Où est Lafayette?

For want of a photo-op for the President, the U.S. Attorney General ordered the forceful clearing of Lafayette Square last night ahead of curfew. This was all apparently so the President could awkwardly clutch a Bible and stand in front of a church. [1] Setting aside all the obvious things that are wrong with this (which have been well-covered in today’s commentary), I have been reflecting on the sickness of doing this in Lafayette Square.

Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, Gilbert du Motier, the square honors this foreign hero of the American Revolution. Lafayette commanded troops in the Revolutionary War, was wounded at least once and nonetheless managed an orderly evacuation of his troops, and became fast and lifelong friends with the founders of this nation, including George Washington. He had a rich and complex life, one which became interwoven with some of the most famous American abolitionists; the subtle disgrace of the atrocity committed in his square last evening was to affront his legacy on the liberation of slaves.

Lafayette opposed slavery. For example, in addition to speaking to the new Congress on the subject, he personally encouraged Washington (without strong effect, it seems) to find models in his own life, and for the nation, that allowed the new Republic to abandon slave-holding as a practice. Part of me wonders, if they had found a courageous way to follow his wisdom so early in the Republic, if the systemic horrors inherent in policing (with its clear and ingrained biases against people of color[2]) might be very different today. But history is too complicated for such simple wishes.

Nonetheless, last evening’s gassing and assaulting of peaceful citizens gathered in Lafayette Square, at a church, in protest to the horrors of systemic racism is disgraceful. It disrespects the disenfranchised Americans protesting an unjust system. It disrespects the right of citizenry to gather in public and peaceably demonstrate. And in addition to all these awful things, it is disrespectful to the memory and progressive vision of Lafayette himself, who would not live to see the Civil War, nor the real beginning of the emancipation he so eagerly and vocally encouraged.

21:02 June 2, 2020: This post was updated to indicate that U.S. Attorney General William Barr is reported [3] to have personally ordered the clearing of Lafayette Square. That said, I am a firm believer in the addage “The buck stops here,” referring to the office of the President… even if the President does not.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/inside-the-push-to-tear-gas-protesters-ahead-of-a-trump-photo-op/2020/06/01/4b0f7b50-a46c-11ea-bb20-ebf0921f3bbd_story.html

[2] For a single example, one of countless, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/minneapolis-struggled-with-police-violence-and-adopted-reforms-and-yet-george-floyd-is-still-dead/2020/05/29/fe3ba110-a1e0-11ea-9590-1858a893bd59_story.html and especially note the ACLU study that found that African Americans, despite making up a fifth of the population of Minneapolis, were 8.7 times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses.

[3] https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500736-barr-personally-ordered-law-enforcement-to-push-back-lafayette-square

Scenes from Collin County, TX

One of my daily activities in the last 20 days (or so) has been to scoop up the COVID-19 case and death data for my county from the Texas Department of Health’s (DSHS) information center [1]. I’m not an epidemiologist; I’m a physicist. I’m not trying to make predictions; I’m making observations, assuming the data from DSHS is accurate (given under-testing and under-reporting, it’s most likely a suppressed count on both cases and deaths, but I can’t correct for that).

COVID-19 reported cases (black) and deaths (red) in Collin County, TX. Data taken from the Texas Department of Health and visualized using open-source tools (Python, Matplotlib, Seaborn, SciPy,NumPy). The green arrow indicates the date on which Collin County imposed social distancing requirements on individuals, but deemed all businesses as “essential” and allowed all to remain open. It was on March 31 (cyan arrow) that this part of the order was rescinded, and businesses were no longer all deemed “essential.”

Collin County began social distancing on March 24, 2020. At the time, we were in the middle of what would become the first major phase of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases in our County. The first case was reported to DSHS 37 days ago; by March 24 (19 days after the first case), our county had about 35 cases. At that time, the doubling time for cases was about 2 days. If we had remained on that climb, which presumably represents a doubling-time scenario before social controls over spread, then…

  • By March 26, 2 days later, we would have had 70 cases;
  • By March 28, 4 days later, we would have had 140 cases;
  • By March 31, 6 days later, we would have had 280 cases;
  • By April 2, 8 days later, we would have had 560 cases;

You get the idea. By today, 38 days after the first reported case, if you run the math we would have had almost 9700 cases. Let that sink in. If the trend that emerged between about March 19 and March 27 (inclusive) had persisted, we would be approaching something in the neighborhood of 10,000 cases alone in Collin County right now.

