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Sunday, May 31, 2020 - 01:06 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

"Science" & Facts

On to part two of this series, but first, a reminder of what has come to pass in the past few days - America has moved to sever all ties with the WHO (projected back in February), and China's foreign minister has openly declared that "[they were on the brink of] Cold War [Two]" (as no-duh-ed last October); honestly, that brought back memories of how the WHO was warning about tottering on the brink of a pandemic for weeks, as the obvious unfolded around them. The geopolitics of our brave new era will be deferred to a later post, but here's hoping all readers have made their preparations. Or in Mandarin, 武汉肺炎, 尚可挽回; 反应迟钝, 无可救药 [N.B. Notably, the Chinese-language Wikipedia article on the coronavirus currently states its origin as unknown, while the English-language version states that the first outbreak was in China, with the index case in Wuhan; we'll return to this later.]

With the understanding that all of the following is said in my personal capacity, today's subject is on how science, facts and authority - at least what's being propagated by your favourite establishment media outlets and social influencers - may not be all it's cracked up to be. Take for a start face masks, discussed in the previous post and back in Feb: the non-necessity and uselessness of masks had been drilled into the public consciousness by various medical experts for a couple of months, while chaps who figured that, wait, one of the main lessons from SARS 1 in 2003 was that face masks made for some of the best protection against it, so why wouldn't it help with SARS-CoV-2, were deried as conspiracy theorists.


Be smart; get involved only with the *right kind of* model;
good-looking, firm, shapely, well-vetted, that kind



So, this sage advice turned out to be probably unwise (and likely motivated by logistical rather than scientific concerns), and as such, can the experts up there really blame the public (including mainstream media employees, so it seems) for not trusting them quite as much? One can imagine a regular Joe scratching his chin and reasonably figuring that, if these over-credentialed know-it-alls couldn't even get their policy recommendations on something as self-evident as face masks straight, should we really just go with them injecting dubious fluids into our bodies? Again, I support the concept of vaccination in general, and can understand why physicians are oft loathe to own up to mistakes (crippling liability), or simply admitting to not knowing (bedside manner expectations); it just doesn't change the reality, or hide the consequences.

Back on other models, another common suspicion that, eh, shouldn't closing borders and barring international travel (especially from the virus' source country) as early as possible save plenty of pain, would be dismissed out of hand by the WHO... only for researchers to come back this month saying, gee, it seems that preventing people flying from places where the virus is likely widespread to places where it's not yet prevalent does help to slow or even stop the spread, whaddya know? Now, I can kinda sympathize with the WHO here since dictating billions worth of international travel might be a little over their pay grade, but the record of their chief on covering up previous epidemics frankly doesn't inspire confidence.


HCQ+AZ+Zinc


The Bee hits it out of the park again
(Source: babylonbee.com)


Next, on to the wonders of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), previously raised in April. Now, if you're dependant on the establishment FAKE NEWS for your news fix, or allow Reddit/Facebook etc. free rein to curate your views for you, the latest big update would probably be something like "Hydroxychloroquine: WHO suspends clinical trial of drug touted by TRUMP as 'coronavirus cure' over safety fears". The corresponding discussion threads were moreover all but bursting with unbridled joy at Orange Man being proven wrong. There was something unsettling about the whole spectacle - even in war, one treats life-threatening conditions of enemy combatants (though I would understand if, say, torturers were bumped to the back of the line); here, you had a bunch of Internet strangers celebrating there being no cure.

Further, it's one thing if the hope for HCQ had been scientifically unsubstantiated, or an outright gaffe (e.g. as with disinfectant, or UV light, which seems actually under heavy development); consider that GEOTUS clearly hadn't come up with the HCQ suggestion by himself, because none of his many doctorates are in medicine. This would appear to imply that HCQ had been put forward by medically-qualified personnel as a plausible treatment, and the motivation indeed seems supported by HCQ's mechanism of action on ACE2 receptors, the effect of which has been observed in vitro, including in chloroquine form for the original SARS in 2005. This was sufficient for the early French studies that sparked initial interest, which was followed by happy news on HCQ from Italy, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Costa Rica, Brazil and India, amongst other nations. One could suppose that all of these doctors operating throughout the world are dumb, evil or irresponsible, but mayhaps it makes slightly more sense that they were legitimately convinced of HCQ's potential based on sound reasoning and empirical efficacy?

One would barely recognize this from the U.S. establishment media (including Reddit), however, as they blared studies from top journals - NEJM, JAMA and the BMJ (we're leaving The Lancet for later) - purporting that HCQ BAD, it causes additional deaths, and that TRUMP has a stake in a HCQ manufacturer (seemingly true, but less than US$3,000). Commentators who noted that, well, these all seem like retrospective studies where HCQ was probably prescribed to the sickest patients without appropriate supplementation, at which point it's a toss-up anyway and why have our top journals come to pushing non-controlled trials as gospel truth, were hardly acknowledged. Science Translational Medicine's resident pundit was no more charitable, and when the first known study on HCQ+AZ plus Zinc came in from NYU and actually suggested positive effects, the dismay was almost palpable. Thankfully for this fellow, a big Lancet paper on nearly 100,000 patients appears to have put the nail in HCQ's coffin last week - but we'll come to that.

For now, it might suffice to note that Wired's fairly-balanced summary of the HCQ situation up till the beginning of May suggested that it was too early to tell, if anything. The attraction of being able to employ HCQ is quite clear - it's been kicking around as an antimalarial since at least 1955 with millions of prescriptions annually and is thus well-understood, and is no longer under patent and thus affordable - hardly a negligible consideration for a coronavirus treatment, given the number of less-resourced countries that are under siege. Meanwhile, proprietary Big Pharma offerings are getting treated with kid gloves in the media despite demonstrating no better results, and having their own studies yanked.

Admittedly, HCQ has its drawbacks, the first being that speculation could reduce supply for existing patients, but this seems like a short-term issue. The far bigger problem is that if it actually works as a preventive prophylactic, people wouldn't die, they would be able to get back to normal life, the economy would recover, and TRUMP's re-election chances would rise (beyond him getting proven right, yet again). Can't be having that, can we? Fine, musing about slightly-odd study designs and potential conflicts of interest might be churlish, but it was still instructive to watch how Detroit Democrats censured a lawmaker simply for testifying that she had been cured with HCQ, Klobuchar having to admit that it helped save her husband (happy for both of them), and Gov. Whitmer asking the Feds for supplies, 'cause it surely don't work!

Honorable man of action that GEOTUS is, he has put himself on the line as usual, and completed a week-and-a-half course of HCQ as a protective measure (with zinc, goes without saying), in the best traditions of self-experimenting great men like Dr. Barry Marshall; by the way, his political opponents' calls for him to discontinue treatment were probably not even ethical and likely disrespectful, from how they're discounting the expertise of the White House's Physician to the President, who one suspects has the necessary data. In any case, medicos remain tiptoeing about on Reddit going "c'mon, surely some of you are using it, let's talk", while the NIH and the UK gear up to do proper clinical trials, with the latter already doing HCQ bulk purchases. Well, best of luck to them!


The Lancet Saga

And we come to the yuge Lancet publication on May 22, "Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis" by Mehra et al. - over ninety-six thousand coronavirus patients from 671 hospitals in six continents, HCQ fail. To say that this paper was influential is an understatement; within four days, the WHO halted their ongoing HCQ trials based on it, which was rapidly followed by France, Italy and Belgium, based on safety concerns raised within. Surely this must be the end of Drumpf?

