Sunday, November 22, 2020

Masks and COVID-19

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about wearing masks, so let's talk about them!

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The first thing to mention is the conflicting information on masks. In Febuary and March, the guidance was to not use masks of any kind, to save them for the medical community. The reasoning was two fold. First of all, the medical community then had, and continues to have, a severe shortage in N95 masks. These are the only kind of masks that can filter virus sized particles with any kind of large success. As we continued to understand better, the advice was changed to encourage wearing masks all the time, be them cloth or otherwise. That continues to be the suggestion. That change of guidance has lead to considerable confusion, so let's clear that up now.

COVID-19 is transmitted primarily breathing water droplets that contain virus particles from a person who is infected. These water droplets are much larger than virus. This makes it much easier to to be absorbed by some kind of a mask. What changed primarily, at least at first, is that control over COVID-19 was lost. People frequently were contageous without showing symptoms. Thus, everyone could be considered potentially contageous. Wearing a mask, therefore, changed from being about protecting the wearer from getting disease to help keep others from getting sick, when you might be sick and don't know it yet.

Wearing a mask to prevent the spread of disease is nothing new. For years, if you arrive in a doctor's office and are sick and coughing or sneezing, they have requested that you wear a mask. This helps prevent you from spreading the disease you have. The fact that so many people have had COVID-19 and not even known it lead for a request to be made for everyone to wear masks when in public.

Mask wearing works by absorbing the droplets of water before they leave the vicinity of one's mouth. They very effectively will catch all of the spit droplets when one sneezes, for instance, and also work well for coughs and just when speaking. It turns out that stopping an air borne virus isn't required, just catching these droplets of mostly water will do just fine. This helps keep one from spreading the disease. Cloth masks work fine for this purpose. The latest studies show that their use is 90% effective against transmitting the disease, and about 50% effective against receiving it. In other works, everyone wearing a mask works as well as a low end vaccine!

For the record, every state, Republican or Democrat, either requires or requests that one wears a mask when in close proximity to others. In fact, as of now, every single state either requires the use of a mask when in public or at least recommends it. While President Trump has often been dismisive of wearing a mask, and was not photographed in public wearing one for 3 months after the recommendation was posted, face masks have been passed out at his political rallys, and at least at the entrance people were encouraged to wear them. The last two holdouts were South Dakota and Iowa, but even they are now recommending their use.

How effective is actually wearing a mask? Let's look at some data to compare. To do this let's compare similar states where one has a mask requirement, and one does not. Note that I chose these states without looking before infection rates, to show you what they are really like. The pairs, listed by mask required/ not required are Alabama/ Mississippi, Colorado/ Utah, Kentucky/ Tenessee, and Kansas/ Nebraska. To adjust for the sizes, I am going to use per capita numbers. I am using their total rates according to

Let's start out with those not requiring masks. Mississippi is #12, Utah #6, Tenessee #10, and Nebraska #5. For those requiring masks, Alabama #15, Colorado is #32, Kentucky #30, and Kansas #17. In every instance, when compared to a nearby state, the state with the mask requirement has a lower rate of infections per capita. These states should be quite comparable as a whole, similar size of cities, mostly similar politics, the main difference is one requires wearing a mask in public, the other does not. Let's look at the raw numbers then from these states. The mask wearing ones have a per capita infection rate of 41049 per million, while the non-mask wearing has an average of 52915 per million. The death rate for mask wearing is 519 per million, while for non-mask is 644.

The bottom line is, wearing masks saves lives. I know, they are uncomfortable, trust me, I have to wear one every day, as I am required to go in to work and am required to wear a mask. But wearing a mask really does save lives. If these numbers hold true, as many as 50,000 US deaths or more could have been saved if everyone would simply wear a mask when in public.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

How has President Trump really handled COVID-19?

It is pretty widely stated that President Trump has done a horrible job of managing COVID-19. Let's look in to how truthful that statement. As I usually do, we will talk about the actions coming out of the White House contrasted with what President Trump did via Twitter and other direct outreach efforts.

