Orders of Magnitude

As a full disclaimer, I’m terrible at arithmetic. Particularly if I think someone is analyzing my speed at manipulating numbers in my head. I think part of it is because I’ve had more than the average training in mathematics, and I think this is somehow supposed to make me a computer in the original sense of the word. I don’t have the attention span to have thrived in that particular profession.

As another disclaimer, even though I’m going to talk about COVID-19, I’m not claiming to be anything other than your typical armchair numbers person inspired by a global pandemic to ponder infectious disease. Except I guess it’s more like “standing desk” or “floor-sitting” numbers person, because I don’t own much furniture. But that’s another story.

All that to say, this article is inspiring a digression on orders of magnitude and the importance of context in interpreting numbers. The highlight is that the Governor of Oregon erroneously claimed a deal with Quest to buy 20,000 test kits (turns out the deal was for “just” 10,000):

Brown hastily announced a deal that wasn’t finalized and trumpeted an eye-popping number of tests that didn’t prove to be accurate.

Oregon, like much of the country, has a testing and tracing problem that it does not appear to be solving, which I think is what the author of the article really wanted to say. I’m not going to try for a precise definition of “eye-popping” here, but I do imagine the term would satisfy the following:

  • If x is an “eye-popping” number, than x/2 is also an eye-popping number.
  • If x is an “eye-popping” number, then x is probably at least an order of magnitude larger than 20,000.

For context, 20,000 is approximately the number of tests Oregon had already completed at the time of the article’s writing (April 8). This is not a particularly large number relative to Oregon’s population (~4.2 million) or relative to its geographic location in the context of this pandemic (sandwiched between our dear neighbors Washington and California, two of the first “hot spots” in the nation). Or relative to the length of time the disease has probably been spreading locally.

Which is to say, if Oregon had conducted 40,000 targeted tests as part of an early and ongoing test and trace program, I guess we wouldn’t be in bad shape here. Provided we had combined that with giving resources (e.g., food, basic sanitation supplies, housing) to those under quarantine.

But, together with the rest of the US, we didn’t. Are we even in catch up mode? I don’t have a beef with the gist of the above article, which goes on to point out that Oregon, at least, doesn’t seem to actually be ramping up its test and trace capabilities. Despite what the governor had claimed.

As the news devotes more and more time to antibody tests and visions of the recovered “reopening the economy”, it’s worth pointing out that even in the areas that are hardest hit, the group of people who have been infected with and recovered from COVID-19 is really quite small and we don’t yet know if the immune response is robust or lasting.

Put another away, most people are still susceptible to infection, and those who have already been infected and recovered may be susceptible to reinfection far sooner than we’d like. (And here I don’t mean a measly ‘most’, but more like oh, I don’t know, well over 99% of humanity.)

Oh, and let’s not forget that viruses mutate.

This Vox article is worth a read.

Unsupported Conclusions

Lately I feel as though I’m drowning in a sea of unsupported conclusions whenever I read the news. Today’s winner is this article from the New York Times, which includes the statement “Americans eat many more vegetables when meals are prepared for them in restaurants than when they cook for themselves”.

I’m not going to debate the underlying causes, motivations, or possible fixes for the disastrous affair that is our current food growth and distribution system, at least not in this post.

Instead I just want to point out that:

  1. The correspondence between (food bought by restaurants) and (food bought by restaurants that is eaten by humans) is not one-to-one. The restaurant system is not zero waste.
  2. You cannot draw a conclusion about how many vegetables Americans generally eat when cooking at home vs restaurants in the context of a global pandemic. For example, consider the added anxieties people are experiencing with respect to grocery shopping:
    • I’ve seen many debates over the extent to which it is necessary to sanitize food, particularly produce. I’ve seen all sorts of ridiculous advice floating around, the worst of which was probably the Michigan doctor who decided all produce needed to be washed with soap*. Other advice I’ve seen is to avoid fresh produce altogether, and instead opt for frozen fruits and vegetables.
    • Lots of advice is to limit the frequency of your grocery trips to once every two weeks. This is a design choice that inherently limits how much fresh produce you’ll buy.

By the way, has anyone seen any recent figures for vegetable/fruit purchasing and consumption by ordinary people? I haven’t. I can tell you that Misfits Market has a waitlist now, because so many new people have signed up for their service and they haven’t yet been able to scale up to meet demand. A similar service, Imperfect Foods has also expressed increased demand and corresponding delivery adjustments/delays.

I’ve also seen efforts on a small scale to increase CSA/buying club availabilities to help small farmers find alternative, local markets, and I look forward to seeing what results from these and similar experiments.

Additional point with respect to #2 brought up by a friend: Let’s not forget that people are capable of growing some portion of their own produce. Victory Gardens, anyone? Even in my tiny corner of the world, I’ve seen lots of first-time gardener posts in my neighborhood groups.

*Your stomach will not thank you for consuming soap.