Monday, December 28, 2020

Trust and the COVID-19 Vaccine


In the last three weeks, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for use against COVID-19.  Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed in less than a year, a stunning technical achievement that relied on cutting-edge science and engineering.  Now the big question is, how many people will be willing to take it? 


The only vaccine rollout of comparable importance in my lifetime was the advent of polio vaccines in the late 1950s.  I was not old enough to be reading the newspaper regularly when I ate the sugar cube the Sabin vaccine came on, being about eight years of age, but I understood by the way my parents acted that it was a big deal. 


Polio was a terrifying disease for two reasons:  it tended to strike children and teenagers, and it usually crippled rather than killed you, putting many of its victims in clumsy braces, wheelchairs, or a medieval-looking contraption called an iron lung.  So it's not surprising that polio vaccines received near-universal acceptance in the far-off days when your doctor's word was tantamount to the word of God and the only people who objected to vaccines were Christian Scientists and other minority groups.


Things are different now in a lot of ways.  Public trust in expertise of all kinds has seen a decline in recent years.  There is now a substantial anti-vaccine movement motivated by a variety of factors, but sharing a common belief that the harm vaccines do may well outweigh the good, and assurances to the contrary by scientists or the medical profession should not be trusted.  Surveys asking people whether they will be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine turn up substantial numbers of people who don't want it, although recent trends have been in the more-willing direction.  For example, a Kaiser Foundation survey conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 8 and reported in U. S. News says that 41% of Americans say they will definitely get it and 30% will "probably" get it.  The number of people who say they definitely won't get a vaccination is 15%, and 12% say probably not. 


The poll broke down respondents by rural versus urban, Republican versus Democrat, and African-American versus everything else.  Those in rural areas, Republicans, and African-Americans are less willing than other groups to get vaccinated for COVID-19.  Why is this?


One factor cited for the reluctance of African-Americans to receive the vaccine is the bad track record of medical experimentation on Black Americans exemplified by the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study conducted between 1932 and 1972, which followed the course of the untreated disease in African-American men by lying to them that they were receiving free medical treatment, when in fact they were not being helped at all, just observed as the disease progressed to its fatal conclusion.  This study is a poster child for unethical experimentation on human subjects, and it's not surprising that after betraying trust in this manner, the U. S. Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control find that Blacks are less than enthusiastic than other ethnic groups about government-supported vaccine programs. 


But that doesn't explain why 27% of the U. S. population still doesn't want a COVID-19 vaccination. 


Part of the reason may simply be that younger people don't think catching COVID-19 will hurt them that much, whereas the vaccine makers are admitting up front that the second of the two necessary injections makes many people mildly ill for a day or two.  Absent a job requirement to receive the vaccine (and I'm not aware of any organizations which have yet implemented such a requirement), that is a judgment call that is up to the individual. 


The novel factor in this whole situation is the way that a vaccine that can keep you from contracting a widespread potentially fatal disease has become a political football, with Republicans showing more reluctance to take it than Democrats.  The simplistic answer to this question, namely that followers of Donald Trump are a bunch of ignorant morons who he can lead around by their noses, won't do.  At least before the November election, Trump was boasting about how fast Operation Warp Speed was going to produce and distribute the vaccine.  So why aren't Republicans all on board with it? 


A better answer may be that trust in governmental institutions in general, rather than in individual politicians, has undergone severe erosion in the last decade or two, and perhaps more so among Republicans than among Democrats.  The Gallup poll organization publishes annual samplings of how ethical various professions and members of institutions are perceived to be.  The poll asks, "Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields—very high, high, average, low, or very low?"  Their findings are instructive.


Members of Congress, for example, don't do very well in these polls.  In the latest poll conducted earlier this month, Congresspeople rated only 1% very high, 7% high, 29% average, 39% low, and 24% very low.  Contrast this to the public perception of, say, engineers (in 2019):  17% very high, 49% high, 31% average, 2% low, and 1% very low (1% had no opinion).  This is better than engineers were doing in the 1970s, for example, when only 10% of respondents rated them very high. 


Now engineers don't have to run for public office by raising millions of dollars of campaign funds, and if they did, their public perception might be different.  Interestingly, of all the major professions, nurses come out even better than engineers:  41% of the public in December 2020 thought nurses' ethics and honesty were very high and 48% thought they were high.  So maybe public-service ads featuring nurses encouraging you to get a COVID-19 vaccine would be more effective than government pronouncements.


As you probably know, the vaccines will not begin to affect the overall spread and persistence of COVID-19 until a substantial fraction of the public receives effective vaccines.  Estimates of the substantial fraction vary, but it's somewhere around half.  And one thing that is still unknown is whether the vaccines only prevent people from suffering adverse symptoms of COVID-19 (it's pretty clear that they do that), or whether they prevent people from spreading it as well.  There simply hasn't been enough time to determine their effectiveness at reducing infectiousness.


