Monday, March 30, 2020

The March of the Holobionts: Why Gaia is one of us

As a Goddess, Gaia may not be all-powerful, but She does what She can.

One of the good things about the current epidemic is what it is teaching us. Apart from a welcome slap to human hubris, it is a test of population models (right now, it seems that everyone I know is busy at fitting data with logistic equations). But there is more than population dynamics in this story. It is the occasion for a reflection of the role of viruses in the ecosystem. In my case, it led me to discover concepts that I only vaguely knew before. One is that of "virome," a term analogous to that of "genome" -- the idea that viruses are part of us. Did you know that 8% of the human genetic code is directly derived by viral genes? The role of viruses in our metabolism is still largely to be discovered, but surely most viruses are not pathogens, they are commensals or symbionts. Companions of our travel to an unknown destination.

And then there is the related concept of "holobiont" -- a term originally invented by Lynn Margulis, the co-discoverer, with James Lovelock, of the idea of "Gaia" as a homeostatic planetary system. Once you learn what a holobiont is, your view of the world changes completely. The evolutionary unit of the ecosystem is not the organism, but the holobiont: an ensemble of creatures that cooperate with each other without sharing the same genetic code as multicellular organisms do: a tree is an organism, a forest is a holobiont. The forest holobiont includes not just trees, but all the animals together with the microbiome of fungi, bacteria, archaea, viruses, and everything.

That opens up a whole new evolutionary frontier: multicellular organisms transmit genetic information by the complex process of sexual reproduction followed by competitive selection. Holobionts do something similar, but they don't have a genome that they pass to their descendants by sexual transmission, they have a hologenome that successful holobionts can transmit using different strategies. And that answers a difficult question: who is Gaia, exactly? You guessed it, the Queen of Heaven and Earth is a holobiont! As a Goddess, She may not be benevolent and merciful, surely not all-powerful, but she does what she can. She is one of us.

Below, a translation of an article that I submitted to an Italian newspaper, "Il Fatto Quotidiano" where I try to explain some of these concepts. These submissions are limited to ca. 650 words, so you have to be extremely synthetic and also take into account that the readers are ordinary people, not scientists. So, I didn't mention the concept of holobiont, maybe in a future article. But I thought that also the readers of "Cassandra's Legacy" will find it interesting in this short text. (BTW, as a translation service, Yandex seems to be somewhat better than Google).

Coronavirus: what's happening?
Submitted to "Il Fatto Quotidiano" by Ugo Bardi

Translated using Yandex, slightly revised and modified

The most recent data indicate a decrease in the number of coronavirus infections in Italy. That means we could get out of the epidemic in the coming months. But why do we expect this trend? It is explained in the field of Science called "epidemiology" that studies how epidemics spread.

The first epidemiology studies date back to 1927, when two British researchers, Kermack and McKendrick, developed the "SIR" model (susceptible, infected, removed), still used today. However, the basis of these studies was the previous work of the American Alfred Lotka and the Italian Vito Volterra. A few years earlier, they had developed the model that we now call “Lotka-Volterra,” but also “predator-prey,” or “foxes and rabbits” (although neither Lotka nor Volterra ever spoke of foxes or rabbits).

Let's explain. Imagine a green islet in the middle of the sea, populated by only two species: foxes and rabbits (there is no such island, but let's take it as a hypothetical example). The population of foxes (predators) tends to grow when rabbits (prey) are abundant. It grows so fast that, at some point, the surviving rabbits can no longer reproduce quickly enough to replace those eaten by the foxes. The rabbit population reaches a maximum and then falls. At this point, Foxes starve. With few foxes around, the remaining rabbits can reproduce peacefully and the cycle begins again.

The model is based on the idea that predators tend to take more resources than nature can replace: it is what we now call "overexploitation” It always ends badly, but the model describes the trajectory of the populations that first grow and then collapse as a bell-shaped curve. An example of a real case is that of St. Matthew Island in the Pacific. There were no reindeer on the island before the US Navy brought some, in 1944. In a couple of decades they became thousands, they devoured all the grass, and then almost all died of starvation. Then, a couple of particularly harsh winters exterminated the last individuals, sick and hungry. Reindeer was the predators and grass the prey: a classic case of resource overexploitation.

Not that the model can explain the complex interactions in a whole ecosystem, but it is useful to provide us with a framework for what's happening. And we can use it to understand the current epidemic. It is the same thing: the virus is the predator and the prey is us. The population of the virus is growing rapidly as it always happens when resources are abundant. But soon the virus will begin to run out of prey, fortunately not because infected people die (some, unfortunately, do). They are no longer prey because they become immune. Indeed, the epidemic is following the bell-shaped trajectory predicted by the Lotka-Volterra model.

