent system of heirarchies and slavery. Alex “The Q” told them that the system they lived in had infected them with a strange, incurable and inherited disease, Deneb’s Blindness Disease, which caused anyone in the system to go blind after 6-8 years. So all children born in the pirate enclave had cybereyes fitted at about this age, and grew up with only electronic sight. There were not enough cyber-eyes to go around, however, and the skill to make and repair them was limited, so they recycled eyes and newly-made eyes were often not very good quality. The men who received the best eyes became warriors, while the men with poorer eyes became support staff and servants. Women received no eyes, grew up blind, and were confined to a small area of the ship. People captured from other ships were used for slave labour until they went blind, then spaced.

Adam had been planning to recommend they take this ship and leave, but when he heard that he decided that they needed to destroy these pirates. They would not take their time sending information about them to the Legion. They would go and kill them all, and free their prisoners.

Strange Manners from Strange Horizons

Something they noticed about Alex “The Q” was that he had very erratic behavior that made him very difficult to talk to. He alternated been explosions of extreme and violent rage and sudden desperate craven spasms of sorrow and despair. He would cower and beg and cry, then bristle up and scream and fight, until someone punched him enough to put him in his place. Sometimes he would become sullen and unresponsive, as if wracked by depression and angst. From these episodes of depression he would inevitably explode in spite and rage, before cowering and sniveling to his new captors. His behavior was incomprehensible and erratic, and they could not fathom how he could be this way.

On a hunch Saqr accessed the video recordings from the Donald J Trump Jr 3rd‘s last few days, hoping to see the face of someone who had stayed behind on the Zarra’s End before the ship left on its pirate mission. If Saqr could see one person who was not currently on board the ship, he would be able to use his mystic powers to find the Zarra’s End’s location. Unfortunately, however, the video recordings from the ship’s internal cameras only went back two days, and no new faces were visible on it. But the footage did show Saqr a wild panorama of violence, bullying and hatred. The pirate leader would regularly beat and castigate his inferiors, forcing them to cower and beg and hitting them with impunity; and they would then enact the same violence on those next down the ladder of the heirarchy. The entire crew lived in terror of each other, on the edge of constant violence, acting barely civilized and obviously only uniting in the appreciation of violence towards others. Something was very wrong with this pirate community – either it was a strange and desperately evil cult, or something had gone very awry in its military code. Was all of the First Horizon like this, completely overrun with authoritarian violence? No wonder the Firstcome had fled, and no wonder they had fought a war with the First Horizon and sealed the portals. No one wanted a society like this a mere portal’s jump away.

No matter. They would exterminate this nest of hold-outs, free their prisoners, and end the menace in Rigel.

The ambush

Alex “The Q” spoke a strange language that they could not decipher and could not hope to trust him to use, so they decided to lay a trap for the rest of the fleet from the Zarra’s End. They asked the passenger ship Plainsong – the original targets of the pirates’ violence – to again send out their distress signal, and lay in wait for the incoming ships of the Zarra’s End, their ship disguised in stealth mode.

They did not have to wait long. Soon a large contingent of fighting ships approached, which Alex “The Q” identified as:

  • The Twin Towers
  • Constitution 231
  • The Kentucky Derby
  • The New York Minute
  • On the Road
  • The Michelle Malkin

and a larger ship, the raider Belle of the South 142. As they approached the Plainsong’s emergency beacon the PCs’ entire fleet – the Beast of Burden, the Judgment of the Dancer, and the No Satisfaction – closed the jaws of their trap.

This battle was vicious, and when it began there was no guarantee that they would prevail. Fortunately their first shots disabled the Belle of the South‘s drives, and as it drifted by useless they were able to decimate the remaining smaller ships in the fleet, returning through the debris cloud to tear apart the larger ship as it repaired its drives and returned to the battle. Within a few minutes of springing the trap they had eliminated the entire pirate fleet, and were ready to attack the Zarra’s End.

They piled into the Donald J Trump Jr 3rd‘s boarding area, loaded up their weapons, and headed towards the Zarra’s End, faking battle damage and ready to attack. These barbarians from the First Horizon would be dead soon, and whatever horrors they had brought with them would be lost in the Dark between the stars. No mercy for slavers, and no kindness towards their ancient enemies: they were ready to do what had to be done.