New SARS-CoV-2 variant 2020-12-20T21:22:54.711Z
My prediction for Covid-19 2020-05-31T23:25:17.814Z


Comment by themajor on Covid 1/14: To Launch a Thousand Shipments · 2021-01-14T20:39:55.988Z · LW · GW

To the best of my knowledge there are four evil inaccurate but not-completely-moronic reasons for sticking with a 2-dose vaccination plan. Just to be clear: none of these arguments convincingly suggest that 2-dose will be a better method to combat the pandemic.

  1. Many officials may be convinced that "no Proper Scientific Procedure has investigated this" is identical to "there is no knowledge". In non-pandemic times, if you squint juuust right, this looks like a cost-benefit analysis of delaying medical research versus endorsing crackpot pharmaceutics. I find it more than plausible that many people (and certainly most bureaucracies) are not capable of adjusting this argument to a pandemic. In their defense, you have to be somewhat of an expert in the field to make the cost-benefit assessment on a case-by-case basis (even though it is obvious in this case).
  2. Are there legal/reputational risks to publicly supporting 1-dose vaccines before the Medical Establishment has given it a seal of approval? This would explain why nobody blinked now that they are the norm - people were simply waiting for some agency to accept the blame if in hindsight it turned out to be a mistake.
  3. 80% is noticeably lower than 95%, so you can expect about 4 times as many thrillseekers to take the vaccine, go to the local mall, lick every object they can find and come down with something terrible. It could even be COVID. This is awful for public perception of the vaccine. Or, taking less of an extreme, people might risk-compensate to the point where 2x80% is not as much better than 1x95% as naive math might suggest (although I fail to see how it could ever close the gap. People aren't compensating that much.... right?).
  4. At certain points during the distribution it is conceivable that increasing the immunity in a particularly vulnerable subgroup of the population from 80% to 95% might have a higher impact (on the death toll, medical systems, you name it) than increasing the immunity of an arbitrary selected subgroup of the remainder of the population from 0% to 80%. This chance is bigger if you instituted some messed up prioritization on your subgroups in the first place (see: everywhere).

Anyway, the case for 1-dose is overwhelming. I just wanted to point out how otherwise intelligent people might get this question so incredibly wrong, seeing as I've run into shades of all four of these arguments in the past.

Comment by themajor on Covid 1/7: The Fire of a Thousand Suns · 2021-01-07T22:41:27.090Z · LW · GW

Oh, it’s so much worse than that. What happens when the central planner combines threats to those who don’t distribute all the vaccine doses they get, with other threats to those who let someone ‘jump the line’? Care to solve for the equilibrium? 

You conclude that vaccination facilities will reduce their orders so they are guaranteed to be able to distribute all. I think in practice it is much easier to cook the books and/or destroy vaccines as necessary.

More pressingly, this is the first mention I've run into of the potential seriousness of the South African variant. But (perhaps for the first time since February) it really seems to be the case that "more data is needed before we can make an informed judgment on this"?

Comment by themajor on Collider bias as a cognitive blindspot? · 2020-12-31T13:56:39.494Z · LW · GW

There has been previous discussion about this on LessWrong. In particular, this is precisely the focus of Why the tails come apart, if I'm not mistaken.

If I remember correctly that very post caused a brief investigation into an alleged negative correlation between chess ability and IQ, conditioning on very high chess ability (top 50 or something). Unfortunately I don't remember the conclusion.

Edit: and now I see Mo Nastri already pointed this out. Oops.

Comment by themajor on New SARS-CoV-2 variant · 2020-12-28T08:36:19.766Z · LW · GW

Your point on alternative hypotheses is well taken, I only mentioned the superspreader one since that was considered the main possibility for strong relative growth of one variant over another without increased infectiousness. Could you expand on the likelihood of any of these being true/link to discussion on them?

Comment by themajor on My Model of the New COVID Strain and US Response · 2020-12-27T18:33:45.745Z · LW · GW

I also thought this, but was told this was not the case (without sources though). If you are right then the scaling assumption is probably close to accurate. I tried briefly looking for more information on this but found it too complicated to judge (for example, papers summarizing contact tracing results in order to determine the relative importance of superspreader events are too complicated for me to undo their selection effects - in particular the ones I saw limited to confirmed cases, or sometimes even confirmed cases with known source).

EDIT: if I check microCOVID for example, they state that the chance of catching it during a 1 hour dinner with another person who has been confirmed to have COVID is probably between 0.2% and 20%, The relevant event risks for group spread (as opposed to personal risk evaluations) are conditional on at least one person present having COVID. So is this interval a small chance or a large chance? I wouldn't be surprised if ~10% is significantly high that the linearity assumption becomes questionable, and a 1 hour dinner is far from the most risky event people are participating in.

Comment by themajor on My Model of the New COVID Strain and US Response · 2020-12-27T16:31:03.355Z · LW · GW

I agree that this means particular interactions would have a larger risk increase than the 70% cited (again, or whatever average you believe in).

In the 24-minute video in Zvi's weekly summary Vincent Racaniello makes the same point (along with many other good points), with the important additional fact that he is an expert (as far as I can tell?). The problem is that this leaves us in the market for an alternative explanation of the UK data, both their absolute increase in cases as well as the relative growth of this particular variant as a fraction of all sequenced COVID samples. There are multiple possible but unlikely explanations, such as superspreaders, 'mild' superspreaders along with a 'mild' increase in infectiousness, or even downright inflated numbers due to mistakes or political motives. To me all of these sound implausible, but if the biological prior on a mutation causing such extreme differences is sufficiently low they might still be likely a postiori explanations.

I commented something similar on Zvi's summary, but I don't know how to link to comments on posts. It has a few more links motivating the above.

Comment by themajor on My Model of the New COVID Strain and US Response · 2020-12-27T09:59:43.499Z · LW · GW

I had a long discussion on this very topic, and wanted to share my thoughts somewhere. So why not here.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on any of this.

The scaling assumption (if the new strain has an R of 1.7 when the old one has an R of 1, then we need countermeasures pulling the old one down to 0.6 to get the new one to 0.6 * 1.7 = 1) is almost certainly too pessimistic an estimate, but I have no clue by how much. A lot of high risk events (going to a concert, partying with 10+ people in a closed room for an entire night, having a multiple hour Christmas dinner with the entire family) will become less than linearly more risky. I interpreted the "70%" (after some initial confusion) to represent an increase in risk per event or unit time of exposure. But if you are sharing the same air with possibly contagious people for a long period of time your risk is all the way on the saturated end of the geometric distribution, and it simply can't go above 100%. So high risk events will likely stay high risk events.

