## A Video Guide to Understanding Covid-19 without Freaking Out

It’s a complicated time, and we’re all emotionally worn out.

Here at emptywheel we’ve covered the current pandemic’s scientific side in some depth. (see Jim White’s look at the origin of the virus, Rayne has done several very good updates on the science, politics, and misinformation,
and I’ve gone into the mechanisms of the disease and how it compares to other pandemics )

But we haven’t done as much for the overtaxed, overwhelmed reader who just wants some pretty pictures and gentle talking heads to make Covid-19 make sense. Even those of you who voraciously keep up with Marcy’s intricate political  and media analyses might like to give the emotional roller coaster a break, and still feel like you have some frickin’ idea what is going on.

##### The Modeling

Nothing is more calming yet informative than 3Blue1Brown’s soothing and surprisingly clear explanation of epidemic models. This 3Blue1Brown explainer uses SIR, a mathematical modeling system for epidemics. While simplified, it can give you a sense for how more complicated models work, and why policies like social distancing and contact tracing are important and effective.

SIR stands for:
S = the number of susceptible individuals
I = the number of infected individuals
R = the number of removed individuals (removed here means no longer infectious, and includes both immune and deceased.)

3Blue1Brown is also one of the most pleasant-to-watch Youtubers of all time. Even when you don’t have any clue about the math he’s describing, it all comes together and you feel smarter by the end. “It’s the mental equivalent of ice-skating,” my daughter says, “You’re a little bit worried about falling over, but it’s nice.”

The smartypants at minutephysics and Aatish Bhatia teamed up to visualize the progress of Covid-19 cases around the world. They use a visualization with a logarithmic map of total cases versus new cases to clearly show both how similar the track of the disease is, and what it looks like for a geographical area to get a handle on the spread. This video explains how it works, and here is the site where you can watch the model play with current data.
##### But why did this happen?

The why us and why now question is lurking in the back of everyone’s mind, and SciShow comes through on it. SciShow has a long and storied history of well-researched and approachable science education, and their video tackling the zoonotic source of Covid-19 (and other viruses) in bats keeps in the tradition. Bats have evolved different approaches to having a mammalian immune system, which makes them better at handling some of the viruses and worse at handling other pathogens we can overcome easily — this is why their viruses can be so rough on us. We have a lot to learn from them, but we should probably stop disturbing their habitats if we don’t want to keep catching novel viruses from them.

##### The Medicine

If you’ve heard a lot of terms and you don’t know what they mean, Dr. Hope’s Sick Notes goes through 26 of them with clear and non-technical definitions. Dr. Hope is an NHS doctor who teaches and works in an English emergency department as well as a YouTuber. (His ongoing Covid-19 vlog is great, but more stress inducing than the videos featured here.) He gives easy explanations of complicated concepts with handwritten flashcards, a nice soft focus, and some comforting quiet background music. At the end he hands it over to Dr. Sonia, an anesthesiologist at the same hospital, defining some of the more hardcore technical terms we’ve been hearing in the media, but with equal calming friendliness.

Dr. Sonia appears in our next video as well, as an avid AFOL (Adult Fan of Lego). Dr. Hope and Dr. Sonia discuss how the ICU and ventilation really work, demonstrating with a detailed Lego model built by Dr. Sonia in her day off. It goes over all of the scary terms and procedures and why and how they’re used, but with Lego, so it’s fine. My daughter confirmed this too.

There’s a lot of questions about immunity, herd immunity, and the potential for re-infection, and a lot of misunderstanding about what any of those terms mean. Dr. Seema Yasmin breaks it down on a spectrum from life-long immunity to HIV (The worst). Where and how Covid-19 might fit into this is yet to be found, but she lays down the situation and puts it in context.

##### And Finally, Something of Less Value

Watching night shows, comedy news, and Youtubers adapt to filming inside their houses has been some hits and a lot of misses, but there’s a few amazing hits. These aren’t so much information about Covid-19 as a few gems life in quarantine has generated. Relax, it’s what everyone’s therapist is suggesting we do.

Stephen Colbert interviewing fellow Daily Show alumnus John Oliver is somehow both unbearable and ten minutes of comedy gold. I wish all late night interviews could be like this, but I also think that would kill me.

Kate McKinnon takes to a spare bedroom to reprise her role as Barbara DeDrew, trying to get you to adopt a cat, any cat, all the cats, from Whiskers R We.

Last but not least: what would you say to yourself, if you could travel back to January?

Please feel free to add your own calming and informative, or just funny contributions in the comments, BUT NO STRESS INDUCERS!!!11!!!!!

Um, am I doing this right?

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Thanks to H.alhajji for the featured image.

## The Outdated Math and Physics Behind Economics

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, Katrine Marçal traces the roots of mainstream economics and particularly neoliberalism. One of the strands she discusses is the the connection between economics and Newtonian physics. Newton believed that the universe was made up of fundamental particles. To understand complex physical things, you have to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces until you hit the unit of everything, the Lego blocks from which the universe is constructed: the atom and the photon (Newton thought the photon was a particle). From there you can work towards an understanding of the cosmos.

Particles are governed by forces. For Newton, the important force was gravity. The ultimate particle and the ultimate force can be used to explain a lot of the physical phenomena which we can observe with simple tools. Newton’s theory is deterministic: the future is predictable because particles only move in accordance with rigid laws.

In economics, the atom is the individual. The force that sets those atoms into motion is self-interest.

I’ve made passing reference to this before, but Marçal’s book brings it to the forefront. Most of the time when we hear about the history of economics after Smith, we hear about the math stuff, frequently starting with the idea of marginal utility generated by William Stanley Jevons around 1870. Jevons was a mathematician, who set out to create equations for the calculus of pleasure and pain as described by Jeremy Bentham. The subsequent history of economics can be read as a long math exercise using mostly calculus, and linear algebra (matrices) for modeling.

The thing is, math was just being formalized in the 1800s. Riemann completed the formalization of the calculus in 1854 (here’s an interesting history.) Other areas of math were being developed and formalized at that time, and development continues today, with, for example, fractal math. So maybe a good question is why economists stick with 19th Century math. Can’t they find something new that might work better than the obviously lousy models they use today that were incapable of predicting the Great Crash? I mean, how could anyone think it makes sense to model human beings as a large number of identical particles that only interact in monetary transactions and are otherwise unaffected by each other; and all of which are subject only the force of self-interest?

But just as math has advanced, so has physics. One of the changes is that physicists aren’t searching for ultimate particles any more; in fact as we currently understand things, we aren’t even sure the things studied are in some particular place. Physicists now study the relationships between various kinds of forces. They describe elementary particles by the forces through which they interact which in turn are defined in math terms, and terms that are a lot further from calculus than calculus is from addition. The relationships are mediated through the Schrödinger equation; It describes our observation small numbers of what we think today are elementary particles, but it is too hard to solve it for any large group of particles.

But in economics, nothing is complicated. It’s just individuals motivated by self-interest. And that’s a remarkably stupid thing. Has nothing changed in the last 150 years? Is linear algebra, which we learned in my junior year in high school, all these guys have learned from math and physics?

To put this another way, if economists were just cranking up their discipline today, with no theory of our current form of economy, they certainly would not use 19th C. math and physics as models. Would they use 18th C. markets in England and Scotland as their model? Of course not.

Fortunately I’m here to help. I’m happy to let economists continue the work of defining and collecting economic statistics, but it’s time to look for a more plausible theory. And as a starting place, I’ll put up a couple of posts with ideas for a new theory for the 21st C. No need to thank me. Which they won’t.