(Of course, the exact numbers should not be taken strictly literally; there is statistical error on each count, and in addition to that there is an unknown systematic error from under-recording of cases – likely, the above are underestimates, and so can be considered a best-case situation.)

The rapid increase in cases is the direct result of how unchecked diseases spread: exponential growth. However, about one week after social distancing measures went into effect in the county, the doubling rate slowed. Instead of doubling every 2 days, we entered a period (where we still are now) where the doubling rate changed to 7.5 days. It lengthened (a good thing!) by just over a factor of 3. That change in slope began around March 28.

What this meant was that as of April 10, instead of the almost 9700 cases we might have had on the old doubling trend (when we were doing no appreciable social distancing), we instead have reached only 400 cases using limited social distances (businesses were finally not all deemed “essential” on March 31, and we should be expect to see the effects of that in the next weeks).

Social distancing is working. The data backs this up, even in a segment of America like Collin County. But we have not peaked. We have not peaked. We’ve slowed the spread, but we have no stalled nor reversed it. This is no time for complacency.

We are in a world war. The actors are not nations, the prizes are not borders. Every place is vulnerable. The prize is living through this without succumbing to a nasty virus. Every new infection is a victory for the virus. Every person who avoids the virus is a victory for humanity.

We humans are both the soldiers and the battlefield. Each of us is the weapon and the target. Right now, the best medical tactic is to hunker down in our trenches, spread out, and try not to be easy pickings for the respiratory bombs deployed by the Coronavirus.

But we need an offensive plan. We need a coordinated strategy. We need a team of generals to fight a war on multiple fronts: developing tactical weapons against the enemy (vaccines, anti-viral drugs), developing new defensive strategies (deployments of medical equipment), and developing strategic campaigns to cut the enemy off from its supply of resources (e.g. rapid testing, contact tracing, and targeted quarantine).

But we have no leaders. Not really. So for now, we soldiers must run the fight. For us, that means we hunker down in our trenches, isolated and in modest safety. It is a safety threatened if we are suddenly ordered by the loud lunatics to “charge!” without weapons, without armor, without a strategy.

Keep distancing and carry on.


[1] https://dshs.texas.gov/news/updates.shtm#coronavirus

As Expected: Science Suffocation Proposals Continued/Expanded

As expected, and nicely summarized by the American Institute of Physics:

President Trump’s latest budget request largely repeats past proposals to sharply reduce funding for non-defense R&D programs across the federal government. However, it includes a stronger emphasis on research tied to the administration’s “Industries of the Future” focus areas, especially artificial intelligence and quantum information science.
— Read on www.aip.org/fyi/2020/trump-seeks-familiar-science-cuts-favors-‘future’-industries

Contempt for Science and Health in the FY2021 Budget Proposal

The Washington Post article below [1] is a nice summary of what is currently digested from the executive branch’s FY2021 federal budget proposal. That dropped yesterday. Specifically regarding agencies that fund basic, curiosity-driven science, these excerpts are indicative of the pattern of proposed effects:

The Energy Department would get a boost in funding for safeguarding the nuclear weapons stockpile, a core mission, but outside that program would see a 28.7 percent cut, including more than 1 billion cut from its $7 billion science program.

Zeroed out in the Trump budget is funding for a new space telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which is entering its construction phase. WFIRST would scrutinize planets orbiting distant stars and study the distribution of galaxies in an attempt to better understand the evolution of the universe. It remains a priority of the astronomy community and has survived two previous attempts by the administration to kill its funding.

Under the request, the National Science Foundation’s budget would shrink from $8.3 billion in 2020 to $7.7 billion in 2021, a cut of about 7 percent. The NSF funds basic research through grants to a wide variety of scientists and plays a major role in funneling money to programs that might not normally receive investment from the private sector. The Trump budget reduction would return NSF’s budget to close to the level it was in 2017.

(from Ref. 1)

The typical pattern in the proposal follows past efforts: fund defense and applied science, starve basic research, decapitate environmental science.

The proposal is likely dead on arrival, as have been past proposals from this president. It matters now what Congress decides to actually do to allocate the budget, especially since the president’s budget does not attempt to reign in the federal spending deficit in event the next decade.

[1] www.washingtonpost.com/science/trump-budget-cuts-funding-for-health-science-environment-agencies/2020/02/10/9c8dd784-4c2d-11ea-b721-9f4cdc90bc1c_story.html