At the same time, I expect a lot of medium and low risk events to become almost proportionally more risky. This includes events like having one or two people over for dinner while keeping the room properly ventilated, going to supermarkets, going to the office and using public transport. Something that has been bugging me is that the increase in R-value has been deduced from the actual increased rate at which it spreads, so it is simply not possible that every activity has less than 70% (or whatever number you believe in) increased risk, since that is apparently the population average under the UK lockdown level 2 conditions. So some of this nonlinearity has already been factored in, making it very difficult to say what stronger lockdowns would mean.

In conclusion, I think it is possible that even if the new variant is 70% more transmissible that lockdown conditions that would have pushed the old strain down to 0.7 or only 0.8 might be sufficient to contain this new strain, and of course if the new strain is less transmissible than this we have even more leeway. At the same time I have absolutely no clue how to get a reliable estimate of the "old R needed".

Comment by themajor on Covid 12/24: We’re F***ed, It’s Over · 2020-12-26T13:44:20.056Z · LW · GW

My father sent me this video (24 min) that makes the case for all of this being mostly a nothingburger. Or, to be more precise, he says he has only low confidence instead of moderate confidence that the new strain is substantially more infectious, which therefore means don’t be concerned. Which is odd, since even low confidence in something this impactful should be a big deal! It points to the whole ‘nothing’s real until it is proven or at least until it is the default outcome’ philosophy that many people effectively use.

I think this is a great video, it explained a lot of things very clearly. I'm not a biologist/epidemologist/etc., and this video was very clear and helpful. In particular the strong prior "a handful of mutations typically does not lead to massive changes in reproduction rate" is a valuable insight that makes a lot of sense.

That being said, the main arguments against this new strain variant being a large risk seem to be:

  • The prior mentioned above.
  • The fact that current estimates of increased transmission rates are based on PCR testing, which does not identify variants.
  • The possibility of alternative explanations for the increase in nationwide infections in the UK, which have not been sufficiently ruled out (in particular superspreaders).
  • I think he is claiming that the NERVTAG meeting minutes are drawing a causal link between the lower ct value of this variant on PCR tests and its increased transmissibility, and that this is an uncertain inference to draw.

However, personally I think the strongest case for the increased transmissibility of this new variant comes not from indirect evidence as presented above, but from the direct observation of exponential growth in the relative number of cases over multiple weeks/months. See for example the ECDC threat assesment brief or the PHE technical briefing. These seem to strongly imply that, while being agnostic about the mechanism, this new variant is spreading very rapidly. So all things considered the linked video makes me update only very weakly towards a lower probability of this new variant being massively transmissible - a good explanation for growth shown in both reports is still missing if it is not inherently more transmissible.

Comment by themajor on What evidence will tell us about the new strain? How are you updating? · 2020-12-26T12:06:29.507Z · LW · GW

Good point, I'm likely misinterpreting nextstrain website then.

Comment by themajor on What evidence will tell us about the new strain? How are you updating? · 2020-12-26T11:05:03.121Z · LW · GW

I can answer this one, or more specifically the PHE can. The tl; dr of this technical briefing is that the new strain tests positive on two assays (N, ORF1ab) and negative on a third (S), and that up to some noise this is currently the only strain to do so. So the number of PCR tests that are both S-negative and COVID-positive is a good indication of the spread of the new strain, without the need for genome sequencing. This document makes this argument precise, and then produces a painful graph on page 8 showing the 'S dropout' proportion at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse lab (Buckinghamshire). Mid December they show a proportion of over 60%.

This has led to me to update towards the new variant being as aggressive as previously feared, because unlike genome sequencing PCR test data does not lag several weeks behind. Combined with the fact that genome sequencing is done sporadically at best (if I understand correctly, nextstrain data explains the UK has sequenced 85 samples since September, with neighbouring countries showing similar numbers) I think it may already be more widely spread/beyond containment in a lot of European countries. Edit: Oskar Mathiasen gives a difference source with incompatible numbers, I am no longer confident in this point.

I also share shminux' fears that this more aggressive strain may be difficult to contain with just the measures we have taken so far.

Comment by themajor on New SARS-CoV-2 variant · 2020-12-22T11:07:11.225Z · LW · GW

I've been trying to understand this discussion (and I agree that this is one of the central questions for the model of how things will progress from here, in particular if March-style lockdowns will be sufficient or not to halt the spread of this strain). But now I'm mainly confused - isn't such a dramatic increase in Rt incompatible with the slower increase in the graph, as pointed out by CellBioGuy?


Edit: I've read yesterday's PHE investigation report, and they do explicitly confirm it is an increase of over +0.5 to the Rt under the conditions in England in weeks 44-49 of this year. So this seems like the bad possible interpretation, where it really does spread significantly more.

Comment by themajor on It turns out that group meetings are mostly a terrible way to make decisions · 2020-12-19T11:44:54.782Z · LW · GW

I certainly expect status games, above and beyond power games. Actually saying 'power games' was the wrong choice of words in my comment. Thank you for pointing this out!

That being said, I don't think the situation you describe is fully accurate. You describe group meetings as an arena for status (in the office), whereas I think instead they are primarily a tool for forcing cooperation. The social aspect still dominates the decision making aspect*, but the meeting is positive sum in that it can unify a group into acting towards a certain solution, even if that is not the best solution available.


*I think this is the main reason so many people are confused by the alleged inefficiency of meetings. If you have a difficult problem and no good candidate solutions it is in my experience basically never optimal to ask a group of people at once and hope they collectively solve it. Recognizing that this is at best a side-effect of group meetings cleared up a lot of confusion for me.

Comment by themajor on It turns out that group meetings are mostly a terrible way to make decisions · 2020-12-17T22:16:56.861Z · LW · GW

I'm gonna pull a Hanson here. What makes you think group meetings are about decision making?