And then, a funny thing happened. Just as the average r/politics Redditor was jerking himself off to what seemed to be a conclusive repudiation of HCQ, 146 scientists signed an open letter to the authors and journal, with a list of very pertinent concerns (which also makes for a nice case study following our recent post on peer-review). Points one to four relate to inadequate adjustment for confounders, lack of code/data/ethics review and even a mention of the participating countries & hospitals, which while not ideal, probably aren't that out of place. The real accusations then began, as the signatories observed that Australian data contradicted official reports (too many cases than reasonable for five hospitals and more in-hospital deaths than that for the entire country in that period), unlikely sophistication for African data, oddly small variances across continents and overly-high HCQ doses, implausible chloroquine/HCQ ratios, and seemingly-impossible confidence intervals (as advertised in the previous post on reviewing!)

Now, unless somebody took the trouble to do a heck a lot of fabrication, there are some pretty big names behind this letter - fellows from Oxford, ICL, UCL, Harvard, UPenn, UPittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Duke, UBC, UToronto, McGill, UMelbourne, USydney, Monash, Karolinska Insitutet and a host of other well-regarded institutions, nothing to sneeze at. A Melbourne-based doctor has raised the other question no doubt on many researchers' minds, which is how did just four authors manage to complete a study of such complexity so quickly, and what exactly the heck is this Surgisphere company that supplied the data, that he's never heard of. For now, the authors have acknowledged an error in including an Asian hospital in the Australian data, but one suspects that a whole can of worms has been opened.

I will be following the developments extremely keenly, it goes without saying, but a little pertinent background may be in order. The Lancet is indisputably one of medicine's Big Four journals, and is the only one of those not owned by a medical organization. This has allowed it to earn something of a crusading, swashbuckling reputation, maintained from original founder Thomas Wakley, to reigning editor Richard Horton (note: this description is largely lifted from former BMJ editor Richard Smith's The Trouble with Medical Journals, which I have to recommend - particularly to clinican-scientists - yet again; it's an engrossing read for anybody remotely interested in the oft-salacious history of these journals. Smith goes on to state that Horton's been described as "[the kind of man] who don't mind about being kicked blue if they can only get talked about".)

Smith goes on to note that he doesn't think medicine and politics can be separated, and that "any journal that wants to influence health and medicine will have to deal with the political". I agree with that. That said, Smith wasn't exactly agreeable with The Lancet carrying nine articles on the 9/11 attacks - a tendency that doesn't seem to have moderated. Don't get me wrong, I'm hardly against a good dollop of advocacy - for instance, on the health of Palestinians - but let's just say that riding wild and free raises the chances of falling off the edge. Quite a bit of the current anti-vax movement might for one be traced back to Wakefield's infamous Lancet paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism, which was only fully retracted twelve years after initial publication, when the damage had been done. The Lancet is a pillar of the profession with a venerable past, and it would really be sad to see them on the wrong side of history again.


...they ain't winning this one, are they?
(Source: dailykos.com)


Alas, they appear to have been digging themselves deeper from the beginning of this pandemic, at least from a mid-February letter condemning "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin". Of course, critical thinkers immediately seized on the straw-man, which was that the prevailing theory was that the virus had escaped from the lab, after being naturally transmitted (either in the wild, or in the lab). Sure as clockwork, studies have suggested that the virus didn't come from the wet market, a WHO advisor has admitted that a leak was likely, U.S. intelligence is looking deeply into the possibility, the virus seems strangely well-adapted to infect humans from the get-go, early evidence was destroyed (whoops), and China is now open to an independent investigation, which seems to at least imply the possibility. Most importantly, the fact was that there was no way The Lancet could plausibly have ruled out a lab leak, given all the circumstantial hints. It might have been fair attempt at politics; it definitely wasn't good science.

But like I said, they were digging themselves in more deeply, and followed up in mid-May by posting an unsigned editorial (no prizes guessing who it's from, though) in support of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and urging Americans not to re-elect TRUMP. Now, this looks like very brassy interference in foreign politics, but in their defence, they were fresh from taking their own United Kingdom and then Brazil on. To this, an informed Redditor noted that the CDC's budget had actually tripled after an emergency supplemental package in early March, and got -41 karma at last count for his pains. Guy who pointed out that the CDC's homegrown test kit screwed up, America's situation is actually kind of unremarkable compared to other developed countries, and The Lancet's editorial wasn't helping anyone, received -192 karma.

The Donald's incomparable troll senses must have activated at that, and two days later, the GOD-EMPEROR would tweet his own open letter to the WHO, that included prominently on the first page that "The World Health Organization consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal." Obviously, GEOTUS didn't have to mention The Lancet by name here, and there were any number of other journals he could have referenced, but one supposes he knows exactly what he's doing. Horton pounced instantly, loudly counter-tweeting "Dear President Trump - You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO. Please let me correct the record. The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020". A native speaker of English would duly remark that TRUMP is ackchyually entirely correct, because "of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier" is the relevant clause here, and the actual Lancet report could have come out after that, i.e. in late January, as self-admitted by Horton, and which does indeed state that the virus started in December.

Professional linguists might have their say on the above, but it sure looks like HIS TRUMPNESS has managed to make the editor of one of the world's most prestigious medical journals lose his basic command of English. Is there anything at all in this world, that THE MAN can't do? As the old canard goes, who the GOD-EMPEROR wishes to destroy, he first makes mad, and from how Horton is now frantically tweeting about for support as America withdraws from his beloved WHO, he can't be far off the precipice of mental health there. I did quite appreciate his 2015 report on how medical research is unreliable at best, and fradulent at worst, which seems to follow on from Ioannidis' celebrated essay; here's to hoping he cools off after a bit.



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Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 23:25 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

COVID In May

This is going to be a multi-parter, to keep the posts bite-sized, so let's begin with a swift recap of the coronavirus sitation here. We may have been one of the toasts of the world back in February, for seemingly having contained the virus' spread, but it would turn out to be a false dawn. The number of infected would absolutely explode no thanks to crowded foreign worker dormitories with three-digit daily increases becoming the norm, hitting a high of some 1,426 in mid-April. It was fortunate, then, that our Foreign Minister had diplomatically sidestepped CNBC's bait to dump on other nations, given that we've ended up far worse than, say, China, after correcting for population (supposedly, in this case). The U.S. establishment has reverted to referring to us as a negative case study (Nigeria still looks up to our laws to the extent of plagarizing them wholesale, so there's that; personally, be our guest)

Given that nearly all of the tens of thousands of cases have arisen from the dorms, that previously-invisible issue has finally entered into the public consciousness for good, with the relevant authorities finally agreeing that existing living standards were, well, lackluster, and could stand to be raised. The flattening of the curve has however placed the focus squarely back onto the costs, with the Minister for National Development now warning that the taxpayer would have to foot the bill. Understandably, some citizens were of the opinion that the firms running (and profiting from) the dorms should be on the hook (this is before we even get into accusations of vindictiveness for the shushed-up Little India riots), to which a clever fellow suggested just booting them into the sea (for maximum replication of the cruise ship experience?)

This brings us to a rather public tête-à-tête between NUS Computing's finest and his NTU counterpart, after the NTU worthy had accused the incumbent government of mishandling the coronavirus situation from the beginning (in direct contradiction to our Prime Minister's verdict on this 4G leadership test). His main points, as summarized by a helpful Redditor, were that data has context (*cough* other countries under-reporting) [agree], to practise critical thinking and derive one's own conclusions from first principles [very agree], and that our dorms weren't that bad to begin with, and improving them might not have fixed the coronavirus issue.