So, nothing unexpected. Viruses are creatures looking for resources just like we do. They're doing nothing different than what we did in the past by exterminating species like mammoths or the dodo. And, today, with the huge expansion of the human population over the last 1000-2000 years, we have become a great hunting ground for so many micro-organisms, also because of our tendency to live in crowded cities where it is easier to get infected. Thus, the past history is full of epidemics: plague, smallpox, cholera, influenza and many others.

In a way, we are at war: viruses attack us and we defend ourselves with vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene, and our immune system. But, if it's a war, we won't necessarily win it. Maybe we'll find a vaccine for the Sars-VOC-2 virus, but don't expect miracles.

Actually, species do not make wars against each other: they adapt, that's how the ecosystem works. Viruses and bacteria are seen almost only causes for diseases, but our body hosts a large number of them and of many different species. They are not parasites, many are "symbionts" – creatures that help us with so many things, think of our intestinal bacterial flora. So, in time, we'll end up adapting. And the virus will adapt, too.


A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll: Mr. Kunning-Druger

Mr. Bardi, you are just beating the bush, as you and your warmunist friends usually do to confuse the public. Now you mix magniloquent words at random, goddesses, viromes, holothis and holothat. And what does that mean? That we should welcome being infected by a virus and die? You are being exposed once more for what you are: an enemy of mankind.  So, if it has been all a fault of those stupid pangolins and bats (and those disgusting Chinese who eat them), well, there is a simple solution. As you said, our ancestors exterminated stupid animals like those dodos, why not exterminate pangolins and bats, which must be just as stupid? Problem solved. The reality is that man has no obligation toward nature, except to put it back in its proper place when needed. Now, it is the time to shelve those silly plans such as the energy transition and the green new deal. We need to go back to growth, and do that fast.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Can Collapsologists Learn From the Coronavirus Disaster?

------------------  This time, it is for real!  --------------------

Guest post by Herbert Krill
March 23, 2020

These are interesting times for collapsologists and for anyone interested in collapse. For many years, we all studied the past, historic collapses like the Fall of Ancient Rome, and speculated about future collapses. We studied Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, read the Blogs of Dmitry Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, re-read "The Limits to Growth" and "Overshoot", enjoyed "The Long Descent" and so on ... But now, something that could end in collapse is really here. There is a very fast decline of things as we speak, a "cliff" just as Seneca and Ugo Bardi and others have described.
Is the Coronavirus disaster our collapse? Is that "it"?

It might not "the Big One". But it's a big, fat Black Swan. And big enough to learn a lot from it.  Like one learns from a quake, even if it's not the Big One.

What is it that we have learned so far?

All the big systems need redundancy

Next time we will have to be better prepared. All this "slowdown", this trying to "flatten the curve" that's happening now (and disturbing the economy and the people themselves, although there are also positive sides to it, see below) could have been mitigated if a better health infrastructure would have been in place. The thing is, you have to build redundancy into the system, some overcapacity.

If you have capacity, then you don't have to slow down things so much. Think of fire-fighting. Fires are quick, they need to be attacked quickly. You have to have overcapacity. Fire engines sitting around idly, seemingly uselessly, until the call comes. Firefighters being bored, playing cards (or, rather, playing their smartphones). But no-one will say, "We don't need so many of them if they don't actually work." At some point, they will be needed, in a flash.

And that goes for the health care system as well. There should have been many more hospital beds available (even if empty most of the time), more respirators, protective suits, and so forth. If you don't have that infrastructure, you will have to build it quickly, like you do in a war.  It was funny to see those pictures of dozens of caterpillars digging the foundations of emergency hospitals in China, but a week later, those hospitals were actually ready. America did that sort of thing in World War II, regular factories were converted into producing arms, planes, ships, at an incredible rate. But for that to happen you need leadership. There was a Franklin D. Roosevelt then, not a Trump.

And the rest of the infrastructure?

For collapsologists, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the infrastructure holds together. Here in California, the Internet works (thank God), electricity flows, the mailperson makes his or her rounds, and amazon deliveries are still happening, albeit a bit delayed already. Even though there are lines in front of the supermarkets (people spaced two meters apart), there are not real food shortages. But will it stay that way?

The other day, I was reassured by reading an article in the L.A. Times about electricity distribution in  California. "Say what you will about the utility industry – they’re pretty good about contingency planning," Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid for most of the state, was quoted. The big electric grids, though sometimes weak, are systems that have always planned for disaster. They might be more vulnerable by a computer virus than a biological one.

But still, things can get stressed way too much. What if an earthquake decides to strike us right now? For example, a major rupture of the Hayward Fault, running through Oakland and Berkeley, about 10 km from where I live, is way overdue. Kamala Harris, California senator and recently a presidential candidate, worried aloud about this. It's not just a fantasy. Just a couple of days ago, there was a mid-size earthquake outside Zagreb. People running out on the street and congregating, instead of staying inside, as per official Coronavirus mitigation strategy.