Well, my sister (a nurse, whom I trust) received the first of her pair of COVID-19 vaccine injections last week, and assuming it's eventually available to people in my category (engineer, college teacher, over 65), I plan to get it too.  But I can understand that people may have reasons to refuse, and so far, this is a free enough country where you can do that.


Sources:  The U. S. News report on the Kaiser poll about willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine appeared at  The Gallup organization has posted historical and up-to-date responses to its honesty-and-ethics polls at  I also consulted the Wikipedia article on "Tuskegee Syphilis Study."

Monday, December 21, 2020

Agreeing On Evil: Sexual Exploitation and PornHub


As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof revealed in a Dec. 4 article, "The Children of Pornhub," the pornographic-video-sharing website Pornhub encourages the sexual exploitation of women and girls by allowing sexually explicit videos of them to be uploaded for viewing by anybody.  Many of these videos are uploaded without the participant's consent, and such actions can literally wreck lives. 


Pornhub is owned by the Canadian company MindGeek, which for protection against legal challenges in the U. S. hides behind Section 230 of the ironically-named Communications Decency Act.  That act generally exempts internet service providers from being sued about content uploaded by third parties.  But Section 230 was never intended to protect pornographers and their enablers who exploit victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable populations for profit.


A National Review report last week describes how Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Markley have co-sponsored a bill called the "Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act" which aims to enable those who find themselves unwillingly portrayed in such videos to fight back.  The bill would require pornographic websites to obtain written consent from every person portrayed in a video before it could be uploaded, and would require identity verification of the person doing the uploading.  If someone in the video still objects to its being posted, the bill creates a "private right of action" (presumably, the right to sue) agains the uploader for anyone portrayed.  Websites would be required to maintain a 24-hour hotline for removal requests and to remove any video within two hours of receiving such a request.  The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the law, and the Department of Justice would maintain a database of those who do not consent to sharing of their pornographic material online.


These days it is hard to get bipartisan agreement on what time of day it is, let alone a significant piece of legislation such as this.  But Republican Sasse and Democrat Markley have not only managed to agree on the proposed law, but are trying to attract others to their cause on both sides of the aisle.  Surely, most reasonable people can agree on the principle that an unwilling victim of sexual exploitation should be able to do something about the continual use of pornographic material in which he or she appears.


The old saying that "technology is neutral, it's only people who are good or bad" often comes up in discussions of engineering ethics.  It is at best a half-truth, in that some technological systems lend themselves much more easily to evil purposes than to good ones.  While the Internet has conferred many benefits upon modern societies, the portion of its traffic devoted to pornography (which is a considerable part of overall Internet traffic) is a bleeding sore whose negative consequences are manifold.


The tip of the evil iceberg of Internet porn is the plight of those who end up having images of themselves posted for the pleasure of anonymous eyes, against their will.  Some of these victims have lapses of judgment that they later regret.  Others are tricked into getting involved in pornography by enticing lies that involve human trafficking.  Whatever the reason, when a person decides that they no longer wish to be exploited in this way, any meaningful measure of human decency requires that the law defend that person against whatever entity is continuing to exploit their image. 


MindGeek, the corporation that operates PornHub and similar sites, is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue.  As such, it can afford fancy lawyers and legal defenses that easily overpower the attempts of individuals to restrict the use of uploaded pornographic materials. 


The bill sponsored by Sens. Sasse and Markley would be a step toward redressing this wrong.  It is precisely targeted at the specific abuse of internet porn using images of people who object to the use of those images, and would not otherwise disturb the precedent of Section 230.  This means that it stands a better chance of passage than broader measures floated from time to time which would abolish Section 230 altogether.  No one wants to be the one who kills the Internet goose that lays golden eggs, and while opinions differ about the role that Section 230 has played in the growth of the Internet, it would be unwise at this point to undertake major tinkering with it.


On the other hand, I can't image anyone other than pornographers, their enablers, and hard-core customers being opposed to the idea that before porn is posted online for anyone to see, everyone portrayed in it should affirmatively consent to such posting, and retain the right to change their minds later.  Imagine that you participated in such a video out of poor judgment, intoxication, or coercion.  Later you regret what you've done.  But without this legislation, MindGeek can keep embarrassing images of you online for anyone to see indefinitely. 


Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my least favorite authors, but his novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the heroine Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a red "A" for the rest of her life, created a vivid portrayal of the way a society can inflict suffering on a person long after the sinner has repented of her sin.  In allowing evil organizations such as PornHub to keep exploiting the victims of sexual exploitation indefinitely, we as a society are allowing a similar kind of torment to be visited on those who either regret their earlier involvement in pornography or had no real choice in the matter.  Hawthorne's Puritans are universally condemned by many of today's opinion-makers, but PornHub effectively follows around thousands of women with explicitly public reminders of their past indiscretions. 


With COVID-19 and all the other political shenanigans we have witnessed lately, the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act may not get the attention it deserves.  But I hope that the partisan strife in Washington can die down long enough for Congress to enact, and the President to sign, this bill that every decent human being should support.