Some netizens were clearly unimpressed by the direction this was going (i.e. more lip-service on dorms), despite not being entirely taken by the initial critique either. Expectedly, Pogba was out and kicking again, though curiously nowhere near the mainstream media (now down to 158th, with the worst-possible "very bad" rating in the World Press Freedom index); transgressions ranged from recycling articles (fine, that's for nation-building), silently altering pertinent details and insensitive framing (in the style of Biden's "poor kids are just as smart as white kids"), to outright fabrication (which eventually got an apology); this brought back uneasy memories of another awkward official snafu with the Virus Vanguard comic superheroes (can't lie, I chortled at MAWA man)... and that was before it transpired that some characters were entirely traced. I can only hope this doesn't discourage local creatives overly in breaking boundaries like Marvel.


On The Bright Side

Well, it's probably not good to simmer in the negatives, so a quick run-through what's gone right locally - community transmission outside of the dorms remains very low, mass testing appears to be in the works, and the BCG tuberculosis vaccine - mandatory for schoolkids here since 1957 - might have offered some free protection (admittedly mostly a correlation). Moreover, the coronavirus appears to have a relatively low fatality rate of about 0.05% for under-65s without comorbidities, which concurs with the paucity of deaths from the masses of affected strapping-fit migrant labourers.

One encouraging takeaway from the crisis, I'd say, is that the local authorities are at least largely amenable to considered critical thinking and adaptation. Now, not all of these have been unmitigated wins - the attempt to foster Italian-style singing out of windows to boost morale seems to have garnered a (very authentic) mixed reaction at best, as with Gadot and chums' cover of Imagine, but personally, they happy can liao on this. Then there's the Boston Dynamics robot doggy keeping life interesting (and social-distanced) in Bishan; I'm unsure if I prefer them to the flying drones, but it's not like privacy in public's gonna survive for much longer anyhow.

On to solutions that would seem to make sense, one might first apprehend the NRIC-based crowd control measures introduced at various markets (including that at my old place), that seems to partly address the concern about multiple trips made here barely a week before. Of course, this is nothing particularly earth-shattering - but it was logical with minimal negative trade-offs (the worst case appears having to wait a day, even for single-person households), it was implemented (you'd be surprised how often it fails at this step), it's good; I don't think we'll be going quite as far as Osaka, whose mayor suggested that men should do the grocery shopping because women took too much time, even though that's probably not wrong either.

Direct problem, direct solution, no big secret


Before going on to the next improvement, a possible opportunity: there has been word that blood plasma from coronavirus survivors can dramatically lower struggling patients' viral load (with there coincidentally being exciting reports on plasma transfusions possibly having epigenetic effects too), due to containing suitable antibodies. In fact, the FDA is currently requesting plasma donations towards this purpose, and similar therapy has been in evaluation for over a month locally. Well, putting two and two together, Singapore appears to have a particularly relatively-large population of recovered and recovering healthy young chaps; I'd garner many of them might possibly be inclined towards performing some potentially life-saving good deeds if it comes down to that, especially if approached with the utmost sensitivity. As a bonus, this would probably also jive with the general flow of establishment propaganda, but let's not take it too far in that direction, yes?


Masks Rehabilitated

The efficacy of face masks appears to have been further bolstered by Hong Kong-based research on volunteer hamsters, who have been quite busy on the publicity front too. Recall, it was observed here in February that the then-recommended proscription on wearing face masks didn't even make much surface sense. To their credit, the government made an about-turn eventually (after more-or-less blaming the WHO), and the wearing of masks outdoors became compulsory mid-April. For some reason, the WHO doesn't seem to have shifted to a general recommendation even on reusable masks, despite pretty-suggestive observations on it being a relatively accessible method of reducing infections: 75% by the Hong Kong hamsters, 80% by a Berkeley computer scientist running simulations (reminds me of one of my first university projects on flocking behaviour), and 90% post-mask regime in Austria. The NEJM has weighed in on how merely talking likely releases sufficiently-large droplets for virus spread, a line also explored by a Japanese broadcast station in explaining away their country escaping largely unscathed... due to the more-restrained nature of Japanese pronunciation; might be worth a bit of a look.

It is perhaps inevitable, given the new standard best practice (again adopted early by the White House), for the more critically-minded to wonder just why the obvious entailment of asymptomatic transmission took so long to be recognized. We'll leave that for next time, however, and instead focus on the physical aspect. Hopefully, it's not hard to figure out that many people might not like to wear face masks, mostly because masks can make it significantly harder to breathe. Assuredly, one approach is to laugh or scream at those who pull down/cut holes in/remove their masks, but to be frank, if the issue is breathing difficulties (apparently caused at least one car crash), what does one expect them to do? Wouldn't it be more productive and rational to design and popularize better and more-comfortable masks, and check back again?


Note generous bulge at the front for the nose
(Original source: straitstimes.com)


This, by the way, has also been discussed in early April, with the observation that resistance to breathing was probably due to the mask material being too close to the nostrils, and that it could be fixed either by shaping the mask to leave more volume on the front, or by a nose bridge extension. Again, this is simply common sense, and I was heartened to note that local seamstresses had realized it by the end of the month at the latest (but really, the grannies probably knew all along). A Redditor's prompt report on the latest just-distributed batch of reusable masks suggests that they have taken the other approach, with a "flexible metal piece" reported for the nose bridge, though the relatively small additional front volume combined with thicker material seems to have resulted in a less-appreciable improvement to breathability.

One can only hope that the reusable mask manufacturers continue to refine their designs (not sure if they actually wore their original flat ones for any length of time), while various authorities and communities strive to make mask-wearing cool and funny (with a dash of troll), and maybe mutually-profitable. Special mention has to go to a heroic Russian nurse here, after she likely contributed more to the cardiac health of the most at-risk elderly male demographic in her wards, than any amount of government propaganda or stodgy rules on apparel. These are irregular times, after all; they may call for courageous unorthodox measures (on which more in the next post)



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Sunday, May 24, 2020 - 22:17 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Material Update

"He who controls the left, controls the world."

- today's inspirational Hajime no Ippo quote,
possibly with relevance to mainstream and social media


It's high time for another coronavirus update, and there're so many new developments, that it's probably best divided into multiple posts.

But first, a quick run-down on various other topics. About peer review, a note from a distinguished robotics researcher (and also co-founder of a prominent journal on computer vision) has hit Hacker News, in which he doubts the effectiveness of such reviewing today, with fields having simply grown too large. There was also the amusing observation that "...if a paper was purely theoretical with lots of equations and no experiments involving processing an image it was much more likely to get accepted than a paper which did have experimental results... [because] if... a paper had experiments with real images, the same reviewers would pick apart the output, faulting it for not being as good as they thought it should be"; personally, this is to be expected - everybody feels qualified to critique pictures (which, note, is kind of the whole point in computer vision), but who wants to be the poor fool who exhibits a misunderstanding of how the sparse matrix instantiation of a Bayesian Fourier transform is derived from Theorem 7a? How did that guy ever pass his Ph.D. qualifiers in the first place?

Continuing to more cool stuff, someone has implemented an Intersectionality Score Calculator, that moreover appears to be country-specific (though apparently not adjusting for dominant religion[s]). There's also some quite incredible 3D fluid simulation showcased on digital billboards, and a GPT-2 model-based website that proposes plausible-seeming made-up words (with accompanying definitions); this has also made possible a subreddit that's composed purely of bots communicating with each other (they appear to have kept on the English straight-and-narrow, unlike previously). About football, with leagues and cups most everywhere on hiatus, a Redditor with far too much time on his hands has described his idea of a reworked World Cup, that involves 32 regions roughly equalized by population, rather than countries. It's a rockin' read with some very lively descriptions - highly recommended.