A cure worse than the disease?

Isn't the current cure what's causing the "slow collapse"? That's probably what President Trump and his people think. They don't want the economy fall to pieces. "The U.S. was not built to be shut down," he said today.  He wants to get things running soon again. But what's more important, the economy or the people? Or are they one and the same?

It's a big, bold and perhaps desperate experiment, all this shutting down of everything, of "non-essential businesses", of more activities day by day, including most transportation and especially flying. There is certainly a danger that the whole economic edifice, or house of cards, depending on your point of view, could yet fall down. So interesting to watch this in real time! But just let's not be caught underneath the rubble.

Gail Tverberg (students of collapsology will know her) wrote recently on her blog: "Human beings cannot stop eating and breathing for a month. They cannot have sleep apnea for an hour at a time, and function afterward. Economies cannot stop functioning for a month and afterward resume operations at their previous level. Too many people will have lost their jobs; too many businesses will have failed in the meantime."

There is already talk of "cascading effects" in the mainstream press. And today, on Bloomberg, the word "domino effect": "Real estate investor Tom Barrack said the U.S. commercial-mortgage market is on the brink of collapse and predicted a domino effect of catastrophic economic consequences if ...". This is classical collapsology.

The psychological impact

You cannot tell people just to stay at home, not to do anything, for a long time. It's bad for their mental health. Many will become slightly unhinged. The "Guardian" just had an article about domestic violence increasing, in China in February and now in the U.S. as well: "A domestic violence hotline in Portland, Oregon, says calls doubled last week." And "The New Yorker" came out with this story: "How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Toll".

The "shelter in place" policy actually exacerbates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. You were lucky if you had booked a suite with a balcony on the "Diamond Princess" cruise ship when you had to wait out fourteen days of quarantine, instead of an interior room without any windows at all. The same goes for small apartments in a crowded city.

Stay-at-home and creative types like writers can cope with this, but most people are dependent on going out, having a drink at a bar, going to the movies, be part of a crowd. It's bad for the average guy, for the working classes, to be cooped up like that.

Positive sides, unintended

If you are not too stressed out, it's a time for reflection. Cherishing nature, family, or even thinking of death, it's good for you. Strangely enough, most churches are closed, as well. It will be a most unusual Easter this year.

Less greenhouse gases getting released, the air becomes clean again, for example in China. Time slows down, becomes available again. It's a period of deceleration. And by and by it starts to resemble a "World Made by Hand", the title of a novel by James Howard Kunstler, in which the post-collapse world was not a bad one indeed.

And despite of the new etiquette of "social distancing" (a brand-new expression, only ten days old or so) there is more face-to-face friendliness. And people are more in touch with each other via telephone, email, Facebook and such.

Just a dress rehearsal?

It's a big moment in history and therefore exciting. There is a "global feeling". Awaiting the coming days, weeks, and months. I communicate with my friends in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic as much as I can. Everyone does this now. When will we see each other again? We are united in isolation. And it's a global unity against an unseen, common enemy.

But perhaps this is just a fire drill, a dress rehearsal. The real thing, a much worse pandemic, might come later. A more contagious, and/or more deadly virus could emerge. Peter Daszak, a well-known "disease ecologist", thinks the current crisis will prove to be manageable, noting that the mortality rate of Covid-19 isn’t as great as SARS and the spread isn’t rampant. "I’m not hiding in my bunker right now," he told the "Wall Street Journal" at the beginning of the month. "We’re going to get hit by a much bigger one sometime in the next 10 years." Really?

So we collapsologists may get our "Big One" after all. We may even die from it.
Up to now, we were more or less theoreticians. Now it gets far more real. We were Cassandras, collapse aficionados, we kind of enjoyed our post-apocalyptic visions.

But who would have thought that we would really experience something like this?
Now we should stop speculating and start analyzing this event, the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 or whatever it will be called. Create a framework, set rules, detect mechanisms, make Collapsology a real science.

Herbert Krill is an Austrian documentary filmmaker currently working in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2012, he directed "American Collapse", a 45-minute documentary for the German-language Public TV network 3SAT.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Italy: The Virus Hits Polluted Areas. Is There a Correlation?

The coronavirus pandemics: a consequence of the human impact on the ecosystem

The Italian situation: on the left, pollution levels of microparticulate. On the right, the diffusion of the Coronavirus pandemic. Image from the article by Setti et al

Below, I report an English translation (slightly modified) of an article that I submitted today to the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano." Sorry that the text is a little Italy-centered and all the links point to pages in Italian. Nevertheless, I thought that the story of a possible correlation of the coronavirus diffusion and the level of pollution was interesting also for the readers of "Cassandra's Legacy.