Sources:  Nicholas Kristof's article "The Children of Pornhub" appeared on Dec. 4 at  National Review's website carried the article by Alexandra DeSanctis "Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Require Consent before Sharing Pornography Online" at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Mindgeek.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Is China Moving Toward Geoengineering?


Earlier this month, the State Council of China (its main administrative body) announced that it was planning to expand its weather-modification efforts to cover an area of about 5.5 million square kilometers, which is more than half the size of the United States.  In addition to rainmaking (which the announcement called "precipitation control"), the government-funded efforts include prevention of hailstorms, enhanced accuracy of weather forecasts, and emergency response plans to deal with crises such as forest fires.


This is not China's first venture into weather modification.  To prevent rain from dampening the festivitives at the opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on August 8 of that year, over a thousand rockets filled with silver iodide crystals were fired into the skies prior to the event.  Whether the party would have been rained out without the rockets is something we'll never know, but the Party leaders didn't want to take a chance that rain would spoil their parade.


Not counting things such as Indian rain dances, the history of scientific weather modification goes back to the late 1940s, when meteorologist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of author Kurt) and the Nobelist Irving Langmuir independently found ways to encourage clouds to form precipitation.  Vonnegut's method involved silver iodide crystals, and the U. S. Army showed in large-scale experiments that spreading finely-divided crystals into actual clouds could cause or increase rainfall under certain conditions. 


In the U. S., large-scale cloud-seeding efforts are no longer common, although numerous experiments with hurricanes and conventional storms were carried out as late as the 1970s.  For one thing, it is difficult to do a controlled experiment with cloud seeding, as no two clouds are ever alike and the ideal of changing only one variable (to seed or not to seed) can never be achieved.  Consequently, the typical outcome of an experiment, which can cost many thousands of dollars in flight time, shells, or rockets, is "well, maybe it did something, but we're not sure."  Another issue is that if more rain comes down in location A, that same rain can't also fall in location B, and if A and B are in different states, for example, you have a potential conflict between administrative entities.


That may be one reason that, after employing weather modification to a limited extent in theVietnam War, the U. S. signed the Environmental Modification Convention in 1978, which  bans the use of weather modification for hostile purposes.  The Peoples' Republic of China is also a participant in that convention, but that may not make adjacent countries such as India feel much better, as China could always claim that their cloud seeding was for peaceful purposes.


The term "geoengineering" is usually reserved for technological activities that would affect the entire globe, not just a part of it.  For example, at various times scientists have floated the idea that to combat global warming, we should inject a lot of sulfur dioxide particles into the air in order to reduce the influx of radiation to the earth's surface and counteract the greenhouse effect of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  So far, weather modification efforts on the scale that we have seen historically don't amount to geoengineering.  But if the area in which such work is being done gets large enough, and 5.5 million square kilometers is pretty large, then you can begin to wonder whether we are putting the robustness of large-scale weather systems to a test.


We already know that seemingly subtle shifts in things such as the El Niño circulation off the Pacific coast of South America can have significant effects on our weather here in North America.  I don't know anything about typical weather patterns in the Far East, but it only stands to reason that mucking around with the weather over a large enough area of China is going to have some kind of effect in areas outside the region as well. 


Of course, this assumes that everything the State Council wants to do is successful.  If the history of weather modification tells us anything, it says that the best-laid plans in this field turn out to work less well than the designers hoped they would.  But most of the large-scale experiments in cloud seeding were carried out decades ago, before the advent of modern supercomputer-based weather modeling and enhanced automated weather data acquisition.  It's quite possible that with modern weather-forecasting technology, something closer to a truly controlled experiment can be carried out that will give us a better idea of whether all that silver iodide is doing any good, or whether it's just as useless as shooting off fireworks.


China has the dubious advantage of not having to worry about interstate lawsuits or any of the other administrative inconveniences that go with democracy.  Dictatorships can do large-scale, long-term things that democracies find difficult.  It's not an advantage that I personally think is worth the cost, but if the State Council decides to do a thing, there's not much anybody else can do to stop them, whether it's weather modification or a one-child policy. 


If the experiments turn out to be successful, I doubt that China will be very generous in sharing the results with the rest of the world, except maybe to brag.  And even if everything works as well as they hope, I'm not sure how applicable the results will be for the rest of the world, unless Russia or some other country dealing with huge land masses gets interested. 


You've probably heard someone say, "water is the new oil," meaning that as populations increase and live in cities with modern water supplies, the need for clean water may outstrip the need for fossil fuels.  While water resources will always be important, if weather modification turns out to be as useful as China thinks, that will add a new factor to the question of where future generations will find enough water to use.  My suspicion is that the basic natural processes that put water in the air in the first place are not going to change that much by means of weather modification, and any changes China or any other country can make will be relatively small-scale and short-term.  But I've been wrong before.