I think the primary goal of many group meetings is not to find a solution to a difficult problem, but to force everybody in the meeting to publicly commit to the action that is decided on. This both cuts off the opportunity for future complaining and disobedience ('You should have brought that up in the meeting!') and spreads the blame if the idea doesn't work ('Well, we voted on it/discussed it'). Getting to the most effective solutions to your problems is secondary to achieving cooperation within the office.

Most group meetings are power games. Their main purpose is to, forcibly or not, create long-term cooperation by the people in the meeting. This is why they are often 'dull', or 'long', or 'ineffective' - the very cost you incur by attending is a signal of your loyalty and commitment. Trying to change this would make meetings less effective, not more effective.

Comment by themajor on How long does it take to become Gaussian? · 2020-12-08T20:32:11.871Z · LW · GW

Why not the Total Variation norm? KS distance is also a good candidate.

Comment by themajor on Covid 12/3: Land of Confusion · 2020-12-04T07:45:17.801Z · LW · GW

I usually just hope the Twitter links aren't that important/interesting.

Comment by themajor on How We Failed COVID-19 · 2020-12-03T17:33:45.868Z · LW · GW

I think your early analysis is accurate, but connecting this to 'reliable information sources about COVID' is completely off the mark. I don't know how to explain properly why I think this is so completely wrong - or at least, not without delving into a few-month sequence based on the material of The 1-minute version goes something like:

There are many possible steps that all need to go right before appropriate collective action is taken to combat a national or global threat. This is especially true if we have shared responsibility, and even more so if the most promising countermeasures involve social changes (i.e. changes in the daily lives of a significant portion of the population). One of these steps is 'having access to proper information about the virus'. A few others are 'having access to rallying points for collective social action', 'willingness to make these social changes, instead of accepting the loss in life and health, in the first place', and I'm sure there are many others. I am not at all convinced that knowledge about the virus is the bottleneck in this process (in fact, I think it is the easiest step of them all). In my opinion the gap between not having accurate information and having accurate information is much much smaller than the gap between having accurate information and collectively acting on it.

Lastly, I think blaming lack of social action on lack of knowledge is a common mistake (maybe even politically motivated tool), and I thank Lou Keep linked above for their wonderful explanation of this point.

Comment by themajor on Rationalist Town Hall: Pandemic Edition · 2020-10-23T08:13:58.491Z · LW · GW

I am not able to make it because of a one-off other appointment (a flight, actually). So I don't think this is very informative for the sake of planning. Usually my Sundays are unclaimed.

Comment by themajor on Rationalist Town Hall: Pandemic Edition · 2020-10-22T08:00:47.534Z · LW · GW

I really would have loved to attend, but won't be able to make it at that time. Will you (with permission of the participants, I imagine) record the meeting, or maybe write some possibly anonymised summary of the discussion after?

Comment by themajor on Rationality and Climate Change · 2020-10-06T08:19:48.086Z · LW · GW

I definitely agree that there is a bias in this community for technological solutions over policy solutions. However, I don't think that this bias is the deciding factor for judging 'trying to induce policy solutions on climate change' to not be cost-effective. You (and others) already said it best: climate change is far more widely recognised than other topics, with a lot of people already contributing. This topic is quite heavily politicized, and it is very difficult to distinguish "I think this policy would, despite the high costs, be a great benefit to humanity as a whole" from "Go go climate change team! This is a serious issue! Look at me being serious!".

Which reminds me: I think the standard counter-argument to applying the "low probability, high impact" argument to political situations applies: how can you be sure that you're backing the right side, or that your call to action won't be met with an equal call to opposite action by your political opponents? I'm not that eager to have an in-depth discussion on this in the comments here (especially since we don't actually have a policy proposal or a method to implement it), but one of the main reasons I am hesitant about policy proposals is the significant chance for large negative externalities, and the strong motivation of the proposers to downplay those.

Emiya said cost-effectiveness will be treated extensively, and I am extremely eager to read the full post. As I said above, if there is a cost-effective way for me to combat climate change this would jump to (near) the top of my priorities instantly.

Comment by themajor on Rationality and Climate Change · 2020-10-05T14:08:05.152Z · LW · GW

I completely agree, and would like to add that I personally draw a clear line between "the importance of climate change" and "the importance of me working on/worrying about climate change". All the arguments and evidence I've seen so far suggest solutions that are technological, social(/legal), or some combination of both. I have very little influence on any of these, and they are certainly not my comparative advantage.

If OP has a scheme where my time can be leveraged to have a large (or, at least, more than likely cost-effective) impact on climate change then this scheme would instantly be near the top of my priorities. But as it stands my main options are mostly symbolic.

As an aside, and also to engage with lincoln's points, I am highly sceptical of proposed solutions that require overhauls in policy and public attitude. These may or may not be the way forward, but my personal ability to tip the scales on these matters are slim to none. Wishing for societal change to suit any plans is just that, a wish.

Comment by themajor on Covid 10/1: The Long Haul · 2020-10-02T07:21:59.840Z · LW · GW

You want to incentivise people to get positive COVID tests? Ballsy.

On a more serious note, I doubt anybody would be interested in enforcing this. Diners are going out of business due to COVID restrictions, and for many restaurant owners the choice between going out of business or looking the other way when people ask to be seated is clear. Furthermore the goal of all this is to keep the number of people who have contracted COVID as low as possible, your proposed 'fix' would only allow a small minority to work/participate.

Comment by themajor on Covid 9/17: It’s Worse · 2020-09-19T07:31:12.131Z · LW · GW

I think Hanlon's razor applies here. Thank you for sharing the 5k/day, I will make a serious effort to obtain similar doses.

Comment by themajor on Covid 9/17: It’s Worse · 2020-09-18T07:47:54.633Z · LW · GW

For reference, what dose are you thinking of? Here in EU-land I can only get 5ug (200 IU) supplements easily.

Comment by themajor on What's Wrong with Social Science and How to Fix It: Reflections After Reading 2578 Papers · 2020-09-15T07:00:24.856Z · LW · GW

Certainly, but it's not malicious in the sense of deliberately citing bad science. More like negligence.