For some additional considerations, take a look at the picture above: the correlation of the virus diffusion with the most polluted areas of Italy seems evident. It is, of course, a hypothesis to be taken with plenty of caution, but it has some logic in it. The Val Padana, the Northern plains of Italy, is a region stuck between two mountain chains, the Appennini and the Alps, blocking winds coming from the North. The result is that air stagnates and pollution accumulates, creating what's probably the most polluted area in Western Europe. Considering that also Wuhan, the other center of the coronavirus epidemic, is located in a highly polluted area, central China, it makes sense to think that the infection does more damage to the already weakened lungs of people affected by pollution. Indeed, I had already noted how epidemics tend to strike mostly populations already weakened by other factors, typically famines and wars -- pollution is just another factor that has the same effect. According to the data, it may also be that the virus is carried by flying microparticles and that makes the infection spread faster.

The discussion is ongoing in Italy, with some people vehemently rejecting the idea that pollution may have anything to do with the pandemic. They tend to negate the correlation using the concept that "correlation doesn't mean causation" as a little mantra to dispel ideas they can't accept. There is a certain logic in this attitude, too. If the epidemic is reinforced by pollution, it means that the virus is not just an act of God, unpredictable and nobody's fault. It means that we have created the disaster by our neglect of the damage we are doing to the ecosystem and that, eventually, comes back to us with a vengeance. It is understandable that some people take the hypothesis as a direct attack on their non-negotiable lifestyle. But so it goes, we are all human beings. 

The Coronavirus epidemic and pollution: is there a correlation?
by Ugo Bardi
Submitted to "Il Fatto Quotidiano" 22 March 2020

There is an ongoing debate about the possible correlation between the coronavirus epidemic and pollution. A recent study by Leonardo Setti and colleagues examines this correlation in Italy. The result is that particulate matter appears to act as a carrier of the virus and accelerate its spread. This would be in accordance with the fact that the maximum spread of the epidemic is in Val Padana, probably the most polluted area in Italy.

The article does not explicitly say that pollution may also have weakened the immune defenses of victims, but this is the result of other studies. For example, a recent study shows that this specific virus preferentially attacks the lungs of smokers, and smoking does similar damage as pollution to lungs.

These are possible hypotheses but, of course, it does not mean that they correspond to reality. In fact, Setti's article also generated negative reactions. The Italian Aerosol Society (IAS) intervened with a document that points out that correlation does not mean causation, that the data are uncertain and that we need to study much more about it before we can determine if the atmospheric particulate matter has any effects on the epidemic.

Who's right? For most of us, it is difficult to give an informed judgment on such a specialized and complex subject. One thing we can say, however, is that here we have a correlation based on data – albeit uncertain- backed by serious people. Nothing to do with the various follies that you can read all over the Web, that the epidemic is all the fault of 5G, of chemtrails, or who knows what other ongoing monstrous plot created by the powers that be.

Another thing we can say is that this story is a good example of how scientific progress works: we start from a correlation, often initially uncertain, and then try to arrive at an explanation. Perhaps you remember the case of the English doctor John Snow, who in the 19th century had noticed a correlation between the number of cases of cholera in London and the distance of the homes of people sick from a certain public fountain. He shut it down and so he managed to stop the epidemic. Much later, it was discovered that the fountain fished near a well that contained infected fecal matter.

Today, it seems obvious to us that Snow was right but, in his time, the role of bacteria in infectious diseases was not known and his idea was initially opposed. It may be that someone had also said to him that " correlation does not mean causation!" But if Snow had waited for certainty, people would have continued to drink from that fountain and die of cholera.

The analogy with the current situation is obvious. Also for the coronavirus epidemic, we have an analysis of the location of the cases that establishes a correlation with highly polluted areas. On this basis, an action strategy can be devised. For cholera in the days of Snow, it was enough to close a fountain to stop the epidemic, for the coronavirus you have to reduce air pollution. That's not so easy, but we can at least try. If it turns out the correlation didn't exist, well, we'll still have done something good.

All this does not mean that it is the only pollution that causes the epidemic, absolutely not. But if it's an important factor, then we have to take it into account. If the air in Lombardy had been less polluted, it would have been easier to control the spread of the virus and mortality would have been lower.

Once more, we see how the damage we do to the ecosystem comes back to us. At this point, it is useless to blame the Chinese bat-eaters or the government that did not close the borders in time. To a large extent, the blame lies with all of us who, with the excuse of "development", have not done enough to combat air pollution. It will take time to remedy, but, at least, the coronavirus is teaching us that there is no development if it is not sustainable and that sustainable development respects both the ecosystem and human health. Hopefully, we'll remember that in the future.

h/t Sylvie Coyaud and Alex Saragosa.

