USA All-Cause Mortality Data Through April 3, 2021

As we’re getting into Spring and COVID-19 vaccination is rolling out, it’s time to revisit the all-cause mortality data for the US. As a quick refresher, all-cause mortality data is important because (after a few hours) there’s no ambiguity to whether a person is dead or alive and so mortality numbers are comparable across time, medical systems, states, countries, etc. If a person with COPD and COVID-19 died, we can have legitimate arguments about whether they died from COPD or COVID-19; we will all agree that they’re dead. Thus we can look at trends in all-cause mortality to get a sense of what might be going on. It won’t tell us what is going on, but it’s a very important sanity check.

On caveat to this is necessary. While it is the case that all-cause mortality is reliable, it’s only reliable over time. At least in the United States, it takes up to two months for all deaths to be reported to the CDC. The CDC, therefore, estimates deaths for the most recent two months on the basis of how jurisdictions have historically updated their numbers over time. In the past, that has meant sometimes over-estimating deaths; in the last year or so that’s tended to under-estimate the deaths, so we have to assume that the most recent 6 bars on the graph will grow over time, though less the further in the past they are. That said, let’s look at the data:

Source is the CDC’s all-cause mortality page.

To see the change over the last two months, let’s look at what the graph was back in February:

As you can see, the third wave did eventually turn out to be very slightly higher than the first wave, though it was considerably wider at that height than the first wave. On the other hand, the first wave was mostly just New York City, while the third wave was most of the country.

Unfortunately, the data being so unreliable for the most recent two months makes it very difficult to draw much in the way of conclusions. We haven’t seen so many recent weeks in a row so far under the excess-mortality line but we can’t really know if that’s just because the jurisdictions are now sitting on data even longer than normal before reporting it. The change in presidential administration is not likely to have made the various jurisdictions substantially worse at reporting deaths, but it cannot entirely be ruled out as impossible. (I have in mind less cascading incompetence and more a change in priorities making old priorities fall by the wayside.) I think that we can reasonably assume that the jurisdictions haven’t suddenly turned radically incompetent, though, so we can at least conclude that the third wave is over.

Past that there isn’t much to say. All of the interesting data is in the window that is too subject to revision to say much about it. It’s suggestive, but at this point we need more to refrain from conclusions than to even tentatively come to conclusions. I suspect in another six months, we’ll be in a good position to start doing historical analysis on the covid-19 contemporary analysis and reactions vs. what actually happened.

Some Old Posts

Several years ago, I did some research into the origins of the phrase The Butler Did It. This led to a series of posts on the subject, and I even tracked down and read some of the original source material. You can see the posts on the butler did it tag. One annoying thing about tags is that they have the newest post first, but this makes more sense to scroll to the bottom and start reading from there. It’s worth checking out as I came across some interesting and mostly forgotten history in mystery fiction. Nothing earth shattering, but interesting.

An Old Post

One downside to blogs is that older posts have a tendency to get lost to the passage of time. This isn’t so much of a problem for blogs which are about current events, but for those which aren’t, the options are largely either to repeat oneself or to remind people of the better ones. I’m going to try the latter approach. So, here’s a post I did on navel gazing.

To give you a sense of what it’s about, it begins:

It has always struck me as very strange that navel gazing has a bad reputation. The first thing that should occur to a person looking at his navel—other than perhaps gratitude to his mother—is that it is obvious that he did not create himself. From there, it should be obvious that his parents—having navels—didn’t create themselves either, and so on back until one comes to a necessary being. That is, something that is uncreated, utterly different from us, existing outside of time and space, and which was the sufficient condition for us. That is, gazing at one’s navel should lead pretty directly to contemplating God…

Stupidly Applied Science is Tiring

A fairly popular mantra on the subject of weight loss is that “it’s just calories in vs. calories out”. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true but uninteresting and also a sense in which it is obviously false but uninteresting. I’ll explain, then get to why this is so tiring.