Comment by themajor on What's Wrong with Social Science and How to Fix It: Reflections After Reading 2578 Papers · 2020-09-13T13:48:37.798Z · LW · GW

I think there is an important (and obvious) third alternative to the two options presented at the end (of the snippet, rather early in the full piece), namely that many scientists are not very interested in the truth value of the papers they cite. This is neither malice nor stupidity. There is simply no mechanism to punish scientists who cite bad science (and it is not clear there should be, in my opinion). If a paper passes the initial hurdle of peer review it is officially Good Enough to be cited as well, even if it is later retracted (or, put differently, "I'm not responsible for the mistakes the people I cited make, the review committee should have caught it!").

Comment by themajor on New Paper on Herd Immunity Thresholds · 2020-07-31T16:46:38.151Z · LW · GW

It would if those neighbourhoods are very homogeneous in terms of connectivity. Why would their (in)homogeneity be similar to European countries?

Comment by themajor on The Goldbach conjecture is probably correct; so was Fermat's last theorem · 2020-07-15T08:40:51.168Z · LW · GW

Since a+b = b+a shouldn't the total number of 'different sums' be half of what you give? Fortunately the rest of the argument works completely analogously.

Comment by themajor on The Goldbach conjecture is probably correct; so was Fermat's last theorem · 2020-07-15T08:36:30.939Z · LW · GW

How does the randomness of the digits imply that the statement cannot be proven? Superficially the quote seems to use two different notions of randomness, namely "we cannot detect any patterns" (i.e. a pure random generator is the best predictor we have) and "we have shown that there can be no patterns" (i.e. we have shown no other predictor can do any better). Is this a known result from Ergodic Theory?

Comment by themajor on My prediction for Covid-19 · 2020-06-04T07:30:57.150Z · LW · GW

I'm happy to hear that some of these changes have been unexpectedly positive for you! Personally I already did a bunch of these things (shop for one week's worth at a time, have days working from home, order online). To offer a bit of a peek at the flip side: I work in mathematics, which is uniquely suited for working at home (there's a modern joke that to do mathematics all you need is pen, paper, a bottle of water and a supercomputer), yet 2 of the 11 colleagues in my group have suffered burnouts since March from the added stress of having to look after their households. We are considering going back to 20% office capacity soon in staggered shifts, which while nice still means we won't have a chance to talk or work together in practice. Obviously this is exactly the point, but I want to note that this is a far cry from normal. My productivity at the moment is at an all time low, and several of my other friends have already heard that if this situation continues for much longer they will be let go from their jobs. In this sense I think this is unsustainable, or at the very least a serious hit to our global growth and productivity.

I have absolutely no quantitative guess what the impact of superspreaders is, and it would be amazing if we could stop them quickly. I think Zvi also pointed out that superspreaders get eliminated quickly in a pandemic, one way or another (and 'having the disease, surviving and then becoming immune' counts as the other).

I thought that the current spread of Covid-19 in warmer countries (Brazil, India) was evidence against the virus being very susceptible to temperatures, but there are a lot of confounders. If you know of any good summary of the current knowledge on this please let me know, I am very interested in this (and it would likely change my predictions massively).

Comment by themajor on My prediction for Covid-19 · 2020-06-03T09:37:01.166Z · LW · GW

Thank you for your comment. I don't think we disagree - Slovakia (and other European countries) have done extremely well by acting quickly. I also fully support washing hands, wearing face masks and being smart about social contact. I think you are responding to my sentence

[...] this suggests to me that 'The Dance' will look a lot more like 'a full quarantine, but with a few restrictions lifted' than like 'restoring social contact, but wash your hands and wear a face mask'.

I'm sorry for the confusion. The situation you describe sounds more like my scenario 3 than my scenario 2, and I think I explained poorly where I draw the line in my quoted statement above. Going by wikipedia, the most recent round of relaxations in Slovakia still sounds far from life as normal to me. The maximum occupancy set at shops is up to 1 person per 15 square meters, which is 25% of what it is in normal times. I imagine similar concerns apply to offices, but I can't find how many people are back to working at the office. The opening of schools happened only this Monday, so it really is too early to tell what the impact of that will be. Zvi voices some concerns.

Lastly, my entire goal was to try and talk about relative impact, and give perspective to the magnitude of the measures we can expect going forwards. I don't see where I have mistakenly given absolute statements on effectiveness of measures (in fact I only mentioned face masks once, without making any statement for or against them in the OP), but if you point them out I would be happy to change them.

Comment by themajor on My prediction for Covid-19 · 2020-06-01T13:04:01.115Z · LW · GW

I agree completely. However, I think the amount it has gone up is critical here. A lot of the countermeasures and increased preparation are linear countermeasures against an exponential threat - maybe a region that could previously only handle 1000 ICU patients can now take care of 2000, but if R0 is significantly above 1 (lets say 1.5) this only buys you about one and a half week. I think this topic deserves its own entire post at some point, and I didn't want to get bogged down in details in the section on "What doesn't change", but if the true rule is "if under X circumstances in March it was smart to go into lockdown, it is November smart to go into lockdown 2 weeks after seeing X" my conclusions are still the same.

I might write that full post sometime on this and more back-and-forth, if people are interested. I made serious concessions to brevity above.

Comment by themajor on My prediction for Covid-19 · 2020-06-01T09:03:32.958Z · LW · GW

Thank you for your comment! I'd like to briefly clarify that I don't consider the "lockdown versus kill the people" question a dilemma - I'm not trying to propose policy, just attempting to make realistic predictions for the next few months.

I think going for the approach you suggest ('option 2') is unrealistic in most western countries, and that the countries where this strategy worked had unique circumstances that worked in their favour.

As gbear605 points out, it is a lot more difficult to revert to this strategy when the disease is endemic, compared to when the number of active cases is in the several hundreds. In the post I link to an estimate of 1.1 million active cases of Covid-19 in the US today. One of the bigger weak links in the non-quarantine approach is that, when people test positive for cold/flu symptoms, there needs to be some plan or support in place to thoroughly isolate them for up to two weeks. At lower numbers this can plausibly handled by hospitals or nursing homes (which has been a big part of South Korea's method), but at up to a million cases this is unrealistic. In effect this would be akin to a lockdown with some extra steps.

Another advantage that South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore (as far as I know the biggest success stories of this method) had is that they are geographically isolated. I imagine this cuts down on the threat of re-infection from outside the country, and also why it is so much more difficult to prevent Covid-19 from becoming endemic in the US.