Sources:  The South China Morning Post carried an article describing the Chinese State Council's announcement of its plans for weather modification at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on cloud seeding, the Environmental Modification Convention, and El Niño.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Betrayal of Faith: Muslim Pro and the U. S. Military


Faithful Muslims are required to pray five times a day, facing toward Mecca.  In our smartphone era, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with an app that reminds the Muslim user that it's time to pray, and conveniently uses GPS data to direct the user toward Mecca from anywhere in the world.  Muslim Pro is the most popular app to do these and other helpful things for members of Islam, and has been downloaded some 98 million times. 


When a person downloads an app that is advertised to do a certain function, the question of what else it might be doing in the background rarely arises.  If the app is free, most people are aware at some level that the developer must make money somehow, typically through advertising.  But rarely does the typical user even read the boilerplate that sometimes appears during installation, because it would take a lawyer to figure out what it means, and all the relevant information might not even show up in the user agreement.  So there is an implied agreement or good-faith assumption on the part of the user, that the app developer won't do anything with the user's data that the user would object to.


Users of Muslm Pro received a shock last month when the Motherboard column of the website Vice revealed that through a third-party vendor, Muslim Pro had sold location data on its users to contractors for the U. S. military.  True, the data was "anonymized," meaning that names and other explicit identifying information was stripped from the data before it was sold.  But if a contractor obtains data from several different anonymized sources, it is often a fairly straightforward matter to "de-anonymize" the data and identify specific individuals.  If an anonymous individual spends a lot of time at a particular street address that can be associated independently with a particular name, so much for anonymity. 


Although no one has traced any specific military actions to the use of Muslim Pro data, users of the app have every right to feel betrayed.  Muslims aren't the only religious group using faith-related apps.  Just to pick a random example, the Catholic radio network Relevant Radio has developed an app that assists users in saying the Rosary and pursuing other devotional practices.  Imagine how users of that app in a Christian-hostile country would feel if they discovered that the network was selling location data gleaned from the app to representatives of the country that was persecuting them.  Betrayal is a mild word.


After Vice revealed the practice, Muslim Pro announced that it was cutting off its association with X-Mode, the company that was buying location data from Muslim Pro and other apps and selling it to contractors who specialize in providing intelligence data to the U. S. military.  For its part, X-Mode encourages developers who provide data to insert warning phrases in their user agreements.  Even if such verbiage was provided by each of the 400 or so apps that X-Mode obtains data from, it is unlikely that most users would even read it. 


I will admit that the first time I heard of a special watch that informed the wearer of the correct direction to pray toward Mecca, it struck me as incongruous, to say the least.  Here was a practice of a 1400-year-old faith being aided by up-to-date technology.  But religion is an important part of the lives of billions of people, and as technology advances and provides conveniences and assistance for every part of life, it's understandable that religious practices would take advantage of it too. 


The Muslim Pro-X-Mode revelation is a good example of how compartmentalizing is encouraged by the way large-scale technical systems work.  Most religions deal with the whole person, one at a time.  This is the opposite tendency of the way a company like X-Mode operates:  stripping identifying information from bits of location data and selling it wholesale to similar organizations that deal in dehumanized blocks of information, which however can be easily reversed to reveal the location of any particular individual.  Those who handle the data along the way—the programmers and managers and salesmen—easily forget that the only reason their data is valuable is because it pertains to human beings.  They would rather think about correlations and data quality and other mathematical measures, than to consider that just possibly, one of the bits of data they sell may be used to end the life of a human being. 


I am not a pacifist, and I realize that war is sometimes the least bad alternative in certain situations.  But historically, one of the most common practices a warring nation will adopt against a rival nation is to convince its own people that the rivals are not really human, but are something less than human—animals, maybe, or even just numbers in a census record somewhere.  In anonymizing the location data Muslim Pro collected, X-Mode unwittingly carried out that first step in making it easier for someone else to treat human beings as less than human.  What looked like a good thing—removing personal identifying data—turned out to be the first step in a process that wound up as a betrayal.


Information technology is an unavoidable part of our lives now, and can be the source or driving force behind many benefits.  Without computers and anonymized testing, we would not be looking forward to getting vaccines for COVID-19 within a year of the virus's spread to humans.  But those who use data derived from humans must never forget the humans behind the data, and everyone working in such fields needs to exercise their moral imaginations enough to ask, "Supposing I was a user, are we doing anything that I'd object to?"  And if the answer is yes, don't just shrug and go on about your business.


Sources:  The original report on X-Mode's use of Muslim Pro location data was "How the U. S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps" by Joseph Cox, which appeared on the Vice website on Nov. 16, 2020 at  Articles derived from this source appeared in many locations including the Austin American-Statesman, where I first learned of it. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Caught in the HP Printer Cartridge Wars


A few months ago, the old computer printer I was using expired, and as I'm working mainly from home these days and need to use the printer several times a day, I spent a half hour or so researching printers and ended up buying an HP 8035 unit.  It's a middle-of-the-line combination inkjet printer/scanner, and as long as the original printer cartridges lasted it worked fine.  And even once the red (I guess the technical name is magenta) cartridge gave out and I swapped a new one in, it was fine.  Then the yellow cartridge gave out, and I decided to swap out both the yellow and the cyan cartridge.