Calories-in-vs-calories-out is obviously true in the sense that through mere chemical reactions matter is neither created nor destroyed, so if a person’s body is going to be made up of less matter, the matter no longer a part of them had to go somewhere. Since the human body is highly efficient, calories are a reasonable approximation of this. That is, since calories are precious to the human body it will not merely throw them away uselessly. Thus if one wants to get rid of fat matter without using a scalpel to cut it away, all of the options involve convincing the body to burn the calories for what it perceives as a useful purpose. This is quite true. It is uninteresting because it merely describes what goes on during fat loss. It says nothing whatever about how to convince one’s body that burning fat for energy is a good idea. That’s the thing we actually want to do and the part that’s not so easy to figure out how to do while still being a functioning member of society. (Observationally, the people who say that this is easy are unmarried and/or have no children.)

Calories-in-vs-calories-out is obviously false in the sense that this formula does not in fact compute fat loss. All it tells you is a uni-dimensional constraint on a complex system. It’s quite possible for your body to burn protein (harvested from muscles) in order to make up a caloric deficit while conserving fat. In fact, the body somewhat prefers to do this because it’s a much better strategy in a famine than conserving muscle and spending all of its fat. Plus, in extremes like starving to death, one will die before there is zero fat in the body (even excluding the brain). Very little fat, but more than zero. It’s entirely theoretically possible that if the body were to become disregulated, the body could think it’s got no fat to burn while it’s got tons. You can induce this with certain kinds of brain lesions in rodents, where they swell up to astonishing obesity on tiny amounts of food and you can starve them to death without them getting meaningfully thinner. Most of us, fortunately, are not in the unhappy position of lesion-induced-fatmice, but the point is that calories-in-vs-calories-out will only tell you that in a calorie deficit you will burn something. If your house is warmer in winter than the outdoors, we know you’re burning something. The problem is, it might be your furniture, or worse, your floor joists. This is uninteresting because you don’t even have a good way of measuring calories in and you barely have a terrible way of measuring calories out. Measuring food works to like +/- 10%. The sort of calorie deficits that people try to achieve are often in the 15-20% range. The other end is even worse, though. The only really reliable way of knowing how many calories you burn is to have a device which measures your CO2 output—this can be a thing strapped to your head or an airtight room. After that, guesses about how many calories you are burning might be accurate to +/-50%. (This is exascerbated by the fact that the body will, in a calorie deficit, down-regulate your metabolism.) This is why the advice from non-idiots for achieving a calorie deficit is to keep reducing food until you start losing weight, at which point you know you’re in a calorie deficit (assuming you’re not merely losing water weight).

The reason that all of this is so tiring is that it’s all an exercise in missing the point. It is true that there are laws which govern the human body, but we operate within all of them all the time. Merely picking one and ignoring the rest is not being insightful. Sometimes it’s not even getting that limited relationship correct.

To give an example, suppose you came across a strength coach who told you that f=ma. (That is, force is equal to mass times acceleration.) Thus if you want to get stronger, that is, to produce more force, you need to increase your acceleration. The more you accelerate the same mass, the stronger you will get. It’s basic science!

The problem is that this is treating an instantaneous relationship as if it was a causal relationship. f=ma is describing what happens in the moment when force is being applied to mass. It’s not training advice for the long term. It says nothing about what stimulates muscles to be able to apply more force.

In like manner, calories in vs calories out only describes what happens in the moment. The second law of thermodynamics only tells you the momentary relationship between various things. It’s not dieting advice.

If you want to know what to eat, you need to consider how the body behaves in response to various stimuli. Bodies do not all behave in the same way, otherwise there would be no such thing as diabetics. Moreover, you also need to consider how much exercise the body is getting; exercise induces all sorts of changes in the body such as increasing hunger, basal metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and many, many other things. All of this means that a person who has too much fat on their body and wants to get rid of some of it will have to do a lot of work to find out what works for them. A person with a particular dysregulation in their body will have an enormously difficult time losing fat until they figure out how to fix this dysregulation. For someone who dysregulates because of insulin problems, they will need to solve this differently than someone who is dysregulating because of thyroid problems.

To give an example, about 6 years ago I lost close to 40 pounds eating an extremely low-carb diet, eating when I was hungry until I was full. This diet clearly fixed a disregulation in my metabolism because after about a week on it I simply became a lot less hungry. I didn’t eat as much, or as often, and felt full and had plenty of energy. I wasn’t stressed, I just felt like everything was fine with less food. (I subsequently gained much of the weight back through some poor choices involving candy; I have discovered that I will significantly dis-regulate if I eat a lot of fructose. As long as I limit candy, cookies, etc. to Christmas and Easter, my weight is very stable while eating when I’m hungry until I’m full. I plan to go back to eating strictly low-carb to see if that will get rid of the weight again, but I need to get some things in my life in order before I do because of dealing with antagonistic family members.)