Widespread screening for elevated temperatures and cold/flu symptoms sounds like a very clever (and cost-effective!) method to combat the virus, if we also have a plan ready for people who test positive. But I don't think it can be the success story in western countries that it is in some Asian countries. We either missed our window and let Covid-19 grow too much, or we never had a window to begin with.

As for your later two points, I believe I addressed those in the original post. I think bringing R0 down to around 1 and keeping it there is prohibitively taxing, in multiple ways, and that even slight relaxation of our response will already have severe consequences. We should be thinking on the R0 scale, which runs from about 0.7 to about 2.5-3. Also I explicitly mention that I am fine with leaving the level at which we achieve herd immunity open for debate (I give 20% as a somewhat lower bound, based on estimates that this exposure level has already been reached in NYC).

Comment by themajor on Covid-19: My Current Model · 2020-05-31T20:38:56.417Z · LW · GW

Excellent post, thank you for writing this! I’ve been meaning to write up something similar, about my opinion on the public response to COVID-19 and a few future predictions. I think this comment section is a perfect place for this, and I’ll write my own thoughts as a response to yours. My experiences are not based on the situation in the USA.

As a disclaimer, my predictions are among the most pessimistic of all the ones I’m seeing people discuss. Consider it the bottom pit of the Overton window. Having expectations that COVID-19 will be worse than people are thinking so far can and does have negative effects on your mental health, so be careful (and stop reading). I’d love to be proven wrong.

Risks Follow Power Laws

Amazingly written, I did not give this enough thought. I should stop doing my own grocery shopping, and have it delivered instead.

Sacrifices To The Gods Are Demanded Everywhere

I agree fully. Your steelman hits quite close to the mark in my opinion. I want to add that if everybody has internalised that ‘pleasing the Gods’ is the way to respond (to anything, really), then this actually becomes the correct way for authorities to write guidelines – anything else will just add another layer of translation.

Governments Most Places Are Lying Liars With No Ability To Plan or Physically Reason. They Can’t Even Stop Interfering and Killing People


Silence is Golden

I am completely unsure on the relative importance of this, compared to other risk factors. How much of the spread are you willing to attribute to this? Have there been studies on this?

Surfaces Are Mostly Harmless

I have been keeping all packages that arrived in a sealed plastic bag for 24 hours before opening (like a Good Boy), I guess that was stupid. Reading this paragraph changed my mind.

Food Is Mostly Harmless

Yeah, this all makes sense.

Outdoor Activity Is Relatively Harmless

As does this.

Masks Are Effective, And Even Cloth Ones Are Almost Enough

I totally disagree with this. Where are the numbers coming from? I consider cloth masks closer to a Sacrifice to the Gods than a real countermeasure.

Six Feet Is An Arbitrary Number, People Aren’t Treating It That Way, And That’s Terrible

You have this one completely backwards. People really really are not able to make risk assessments and benefit analyses. This world you describe, where the rule is taken as a best point estimate, and people interpret the ‘6 feet’ as anything else than a Boolean yes/no question, was never going to happen. I consider the current public awareness of the importance of keeping distance an amazing improvement on the status quo before this rule went public. You mention this (as the opening sentence, in fact). I disagree with any suggestion that we could plausibly do better collectively.

Herd Immunity Comes Well Before 75% Infected and Partial Herd Immunity Is Super Valuable

This is a very good point, but can you explain the numbers you give below? I have no intuition on what typical spread in personal infection risk is (sure, the range is large, but we also need the frequencies with which these high risks are taken).

Yes, We Know People Who Have Been Infected Are Immune

I agree fully.

Our Lack of Experimentation Is Still Completely Insane


We Should Be Spending Vastly More on Vaccines, Testing and Other Medical Solutions

I agree here, except with the last line. With all the regression to the mean the current medical system is experiencing, it is totally unclear to me how we would plausibly create a vaccine on a short (“a few months”) timescales.

R0 Under American-Style Lockdown Conditions Defaults To Just Under One, Which New York Escaped Via Partial Herd Immunity

Another great observation, and I’ll reply in more detail in a separate post..

The Default Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) Is 0.5%-1%, Depending on Conditions

There has been discussion of this on LessWrong before, and I agree.

Typically in America, 33% of Deaths and 90% of Infections Are Missed

This sounds like the correct order of magnitude for both, and also agrees with my estimates for the under-reporting in the official numbers where I live.

People Don’t Modify Behavior In Response To Re-Openings All That Much, When Given a Choice

This title is a very important (positive) remark, because it suggests (contrary to what I personally believe) that it might be possible to resume a lot of activities almost as normal while maintaining R0<1. I agree that the situation for schools is uniquely bad, and unfortunately I can tell you from personal experience this is one of the places completely infected with making Sacrifices to the Gods. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s Out of Our Hands

When was this window for people in authority? Looking back I honestly think we were never capable of dodging this disaster (our society isn’t adequate at the level of saving people during a pandemic).

Comment by themajor on Corrigibility as outside view · 2020-05-09T16:15:26.574Z · LW · GW

Both outside view reasoning and corrigibility use the outcome of our own utility calculation/mental effort as input for making a decision, instead of output. Perhaps this should be interpreted as taking some gods-eye-view of the agent and their surroundings. When I invoke the outside view, I really am asking "in the past, in situations where my brain said X would happen, what really happened?". Looking at it like this I think not invoking the outside view is a weird form of duality, where we (willingly) ignore the fact that historically my brain has disproportionately suggested X in situations where Y actually happened. Of course in a world with ideal reasoners (or at least, where I am an ideal reasoner) the outside view will agree with the output of my mental progress.

To me this feels different (though still similar or possibly related, but not the same) to the corrigibility examples. Here the difference between corrigible or incorrigible is not a matter of expected future outcomes, but is decided by uncertainty about the desirability of the outcomes (in particular, the AI having false confidence that some bad future is actually good). We want our untrained AI to think "My real goal, no matter what I'm currently explicitly programmed to do, is to satisfy what the researchers around me want, which includes complying if they want to change my code." To me this sounds different than the outside view, where I 'merely' had to accept that for an ideal reasoner the outside view will produce the same conclusion as my inside view, so any differences between them are interesting facts about my own mental models and can be used to improve my ability to reason.