When I turned the unit back on, it gave me an error message that said in effect "These cartridges are not intended for use in this printer."  Now on some level, I was aware of the ongoing battle that printer manufacturers wage with those pesky cartridge remanufacturers and refillers who recycle used cartridges, refill them, and sell them for a fraction of what the manufacturer charges.  And if I'd gone out on the web and bought some of the remanufactured cartridges, I wouldn't have been too surprised to see such a message, as there are software ways HP can use to figure out what kind of cartridge was installed. 

But the cartridges I installed came out of an HP box I bought at the same time I bought the printer, and had HP labels all over them, and their expiration dates (if that's what the little date codes ending in 2021 or 2022 meant) were well in the future.  By all reasonable considerations, these cartridges should work in this printer.  But they didn't.

I ended up finding an odd part of HP's website where it instructed me to do a hard reset of the printer (unplugging it and plugging it back in), and if that didn't fix the problem, to answer a series of questions involving the printer's serial number and the date codes and place of manufacture (China or Malaysia) of the cartridges.  When I did that, I was informed that HP will, some day, send me some replacement cartridges, and in the meantime, here's how to print in black and white. 

HP and I go back a long way, though both of us have changed in latter years.  One of my prize surplus-equipment purchases in high school was a World-War-II era knockoff of the famous HP 200-series vacuum-tube audio oscillator that got the company going back in 1938.  It's still sitting in my garage, and the last time I tried to fire it up, it still worked.  During my brief stint in industry, I learned that of all the different kinds of test equipment out there, Hewlett-Packard gear was the ruggedest and most reliable, and typically exceeded its specifications even after a decade of use. 

Around the end of the 20th century, HP decided its future lay in the direction of computers and computer peripherals, and spun off the division that made the super-reliable test equipment.  That division became known as Agilent, and a few years later, Agilent fissioned into a biological and chemical division, which retained the Agilent name, and rid itself of the electrical test-equipment people, who became Keysight.  In the meantime, HP, which merged with the Houston PC maker Compaq somewhere along the way, was not doing that well, and eventually became known mainly for its printers, as far as I'm concerned. 

The consumer and enterprise printer business is a lot different than the lower-volume, sophisticated-customer test equipment business.  From what I can tell, one way to make money with printers is the way Kodak made money with cameras:  they could give the cameras away as long as people kept buying the film from Kodak.  I don't think HP does that with their printers, judging by what I paid for mine.  But it does seem like they could arrange things so that when you buy a set of printer cartridges that say they will work with the printer you just bought, that implied contract doesn't turn out to be a lie.

Admittedly, HP makes a bewildering variety of printers and an equally bewildering variety of cartridges to go with them.  Some cartridges include the printer head, others don't.  The ones I bought are evidently just little tanks with foam-covered outlets that soak the ink into the printer head, which is a separate unit.  I found out how that works when I tried to fix this printer's predecessor.  After replacing its cartridges didn't get it printing again, I ordered a new printer head (again, from some third-party place—they seem to be difficult or impossible to get from HP).  It didn't help, so I wasted about $60 on new cartridges and a printer head before concluding the unit was ready for the junk pile.  (Actually, I donated it to Goodwill, and if they can get it to work again, more power to them.)

But even given all the complications of selling different lineups of printers in different parts of the world, you would think that HP could keep their supply chains straight so you can't go out and buy a box of printer cartridges that say they will work with your printer, and wind up discovering that no, indeed, they don't. 

I'm not the only one with this problem.  A cursory web search turned up at least two sites discussing the fact that if certain packages of HP cartridges have an expiration date earlier than, for example, January 2021 (which is still a good bit in the future), they won't work with certain printers that they are nominally supposed to work with.  Evidently, this is part of a game, or war, that HP is playing in order to stay a step ahead of the recycled-cartridge people.  But now they're updating things so fast that they are obsoleting lots of their own cartridge inventory that is still in the supply chain somewhere.

This is not how the old Hewlett-Packard company would behave.  But that organization is just a fond memory, and now we have to get used to being caught in cartridge-war crossfire if we buy a new printer.  Some day I'll be able to print in color again, but until HP deigns to send me replacement cartridges, I'll just have to settle for a monochrome world.  And by the way, what about these other new cartridges I bought at the same time?

Sources:  Discussions of HP cartridges not working in their designated printers can be found at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia entry "Hewlett-Packard." 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Technology, Demography, and Destiny


Most people, including most engineers, suspect there is some relationship between the advances in transportation, communications, sanitation, and health care brought about by modern science-based engineering on the one hand, and the tremendous and rapid growth in world population that has taken place since 1800 on the other hand, when there were only an estimated 1 billion people worldwide.  Now there are about 7 billion.  Something happened beginning a couple of hundred years ago that had never happened before in the history of the world, and the effect was to make population soar at an unprecedented rate. 