Let's start looking way back. COVID-19 was discussed about as a very harmful disease in China. For most of the month of January, it was only a concern to those who had been in China recently. The CDC began to start screening passengers coming from China on January 17, only 3 weks after the disease became publicly known. At that time, President Trump was informed of the disease, but was not particularly interested in it.

The CDC, under their own guidance, developed a test for the disease, but it was found to be defective, causing delays. Only the most likely cases were tested, primarily those who had either been to Wuhan, China, where it first was noticed, or had close contact with someone who had.

The White House did formally announce a Coronavirus Task Force at the end of January. The primary concern then was to get US citizens home from China safely, and keeping travelors out of the US. In fact, shortly thereafter, they began to restrict people from entering the US who had been in China, the first such restriction in 50 years in the US. The US was the 7th country to have such restrictions, but was not the first by about a week.

To this point, while somewhat typical of Trump to be dismissive, the response coming from the CDC and the White House seems to be quite reasonable. During the month of Febuary, the biggest concern was the possibility of a lack of Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks and glove and other such things, as China was then in a state of lockdown, and manufactures much of those goods. President Trump requested funds on Feb 5 to help secure such equipment, but it took over a month before the funding was authorized. During this time period, President Trump continued with a pattern seen during much of his Presidency. The official actions coming out of the White House were much the right thing, but he was extremely dismissive of it publicly. This may have contributed to the delay in funding, as so many people were dismissive, despite the White House knowing full well it had serious damage potential early in the month.

The bottom line is, 3 major issues plagued the US in the early days of COVID-19. The first was a lack of a good test, which I have not seen, but was primarily a CDC issue. The second was the lack of funding for personal protective gear. The last was related to the first, because tests could not be done quickly enough, the disease escaped in to the community. COVID-19 genuinely didn't seem as bad in the US as other countries in those days. In my opinion, except for these issues, it seems like it was relatively well managed.

As a preemptive action, many states began issuing restrictions in early March. Mid-March, the first formal guidance came out of the White House, restricting gatherings of more than 50 people Shortly thereafter, that number was decreased to 10. This was perhaps a week or so late, but was very much the right thing to do.

Another item of note is Operation Warp Speed, a greatly accelerated vaccine program. In my opinion, this is the single best thing that President Trump has done to combat COVID-19. This program works with private labs to help them work faster, including in many instances pre-ordering potential candidates even before Phase 3 trials had been complete. In the very early days, Bill Gates was talking about doing this, however, it seems he stepped aside after the US started to fund these efforts directly. It seems like Operation Warp Speed was in development at that time, but was not publicly annouced until the end of April.

As there is now a vaccine that is approaching the critical stage of Phase 3 trials compelte, let's look at what Operation Warp Speed really is. Fundementally it does 4 things. First, it directly funded several vaccine efforts. Secondly, it pre-ordered candidates to allow for manufacturing before the final approval was made. The same safety standards apply to the public, although the 3 phases of vaccine trials could be combined to some degree. Fundementally it is the same thing as Bill Gate's idea, fund multiple candidates production lines before the vaccine has been approved to speed up the process of getting it in to people's hands. It also helps facilitate the logistics of transporting the vaccine to states, and requires each state to have a plan to distribute it to the masses.

From May to the present date, I would say that by far President Trump's biggest problem has been a lack of following the guidelines that the CDC and White House are issuing. President Trump frequently refused to wear a mask, it wasn't until July 12, about 3 months after the CDC suggested wearing masks, before President Trump was photographed wearing a mask. He was ferquently dismissive of them. It is worth noting that for each rally he had on his re-election campaign, each atendee was provided a mask and encouraged to use them, although as Trump was so dismissive of them publicly, it seems that was not in fact followed.

So how do I grade Trump's response overall? He did a fair job at trying to restrict the entrance of COVID-19 in to the US in the early days. While he recognized the problems early on, he was unable to convince Congress to fund measures quickly, likely owing to his dismissal of the disease. Still, until the end of April, I think he did a fair job. After April, he was less involved in the day-to-day fight for COVID-19, not issuing further guidelines, trying to coordinate with states, and setting a bad example with his campaign rallies and lack of using a mask. Therefore, I rate his plan to fast-track a vaccine as good, his January-April performance as fair, and his May to current date as poor.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The 2020 Presidential election and voter fraud

As of writing this, it is pretty much decided, Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States, or at least assume that office on January 20, 2021. The counting process was slow, taking until Saturday for the networks to make a judgement call, with a few states still not called by a network. President Trump has stated that there must be some kind of fraud behind that result. Let's talk about how voting and ballot security happens in the United States.

