The Mathematics of a Pandemic

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I had been teaching math all day long to eight youngsters ranging in age from seven to teens. One of my lessons was on statistical data and how to find different kinds of averages. I used Covid-19 as an example for my student. It was a bit of a stretch but he got the idea. We even talked about what exponents do to numbers and how data can be used to analyze situations and make predictions. It got me to thinking of how differently people are reacting the the virus and the restrictions associated with them based on where they live and sometimes even their political leanings. The truth is that many of the conclusions that people draw do not take all of the information and intervening factors into account. So forthwith is a very elementary discussion of what I believe is happening, but first I want to talk about what occured with the Spanish flu of 1918.

World War I was at an end and the troops were coming home to the United States. Since the fighting was mostly confined to Europe it was natural that the ship first came mostly to ports along the east coast. Additionally some cities like Philadelphia were initially rather lax in enforcing rules to keep down the level of contagion. As a result the highest incidence of contagion and death trended in cities in the eastern part of the country first. As the flu moved westward more stringent efforts of social distancing resulted in fewer illnesses and deaths. In other words the people learned from the mistakes of their fellow citizens in the east and profited by being more vigilant. There were still may deaths but the numbers were mitigated by the measures derived from observing the problems in the places where the flu first presented itself. 

Today we have massive numbers of people traveling across the globe with places like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles serving as ports of call for cruise ships and air travel. It appears that the first cases of Covid-19 in the United States were travel related, but because there initially were few attempts to change our normal activities the virus soon spread through community interactions. It took a bit more time than it should have to approach the realization that people needed to protect themselves and thereby flatten the exponential curve of contagion by staying at home.

Only a little more than three weeks ago spring break was in full swing. The Houston Rodeo was still packing in tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. My grandson went to New York City with his orchestra to perform in Carnegie Hall. Mardis Gras had attracted massive groups of people. It was already a bit too late to eliminate the suffering that now plagues many cities in the country but the heartland of middle America has been somewhat spared by finally closing down schools, businesses, churches and all unnecessary gathering. Sadly, some people have misinterpreted the slowdown of cases in those areas as an indication that the whole pandemic is nothing more than a hoax, much ado about nothing.

I’ve been looking at pie charts for the Houston area. Rather amazingly the sixty and older crowd makes up very few of the current cases. My guess is that people in that demographic hunkered down rather early for fear of catching the virus so they have mostly stayed well. I for one have been outside of my home fewer than five times for the past month. One time I accompanied my husband to Methodist Hospital for his heart surgery. On another occasion I went to get a Prolia shot for my  osteoporosis and twice I went to pickup  groceries at HEB. Aside from that I have been home watching the world go by from my windows. It’s little wonder that most of the cases in our area are younger than is typical because they often tend to be the ones who seem to think that they are safe from infection or having a serious case.

It is incredibly important that we not get overly irritated about having to stay home. We are the defense against a surge of Covid-19 as long as we follow the guidelines. If we start to get lax we will undoubtedly experience an unnecessary surge in cases that will only result in prolonging any agony that we may be feeling. I sincerely believe that each of us has a moral duty to work together to keep the numbers at a manageable level.

There are a many things that greatly disturb me, but most egregious of all are the people who insist that this whole ordeal is some vast political conspiracy designed to make our president and our country look bad. Many of these folks are refusing to stay at home even as the numbers of infected individuals grow. They don’t appear to notice that even President Trump has finally abandoned his wishful thinking that we will be back to normal by Easter Sunday. So far the facts demonstrate that the medical community has been right on target with both their predictions and their recommendations. It’s time for us to listen to the mathematics of the pandemic.

I’m as worried as anyone about what a prolonged period of isolation will do to our economic well being. I suspect hard times even once we are able to resume our normal routines. Nonetheless I keep reiterating my observation that it is rather doubtful that all the leaders of the world would be willing to trash the global economy on a whim. This is serious or as Angela Merkel said, “Es ist ernst” and we need to treat it as such. It would be even better if we might do it in a spirit of harmony. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

A Better Investment

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When I was a student I earned a four year scholarship to any state school of my choice. Since I liked my hometown university and didn’t want to disrupt my mother’s well being by adding to her stress I enrolled in the University of Houston, the same school that Elizabeth Warren attended at about the same time. It was a happy decision for both me and my mom because that scholarship would take care of all of the costs as long as I kept up my grades.