Whatever your opinion on whether this is a good thing or not, demographer Paul Morland has done us all a favor by writing The Human Tide:  How Population Shaped the Modern World.  The job of a demographer is to study the details of human population statistics:  birth rates, death rates, migration, and their effects and causes in relation to economics, politics, and the rest of life.  So far, so dull, you think?  Not in Morland's hands. 


It turns out that no matter what nation or ethnic group you're talking about, the encounter with modernity (which mainly means modern methods of transportation, communication, etc.) gives rise to what Morland and his colleagues call the first type of "demographic transition."  For most of human history, population was limited both by the scarcity of food and the brevity of human life due to disease and starvation.  In Biblical times, for example, nearly everyone lived on a farm, and married women typically had four or more children so that enough of them would live long enough to become useful farm hands.  Everyone lived in what Morland calls "the Malthusian trap," named after the English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).  Malthus said that any increase in the food supply will only tempt people to have more children, and the increased number of mouths to feed more than makes up for the original increase, meaning that near-starvation will be the typical lot of humanity into the indefinite future.


But Malthus had no way to tell that the coming century would bring with it technological improvements in agriculture (steam and gasoline tractors), transportation (railroads, automobiles), public sanitation (clean water, sanitary sewers), and health care (improved pediatric and geriatric medicine), all of which enabled first England, then parts of Europe, the U. S., and other countries to escape the Malthusian trap.  And it turns out that everybody escapes more or less the same way, although the timing varies from place to place.


First, falling infant mortality and increasing lifespans lead to a tremendous boom in population, as women keep having those four or six children they've always had, but most or all of them now survive to adulthood and live much longer lives, into their fifties or sixties.  After a generation or so, especially if the cultural setting encourages literacy and advanced educational opportunities for women, they stop having such large families.  The means by which this happens is something of a mystery, as it involves decisions and behavior that are not easily observed on a mass scale.  But in culture after culture, country after country, even in religions as different as Christianity and Buddhism, the first demographic transition works more or less the same way.


Once the average family size comes down to replacement level (typically about two and a fraction children), some countries move on to what Morland calls the second demographic transition:  a further reduction in the birth rate below the replacement level.  This does not immediately result in an overall population decline, because large numbers of young women may still be growing into childbearing age, immigration into the region may be significant, and many other factors can intervene as well. 


But in some cases such as Japan, the birth rate is extremely low, the overall population is declining, the median age is among the highest in the world, and it is estimated that up to 30,000 elderly Japanese die alone in their homes every year, giving rise to a whole industry that specializes in removing abandoned bodies. 


This is not necessarily the fate that all modern industrialized countries face.  Some countries such as Sri Lanka seem to have stabilized themselves at a comfortable balance with replacement-level birth rates, reasonably long lifetimes, and a fairly constant population figure.  But every country that encounters modern technology eventually goes through at least the first demographic transition.


The book also made me wonder what relationship should obtain between the way large groups of people behave on average, almost regardless of culture or faith, and the ideals of certain faiths, particularly Christianity.  Morland points out that the universality of demographic transitions happens because nearly everybody (a) would rather live longer than die young, and (b) wants the same for their children, however many there are.  So when the technical means become available to achieve these ends, a society adopts them, and eventually quits having six or eight kids per family unless there are extremely strong cultural or religious reasons to keep doing so.  Morland does mention exceptions such as the Jewish Haredim ultra-orthodox sects and Christian groups such as the Amish, who tend to have large families whatever their circumstances are.  But unless such convictions become widespread in the general population, it's unlikely that large families will become the norm in modern industrialized countries.


Is that a moral failing?  Admittedly, there is a wide spectrum of opinion or conviction even within Christianity, ranging from liberal groups that favor abortion rights to conservative elements of the Roman Catholic Church that look not only upon abortion, but on any form of birth control other than "natural family planning" (formerly known as the rhythm method) as sinful.  So in one sense, it depends on who you ask.


What Morland taught me is that while demography isn't all of destiny, it does have a lot to say about the histories and trajectories of regions, countries, and even continents.  Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is the only place where the majority of countries are still undergoing their first demographic transition, with extremely fast population growth that has not yet been dampened by that mysterious collective decision to have fewer children per mother.  Whether countries such as Nigeria end up managing their transition well and stabilizing like Sri Lanka, or whether they get mired in the chaos and civil strife that seems to accompany having lots of young unemployed men in your population, is a question that remains to be answered. 


But when the answer comes, people like Paul Morland will have helped us understand how the invisible hand of demography contributes to history in general, and the history of technology too.