First of all, let's talk a bit about how elections run. For federal elections, which are for Congress and the President, the US Constitution specifies that Congress can set some guidelines. With the advent of the Telegraph, Congress mandated a specific day to hold elections in 1845, namely the Tuesday that falls between November 2 and November 8. That date has held. There are some guidelines in the constitution, mostly related on the eligability of who can vote. The determination cannot be made on the basis of gender, race, payment of taxes, those who are 18 or older. Note that some additional qualifications can be enforced, usually on the basis of prior felonies, but otherwise there are very few if any requirements.

States are free to conduct their elections as given by the guidelines set by Congress. The guidelines were very loose until after the Civil War. At that time, the Constitution was altered to prevent discrimination on the basis of race. Congress at that time started to enact some provisions to enforce that constitution. At that time the common set of protections that we see were enacted, including laws to restrict counting false ballots, ensuring that everyone who voted was able to do so, witnessing the counting of ballots by those who are on the ballot, etc.

It is worth noting that states in turn delegate responsibilities to counties. Counties, in turn, set up a number of polling locations, known as prescints. Each prescinct follows the rules of the county, state, and country to ensure things are managed fairly. What I will describe is how things usually work, but there may be some exceptions across the country that I am not aware of. Still, these seem to be the rules everywhere I have studied, unless otherwise noted.

The US uses almost entirely a system of some form of paper ballots, usually ones where you fill in a mark on the ballot and a scanner later will tally that vote. When you leave the election site, you place your ballot in to a machine that will count them. You should always look at the number as you place your ballot in to the machine, and make sure it goes up by one. For instance, when I voted at this most recent election, the count was 159, and went up to 160. Each ballot must be accounted for at the end of the day. If someone accidentally votes improperly, the vote is considered "spoiled". Spoiled ballots must be accounted for as well, under the proper methods. So far as I can tell, there are 3 different counts that must all line up at the end of the day. These include the records of who voted, the number of ballots at the site, and a number of ballot "tickets", which are given to those after they have signed in at the polling site to receive one's ballot.

The results from a particular precinct are usually made public. For instance, for Wayne County, Michigan, which is one location accused of voter fraud, they are available online at this site. Note that they do not yet have the results for this election in that level of detail. I would assume that those who are on the ballot could request a more detailed summary if desired. This can be used to look for all kinds of interesting things. Looking at the results for my county, for instance, I can tell that some areas voted very strongly for Biden, and other areas for Trump. All of this data is available for audit to anyone who cares enough to find out.

The next issue is related to mail in ballots. Those are managed at a county level. In every instance I have seen, the ballots are verified by signature. If the signatures do not match, the ballot will not be counted. Only after the signature has been validated, the ballot is removed from an inner protective envelope, where it will then be counted. A record that the particular person voted is then made. If a person votes twice, once by mail and once in person, that is a felony, and one could easily be prosecuted. There have been instances where a person cast a ballot by mail a month before the election, but died before the election took place. Death records are easily available by government agencies, and anyone who has died is purged from the records. These votes that were cast are actually rejected. These days, one can even look online to verify that one's ballot was actually registered.

If there is a question of if someone should be able to cast a vote, then a voter can request a provisional ballot. The first time I voted, I was registered at my parent's address, but living 70 miles away at college. I voted provisionally. Another instance is those who requested a mail ballot, but the ballot never arrived. Those are usually the last votes counted to ensure that there are no fraud.

The ballots are usually counted by a voting machine. There are specific guidelines to ensure the security of ballot counting. They come down to two things of note. The machines are verified to not be tamped with via anti-tamper seals and other methods. Each state has different methods of testing, but they all are independentally verified by an organization that certifies the machines count as expected.

All ballots are placed in storage after the election, stored in a secure location. They are segregated by where they came in from, from a particular precinct and county. I know in Arizona that they are required to be transported in a way where the ballots don't leave the state, with the exception of a small town that lives on the far side of the Grand Canyon, to the State Capital. These are available should a problem, such as a recount, be required.