That being said, I am not sure the difference between uncertainty around future events and uncertainty about desirability of future states is something fundamental. Maybe the concept of probutility bridges this gap - I am positing that corrigibility and outside view reason on different levels, but as long as agents applying the outside view in a sufficiently thorough way are corrigible (or the other way around) the difference may not be physical.

Comment by themajor on Is this viable physics? · 2020-04-14T20:38:11.729Z · LW · GW

I've tried to read through the linked page, and swapped to `academic reading' (checking the pictures, and sometimes the first and last line of paragraphs) halfway through. I think this is not viable.

There is a host of "theories of the universe" with a similar structure on a meta-level, consisting of some kind of emergent complexity. It is important to keep in mind the strength of a theory lies in what it forbids, not in what it permits. To date most theories of the universe fail this test hard, by being so vague and nonspecific that any scientific concept can be pattern-matched to some aspect of it. Judging by what I've read so far this is no exception (and in fact, I suspect that the reason Wolfram references so many big scientific theories is because large concepts are easier to pattern-match, whereas specific predictions are not as open to interpretation). Why will his patterns produce Einstein's equations (note that they currently do no such thing, he states we first need to "find the right universe"), and not Newton's, or Einstein's with double the speed of light?

As always with these nonspecific `theories' it is very difficult to nail down one specific weakness. But currently all I'm seeing are red flags. I predict serious media attention and possibly some relevant discoveries in physics (some of the paragraphs sounded better than all other crackpot theories I've seen), but the majority of it seems wrong/worthless.

Comment by themajor on Coronavirus: Justified Key Insights Thread · 2020-04-14T20:09:16.887Z · LW · GW

I don't have a good model to give me any predictions on what reasonable numbers of asymptomatic cases would be, or how truncation influences these numbers. Could you explain why the inference is idiotic, and perhaps give a more reasonable one?

Comment by themajor on Coronavirus: Justified Key Insights Thread · 2020-04-14T19:24:44.839Z · LW · GW

Is there reason to believe the raw numbers are more accurate estimate of the rate than the model prediction? Also, what are the type-1 and type-2 errors of the tests used on the Diamond Princess? I heard some early reports that both of these might be significant, but then never heard anything about them again.

I checked that link above and followed their references to find other datasets, but two of them are in Japanese, one only deals with self-selected patients who showed symptoms, and the last two have small sample size (12 patients, two papers cover the same event).

Update: I have found, which benchmarks the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCT) tests. They state zero false positives in a trial with 297 non-COVID-19 samples, although they do retest 4 samples that showed "weak initial reactivity". Since the non real-time version of RT-PCT is supposed to be even more reliable, this means false positives are presumably not a big deal (even at a pessimistic 4/297 false positive this still means only 41 false positives out of 3063 tests done on the Diamond Princess).

Comment by themajor on Where should LessWrong go on COVID? · 2020-04-14T08:17:53.155Z · LW · GW

I think it is still very unclear what the situation a medium (~a few months) to long (~a year) amount of time from now will be like. I would love to see more discussion on this. On a related note, I think mental health and self-help are going to very important very soon, and while I am in a fine place personally I would still like to know a lot more about this, including how to help others. This strays a little bit from the other COVID discussion topics, but I do think LessWrong might have a comparative advantage here (especially compared to the crapshoot baseline that is the internet).

Comment by themajor on Coronavirus: Justified Key Insights Thread · 2020-04-14T07:49:14.051Z · LW · GW

Have you got a source for that 'about half the cases are asymptomatic'? I was under the impression that far more cases show symptoms eventually, and that the studies showing half of the infections are asymptomatic add the disclaimer 'so far', which means very little if the spread is growing exponentially with a doubling time of several days.

Comment by themajor on How strong is the evidence for hydroxychloroquine? · 2020-04-08T17:34:03.568Z · LW · GW

Thanks for sharing! I'm not a doctor, so I found this a tough read. This document is clearly a proposal (attempting to convince the reader) instead of a summary, but it still contains a lot of useful information. Nevertheless, there were some parts I found especially confusing.

On page 2 they mention there are currently 22 studies, of which one has completed, on the effect of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) treatment on COVID-19 patients. Further down in the piece (in particular in the section "What about the studies that show no benefit from HCQ?" on page 11) they dismiss some studies showing little or no effect. Is there a place to find more discussion on which studies are being discounted, and for what reason? They link one study only, citing that "only 400mg daily for 5 days was used", although the suggested treatment in this document is "HCQ: 6.5-15mg/kg PO in divided loading dose followed by 400-800mg/day in divided doses for 4-9 days" (which encompasses 400mg daily for 5 days).

The recommended treatment is a combination treatment with four different components - an initial oral hydroxychloroquine administration and a daily treatment of hydroxychloroquine and two other medicines (zinc and Azithromycin). Furthermore the document states that this treatment is expected to work a lot better in early stages of the disease (this part is also unclear to me - again on page 11 they state that "[some studies] waited to initiate treatment until the disease was too far progressed to be effective" as grounds for dismissal). Does this mean this treatment is expected to have next to no effect in late stages? I'm worried about Bonferfoni-esque situations here; are 21 incomplete and 1 complete study strong enough to motivate this complicated treatment, especially if we allow ourselves to discount some papers with conflicting conclusions as well as restrict the time period over which the treatment is supposed to be effective?

Comment by themajor on How strong is the evidence for hydroxychloroquine? · 2020-04-06T08:42:29.978Z · LW · GW

I am very interested in discussion on hydroxychloroquine, but do not have a Facebook. Is there some other way to read the megathread?