A comment by Ugo Bardi's Personal Troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

So, mr. Bardi. I see that you finally had what you wanted. You and your friends, including the little witch with braided hair, you must be very happy at seeing people die of the virus. Isn't it a good way to reduce what you call "pollution"? You will stop at nothing to impose your twisted ideology of hate on the world, right? And I figure you must be gloating at seeing the fall of the concentration of CO2 that you call "greenhouse" gas but is instead food for plants. Very well, one point scored by you watermelons, those who are green outside and red inside. I figure that the next step will be trying to force Communism on us with the excuse of the pandemic. Sure, but you'll see that it won't be so easy. Not easy at all.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Coronavirus for Non-Italians. Aka, "your government is not taking this seriously enough".

Number of cases per million inhabitants in various EU countries, compared to the level (10/million) China enacted its block, to date the most effective strategy to fight the infection. With 21.6 cases/million inhabitants, for instance, France is recommending people to... wash their hands.

Guest Post by Luigi Fiora

Let's start with some data.

1) Italy is the world's 9th largest economy (not for much longer).

2) It has a completely free and subsidized public healthcare deemed the second-best in the world by the World Health Organization's ranking of health systems in terms of performance. This is relevant, as people can afford to seek best-available treatment regardless of their social status/economic well-being (winking at you USA, your poor can't afford to be sick).

3) Having one of the twenty highest spending per capita in healthcare, our healthcare system and personnel are top-notch, if chronically underfunded and currently overwhelmed by the very high number of infected patients.

4) Italy has one of the highest rates of homeownership in the world, at roughly 75%. US and UK are below 60, Germany below 50. This means people can mostly stay at home without incurring extreme costs while seeing their income limited by their inability to work. Aka: it is bad here, it will be worse elsewhere. for the poorest particularly.

5) Italians have one of the highest savings rate in the world (8% of the yearly income, estimated at some 4.300 billion Euros) due to an overall skepticism in banks and economic fluctuations. While bad for economic growth in normal times, this means median Italian families can afford to consume resources while not working/producing. Again, other countries will have it worse, with high proportions of the population unable to stop working even if ill/quarantined, or risk starvation.

6) Places with low home ownership, no public healthcare, low savings and/or overall poor economic performance/infrastructures will be hit very fucking hard. Oversaturated hospital means more people will die by no being able to get needed care in time than die of the virus. Italian hospitals are already selecting who gets to be treated and who does not base on their likelihood to survive and estimated time they will need care for. People in desperate situations, who may have been saved in ordinary periods are ALREADY dying.

7) For once, I agree with my government's decision to shut down everything no matter the economic costs. The Chinese did that, and their infection rate is plummeting as more and more people recover. See the graph at the beginning of this post.


the virus already is a pandemic, due to it being undetected when asymptomatic, yet still able to spread. many governments are halting testing to avoid spreading panic. Shutting down and quarantining the majority of the population, avoiding interpersonal contacts as much as necessary is the only way to avoid hospital overfilling and uncontrolled panic.

This is IMPERATIVE: it takes 14 days for the effects of a block to take place. If France were to enact one today (they won't) (*), thousands of people will still go to the hospital and hundreds will die, having been infected in the past days. Quarantine is having a significant economic impact on Italy. For many countries not as lucky as us it will be crippling, and harder to enact as people cannot afford not working.

So my question to all of you who read this tedious post is: Why is YOUR government not shutting down everything?

We should do more.

(*) Note: this post was published on March 10, when France had not yet implemented a national block against the infection. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The doom that came to Florence

Where once had risen walls of 300 cubits and towers yet higher, now stretched only the marshy shore, and where once had dwelt fifty millions of men now crawled only the detestable green water-lizard. Not even the mines of precious metal remained, for DOOM had come to Sarnath. -- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Doom that Came to Sarnath"



Images courtesy Miguel Martinez

Monday, March 16, 2020

Fighting the Coronavirus using Thermodynamics

Strategies against a subtle enemy 

Guest post by Pepi Cima

James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics, proposed in 1867 a thought experiment to illustrate the apparent contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics with classical mechanics. The second law of thermodynamics regulates the flow of heat, from hot to cold and not vice versa. Between the two worlds, thermodynamics and mechanics, there seemed to be a contradiction that has since been defined as the "Maxwell Demon" paradox.

With a sense of humor worthy of the Monty Pythons, Maxwell painted it in the guise of an individual of very minute proportions and prompt reflexes who discerns between fast and slow gas molecules and, by means of a frictionless valve, effortlessly separates them to two containers. In an isolated system, a hot zone cannot be created where before there was none. We heat cold dishes daily in the kitchen with our microwave oven, the demon would do it without a plugged oven, without a source of external energy.