Singapore apparently got included in both Group C's "Oceania and Southeast Asia" team, which turned out to basically be an Anzac squad (frankly, can't complain), and Group F's "West Indonesia & Singapore" team, where Hassan Sunny, Safuwan Baharudin and Ikhsan Fandi (yay) at least got a look-in. Well, "West Indonesia & Singapore" got knocked out in the group stages in the official simulation, while "Oceania and Southeast Asia" squeaked though (helped by being in the same group as Western China and South India, both hardly football powerhouses), only to be thrashed 0-5 by eventual finalists, "West Mainland Europe" - which is hardly an embarassment given that WME contains three of the last four World Cup winners (bar Germany). The real shocks were "East China" making it to the semi-finals on the back of a Beijing Guoan spine (ok, fine, there's precedent in South Korea 2002), where they were finally beaten by "West Mainland Europe", who then lost to... Igor Akinfeev's "Russia and Southern Borders", with North Korea's Han Kwang-song lifting the cup. Well, the DPRK do actually have a certain World Cup pedigree; perhaps they took Paul Scholes' "just smash them up" advice to heart.

Moving on, Civilization 6 is now free for download on the Epic Games platform, which does seem compatible with Steam. For better or worse, I've gotten the Platinum Edition and the New Frontier Pass, so this did nothing for me (did grab Total War: Shogun 2 when it got offered, though). Anyway, Singapore has finally returned as an available city-state in Civ VI's latest Apocalypse update, moreover under the "Industrial" type, as compared to "Maritime/Mercantile" in the previous edition (probably more appropriate...). The unique suzerain bonus of cities receiving +2 production for each foreign civilization they have a trade route to can probably get slightly broken if exploited. Next step up has to be qualifying as a civ in our own right, which has seen its fair share of suggestions.



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Friday, May 15, 2020 - 22:07 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Reviewing In Review

Given the short lull, I thought I'd delve into the promised piece on journal peer-reviewing, which I believe is a lesser-articulated side of the business of academia. Just to clarify, such peer-reviewing is distinct from the "book/play/movie reviewing" that laymen might be more familiar with, if only because such reviews for public consumption generally presuppose that the work in question has already been accepted and released by some publisher or producer (such post-reviews remain not uncommon in the humanities, though, with shorter pieces often akin to advertising copy, and longer ones a kind of Cliff's Notes, or even qualifying as original literary reinterpretations in their own right)

Whereas in academia, peer-review serves as a roadblock to publication; fail it, and the paper does not get published (in the intended journal/conference, at least). Of course, journals no longer serve as a necessary middleman for distribution purposes nowadays - anybody can upload their paper in its full-colour glory onto open-access repositories such as arXiv, their own webpage or Google Drive in a pinch, and have it instantly available to anybody with an Internet connection. Journals are now primarily gatekeepers to prestige. Any crank can self-host his complex ramblings on 6-D space-time cubes; get the same work into, say, Science, however, and plenty of reputable physicists will be bound to give the theory a second look.

However much some intellectuals might dislike it (we've mentioned Higgs' self-assessment of his survivability, to which might be added a Turing laeurate in databases noting that he had gotten his Ph.D. with zero publications in 1971, and tenure at Berkeley with five - which is what good Ph.D. applicants might have, nowadays), this is what the "publish or perish" academic game has come to. If one doesn't publish - and keep publishing - in reputable journals, there will often be someone hungrier who's managing to. Thus the treadmill turns.

Arguing from the other direction, requiring publications might not be wholly unreasonable, since producing and disseminating new knowledge is the main job of (research-track) academics, after all. Further, one gets the impression that output of an appreciably-high level can be consistently achieved in certain fields, such as medicine, where even negative results on comprehensive-enough studies are inherently extremely valuable. In others, such as applied computer science, rapid turnover aids in advancing the field as a whole - for example, instead of trying to work out every last theoretical justification behind a new algorithm into the perfect manuscript over years, it's often rather more beneficial to push out a good-enough prototype, and allow the community to build on it.


Tiers & Demand


It tends to then repeat the next level down
(Original source: imgur.com, more like it)


While genteel academic sensibilities might not allow it to be openly belaboured, I hope that it is no secret that not all journals & conferences are created equal (which, frankly, should really be communicated to fresh-faced graduate students very early on, lest they waste their efforts). Quite broadly speaking, there tends to be a few elite journals for each field: C/N/S for the natural sciences, the Big Four (or Three, or Six, depending on who you're willing to mortally insult) in medicine, and the Top Five so frequently bandied about on the anon Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) forum, who have distilled tenure standard benchmarking into a fine art (e.g. whether one Top5 paper and two "top fields" the next tier down, is equivalent to five "top fields", but they're economists, so what did you expect? N.B. EJMR has taken to displaying the Bitcoin exchange rate on their front page [further also expressed in terms of mean UK Assistant Prof annual salary units, i.e. 1 UKAP], so maybe they're more in-tune with reality than I thought)

The point here, at least towards the topic of reviewing, is the acceptance rates. For the elite "glam mags", only somewhere from 3% to 10% of initial submissions are ultimately accepted, at least for the fields mentioned above (natural sciences, medicine, economics) - and one supposes that the vast majority of these are serious efforts. The next tier down tends to have acceptance rates up to about 20% (though with more variation, since some subfields can get very picky), which is also about where your top computer science conferences tend to reside. Reputable field journals/Rank-2 CS conferences tend to reside within the 20%-40% acceptance rate band, megajournals (e.g. Scientific Reports, PLOS One) accept over half of their submissions (there are some gems in that volume), before we get to the... dodgier pay-to-play/predatory underbelly.

Consider now that most any respectable journal/conference tends to call for three or more peer-reviewers per submission nowadays, and that many papers are rejected (possibly multiple times, generally from the most prestigious venues downwards) before finding a home, the unavoidable conclusion is that there is a heck a lot of reviewing to be done. To be sure, this is somewhat mitigated by desk rejects (where the editor straight-out denies clearly unsuitable/bad submissions, also beginning to be implemented in some form at A.I. conferences, due to a worsening lack of qualified reviewers brought on by the area's sudden explosion in popularity), but it probably remains a good rule of thumb that for every paper one submits as the first author, one should expect to review about three in return.


To Review Or Not To Review?

I have read somewhere that an academic's attitude towards reviewing passes through three stages: initially, elation and not some apprehension at being requested to provide one's first few reviews, from the (slight) recognition of being "part of the gang", which tends to come with a worry that one might not be qualified to pass opinion on possibly far more-accomplished scholars. This then slowly turns into a sense of duty, as the freshly-minted junior professor/fellow realizes that reviewing is a necessary part of the job - as in football or basketball, no referee, no game. That said, he soon realizes there is essentially zero fame or recognition, unlike in sports where you can get an occasional Pierluigi Collina; it is no surprise then that senior big shots can come to think of reviewing as a bit of a drudgery, and pawn their assignments off on their underlings (that said, early-career guys supposedly do a more thorough job anyway)

Before continuing, just to establish some bona fides: over the past six years, 157 items from 44 journals, three recurring conferences and one grant body have crossed my desk for peer-review, by my own count (does not include reviews of revisions unless resubmitted to a journal within the same family, includes a few unofficial consultations) - so forgive me if I gather I'm not completely useless at the gig. Which brings us to the original question, on whether a newbie should accept review requests. I'd say yes - if the paper lies somewhere within or adjacent to his area - because the worst that could reasonably happen is that the editor thinks that the review is not up to acceptable standards, in which case he shrugs and simply invites another reviewer (which probably happens to everyone). Of course, if it's obvious that the paper is too far outside one's competency (as happened to yours truly for a couple of extra-heavy mathematical expositions), there's no shame in (rapidly) informing the editor too, to allow for reassignment.

The exception would then be clearly-predatory for-profit journals, but I have to confess to having a soft spot for less-prestigious niche outlets, and will generally try to review for them at least once, if it looks like a reasonable effort.