Though Boys Throw Rocks at Frogs in Jest

There’s an interesting saying, attributed to Bion of Borysthenes:

Though boys throw rocks at frogs in jest, the frogs die in earnest.

There is an interesting phenomenon in life that people can play entirely serious games. This is an oxymoron, of course, but the nature of a fallen world is that it will contradict itself without blushing.

There is a sense in which all sin is this sort of serious game. Fornication makes as good an example as any. The fornicator generally pretends at marriage when he engages in the marital act. He may even make children by doing it. He meant none of this; to him it was just a game.

It is a strange thing that we human beings can think that we can play at real life and it will obligingly not be real merely because we didn’t really mean it.

This is, I think, a key to understanding more than a few perplexing behaviors.

Words to Live By

There are various sayings which one can come across expressing the same basic idea, such as “the only real tragedy in life is to not be a saint” or “the saddest thing in the world is that not everyone is a saint.” All excellent sentiments, especially because they’re quite true.

There’s an interesting saying from Mark Twain, though I suspect more properly from a character he wrote, which proposes an interesting sort of goal because it gets at the same sort of idea, though by being secular in a very narrow and lacking sort of way:

Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.

–Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

I find it a very evocative quote for two reasons. The first is that the undertaker profits by death, since he’s paid to bury people. When a man would rather not earn his living this way, it says something.

The other reason the quote is evocative is that since the undertaker is a professional, he cannot help but become used to his profession. It is not easy for a man to feel much about the two hundred and thirty first person he’s buried this year, especially if he buried five hundred and seventeen last year.

A Note on Jonah & The Great Fish

In my recent video about Jonah and the Great Fish, I used a great white shark in the thumbnail for the video. Here’s the thumbnail:

The book of Jonah does not identify the species of fish that swallowed Jonah; heck, the Hebrew doesn’t even distinguish between fish and whales, as modern people are obsessed with doing. Realistically, how important is it that whales nurse their young with milk? Is anyone planning to try keeping dairy whales?

How we think of the great fish that swallowed Jonah has a real impact on how we think of the story, though. I think a lot of people think of it as a baleen whale, which makes them think of it as a relatively comfortable experience. Something like this:

And, admittedly, the fin whale, the second longest whale in the world, does live in the Mediterranean sea. There’s a real problem with this version of the story, though—baleen whales are designed to eat krill, not large things. The blue whale (which doesn’t live in the Mediterranean) has an esophagus that is normally around 5 inches in diameter and may be able to expand up to about 10 inches in diameter. That couldn’t fit a child of ten, to say nothing of a grown man.

There is a cetacean option for the big fish in the Mediterranean, but it’s not a comforting one: sperm whales. Sperm whales have a lot of teeth and they are best known for using them to kill giant squid half a mile or more under the sea. To be fair, they probably do use suction to pull food into their throat but we’re not talking about gentle suction. If you’ve ever been hit by even a moderate size wave, you have a sense of just how much water suction can rip limbs off of a body. No matter which plausible enormous sea-dwelling critter you consider as the great fish that swallowed Jonah, merely the swallowing itself will normally kill you.

I don’t want to get into the argument over whether Jonah died and was resurrected on the third day—that takes too long here, and I went over it in the video—but I just want to emphasize that even if you really want to hold that Jonah miraculously survived being eaten by a great fish and being in its belly for three days rather than Jonah dying and miraculously being brought back to life, appreciating the degree to which Jonah should have died is necessary to understanding how miraculous the story really is.

If you’re interested in the video, here it is:

Chesterton on Holidays vs. Rest

In his book The Utopia of Usurers, G.K. Chesterton has a fascinating essay on the difference between holidays and rest. In the chapter The War On Holidays, he lays out the distinction:

The general proposition, not always easy to define exhaustively, that the reign of the capitalist will be the reign of the cad—that is, of the unlicked type that is neither the citizen nor the gentleman—can be excellently studied in its attitude towards holidays. The special emblematic Employer of to-day, especially the Model Employer (who is the worst sort) has in his starved and evil heart a sincere hatred of holidays. I do not mean that he necessarily wants all his workmen to work until they drop; that only occurs when he happens to be stupid as well as wicked. I do not mean to say that he is necessarily unwilling to grant what he would call “decent hours of labour.” He may treat men like dirt; but if you want to make money, even out of dirt, you must let it lie fallow by some rotation of rest. He may treat men as dogs, but unless he is a lunatic he will for certain periods let sleeping dogs lie.