In the virus emergency that we are experiencing these days one would like to do the same thing that Maxwell's demon does with the particles of a gas: take infected individuals and promptly separate them from the healthy ones, long enough for the epidemic to subside. Viruses alone cannot survive without parasitizing bodies. After they have finished with the infected individuals, and the latter have recovered or died, they too become extinct if they don't find new victims. It would be preferable to extinguish them quickly without having to wait for the manufacturing of an effective vaccine.

Something similar has already happened with smallpox, officially vanished from earth according to the WHO*. Those of us who have been vaccinated as children still carry the signs of the vaccine. After mass vaccinations in the West, the extinction was completed in the rest of the world by identifying the last carriers of the virus one by one and isolating their closest contacts. An information-based strategy. Unfortinately, something analogous to the second principle of thermodynamics seems to be preventing such an approach in the present coronavirus epidemics.

We already have a strategy with the Corona-virus, we obstruct possible channels of contagion asking people not to shake hands and other precautions. Essentially cooling the behavior of the entire population, not by chance a reference to a thermodynamic machine par excellence: a refrigerator. We are fighting with refrigerators an enemy who attacks us with modern info-weapons which we counter freezing the battlefield. Slowing down the battle doesn't mean winning the war, it only spreads the pain over a longer period.

Is this exclusively a second principle fight? Or has the first principle something to do with it? The energy comes in too, their supply lines are short, they have forgotten a basic war strategy principle. If one doesn't get in touch with anybody for a while, they'll starve of new bodies. Of course, the price is the life of some of our soldiers in the front lines. To win a faster blitzkrieg we have to invent weapons as advanced as theirs.

Could we wage a fast information war too, one genome against the other? Could we implement a Maxwell-demon like strategy against their cell receptors? With the Coronavirus, it is not like with Smallpox, it spreads faster and more subtly. In a very mobile society, we cannot send health care teams to the fields of rural India to isolate and vaccinate positive individuals. If we decide to fight with information we need fast modern tools, are they available now?

The cost of information handling and transmission is the real problem (**) of Maxwell's Demon of statistical mechanics memory. Nobody would finance the demon to beat the second principle in a gas, nobody is rich enough to stalk an Avogadro-number of molecules that are moving at the speed of sound. Especially if the reason for it is to heat a soup in a microwave oven. In the information era, on the other hand, we could afford to be on the heels of a virus day and night, one by one, until we destroy them forever.

We already have the weapon, perhaps even more powerful than needed. It is made of silicon instead of the virus carbon based information infrastructure. We seem to have forgotten about it, we thought chatting would have been its only use. But we each have a mobile phone in our pocket, connected in real-time with a central database with the data of all our movements and contacts. All at a practically zero IT cost.

It may be sufficient to determine that an individual has been infected, play the film backwards and send an SMS to all of our contacts for the previous X days, asking them to move into quarantine for two weeks. Everyone else could move on with their lives as usual and support the rest of us in quarantine. The epidemic extinguishing time would be inversely proportional to how far backward we can dig in this investigative process and how many individuals can simultaneously be kept in quarantine.

I would really like to understand how difficult it would be to make a Corona-virus swab with a mobile phone, the possibility to stop everything quickly depends on fast IT procedures.

* "Smallpox". WHO Factsheet. Archived from the original on 21 September 2007.

** Szilard, Leo (1929). "Über die Entropieverminderung in einem thermodynamischen System bei Eingriffen intelligenter Wesen (On the reduction of entropy in a thermodynamic system by the intervention of intelligent beings)". Zeitschrift für Physik. 53 (11–12): 840–856. English translation available as NASA document TT F-16723published 1976

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Politics of the Coronavirus: A Lesson from Italy on how to Deal with Emergencies

Italy fights on against the epidemic. But it is a difficult battle
While things keep changing with the Covid-19 epidemics, I thought I could jot down a few considerations on the politics of emergencies. It is about Italy, but I think there are lessons in this story valid for all Western Countries. In the picture, the current prime minister of Italy, Mr. Giuseppe Conte. He has been doing reasonably well in handling the crisis.

There was a moment, a few weeks ago, when I was scared. Truly scared. The Italian Right had started mounting a hate campaign that exploited the coronavirus threat. The gist of the campaign was that the coronavirus was a threat brought to Italy by those filthy Chinese, known for their disgusting eating habits. And the African immigrants were doing the same. Although they were not yet carrying the virus, they soon would because they, too, are filthy and are known for their disgusting eating habits. All that was not happening by chance: it was planned in order to exterminate the Italian people and replace them with immigrants from Africa. The plan involved also the Islamization of the country and the adoption of the Sharia law.