My first year was exciting to me because I had been incredibly isolated up to that time. I had essentially attended school with the same group of students from second grade with a few more coming from Catholic schools in the area when I went to high school. My neighborhood was my world and I rarely went beyond its periphery. Even then it was to shop at nearby stores or to visit relatives. I was decidedly unaware of the rest of my growing city or the world outside beyond what I read in newspapers and books. Going to a large public university was somewhat akin to being thrown into a shark tank, but I was more than ready for the challenge. In fact, I wanted it more than anything. I saw striking out into a school where I would literally become a number as an exciting way to get a college experience without leaving town and making things difficult for my parent.

My first year at the University of Houston was a revelation. I had a few classes in huge auditoriums where there were almost as many students as half of the population of my private high school. Others, like a German seminar, had under twenty in the group. I went to Greek parties, attended the football games, hang out in the Cougar Den, participated in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, and saw celebrities up close like Mohammed Ali who was still using his birth name of Cassius Clay. I met students from Alaska and around the world. It was a heady experience during which I kept up my grades to insure that my scholarship would be secure. Unfortunately I was totally unaware that I had an obligation to re-apply for the financial aid each year to verify that I was indeed maintaining a high grade point average.

Back then the process of registration for classes was an abomination. Each student received a specific time to wait in a line and then be allowed into an auditorium where grad students manned desks for each major. They had boxes of computer cards that represented the individual classes according to professor, meeting time and section number. I had to race from one station to another to hopefully secure cards for the courses that I wanted to take. If the cards were gone from one of my choices I had to make on the spot decisions regarding what to take because my scholarship required me to take a certain number of hours as well as to graduate within four years.

As a sophomore I was far more prepared for the onslaught than I had been as a freshman and I felt confident in the preparations I had made for the challenge of securing a decent schedule. In fact I had my fifteen hours secured without a hitch and as I walked to the financial aid station to get my scholarship money and guarantee my classes for another semester I felt somewhat smug. I had little idea that my world was about to shatter.

I handed my computer cards to the worker and gave her my student number so that she might verify the payment for them. She scanned the lists with a bored expression that did not change until she had reached the end and had failed to find my information. She asked me to write my full name and student number on a piece of paper that she used as a kind of guide to run down the list one more time. Still she found nothing and panic began to overtake me. I barely heard her instructions to take my cards and myself to the financial aid office to determine what was wrong.

Once I got to the official domain of loans and scholarships I wrote my name on a long list and sat waiting for what felt like eternity. A rather brusk woman ushered me into her office to find out what I needed. She made no attempt to hide her impatience instead rushing me to describe my problem. Without saying a word she began searching through alphabetized files. Within a few minutes she returned to her desk with a folder that evidently contained my information. Without fanfare she announced, “You no longer have the scholarship. You did not renew it.”

I felt as though I had been gut punched and was hardly able to admit that I had no idea that I had to renew the scholarship. I thought that it was good for four years as long as I kept my grades in order. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that there was a yearly process beyond simply going to classes, making the grades and then returning for a new semester.

The woman barely contained her annoyance with my whining that was rapidly turning into tears. She announced that there was nothing that she might do to help. My scholarship was gone, not just for that semester but forever. She made it clear that I needed to move on and allow her to get back to her work with the long line of other students who were seeking information. I left with my tail between my legs because I had no idea how I was going to pay for my classes and I did not want to ask my mother for money that I knew she did not have.

After spending several minutes sobbing inside a stall in the bathroom I screwed up my courage and came up with a plan. I had worked all summer and I had just enough funds to cover the classes and pay for my books. My fun money would be gone but at least I would still have courses to attend. I managed to pay for my classes then and in future semesters and never once had to secure a student loan which gets me to the heart of my story.

Back then the cost of college was low enough that I was able to work part-time and earn the funds needed to cover expenses. Today the price tag on even state universities has soared to ridiculous levels. A little work here and there is not sufficient to pay the bills of learning. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that today’s students are limited to the amount of time that they may take before graduating and being forced to begin the repayment process on loans with interest rates that would make Shylock appear benign. Instead of having a set payment for a certain amount of time those student loans operate more like a credit card, growing at a frightening rate as time passes. It can take years for someone to pay them back even when they are lucky enough to land a well paying job.

I find myself wondering what I would have done and where I would be today if the cost of my education had been in the same league with what students now face. I suppose that I would have had to drop out for a semester and gone to work until I had saved enough to return or somehow secure a loan. I managed to pay for two degrees from rather low paying jobs. By the time my daughters went to college my husband and I had to take out loans which took years to repay. The situation students face today is more dire than ever. I paid around five hundred dollars a semester for my undergraduate degree. Their tabs are more in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. Even using proportion based on the increases in salaries over the years the expenses related to  university educations has blown up to almost untenable levels. We need to find a reasonable plan for dealing with this, and so far the ideas are not particularly well thought out.