Sources:  Paul Morland's The Human Tide:  How Population Shaped the Modern World was published in 2019 by Public Affairs Publishing, New York.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The COVID-19 Vaccine: When, Where, and Who?


Most experts agree that the only thing which will put the current COVID-19 pandemic to rest is some kind of vaccine.  One firm—Pfizer/BioNtech—has progressed to what is called a Phase 3 trial, which involved about 43,000 people who took it with apparently no serious side effects.  There is still a long way to go even with the most advanced projects, because achieving "herd immunity"—enough immune people to discourage the virus from spreading—may require on the order of several billion doses.  And many of the prospective vaccines require two injections spaced weeks apart, which further complicates matters.


Engineers are familiar with tradeoffs that are usually imposed by economic restrictions.  When I was a young engineer just out of college, I was teamed with an older and more experienced engineer, and one day we were talking about various possible ways to tackle a certain problem in a new design we were working on.  I described three or four different ways to tackle it that I thought were pretty clever, but he seemed unimpressed.  Finally, I asked him why he wasn't more excited about these innovative ideas I was proposing.


"Heck, I can build one of anything!  The real challenge is making thousands of them work at a price we can afford."  The harsh realities of the marketplace had educated him to look not just for technically sweet ideas, but for ideas—new, old, or otherwise—that would do the best job for the least money.  That taught me that having clever ideas—or one dose of a highly effective vaccine—is only a small step toward solving a real-world engineering or technical problem.


Making a billion high-quality vaccine doses in a short time is a challenge that hasn't been discussed much so far.  But supposing that vast production problem is overcome, and reliable vaccine doses begin to enter the pipeline, who is going to get them first? 


An interesting study cited by a recent BBC article says that the first doses should go to different groups, depending on how effective the vaccine is.  No vaccine is 100% effective, and this is especially true of virus vaccines.  The annual flu-virus vaccine that millions of people get is rarely more than 60% or so effective, depending on the particular year and the mix of viruses that show up after the vaccine is developed. 


There are different ways to measure the effectiveness of vaccines.  One way is to measure how many people who are vaccinated and then exposed to the virus develop symptoms.  Another way is to measure how likely a vaccinated and exposed person is to spread the disease to others, whether or not they manifest symptoms.  The study's authors point out that if you developed a vaccine that was only 30% effective in preventing symptoms, it would fall below the U. S. Food and Drug Administration's 50% threshold and wouldn't even be approved.  But if it happened to be 70% effective at stopping people from spreading the virus, it would actually do more good than a different vaccine that prevented symptoms with 100% effectiveness but allowed the virus to spread.


That is why there is no single answer to the question, "Who should get the vaccine first?"  If it is most effective in preventing the virus from spreading, then the target population should be the ones who spread it the most.  Currently that appears to be older children and younger adults, say between 10 and 35.  Few people in that group die of the virus, but just because many of them have either mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, they spread it very easily. 


On the other hand, if the vaccine is good at preventing symptoms but not so good at stopping the spread, you probably want to target the population that is most vulnerable to the disease:  people in rest homes and over 65.  That will save the most lives in the short term, while giving us time to vaccinate the rest of the population to approach the goal of herd immunity.


Any way you slice it, we face a very long uphill battle in fighting this disease.  In some countries such as the U. S. and China, the expense of buying and distributing the vaccine is relatively trivial compared to other things the government is doing.  But in poorer countries, vaccinating the majority of the population with anything is a major challenge, and so we can expect the disease to hang around in pockets long after it has been controlled in more economically well-off places.  So the last thing to go may be travel restrictions concerning COVID-19, at least to some countries where it may not be controlled for several more years.


Within a given country, the distribution of the vaccine may be implemented mainly by the government, mainly by private enterprise, or more typically by a combination of the two.  As it is in the interests of every government to free its citizens from the threat of COVID-19, substantially free distribution would seem to be a no-brainer, although there are practical obstacles to that as well.  Certain minority populations have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19, and the U. S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has stated that there is a "moral imperative" to make sure that this imbalance is addressed in any proposed distribution scheme. 


And last but not least, there is the problem that not everybody is going to want to be vaccinated.  We are a long way from the 1950s, when Jonas Salk was universally praised as a god-like hero and millions of U. S. citizens gratefully took their children to receive polio vaccine injections without raising even a quibble concerning its safety.  Nowadays, the pronouncements of experts always inspire somebody on the Internet to say, "Sez who?" and the small but vocal opponents of any kind of vaccination have persuaded lots of people at least to hesitate before believing uncritically anything an expert says. 


Even with all these uncertainties, it does look like we we get a vaccine sometime, and eventually it will begin to slow down the spread of COVID-19.  As far as I'm concerned, it can't come too soon.