But humane and reasonable hours for labour have nothing whatever to do with the idea of holidays. It is not even a question of ten hours day and eight-hours day; it is not a question of cutting down leisure to the space necessary for food, sleep and exercise. If the modern employer came to the conclusion, for some reason or other, that he could get most out of his men by working them hard for only two hours a day, his whole mental attitude would still be foreign and hostile to holidays. For his whole mental attitude is that the passive time and the active time are alike useful for him and his business. All is, indeed, grist that comes to his mill, including the millers. His slaves still serve him in unconsciousness, as dogs still hunt in slumber. His grist is ground not only by the sounding wheels of iron, but by the soundless wheel of blood and brain. His sacks are still filling silently when the doors are shut on the streets and the sound of the grinding is low.

(Important to remember is that in Chesterton’s time, “capitalism” did not mean “not communism” as it has come to mean after the Cold War, but rather a theory that men should stop aiming at virtue and instead aim at greed, but harness greed to do the work of virtue. This is rather unlike the more modern idea of aligning incentives so as to support men being virtuous rather than mis-aligning incentives so as to tempt them.)

A holiday, he goes on to say in a less direct route, is about a man directing himself to higher things than work or more generally the maintenance of the body. A holiday is about remembering that the world is really about God, not about itself.

I’m actually not much concerned with Chesterton’s remarks on employers, here, because the exact same attitude applies to the men themselves. If one regards Christmas as being about family and Sundays are about watching football, the man who regards them this way only rests, he has no holidays. In effect, a holiday is only a holiday when it is a holy day.

What Chesterton doesn’t describe in this essay, but which is true none the less, is that a man will have no holidays if he thinks that the purpose of leisure is leisure just as much as if he thinks that the purpose of leisure is work.

How To Get Gorilla Tape Off of a Snake

For some reasons which don’t involve me being the most clever I’ve ever been in affixing a thermostat probe to the inside of my snake enclosure (hint: don’t use tape), I’ve discovered how to get gorilla tape off of a snake. This should also work for duct tape and other kinds of tape, too.

One of the problems, here, is that snake skin turns out to be, under the scales, much thinner than human skin. The smoothness of their scales and lack of skin oil also seems to produce a much stronger bond to the tape than it does to our skin. Put those together and you have a dangerous situation: if you pull too hard—or if the tape gets stuck on something and the snake pulls on it—it could rip the snake’s skin since the tape is stronger.

Based on advice I got, I poured some mineral oil into a dixie cup and then used a q-tip periodically dipped into the mineral oil to rub the mineral oil onto the tape where it contacts the snake. This required a great deal of patience. It took me about an hour and a half to get the tape off of my snake and it was only about a half inch long strip (2.5″ wide, IIRC). What I found especially helpful was to rotate the q-tip (sideways) between the tape and the snake. This applies very gentle pressure to pull the tape away from the snake and at the same time works the mineral oil into the very edge of where the adhesive is contacting the snake, which is the place where the oil needs to get in order to dissolve the adhesive. It takes time, and it takes patience, but it does eventually work.

NOTE: there are many kinds of mineral oil. Look for the one sold as a laxitive, because that won’t be poisonous if it ends up getting a little in the snake’s mouth. This is very much not true of some other kinds of mineral oil, or of other oils like goo gone. (When in doubt, look at whether it’s meant to be swallowed or whether it tells you to contact poison control if you swallow it.)

Artistic Interpretations and Eisegesis

I recently saw an interesting commentary on my video about the validity of multiple artistic interpretations:

(If the embed is broken, Joseph Dooley said, “The danger of interpretation, or theory, is in eisegesis: the eschewing of shared reality and embrace of subjective lensing.”)

If you’re not familiar with the term eisegesis, it’s the opposite of exegesis: instead of explaining what is in the text, it is explaining things into the text. That is, rather than helping people to get more out of the text, one tries to supplant the text and claim its authority for one’s own ideas. This is more relevant to authoritative texts than to fiction, of course, but the analogy there is fairly clear. And Mr. Dooley is correct, that one danger of artistic interpretation is that two people may get different things out of the same work, which in effect removes it from being part of their shared culture. This danger is minor in many if not most cases.