I think that universities should begin the process by cutting unnecessary items from their budgets. We did not have fully loaded gyms and entertainment venues on campus back in the day. We got by with a more bare bones approach to education that concentrated on the basics but still provided exceptional teaching. We can also streamline the student loan business and set up contracts with students that work more like the kind of loans that one might get to purchase a car or home rather than treating them like credit card charges that can take years to repay. There should be lower payment incentives for students who maintain high grade point averages or who major in particularly needed fields. Instead of placing hefty tax burdens on the wealthy there should be tax breaks for those who invest their money in educating worthy students, thereby increasing the number of scholarships or no interest loans available. Grandparents, aunts, uncle, friends, employees, businesses who help students should receive some kind of tax credit thereby making such contributions attractive. I’d certainly rather send my some of the money that I now pay in taxes to a worthy student. Such outreach should by definition include helping individuals pay for trade schooling as well as traditional university educations.

It’s way past time for our country to invest in the education of our youth. It need not mean a great burden on unwilling tax payers and it does not have to be free and without strings. It simply needs to be a complete overhaul that seeks to cut costs, incentivize the process of helping students to pay for college or any form of training, and find ways to simplify loans so that they have a set payment schedule that ends by a certain date. We can make things better but it won’t happen until we get serious and have a bit of compassion for the young people who really do want to make a better future for themselves and the rest of us. We need them to carry on the work of this nation. I can’t think of a better investment for the good of all of us.

Be Prepared

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I haven’t done a weekend edition of my blog for quite some time, but I have become sufficiently concerned about all of the conflicting coverage of the Coronavirus to want to present a few of my ideas. I must begin by acknowledging that I am no expert in virology or any other form of medicine. I’m just an ordinary soul who does her best to stay healthy by maintaining certain routines in life. What worries me the most about the outbreak of this novel virus is that even the most accomplished doctors and scientists are still trying to sufficiently understand how it works and what it may do to people who encounter it. As with any uncertainty it would be foolhardy to act as though all is well and we should have no worries, but going to battle with disease is sometimes like going to war with a tyrant. We have to be ready for anything, even the unexpected.

During World War II Great Britain was on the brink of being overtaken by Nazi forces just as France and so many other countries on the European continent had been. Winston Churchill, who was indeed a very imperfect man, wisely counseled the people to “keep calm and carry on,” noting that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”

That did not mean that he gave the people a false sense of security. He was always quite honest about the threat that loomed over the country and he urged the populace to be prepared for any eventualities. In other words he had a realistic approach to leadership without creating panic, something that our President and our officials in Congress would do well to emulate with regard to the potential of a pandemic that may or may not threaten the citizens of the United States and the world. Politics should take a back seat to the needs of the people, which means that even if the republicans and democrats despise one another our elected leaders should be working together and supporting plans to react as needed if and when the occasion arises.

We keep hearing all sorts of conflicting information about the Coronavirus but the worst of the advice that is circulating is to be flippant about the disease. Now is the time to prepare just in case the worst fears actually materialize. Without panic, households across the country might consider stocking up on a couple of weeks of food and other necessary supplies. If nothing ever comes to pass, nothing will have been lost. Those items may be used in the normal fashion later on and everybody wins.

My pantry was looking a bit bare and I realized that if an isolation order ever became a reality I would be caught short and have to deal with empty shelves and a state of panic. Instead I added a few things to my shopping cart this week and stored them away for whatever will be. It’s not that I am worried that I will catch the virus and die, it’s simply that I don’t want to be caught in an untenable situation. I bit of caution never hurts.

This week there has been a break in a huge water main in Houston that has affected schools and offices across the city. Everyone is being asked to boil their water. All of this was totally unexpected and most people will be able to cope for a few days, but if for some reason the situation lasted a bit longer I suspect that a state of fear might overtake our city. We can’t always be ready for a situation that suddenly changes things, but when we know that there may be a possibility of something happening, regardless of how remote, it makes sense to be prepared.

I would be far more relaxed about the situation if our various leaders were working together in the spirit of focusing on the needs of the people, but that appears to be a pipe dream. They will no doubt use this occasion to tear down one another for political gain. While they fight over who is best, we can take the lead in our own communities by preparing for any possible scenario and then going about our daily routines with the hope that we will never need the provisions we have made. It’s a shame that our leaders are not showing the way by example but they have gone into their own little world of mortal combat with one another that will one day have to end if our nation is the adequately survive.