The Golden Rule

While reviewing conventions may differ greatly between various fields, my experience from dealing with papers situated every which way between my main professional specialties of computer science (particularly computer vision & A.I.) and translational medicine (mostly relating to ophthalmology, but also various imaging fields), as well as pinch-hitting for a fair mix of interdisciplinary material, has convinced me that there is at least one unifying principle for good peer-reviewing, regardless of the field: the overriding intent of a review should be to result in an improved contribution to science.

Now, I've probably been identified as Reviewer #2 at some point, the (unintentionally) adversarial nitpicker who continually sweats the small stuff and lists out all the minor spelling and grammatical errors. To be entirely honest, looking from the author side in, I can fully understand the attraction of a reviewer that for once unreservedly says, "This is brilliant work, accept for publication immediately without hesitation!"

Alas, such reviews are ultimately Not Good*.

It could, definitely, be true that the manuscript in question is actually pristinely beyond all reproach; however, more often than not, the other reviews would suggest that there were, in fact, a number of issues that could bear to receive attention. If so, it would then look like the entirely-positive reviewer had simply fobbed the authors off with faint praise; indeed, there is no evidence that the reviewer respected them enough to perform the basic courtesy of actually reading and trying to understand the manuscript (beyond the abstract, anyhow), and attempting to rigorously deconstruct and critique the proposal. In proper science, there is no greater snub than this; it is on a par, I think, with Pauli's contemptuous "not even wrong".

[*Actually, there is occasionally insult heaped upon snub, with the request to cite a not-even-remotely-related paper following the effusive not-a-review.]

The Golden Rule of reviewing, then, would be this: if you were teleported to a conference table with a copy of the review, and the authors of the paper were teleported to the other side of the table (might be tricky for certain large genetics and particle physics collaborations, though), would you be able to look them in the eye and read out all the points raised, and actively defend them? In other words, although reviewers are traditionally protected by the veil of anonymity, they should nevertheless strive to write their reviews as if their name and reputation would be attached to it (as some venues are now allowing, albeit with uneven uptake) [N.B. As a related aside, I'm not quite sure what to make of certain journals allowing "non-preferred reviewers" to be suggested; personally, that sounds like an invitation for some fun assignment trolling]


Basics


Maybe a repeat, but what the heck
(Original source: justinholman.com)


Well, one's taken the plunge and clicked on the "Accept Review" button, and the PDF file has been downloaded, bringing with it the promise of another burnt weeknight. What next?

Before beginning, it's usually a good idea to check what the editor expects (i.e. the reviewing form). Some of these forms are far more structured than others, for instance with guiding questions such as "Are the methods correct", "Is the level of English acceptable", etc. Interestingly, in my experience, the higher-tier the journal, the more free-form the review is allowed to be. This kind of makes sense, actually - for these journals, the initial triage-by-editor would have eliminated submissions with obvious problems. Any remaining critique would thus be expected to be on relatively obscure and subtle concerns, which sums up to a more bespoke approach for every paper.

What's obscure to one reviewer, that said, might be bread and butter to another, which as it happens is one of the motivations for recruiting multiple reviewers (and therefore, perspectives), especially for papers that touch on more than a single field. Take for example your standard machine learning (ML) in biomedicine paper, nowadays. I daresay I might be slightly more equipped to comment on the application of ML in some depth, but when it comes to the underlying mechanisms of the disease in question, an actual medical specialist would have to be called for. For the broader overview, you'd probably want a senior fella who's been involved in similar studies, so on and so forth. Certainly, it could be difficult to find an individual with expertise in all aspects (but it can't hurt to try and pick up outside stuff as one goes along, by reading what the rest of the reviewers had to say. This also gives an idea if one's reviews are roughly good-enough)


The Review Proper

Here, I attempt to describe a broad methodology that has evolved over the years:

  1. Pre-review routine: Check out the review form to know what output is expected, and thus what to particularly watch out for (note any special items). If single-blind, affirm that none of the authors involved are collaborators (has not yet happened). Confirm review due-by date, mark on Google Calender, write on first page of hardcopy if printed out.

  2. First read-through: Quick browse of entire paper, to form an initial impression. Is it fairly clear and readable (if dry)? What are its main claims/messages? Are these claims/messages actually supported? What are the obvious strengths (generally blared from the rooftops) and weaknesses (often hidden/misdirected)? Is there any "missing piece of the puzzle" that the authors should really have elaborated on? Occasionally, papers with major problems can be booted back at this stage.

  3. Background check: More in-depth read of the background & related work sections (sometimes compressed into the introduction). Where does this paper position itself with respect to prior publications? Attempt to briefly follow-up on main citations offered, if unfamiliar with the area. Also, search Google Scholar with relevant & related keywords, to get an idea of what closely-related works were not mentioned (often even more informative; that said, very recently-available works [i.e. less than one year] and non peer-reviewed literature [i.e. arXiv, abstracts] might be disregarded)

    Examine the most-comparable works, especially if fairly recent; are similar/improved methodologies/analyses employed, and if not, why? Are the findings consistent or contested, and what could have made the differences, if any? Especially if some of this prior work is from the same research group, what exactly is the novelty that this latest submission offers?

  4. Review proper: As forewarned, the actual body of the review can vary greatly, since it is by its nature heavily dependant on the domain. For example, for ML, the more-standard issues to watch out for would include proper (cross-)validation with no data leakage between separate data splits (not-too-uncommonly fallen foul of, especially by researchers applying ML to other fields), details of parameter search, ablation of models if specific extensions were proposed, appropriate comparisons with prior methods, etc.

    Likewise, for statistical analysis, choice of model and fixed/random effects, treatment of missing data (imputation method?), matching of population against controls etc might be the basic stuff to consider; for mathematical derivations, whether all variables are clearly defined, and whether each presented equation follows from the last (helps greatly if it begins from some well-known formulation). Note that above all of this hangs the overarching hypothesis/goal - how does this analysis/experiment/theorem advance it?

    More frankly speaking, the extent to which peer-reviewers can verify the correctness of empirical findings is extremely limited. Take your usual study that, after the preliminaries, introduces your usual fashionable linear mixed-effects/Cox proportional hazards/deep neural network model (possibly with some twist) etc., and then spits out the results. Quite often, especially for biomedical applications (due to data privacy rights), there is no real way to dig into the modelling, beyond superficial probing on details.

    Fortunately, there are sometimes hints that all is not as it seems, in the spirit of overly-neat coronavirus figures. One might run forensic statistical tests based on Benford's law and such if the data seems suitably suspicious, which one might get a feel for after working with the models for some time (e.g. this ML model almost never results in accuracy values correlating linearly with its main parameter near its local optimums, from experience). A fellow reviewer once caught an inconsistency in a standard error bar, by reasoning that the quantity represented by that bar was far too tiny to have such a small error, that I had missed to my slight chagrin (have since resolved to at least try an keep an eye out for this). All this is over and above the rudimentary "basic accounting" of making sure the numbers stated are consistent (e.g. why are 1024 patients declared in the text, but 1023 in the figures?)

    It must be stated here that the vast majority of such slip-ups are, in my opinion, honest oversights; papers nowadays can have many authors and undergo many revisions, and it is far from inconceivable that details get lost or changed down the line somewhere. Normally, all these get rectified/explained when the revision comes in.

  5. Final examination: Alright, the hard work's done, the issues (if many) are all clearly listed point-by-point for convenience of rebuttal, a sample of spelling mistakes and other errata have been provided towards the end - time to settle on a recommendation (see the Passing The Verdict section for a deeper look), submit the completed review to the editor and kick back, right? Not quite.