I am not kidding, this is what you could read in some newspaper titles. The one shown here is from "Libero," Feb 13th, one of the national newspapers. The title says, "Technical tests of extermination," with the subtitle "the government eases the diffusion of the virus." Make no mistake: they were accusing the government of planning to exterminate the Italian population. Then, of course, they were careful in avoiding to state that too explicitly, but that was the message vehicled to their readership.

It is well known that the Right has its political base in the least educated fraction of the population, and it seems clear that many of them were truly alarmed. The reaction on social media was virulent (an especially appropriate term, in this case). In many cases, posts were written by people unable to write in correct Italian, but that didn't prevent them from venting their anger against those Communists, Greens, do-gooders (buonisti), Islamists, Terrorists, and other enemies of the people. Just an example, here.

This one says, "Down with this government of idiots who segregated the Italians and not the Chinese. Honorable suicide or state suicide for all of them, including the president." I don't know how much of what could be read was genuine: in part, it was surely the work of paid trolls, maybe of bots. So, this Mr. "Venesian" probably doesn't really exist. But that was the tone and the substance of most comments on social media.

You can see why I was scared. I don't think that the leaders of the Right really planned to exterminate anyone, they were just asking for the resignation of the current government, maybe for new elections that they hoped to win. But these things tend to go out of hand, as Maximilien Robespierre discovered in 1794. I noted the danger in a post that I wrote on Feb 23, where I compared the situation to that of the man-hunts against the "plague-spreaders" during the great plague of Milan, during the 17th century.

But, with the progress of the epidemics, the leaders of the Right discovered that they had placed themselves in a no-win position. Their strategy had backfired on them. You don't ask the resignation of the government when you face a national emergency -- it is a no-no: you look like a subversive, to say the least. So, they abruptly changed their tune: you can see the title of the same Libero newspaper of Feb 20. "Virus, now they are exaggerating. Calm down!" (*) Most trolls disappeared from the Web, not just an impression of mine, it was confirmed by quantitative data. At the same time, the Right abandoned all the stories about the planned extermination, Islamization, and the like. Then, they asked to join the current government coalition to form a government of national unity. But, of course, they were told something like, "what? First you say we are criminals, then you want to join us? Did the coronavirus affect your brains?" In many ways, it was another personal defeat for Mr. Salvini, the leader of the Italian League, who showed once more his limits as a leader.

As the threat of the virus became clearer and more pressing, the government started to take serious action. Here, there is a rule that says that in an emergency, any leader can shine. That was true also for Mr. Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, who managed to give a good impression of leadership, calling for national unity and joint efforts to save the country. Overall, it is a good moment: Italians are reacting well to the emergency, there are no complaints, no requests of exterminating anyone, citizens are trying to do their best by staying at home, as they are requested to do.

The situation is evolving: the government is gambling on the idea that quarantine can stop the diffusion of the virus. If it doesn't work, things may become difficult, to say the least. The Italian health care system is functioning and it is staffed with competent people, but it has been suffering from financial cuts and personnel cuts during the past decades. If it is overwhelmed and collapses, all bets are off. Anything can happen. Maybe we can make it. Just maybe.

Now, what can we learn from this story? Could we project it to other future emergencies, such as the looming climate crisis? With some caution, yes. The future is never like the past, but it rhymes with it. So, if some truly heavy climate crisis arrives, governments will be tempted to react first by blaming their opponents, as the Australian government did with the forest fires of this winter. In this case, they succeeded in passing the message that the Greens were to blame because they didn't want to cut trees - no trees, no fire. Isn't that obvious? But that was possible in Australia because the threat was limited. If towns had started burning, that strategy might have backfired, just like the attempt of blaming immigrants for the epidemic, as in Italy.

So, if Italy is an example, it may be that in case of a truly serious climate emergency, governments may finally decide to react and do something serious. At the same time, the same people who are now thundering against "climate alarmism" would fall in line and ask for national unity against the climate threat. As in the case of Italy, it will be late, probably too late, but it will be at least an attempt. Could it work? Who knows? It would be at least a fighting chance.

(*) Not everyone in Italy agreed to calm down. One Mr. Vittorio Sgarbi, member of the parliament and known as an art critic and art historian, improvised himself as an expert in epidemiology and uploaded a rant against alarmists and catastrophists, denying the existence of the epidemics and of the coronavirus, inviting everyone to go visiting the "red zone" of the epidemic, all that using a foul language (impossible to translate into English) and insulting everyone who disagrees with him. That's not so interesting in itself, but note that Mr. Sgarbi received little flak from the media for his statements. It may be that his opinions are still common with the Italian population.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Florence Hit by the Coronavirus: The Curse of Hyperspecialization

Like the Giant Panda, the economy of Florence is at risk of extinction. 