Sources:  The BBC published the article "COVID:  How close are we to a vaccine?" on Nov. 12, 2020 at  The New York Times published "Who should get a COVID-19 vaccine first?" at on Nov. 5, 2020. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Those Disagreeable Inventors

Inventors don't play much of a role on the public stage these days compared to the glory days of Marconi and Edison.  But they are nonetheless vital to modern civilization, as technical progress is the main economic engine that drives advanced industrial societies.  Martin L. Tupy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute think tank, says in a recent issue of National Review that we ought to be careful how we treat present and future inventors, even if they prove to be rather disagreeable.  And he makes a good case that many of the best ones are just that, and their disagreeability is intrinsic to what makes them good inventors.

Citing several books about psychology, innovation, and DNA, Tupy says successful inventors tend not to care what other people think, and may even take delight in discomfiting their more powerful peers.  It's ancient history now, but the legendary 1984 Apple commercial shown during the Superbowl portrayed a young—woman—wearing bright colors—running freely—as she charges through a gray crowd of drones hypnotized by Big Brother's face on a telescreen, throws a sledgehammer into the screen, and literally busts up everything.  It has Steve Jobs' fingerprints all over it.  Numerous sources show that Jobs, who is probably the leading candidate for the most famous inventor of the latter 20th century, was not an agreeable person.

So why can't inventors just get along with people like the rest of us do?  Tupy contends that those who successfully seek innovative technical solutions to problems also tend to be loners, somewhat socially awkward, and not terribly concerned about fitting in and getting other people to help them with problems.  Rather, they prefer to work with things and ideas on their own to solve problems.  The umbrella phrase for this type of personality is autism-spectrum disorder, which of course can be crippling in its severer forms, although inventors such as Temple Grandin prove that even clinical-grade autism can be overcome.

Over my career, I have met several, and gotten to know a few, inventors who actually profited from their patents, or at least saw the companies or organizations they were associated with profit from them.  Few of them meet the classic description of an autistic personality:  intense aversion to social interaction, preference for solitude, etc.  I would say that while the autism-spectrum observation is true as far as it goes, and it may be close to necessary to some degree, it is by no means sufficient.  And for this I will turn to some history I'm very familiar with:  my own.

 When I got to college, I was surprised to see that someone had made a poster that showed me as a classic nerd.  It wasn't really mea, but it might as well have been:  plastic-framed glasses, button-down sweater, shirt pocket bulging with pens, slide-rule case hung on belt, etc.  I had spent most of my spare time growing up playing with electronics rather than football or socializing.  I never dated in high school.  And I went to college at what was then probably the West Coast's capital of nerd-dom:  Caltech.  If being on the autism spectrum was all it took to be a successful inventor, I should have done fine.

But I think most successful inventors have a drive that I mostly lacked:  a desire to show up the established order and make it look foolish, not by words, but by actions, hardware, and (nowadays) software.  That part of the successful inventor's personality is missing from my makeup.  On the contrary, I tend to revere established institutions and procedures, not delight in their ruination, even if such ruination works to my benefit.  This attitude of reverence toward existing structues is exactly what you don't want if your job is to convince others that your idea is better than theirs.  It's that simple.

My name is on a couple of patents, one of which (obtained with my Ph. D. supervisor at U. T. Austin in the 1980s) could conceivably have become quite valuable, as it anticipated the future growth of what is known as RFID technology—the little tags that set off alarms if you try to shoplift a pair of sneakers from Walmart.  But as it happened, the university that paid for the patent didn't do anything with it, and neither my supervisor nor I had the time or inclination to do the hard work of convincing people that this was the coming thing.  It would have involved starting a company, and that was not on my scope screen at the time, nor has it ever been since.

The reason Tupy wrote what he did was to make the point that societies which discourage disagreeableness of the type in question may be shortchanging themselves when it comes to innovation.  Nobody knows how to create inventive people.  It's like farming:  the farmer doesn't really grow anything.  He or she just creates conditions under which growth of desirable plants can occur.

So cultures that allow people to do things differently, to play around with ideas without having to worry about getting in trouble with their peers or the government, tend to be cultures in which innovation and invention thrive.  A good contrast here is between the U. S. in the 1950s and the old USSR (Soviet Union), where everyone had to be constantly on guard lest they be heard to say something even slightly negative about the government, at which point their neighbors might rat on them and they'd end up in the Gulag for twenty years.  The USSR was not a hotbed of technical innovation then, although it supported scientists who aided its nuclear-weapons program.  But as far as economically profitable inventions go, it was no contest, as the U. S. was far and away the best place to be for that kind of thing, even in the allegedly conformist and repressive 1950s.

By all means, let's preserve what freedoms we have, to allow those cranky inventors among us to be by their lonely selves, cooking up ideas and gizmos that will make them and others millionaires and benefit the rest of us in the bargain.  But being a nerd isn't all it takes—you have to want to make fools of the complacent powers that be, and succeed at it, too.

Sources:  Martin L. Tupy's article "Disagreeability, Mother of Invention," appeared on pp. 18-20 of the Nov. 16, 2020 print edition of National Review.  The 1984 Apple commercial, which everyone ought to see at least once, can be viewed at