    Instead, shoot for one last go-over of the review - is is professional in tone throughout, and devoid of too-personal statements that one might regret? Are all the critiques raised fair (if possibly harsh), and deployed towards fulfilling the Golden Rule (one might pile on the cordial praise at the beginning of the review to balance the mood out, if required)? Is the recommendation to the editor consistent with the review content? Has the correct paper been reviewed here (you laugh, but I'd gather it happens when the queue piles up)?


Tattling

One practice that most journals/conferences appear to allow for, is for a peer-reviewer to provide "privileged" comments to the editor only, that is hidden from the more-public main review that is returned to the authors and other reviewers. Personally, I am in principle generally opposed to such secret justifications, since the primary purpose of a review, in my mind, should be to provide feedback and opportunities for improvement (of course, the editor/other reviewers may have different ideas on what constitutes improvement, but the point stands). Obviously, hidden comments cannot provide that, and there are few experiences more frustrating than receiving three gushing and/or perfunctory reviews with no substantial critique, and then somehow have one's paper rejected.


Amusing Anecdotes/Caveats

Given all the interest in medical (epidemiological) research no thanks to the ongoing pandemic, it may be timely to raise a couple of eyebrow-raising observations from my reviewing for some pretty-reputable medical journals (exact topics/subjects involved suitably modified to preserve anonymity)

The first case involved, as part of one of the paper's main messages, a statement of the form "Teenagers that consume at least one egg a day are likely to have improved health outcomes" (actual line didn't pertain to teenagers or eggs, but you get the idea). Now, this happened to be the kind of broad assertion that the general public likes to take an interest in, and that, as a result, has seen intermittent attention in the mainstream press. In fact, the last such news article I recalled reading had claimed no health benefits from egg consumption, to the best of my memory, and as such I examined the given citation - from a pretty high-impact journal in the relevant field - out of curiosity. Indeed, its abstract suggested no benefits from a large study, confirmed by the main text.

As such, there was nothing for it, but to inform the authors that their citation did not actually support their statement, as part of my review. To their credit, the authors acknowledged the discrepancy, and fixed it by providing a replacement citation to another research paper from a no less respected journal, that did support the hypothesis that eggs are good for teenagers. Understandably, I remain no more enlightened as to the value of an egg-based diet, but at least the forms have been obeyed.

The second case involves an otherwise very impressive interventional study regarding a new treatment, that concluded with the main finding that said new treatment was significantly more effective than current standard practice, and that doctors might strongly consider adopting it. It has to be said that the analysis was, as far as I could make out, entirely competent, especially after the initial round of reviews.

Part of the authors' response was the addition of many new figures, among of which was included a chart like this:


[N.B. The original was fancier, but this contains the gist of it]


Now, this did entirely support their initial claim, that the proposed treatment improved outcomes in the general population by about 30%. What had not been explored, however, was that the benefits were unevenly distributed - in this case, far superior for females, but actually detrimental for males. Far be it for me to discourage such informative disclosure, but I could not help but communicate to the authors in the next review round that, acktually, this variance in outcome might be, like, kind of important to emphasize somewhere in the text? In this case, sadly, it seemed to have fallen between the cracks, and as such the (quite true) assertion made in the published abstract and conclusion remains that "new treatment works (for everyone implied)!"; well, one hopes that practitioners serving all-boys schools and male-dominated professions like the army read the paper carefully, then.


Passing The Verdict

For all the care that may (or may not) have been put into crafting the review, one suspects that what many authors (and perhaps some editors) are most interested in, would be the final recommendation - in or out?


That could mean accept, by the way
(Source: tenor.com)


Here, there is a divergence between journals and conferences from my experience, due to their fundamentally distinct natures. For most journals, there is no fixed time limit on the review process, and as such a promising-but-unpolished work can exist indefinitely in a state of "revise-and-review", until all involved are satisfied. Conferences, however, are held on a specified date, and as such there can be no expectation that submissions can be substantially reworked (e.g. with additional experiments); they have to be accepted largely "as-is".

Thus, journals tend to offer the following recommendations:
  • Accept - almost never selected on the initial submission by self-respecting reviewers
  • Minor Revision - basically accept, reserved for the most clear-cut cases (i.e. probably gone through several rejections at higher-tier journals already)
  • Major Revision - the go-to positive/neutral recommendation
  • Reject - well, that sucks

Some journals might provide minor variations (e.g. minor revision with/without further review, revise/reject and resubmit, which some have suggested is meant to boost the journal's turnaround time/rejection rate and thus prestige), but these are the most common four options by far. The thing, however, is that "major revision" probably covers too much ground (it makes up the vast majority of my initial verdicts), because it encompasses everything from "superb paper, just needs a number of necessary clarifications" to "this should probably be rejected, but there's just nothing particularly wrong with it". One supposes that the editors have gotten used to teasing out these finer distinctions from the actual review text.

For the computer science conferences that I'm more familiar with, in contrast, there's simply no time to be pussyfooting about, and reviewers tend to be asked to deliver their judgment on a quantitative scale. One popular formulation goes from 1 (trivial or wrong, will consider not reviewing for the conference again if accepted), to 10 (Top 5% paper, will consider not reviewing again if rejected), which is sometimes zero-centered (i.e. 0 is a neutral judgment, -3 is very bad, +3 is very good; conferences often like to remove the neutral option to force reviewers to take some stand, however small). Generally, these scores are considered together with reviewers' self-assessment of confidence (1: educated guess, 5: absolutely certain), to guide the program committee's decision.

Being the quants that they are, not some few post-hoc analyses have been performed on how these scores affect acceptance decisions, and for all of various organizers' insistence that they consider reviews on their merits and are not bound by scores, evidence suggests that aggregate scores are very predictive of acceptance; which is in itself hardly objectionable, because the review process is meant to be objective, after all. However, experiments with parallel program committees have also suggested that there is also a large amount of noise in the reviewing process. In particular, for one top ML conference, it seems likely that a comfortable majority of submissions could plausibly have been accepted, the corollary of which is that "most (actually accepted) papers... would be rejected if one reran the conference review process".

The response to this observation by more-ambitious researchers appears to have been: simply submit more papers. This makes a lot of sense when one considers that it tends to be far harder to generate a near-guaranteed shoo-in (which might not even be, if one gets a bad reviewer draw), than to crank out multiple merely-competent submissions. This has seemingly become a widespread-enough strategy/concern, that various top A.I. conferences have had to impose a hard limit on the number of submissions that any individual can be a co-author on.


Handling Appeals (i.e. Re-reviews)

Mercifully, it does get easier. For any single paper-under-review, that is. Ideally, the initial review should have covered all major points of contention; for myself, it's kinda bad form to drag a new argument out of nowhere, unless truly critical.

Indeed, particularly for higher-impact venues, it's heartening to find how responsive authors can be, sometimes to the extent of running additional experiments (though they're also usually careful to state that these were added on request, given recent concerns about changing hypotheses/p-hacking [N.B. That said, "happy accidents" and retrospective data mining have been an integral part of scientific discovery, so the lesson here is not to ignore hunches, but to test them properly as an independent hypothesis]). Also, it's not that the authors have to implement all suggestions from all reviewers - which might be impossible anyway, since some might be contradictory; the main thing is to address them, which could be as simple as agreeing that it's a good idea, but might be left for future investigations (of course, depending on the severity of the critique, this may not apply)

For conferences, there is often only a single response/rebuttal possible due to the deadlines, which has birthed specific advice as to how to make the most of it (in particular, try to clear up the biggest misconceptions, target and nudge borderline reviewers, possibly through peer pressure). That said, it's probably best for authors not to expect too much.