There are brilliant minds doing their best to get a handle on how the Coronavirus will ultimately affect humanity. I have every confidence that among them someone will find the answers that we need. For the time being I will be neither too complacent nor too terrified. Instead I will be ready to react as needed. I’ve bought lots of soap to wash my hands and anti-virus cleaning sprays to clean my countertops. I’m also praying for those who have already been affected. They are the unfortunate souls whose experiences with the illness will help to find ways of combating it with the rest of us. My God and the brave caretakers of medicine be with them.

Stay calm, wash your hands, be prepared and don’t give in to fear. Pray that the brilliant among us will figure things out and that our leaders will ultimately understand that this should not be a political football. “Donald and Nancy, we’d like for you to set aside your differences and work for the good of all of us.” That is what will make us feel a whole lot better. Until that happens we will just be prepared.

The Insanity of It All

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So here we are in another election year and I’ve been a fairly good girl in my resolve to stay as neutral with regard to the political race as much as possible. I suppose that I have become numb to the whole situation because the campaigning and sloganeering has never really stopped for several years now. We seem to be trapped in an infinite loop of divisiveness, hyperbole, and propaganda which always reminds me of my seventh grade teacher who taught us all about the methods that people use to influence our thinking. I recall that we argued that only the Soviet Union did such things and she insisted with a sweet and knowing smile that we were constantly being subjected to rhetorical methods designed to persuade us to accept one side over another.

Somehow her lesson stuck with me because it seemed so shocking at the time. Since then I have found myself watching for the methods that people use to bend us to their ways of thinking. Like some paranoid cynic I see them everywhere, and most notably in the political arena. The voices of reason and honor seem to be so small while slogans and soundbites rule the day. I’ve taken refuge from them by avoiding the furor as much as possible, but it has become increasingly difficult to find a source of news without a tinge of political commentary. I’ve had to attempt to ferret out the facts and ignore the hysteria. It has become an ever more difficult task and I have actually grown rather weary of it all, even as I know that one of the tricks of propaganda is to wear people down.

I honestly don’t know how I will endure the political season this time around. I suppose that what worries me most is that it will not end regardless of who is actually elected. The fighting will go on and on and on. It’s like being caught in a middle school food fight that nobody is able to control. We can’t even enjoy a sporting event or a nice night of entertainment without the injection of politics and protests. It has grown so tiresome.

I realize all too well that we have many problems facing our country and the world as a whole. They will only be solved when we begin to address them together which seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. There is so much emotional manipulation on our minds that many of us have become hypnotized into walking in tandem with one political philosophy or another. Actually discussing ideas has become virtually impossible, and being the voice urging caution results in political suicide.

So we just go back and forth, topsy turvy, without a sense of security because we know that whoever wins the elections will undo anything that their opponents accomplished or go all in for their own side even when it is ridiculous to do so. Meanwhile we are stuck on a ferris wheel that never stops, and while it might have been fun for a time, I for one have grown weary of the posing and preening and warfare.

I remember a conversation that I had long ago with a priest who was a dear friend of our family. He told me that every difficult situation required an adult in the room, someone willing to logically and emotionally make reasoned and fair decisions. I spent most of the rest of my life attempting to be that person. When my mother was in the middle of a mental breakdown I had to be the steadying force. Inside my classroom I needed to stay calm and not allow my personal feelings to rule me. I took hope from leaders who demonstrated honor and thoughtfulness in times of chaos. I found diplomacy and compromise to be powerful tools for bringing disparate groups of people together. I accomplished wonderful things by knowing when to be firm and when to bend.

Dividing ourselves into one side or another without respect for our varying opinions, desires, and worries is a zero sum game. It will only lead to an increasingly virulent standoff. It will take great courage for someone to break the loop that has us so entangled in vitriol. If we support such a person when we see him or her we just might be able to signal to all the rest that we are done with their antics. We have to be the ones who push back on the rhetoric. If we become the adults in the room those who long for our approval will follow because their only goal is to win. That means that we cannot praise childish behaviors from anyone regardless of which side he/she represents. Wrong is wrong and we should be able to point to it without being pilloried by any person or group. When our basic rights to an opinion are heckled or degraded by a mob we should always wonder if we are being victimized by propaganda.

I suppose that some may view this blog as a screed given the political environment. They will believe that my remarks reflect only on one party or another. They will not understand the idea that I am looking at all of the arguments and philosophies and sifting the good from the bad. In that process I have seen that nobody has all of the answers or best plans but everyone has a few very good ideas. It’s time for each of us to be more discerning. If we accomplish that, the poisonous partisanship will subside, but sadly I think that we are still a long way from being able to bring ourselves together. For now I will just have to continue to find ways to endure the insanity of it all. 

What We Need

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There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.