Comment by themajor on A Kernel of Truth: Insights from 'A Friendly Approach to Functional Analysis' · 2020-04-04T09:16:35.445Z · LW · GW

Very nice! Two mistakes though:

  • Technically the introductory part on derivatives on is incorrect, in two different ways.
    • Firstly the derivative of a map is a map , that assigns to every point x a linear map sending direction y to a real value (namely the partial derivative of f at x in direction y). Thankfully the space of linear maps from to is isometrically isomorphic to through the inner product, recovering the expression you gave. Similarly the derivative of a map is a map .
    • Secondly technically the domain of any derivative like the one above is not the vector space we are working with, but the set of directions at point x. This notion is formalised in Manifold theory and called the tangent space. Thankfully for any finite-dimenional vector space the tangent space at any point is canonically isomorphic to the vector space itself (any vector is a direction, that's what they were invented for). In infinite dimensions this still holds just fine except for the small detail that the notions of manifold and tangent space don't exist there. The same distinction is necessary in the range. So truly, formally, the derivative of a map is a map , with and similarly , with the condition that is simply on the first coordinate. This coincides with the map above: for every we get a linear map
    • The above may seem very confusing for , since I claim that the derivative in that case is a map instead of simply a real-valued function. This is resolved by noting that each linear map from to can be represented with a number, similar to the top bullet point above (the inner product on is just multiplication). I think lecturers are quite justified in not exploring the details of this when first introducing derivatives or partial derivatives, but unfortunately in possibly infinite-dimensional abstract vector spaces the distinctions are necessary, if only to avoid type errors.
  • In the definition of the partial derivative of M at f with respect to g (so with a range inside a vector space Y) we do not take the norm or absolute value of that expression, it should be the straight up limit . The claim that the limit exists does depend on the topology of Y and therefore on the norm, though.

Also there are a lot of discontinuous linear maps out there. A textbook example is considering the vector space of polynomials interpreted as functions on the closed interval , equipped with supremum norm. The derivative map is not continuous, and you can verify this directly by searching for a sequence of functions that converges to 0 whose image does not converge to 0.

Comment by themajor on A Kernel of Truth: Insights from 'A Friendly Approach to Functional Analysis' · 2020-04-04T08:54:17.816Z · LW · GW

Personally I did the exact opposite, and found that very refreshing. Whenever I ran into a snippet of applied functional analysis without knowing the formal background it just confused me.

Comment by themajor on What are the best online tools for meetups and meetings? · 2020-03-28T22:44:43.130Z · LW · GW

I have a bit of a negative answer, in the sense that I don't know what to recommend. A lot of people in my life (colleagues, friends, family) want to stay in touch (and I with them), but each person seems to have their own preferences about software, or at least sufficiently many subgroups of them do that no single tool will suffice. At this point I honestly think that it's not so much the quality of the tool, but more who are already using it, which determines which software is best. If you and your friends all used to meet on Minecraft every Tuesday, then that is probably the ideal way to keep doing things.

As of yet I'm using Skype, WhatsApp (+WhatsApp Web), personal email, two work emails, two Discord clients (one in browser, one as an app, with separate accounts), my phone, two Slack workspaces, weekly Zoom group meetings, Google Talk, MS Teams and the occasional Jitsi call. This is crazy, but all of them are sufficiently low traffic that I don't really mind.

All of them work fine, I do have mild personal preferences (for Slack, Discord and my phone over all the others) but like I said above it's far more relevant to stay in touch at all than to do it with the right tool.

Comment by themajor on The Hammer and the Dance · 2020-03-22T22:19:20.822Z · LW · GW

I have no idea what you mean, sorry.

Comment by themajor on The Hammer and the Dance · 2020-03-22T10:05:44.432Z · LW · GW

I am quite underwhelmed by this article. The first half neatly summarizes some statistics and plans that have been proposed, and the potential impact of these. I like this a lot, and the strong line (further down in the article)

If you’re a politician and you see that one option is to let hundreds of thousands or millions of people die with a mitigation strategy and the other is to stop the economy for five months before going through the same peak of cases and deaths, these don’t sound like compelling options.

accurately summarizes my feelings on the measures I've seen so far.

However, almost immediately after the first half the article changes tone dramatically, and I feel uncomfortable with most of the remainder. The entire argument hinges on being able to control 'the Dance'. Personally I think there is little to no chance of this working, due to the sheer amount of public cooperation and government coordination required for the measures you suggest. I'm willing to dismiss the examples of South Korea and Singapore as unique circumstances that do not readily apply to a lot of western countries (for example Singapore is tightly confined geographically and implemented their measures very early), an argument which is presented and immediately dismissed in the article without elaboration.

I would love to see a more quantitative analysis of what this dance would look like in a western country. The article states that the impact of contact tracing, travel restrictions, big crowds and plausibly other measures are vastly understated - what is the quantitative impact of these? After the excellent introduction I was expecting an equally high level summary of this new strategy, but instead it was only motivated by analogy and rhetoric.

Comment by themajor on Meetups in the era of COVID-19 · 2020-03-16T08:02:27.025Z · LW · GW

Yes, the bullet point list is for Discord. I only tried Jitsi for an hour or two, but the quality of the call was horrible and the session crashed when a second person joined (so really I could just see my own face, pixellated). When I tried to download the Ubuntu client I got dpkg errors and a failed installation. Maybe Jitsi is actually great(?), but I'm not very tempted to try again without outside help.

Comment by themajor on Meetups in the era of COVID-19 · 2020-03-15T18:07:27.760Z · LW · GW

I've been looking into ways of staying in touch with people while in quarantine, in particular Skype, Discord, Slack and now recently also Jitsi. Personally I have to unfortunately keep using all because of confusing Venn diagrams and people who are not tech savvy, but if you have the option to choose I recommend Discord over all the alternatives:

  • I think it works on all these operating systems, I can personally confirm Linux, Windows and Android. I did have some sound quality issues with voice conference calls on Android, but I doubt any competing software does better.
  • You all need to download the client to have video calls. You can have group voice calls and text messaging in-browser. [EDIT: for clarification, if some but not all of you have a client, those last few will not be able to send video. I don't know if they can still watch other people's video, they can definitely just join as a voice call.]
  • Regardless of the choice above you do need to make an account.
  • The quality is very decent. Setting the right sensitivity setting for your own microphone can be a bit finicky (the 'automatic' option is not always great). Other than that I have no complaints.
  • If the organiser leaves everybody can continue (in fact, people can spontaneously make more events provided the organiser has set these permissions). The way I've been holding events with Discord there's really more of a 'moderator' (with the permissions to kick people form the server) than an 'organiser', although in practice these are often the same person.
  • Yes, there is text chat. Split in channels at your own desire, with option to link to other channels/specific messages and more. You can also have text channels and voice channels open simultaneously, These are open at all times, completely independent of the voice channels.
Comment by themajor on Why would panic during this coronavirus pandemic be a bad thing? · 2020-03-09T08:27:36.300Z · LW · GW
However, my impression is that if P(>10% of the population is infected) is reasonably high — say, >25% — then the cost to the economy would be tremendous, and it would be worth paying a huge cost right now to avoid that possibility.