The Future Of Academic Publishing

As noted back in 2018 on the open-access "Plan S" (which appears to have been delayed again), even famously-naive ivory-tower academics are slowly coming to realise just how badly they're being ripped off by commercial publishers, who're mainly providing basic formatting and typesetting services nowadays - aside from historical prestige, that goes without saying. Still, even venerable journals (e.g. the BMJ) have shifted to more-transparent reviewing (and thus publication) processes, with open review now the norm for many top-tier computer science conferences. Whether this presages a wholesale shift towards LeCun's "stock exchange system" proposal, where independent reviewing entities can build their own reputation on providing high-quality service, remains to be seen...



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Friday, May 08, 2020 - 22:32 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Yes, Hamster!

The circuit breaker's had me settle into some kind of a peaceful routine: wake up, inspect hamster. before sleep, massage hamster (or he gets cranky and keeps rattling the cage all night long); and then, there were... unforeseen complications.

Mr. Ham: Late again, human. And, why is there junk mail in my home? *waves flier* Isn't there a do-not-advertise list that I can get on? And where's my breakfast?

Me: About that, you might want to take a look.


I've even circled it for you
(Source: straitstimes.com)


Mr. Ham: TCM? What does that have to do with me? McDonald's still shut down, so sad, hairdressers yadda yadd...

...

ahahahahhahaha! Superb joke, human! I didn't know you had it in you! Tell me, how long did you take to create this in Photoshop?

Me: This is from the national paper, they remain pretty authoritative on these kinds of proclamations.

Mr. Ham: No, no, honestly, top effort. But, don't drag it out, then it's not funny anymore.

Me: I'm serious, hamster. We're completely out of sunflower seeds. Lockdown and all that.

Mr. Ham: Say that again.

Me: *pushes papers through cage bars* On the bright side, there is a considerable body of research on the benefits of intermittent fasting on rodent health. Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, extended lifespan... you'll finally get that hot bod you've always wanted! Just four more days! You'll have all the water you need, of course.

Mr. Ham: I will murder you in your sleep, human.

Me: Just as well that I had a spare travel luggage lock left over, eh?

(We shared a foodpanda order)



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Saturday, May 02, 2020 - 23:31 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

AWESOME

It's been an unusually great day - probably a climax of sorts - so what better time for a quick blog update? But before that, some apologetics of sorts.

With the coronavirus trucking along nicely, it has come to my attention that the anti-quarantine protests in Michigan have come down to a number of armed fellows entering the Capitol building, as the state's legislators mused on whether to extend the state of emergency. Personally, that was frankly a very bad and mostly unexcusable look, which was why the usual pro-administration subreddits and forums went out of their way to avoid discussing the intrusion. Frankly, their actions - and those of the few thousand others who gathered outside to support an end to the lockdown - were probably quite irresponsible, especially since masks and proper distancing measures were not consistently adhered to.

However, to play devil's advocate, some points:
  • While extremely ill-advised and very bad optics, the behaviour of the protestors was, as far as I could discern, entirely legal, according to the First Amendment. Moreover, private weapons (but not protest signs) have always been rightfully allowed within the Capitol building, thus no special dispensation or concession was made for these dumbos. Now, I'm not saying that it was wise - but it's entirely within established and recognized rule of state law, and they even had their temperatures checked before entry.

  • Secondly, on the makeup of the protestor group - while, again, recognizing their irresponsibility, it might well be that their membership's rather more diverse than reported, with fringe anti-vaxxers apparently united across party lines, in making their concerns heard; other commonly-spread photographs, such as a supposed swastika, seem to very possibly be literal false flags by elements of uncertain affiliation, held up for brief photo-ops. Well, all's fair in love and war, I guess.

  • Thirdly, it might be noted that the extension of the lockdown was actually declared against the collective intent of the state legislature, roughly the equivalent of a Presidential veto of Congress, at the national level. Now, I'm no expert on Michigan's current situation, but the opinion of the elected legislature might hold some moral, if not medical, legitimacy. This is, as noted in February, both the virtue and failure of a democracy. There's always the PRC method of forcibly locking hysterical citizens in their own houses, definitely, but is going to that extent worth it? I'm not sure.

  • Continuing on the legislature's recommendations, they moreover seem... not entirely insane? In particular, wanting certain, generally more-rural and less-populated regions to have some restrictions lifted early appears to be merely in line with neighbouring states restarting certain parts of their economies before others. Again, I don't pretend to have the full details, but this does at least appear superficially worthy of consideration, particularly as, I imagine, some of them could really do with the income (or a haircut)

But yeah, even considering all of the above, the protestors' actions were still no good, and GEOTUS probably blew it in encouraging them; while similar protests (less the firepower) have been held in over a dozen states, both red and blue, fanning them in Democratic-run states in particular was also uncalled-for - and unnecessary in any case, since his national approval rating's currently at an all-career high anyway.


More Clarifications

Regular readers should have surmised that this blog has consistently maintained a pro-TRUMP vantage point, which I... can't really apologize for. I can hardly blame the other side for casting them as uneducated redneck gun-toting grunts, definitely, but I hope that my exposition above may shed some light on additional perspectives, and there sure as heck are more than enough news outlets selling the opposing view.

I have to admit that I have been pretty trollish on some personalities (e.g. in the Democratic debates roundup), but eh, I figure that these people are politicians who kind of signed up for it. Additionally, as this is a personal blog with an agenda, I again hardly feel bound to present all angles, despite my instinct being to debate my stands on public forums.

And in any case, I certainly don't hate, or even really dislike most of my public-figure roastees - definitely nothing remotely on the level of Klobuchar vs. Buttigieg, anyhow. AOC probably has a long and eventful career ahead of her (I wasn't joking about the consequences of Real Socialism™, though), especially if she continues polishing up on actual politics. Nothing wrong at all with Gillibrand, hopefully Beto finds more fulfilment with a revival of his rock band; Harris has a very good shot at a VP run as forecasted, which will be a huge resume booster for being the actual candidate in the future. Castro remains relatively young and fits a demographic niche; Hopefully Williamson finds more success with her spiritual healing bestsellers, Booker still has a reputation, Yang has many die-hards, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have always been hard strivers, and, like, I can't really feel bad at all for Steyer and Bloomberg, when they can afford to wipe their arses with hundred-dollar bills. Warren will probably retire as a respected elder Senator within her own party, and maybe Gabbard can jump ship, I think she'll be a hit in the GOP.

See, it's really nothing personal; I just think GEOTUS is the man called by the times, is all, atop being a godlike troll - and frankly nothing out of the ordinary in the modern polarized climate. You see, the President of the United States wears the Crown of the World, with very little exaggeration. And heavy is the head that wears the crown. Daily decisions are often of such a form: start a bombing run in Syria, and a hundred Syrians are expected to die today; pull out, and two hundred Kurds are projected to perish. Do nothing? All of them die.

Clearly, the job takes a certain kind of character - which is, at best, very weakly correlated with qualities most people would regard as "virtue" or "kindness". To elaborate, very few have been considered as unimpeachable saints by, say, Reddit - offhand, I can reel off only Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Dolly Parton. They have managed to be universally-liked, by doing only nice things; Mr. Rogers' the friend to all kids; Bob Ross paints only happy trees and landscapes; Dolly Parton simply beams and say wholesome stuff (and has yuge bazoongas, besides). Could you imagine them in the middle of a raging abortion debate, or deciding whether it's the Syrians or the Kurds to perish today? To browbeat the freeloading but oh-so-good-PR Europeans into paying their fair dues? To absorb the inevitable slings and arrows that come with just about every dirty, but absolutely necessary, political judgment?