Before I explain why, I want to give a super-brief recap of my argument for why multiple artistic interpretations can be valid: artistic works, being made by men and not by God, are always under-specified. Key information necessary to understanding the meaning of the work is missing and must be supplied by the viewer. To pick an example at random, we assume that Hamlet is an only child because no siblings of his are ever mentioned, but we are not told this. Many things in the play would be strange, but nothing would be contradicted, if Hamlet had an older brother or a younger sister or was the fourth of eight children. How many siblings we assign to Hamlet is a question of artistic interpretation, and each answer we give changes the meaning of other things in the play. Such interpretation is valid when it does not contradict anything and, critically, when it yields some truth about real life. That is my conclusion.

Differing interpretations will, by their nature, produce different insights into real life; as such when two people prefer different interpretations, they get different things out of the work, and it is not a shared experience. This is not, however, an all-or-nothing proposition. Very few works are so under-specified that artistic interpretations completely change them.

The danger of two interpretations resulting in the same work being taken in two entirely different ways is probably greatest in the interpretation of songs, since songs are so often oblique, minimalist, and often intentionally under-specified even by human standards. An example which comes to mind is the song Can’t Feel My Face by The Weekend. One interpretation is that the song is about a romantic relationship. Another is that the singer is singing about cocaine. The latter is probably the intended interpretation; cocaine is a topical anesthetic and is actually used for that purpose within medicine to this day where its other property of being a vasoconstrictor is helpful, such as when an incision is going to be made. These are essentially two different songs, depending on whether you want to take the song to be addressed to a human being or to a recreational drug, personified.

Most works don’t have this property, though, at least for interpretations which aren’t trying to outright change the meaning of the work. It’s pretty much always possible to begin with “what if this is a dream visited to a person by a demon trying to trick him”. The universality of this possibility tends to make it uninteresting to all but teenagers trying to prove how clever they are. Apart from such intentionally perverse interpretations, most interpretations involve supplying unspecified details which change far less about the work. Given that, if two people have different interpretations they will still have much that is common to both of their interpretations and thus they will still have a large part of the work as shared culture.

The other problem is that you can’t avoid artistic interpretation. When a character says that a meal is delicious and the scene is not about finding out whether he really does enjoy the food, you have to either assume that he’s telling the truth or that he isn’t. If you conclude that he isn’t telling the truth, you must further assume whether he’s intentionally lying to manipulate people or merely being polite in order to avoid offending. The only alternative to making some sort of interpretation about what happened is to forget that it happened.

This need for interpretation is perhaps made clear by how all performances of a play are interpretations of it. When MacBeth says, “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out! Out! brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” how does he say it? Is he angry? Sad? Resigned? First angry then resigned? Resigned then angry then resigned again? If you ever try reading this speech aloud, you will find that there are many convincing ways to say it which fit in which the character of MacBeth. Each way means something a little different, and if you say it out loud, you have to pick some way of saying it because you can’t read it without some sort of expression. If you were to read it in a flat monotone with no variation of pacing, like a computer from fifteen years ago, that would turn it into comedy, which is, after all, just another interpretation of it.

This same problem obtains when you merely read the text to yourself, though. You have to read it somehow or other, and however you read it, it probably won’t be the same as how somebody else reads it. In the end it doesn’t really matter that there is the danger in artistic interpretations that they take one work and make it several, doing less to bridge the gap between people than we might wish. You can’t do without artistic interpretations; the best you can do is work to pick a valid interpretation. That and share your preferred interpretation in case it helps others.

The Problem With Ex-Hominem Arguments

In this video I talk about the problem of ex-hominem arguments, that is, arguments “from the man”. These are arguments in which the person making the argument uses himself (or, more often, some trait of his) as a premise in his argument. The classic example is “I did X as a kid and I turned out all right” but it’s surprisingly common once you watch out for it. It’s not invalid to do, but it does cause some problems when a person does it, namely, that an ad-hominem argument becomes a necessary and valid response. In the example above, if the guy didn’t actually turn out OK, then how he turned out is not proof that the X was fine to do as a kid.