Are there any explicit approaches you're thinking of that can be taken? Truth be told I don't see how we would realistically stave off this scenario, other than the harsh quarantine measures that worked in China. This is (as far as I can tell) a main part of why so many people here are freaking out - we're headed straight for this scenario and governments are not seeing the smoke. As an example, consider Italy to see the lack of preparedness to take action (closing off a massive region now because it's too late to contain the Corona locally, 366 deaths total so far, leaked documents on containment causing people to move out of containment areas before containment set in).

For those questions you proceed to pose, my thought is that you have to just make your best guess and go with it. Best guesses may not be perfect, but I would expect them to be solid. In other words, none of those questions seem difficult enough where it would stop us in our tracks.

I totally disagree. I think "someone's best guess and go with it" is going to be horribly mismatched with what we actually want from stores and supplies, and will be actively harmful. I don't really know how to explain this in more detail, but I do not think most governments are adequate at the level needed to supply a whole country in an emergency.

I thought the CDC researches and plans for all of these scenarios? Isn't that their entire purpose? (Sorry for the sass; it isn't aimed at you :))

No problem ;). I don't know much about the CDC in particular, but I am currently seeing rather varying responses from health officials globally. This is one of the weaker points in my fears though, maybe our health officials have been preparing for an event like this outbreak for a long time, and have entire flow charts and calling lists and plans ready. I rather doubt it though, considering how (at least for me locally) they've been described as overwhelmed, and it's taking them rather longer to respond than I expected. Also I think most of these health officials have other tasks than specifically targeting novel epidemics, such as fighting the seasonal flu, informing the public and dealing with more 'mundane' but far more commonly occurring disease outbreaks. I would love to be wrong here.

20$/50$ per person for a corona test

I think this is simply naive. First of all, there is (again) a huge difference between one test bought for yourself, and purchasing tests for everybody in a country. My limited experience with healthcare systems and bureaucracy suggests that the cost goes up from the increased scale, instead of down. Plus, there are huge costs you're not including here. People need to administer the test (you think the public can do that individually? Maybe some can, but most? No way), they need to be distributed, and proper action needs to be taken afterwards on positive results. These tests first need to be checked for quality (do you happen to know the rate of type-1 and type-2 errors of that test you mention?), and we need a good way to deal with the millions of false positives that would come out of such a plan. All of this needs to be organised in as transparent and accountable a manner as possible, which is difficult and expensive. I think you're easily looking at costs an order of magnitude above your estimate (so $100B+ for the USA, based on your number), and plausibly way more.

Plus, even if this would be economically beneficial, you still need someone to step up (ideally right now, instead of in three weeks) and say "The estimated costs are through the roof, let's take a certain hit of billions of dollars now to prevent a potential loss of way more in the future.". This is a very risky gamble, both from an economic point of view but also unfortunately as a career move. Also keep in mind the eventual costs to the economy are wide-spread, but the costs from triggering such a plan are highly localised.

Comment by themajor on Why would panic during this coronavirus pandemic be a bad thing? · 2020-03-08T22:43:16.526Z · LW · GW
Do you mind elaborating on that?

Of course, although I do run into the problem that to me most of this is self-evident, which makes it hard to motivate. But I'll try to explain some of these claims in more detail.

  • Declaring a national emergency is a huge cost for a country in general and a government in particular. I think the best way to look at this is that the converse state, "everything is fine please continue operating as normal", is a very profitable and desirable state, and you're destroying that. At the very least this can disrupt economies and production chains, but also public trust (between members of the public, the public and industry, the public and government, the industry and industry, etc.)
  • Regulating supplies and stores is hard. How do you decide how much goes where, which stores need to stay open and which can close, how much to downsize your public transport and community spaces and services? How much extra money is this all allowed to cost? Below you mention to steve2152 that workers will keep working if you just increase their salary, but who pays for this (which department/ministry/bill in particular)? How high are the salaries supposed to be? How do new findings on the spread of the disease impact each of your answers, what are your tipping points for swapping to a globally different approach? Do you even have people at the right level of the chain of command to suggest these ideas (to be honest I've never heard of governments paying workers extra during national crisis to keep them working, outside of cleanup of nuclear meltdowns). On top of this I think governments have very little experience with epidemics like the one we are facing (globally) today. Like I said I think this is very hard, and if there wasn't any particular reason for my government to sort all of this out beforehand, I expect them to not have this sorted out at all.
  • (On testing the literal whole country) I don't know about the global situation, but at least where I live I know we're not doing door to door screening (in fact, general practitioners over here are already overburdened right now, with only the paranoid fraction of the population asking for tests. Which, mind you, are currently being denied unless the doctor deems it reasonably likely to give a positive result). I think the idea of "Eventually we'd be able to test the whole country" is an extremely weak link in any public health plan, and simply is too ambitious to work.
  • Providing food and healthcare packages is also a massive coordination and transportation problem. Out of all the points I mentioned this might actually be doable(?), but it would still require massive resources (the food/medical supplies themselves, trucks, workers distributing them, people filling the packages, and even people planning what should or shouldn't be in these packages, people coordinating internationally?). On top of that this plan incurs all the costs of the 'national emergency'. Plus it's not even clear to me how giving everybody a food and healthcare box will fix the epidemic, it sounds more like a stopgap measure to me (isolation in combination with this would be the real solution, but telling entire regions to self-quarantine is again incredibly expensive).
Would it be such a bad thing if it took weeks? I would think that most people have enough food and hygiene products to last weeks. And for those that don't, I would expect most of those people to have family, friends or neighbors who would share. And if that all fails, I would think the government would be able to provide some sort of early before the more official support that would come later.

I think the relevant scale to compare this on is not "life or death", but "normal life, just trying to save up for a nice vacation/new car/future expenses". The actual death rate of corona is not that high (I'm avoiding numbers on purpose, because I have no idea about the number of asymptomatic infections), and I expect most people to make it through this just fine on the scale of life to death. But I also expect entire stores and businesses to lose out on major profits, big events to be cancelled, supply chains to be closed off. This is a massive opportunity cost we are paying (in fact, some of my friends are already worried that the corona-recession might get them laid off). In a lot of instances it's even a real cost, not an opportunity cost, because people have already committed resources to society continuing to function as normal.