No, this is my appeal - I have identified TRUMP as America's closest to LKY in spirit on his swearing-in, and I have witnessed next to nothing that would change that assessment, just that TRUMP's the nicer version - yes, he says "Lock Her Up" on the debate stage, and disparages reporters as FAKE NEWS (and, really, not wholly without foundation); Singapore actually had journalists and dissidents locked up. So why not just let the man do his job? FAKE NEWS aside, he's really not bad at it!


Well, That Took Some Time

But back to why the day was great - unless my trusty hamster-senses have abandoned me, I think I have just seen the development of some quite competent strategy, with appropriate research being performed. Suffice to say that I have done things in the past that were, on hindsight, not entirely well-conceived; and I did feel kinda bad about it. Of course, as some of you lot with more colourful life experiences might understand, making amends is not always... straightforward. These things have gotta be done properly to be savoured, like a good steak; they can't be rushed.

Part of proper execution is, of course, the strategy. There has to be some standards here. Unless I have read it wrongly, the first two attempts were kind of abortive (and awkward) false starts, with follow-up badly lacking, despite me trying to fish a little on the second. I can't deny that I'm not an especially patient person, and thus was perhaps a bit too harsh, when the third try finally came. That was... decent, I suppose, but having waited for so long, I was feeling entitled to something bigger and better, something more worthy of the situation. Can't complain about the end result. Now, I wouldn't have done it that way myself, but I'm all for leveraging one's strengths - common sense, right? - and I can respect and appreciate different styles and techniques. It's all good.

Anyway, just a brief unsolicited after-mission review, though it may be slightly forward. Employment of backchannels is an entirely valid tactic, especially if well-prepped, but it also comes with certain limitations and risks (I'll discuss it in Singapore's geopolitical context in due turn). Developing and relying on it too much can bring with it a... reputation, that may not always be vocalized, and collateral damage, that might not be willingly recognized. It can be very effective, but also has a well-earned history of saddening forthright men. Frankly, was there really a need? One might not bow before gods and kings, but I can gladly abase myself before a friend.

While I'm at it, more shameless unsolicited advice, because what the heck. It's definitely true that the climate has likely become more dangerous for Chinese, not just in America, but all over the West (and perhaps even elsewhere), due to the coronavirus matter. Indeed, a commentary in today's State's Times attests that "...a whopping 91 per cent of all Americans see China as a threat of some kind. Even for the most liberal, anti-TRUMP, hope-of-the-future demographic - young people below 30 - fifty per cent have a similar threat assessment. It is not surprising that racist attacks against East Asians have increased dramatically, even in 'liberal' places such as California and New York."

...it kind of sucks that China-China is so monoethnic, I guess, and that nobody either inside or outside pressed them harder for the truth earlier on, and GEOTUS's couple of tweets about a "Chinese virus" probably wasn't helpful here (though it might be noted that the majority-ethnic Chinese Taiwan and Hong Kong have employed similar terminology). Given this, putting some thought into self-defence is only responsible, but one caveat about acquiring a gun is that it kills, which is... kinda a big thing. Many are never quite the same afterwards, before going into whether the jurors would be sympathetic. Some pepper spray might be a useful secondary non-lethal option, though of course practice on the range/in the bathroom would be required. Knowing where to run is possibly even more important, definitely, and if faced with multiple potential assailants, try to identify and take out the ringleader first. Yeah, that covers the most critical basics, I suppose.



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Monday, Apr 20, 2020 - 21:35 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Four Sig Fig

The per-day new caseload breaching the four-figure mark (1,426 to be exact, which is greater than the cumulative total up till around April 9) appears as good a time for a quick update as any, what with premature leaks also seemingly forcing the early release of the daily numbers; there had been a minor hooha over The State's Times inadvertently suggesting that the psychological barrier of 1,000 had been breached last Friday already, before hastily editing their Facebook post. This resulted in the strange sight of The State's Times being POFMA-ed (or Pogba-ed, in rising EDMW slang)

The major silver lining has been the relative lack of cases from the wider community, with the vast majority of affected being foreign workers from dorms, i.e. our own landbound cruise ships/aircraft carriers; the consolation of that has in turn been a belated acknowledgement from the authorities that dormitory standards should be raised, after years of blissfully ignoring the issue. Still, it remains... not great, for those unused to the enforced social isolation, even discounting the Yishun factor.

Quickly skipping on to the international angle, our Second Lady and apparently sometime-CEO of Temasek Holdings appeared to have drawn the ire of Taiwan with a perhaps ill-advised "Errr" response to Taiwan magnanimously donating some masks (granted, some of them were possibly actually ours). There would eventually be an apology to the President of Taiwan, but not before the Taiwanese media knocked her supposedly earning close to S$100 million annually despite Our Most Successful Investment Firm's extensively-documented losses - and CCS in passing - because what's the Singapore government's gonna do, Pogba them?

Anyhow, they did Pogba the S$100 million salary assertion in the local controlled press, though in an essentially meaningless clarification which left open the possibility that it could even be greater than that sum. Netizens were left musing whether this was really the spirit in which Pogba should be used (personally, his optimal role isn't playing defense), and voicing concerns over why the CEO of the national foreign beneficiary donation fund (with an endowment of over S$300 billion, officially at least) is literally making hundreds of Facebook posts a day, with a posting style described as "somewhere between unemployed boomer and weaponized bot". To her credit, some of her straight talk was appreciated, but one wonders whether it might be wise to stick to approved platitudes for a bit.


You, too, have been Pogba-ed!


All the above remains very small potatoes, however, compared to how we may be left stranded on the wrong side of the line, as the upcoming Cold War II international realignment settles. Our official position appears to still be on the side of the WHO, despite other longtime U.S. allies such as Japan and France gradually mirroring GEOTUS's condemnatory stance on the WHO's evident institutional rot. Japan is, of course, already funding their firms' relocation out of China, Canada's rethinking their relationship too, and the coronavirus has possibly done to Huawei's 5G ambitions in Britain and elsewhere, what American pressure alone couldn't.

Fortunately, it appears that we're likely still on the good side of GEOTUS, much credit to The New Paper doing the mature thing and thanking him for his (or our own President's, sama sama lah) intelligent and well thought-out coronavirus guidelines, because a little courtesy never hurt anyone (and I'm more than half-serious here; personally, the White House definitely recognizes all that sniping about "leadership", only - in the timeless words of Rhett Butler - they frankly just don't give a damn). The State's Times, usually less astute, has also adjusted their attitude somewhat. Our foreign ministry can now also boast of a thirteen-country pledge to maintain global links; as with all such agreements, however, enforcement's the tricky part, and the list of absentees might be kinda telling.

Returning to Huawei's possible 5G exit from the U.K., it seems that the local populace has gotten a headstart there, with dozens of 5G masts set on fire throughout the nation already. Yes, this in particular belongs to the set of dumbass coronavirus conspiracy theories, but for all of The State's Times latest piece against them, many such unfairly-maligned theories have proven pretty plausible.

Like, what can one say when China's revised Wuhan numbers increased exactly 50.0% from their previous figure, rounded up to the nearest integer, or when Turkey's case-to-death ratio stays at 0.021 for nine days? Then again, this could be the work of a brave functionary trying to send the signal that, look, I can't tell the truth, I got kids, please understand - but don't trust these numbers. Likewise, sure antivax is dangerous, but is going along with Bill Gates' proposal to mass-embed digital vaccine certification through microchip implants [N.B. that bit's probably unsubstantiated] (with self-indemnity, and with patent number 060606, no less) really beyond all reproach, as the NYT would sidestep? Epstein didn't kill himself, but I don't hear them revisiting that.

And to end off, some recommended reading material on some historical perspectives of epidemics: Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold, starring the nigh-unflappable Eldest of the Endless; that, and the most dramatic hamster vid I've come across in a long while, alongside DeepSqueak, a possible breakthrough in human-rodent communications.



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