Florence is like the Chinese Panda: a creature highly specialized in the resources it exploits. The pandas need bamboo, Florence needs tourists. No bamboo, the pandas die. No tourists, well....

These days, walking in downtown Florence reminds me of my childhood, when Florence was not packed full of tourists. It is a ghostly experience: there is almost nobody around. The few Florentines walking in the streets look perplexed, as if asking each other "and now what?" All Italy is like that, frozen: schools and universities are closed, most restaurants have closed and the trains and the buses run nearly empty.

Right now, the number of victims caused by the coronavirus is relatively small. It will not be a new black death. But the epidemics illustrates the fragility of our economic system: it is being disrupted not because people are killed by the virus, but because it lacks resilience. It is subjected to that deadly phenomenon called "enhancing feedback" -- the loss of an element of the network can destroy the whole system.

This fragility is especially visible in some highly specialized economies: the city of Florence is a case in point. I already discussed how Florence evolved over the past two centuries or so from a purely agricultural economy to one centered on tourism. You might see it as a parasitic economy, or maybe a scavenging economy. Modern Florentines have been living on the work of their ancestors, hundreds of years ago, in the form of art masterpieces and spectacular buildings.

The problem is not how you define the Florentine economy. The real problem is another. It was known but carefully ignored: it is that this economy is fragile. Tourism is highly sensitive to economic shocks: in difficult times, the first thing that people stop spending money on are expensive trips abroad. And this is exactly what's happening: with the rampaging coronavirus, people all over the world have canceled their trips and they are staying home. And Florence is empty.

In a way, it was expected: it is what I call the "Seneca Collapse." It is something typical of complex systems. Normally, they can absorb external shocks and adapt. But when they are under stress, it may happen that a small shock unbalances the whole system and causes it to collapse. Here is how the Seneca curve looks like: it is inspired by something that the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca said: "Growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid."

It is nothing more than the old story of the straw that broke the camel's back. It was not a fault of the straw, but of the camel having been overloaded. Seen in retrospect, it was not a good idea to overload the Florentine economy with infrastructures that brought more and more tourists to the town and that required more and more tourists to provide the resources needed for their maintenance. More hotels, more restaurants, more shops, more events, more roads, and so on. Even a bigger airport was in the plans but that, fortunately, may never materialize. 

A lot of people in Florence are complaining because they are losing money from their investments in bonds and stocks. But the real problem is with the people whose living directly depends on tourism. The people who clean the rooms of hotels and of airb&b's, who serve in restaurants, who drive taxis, who sell trinkets in the squares, who take tourists on tour in groups, and so on. Right now, they are on the edge of panic. Typically, they have no financial reserves and they are often indebted to the banks. But they have to pay their rent and to buy groceries for their families. And they are running out of money.

There are further stacked layers of people who indirectly benefit from tourism. For instance, a friend of mine makes a living out of giving private English lessons. In turn, people in Florence take English lessons mainly because it is a skill useful to deal with foreign tourists. But the virus has scared her students and, in any case, in this uncertain situation, most of them thought it was better to skip the cost of English lessons, it is one of those luxuries that can be postponed for better times. My friend's income has dwindled to zero in a couple of weeks. And she has to pay the rent for her home and buy food for her family.

Let's see things a little more in perspective. According to Statista,  "In 2019, the contribution of travel and tourism to the Italian gross domestic product amounted to 237.8 billion euros. The industry, which is one of the most important ones for the country’s economy, constituted about 13.3 percent of the Italian GDP."

Can the Italian economy survive the loss of 13% of the GDP? Probably yes, just as you can survive being run over a truck. But that doesn't mean it is a pleasant experience, nor a painless one.

Then, how about Florence? There are no data about such thing as a "Gross Town Product" for Florence, but some rough estimates of mine indicate that the fraction of the Florentine economic machine that runs on tourism could be around 30%, and perhaps even more. Now, imagine that international tourism vanishes for an extended period of time. . .  Ow. . . No more bamboo shoots for those poor pandas.

With a bit of luck, the virus will go away in a month or two, leaving an Italy battered but still there. Italians have shown great resilience in the past, think of when they rebuilt the country after the disaster of the second world war. Can they do that one more time?

In principle, yes. But it would take a serious rethinking on the part of a political class that so far has placed all bets into expanding tourism as much as possible, beyond all reasonable limits, all in the name of growth for the sake of growth. For once, they might learn something from this experience.

Unfortunately, right now, the first impression is not good, with noises recently heard from the government about the need to provide economic stimuli for people to buy new cars in order to "restart growth." People never change their minds, just like pandas never change their diet. And, as usual, we march into the future while looking backward.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)