Let's put forward a few hypothetical instances of fraud, and see how such a thing might be caught. The first situation is sneaking in a large number of ballots in the middle of the night. These ballots must be attributed to a particular precinct. If a precinct has more votes than voters, it is pretty easy to tell from the detailed information. One can also compare data to historical data from the past. It would be easier to call them mail in ballots, but those require more processing than standard ballots. However this is done, it would leave a paper trail, one that would be easy to watch, as the statistics are available at a presinct level.

What if some votes are removed? This would leave less of a paper trail than adding votes. If done at the precinct level, there would be a much lower voter participation in that location than expected, which again would show up on the statistics. Also, the missing ballots would have to be accounted for at the county level. At a county level, the counts would then be different than the precinct counts. Mail in ballots could conceivably disappear, but as the party of whom they voted for is not known, it would be difficult to make the most sensitive ones disappear. The only conceivable method would be to destroy the mailed ballots sometime between when they are requested and when they arrive at the election site. That could work if one knew that mail ballots were going to lean more heavily for a particular candidate. Still, this would likely show up as an anomaly, worthy of further discussion.

Another situation is if the voting machines are not counting accurately. These machines are all certified by some outside authority, so there would have to be some coordination between the certifying organization, the organization that made the machine, and the party they wanted to win. I'm not going to say it couldn't theoretically happen, but there would be a paper trail out there.

What about changing the ballots out for one that was more favorible? To do this, one would have to have ballots printed of the same paper quality as the real ballots, and somehow switch them. Locations where ballots are removed from boxes are subject to observation by the parties being elected, and thus would be challenging to fake. I don't know for sure, but I presume that other security measures are taken, like looking in any boxes and bags prior to entering the ballot counting location, except for the boxes of legal votes, which should have a paper trail associated with them.

What about voting in two states? This would have to be done by a single person, but would not be terribly difficult, particularly if the two states were close. I could simply arrive in both places, present a location-neutral form of ID, such as a passport, and cast the vote. But this could only be done by a single person at a time, and there have been instances of this being caught.

The bottom line is, widespread voter fraud is very difficult to do in the United States. I'm certain that small scale fraud could be accomplished. For instance, I know that I was registered to vote in Arizona for at least 3 years after I left the state. Still, this is generally a felony, and in any case would only produce a single extra vote. Doing this on a large scale would be challenging.

As for my specific thoughts, I think that we should continue to look for fraud. I welcome Trump and his team to point to evidence of wide spread fraud. Short of such evidence coming forward, which I beleive should be easy to identify, I would say that it is clear that Joe Biden won the election, as he was predicted to do by pollsters before the election. If I were in Trump's shoes, I would say something to the effect of "We are looking at the election process to make sure that everything was done correctly, and awaiting a recount were we are able to request. Meanwhile, we will work with Joe Biden to ensure he is able to function as President on January 20, unless our review of the data suggests a problem, which when corrected shows that I have in fact won the election." Probably too much to hope for from Trump, but...

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Electoral College

Let's talk about the electoral college. Of the last 3 Presidents, 2 of them have lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral College vote, and therefore the presidency. Should we keep the college, or rely on a national vote?

The Electoral College is a creation of the US constitution. Much of the intent of the Constitution was majority rule, minority rights. The biggest divide in the day was seen between big states and small states. Every state was given an equal voice in the Senate, while they are judged by their population for the House. This system allows for a more equal divide of power between big states and small. It was decided to give the President a similar divide, each state is given the number of seats that they have in Congress. Originally, it was more of a debate. The state legislators nominated electors, who would then meet in a room and vote for the President. The person with the second highest number of votes was then the Vice President. This worked reasonably well until two arch-rivals become the President and Vice-President, after which the Constitution was ammended to vote for the President and Vice President separately.

The year 1824 was a pivotal year in the election of President. By that point in time, the electoral college members were voted on directly by the people to support a candidate. This is the first year that the popular vote was significant. It also introduced a new way of selecting electors, the winner-takes-all method used by 48 states and D.C. today.

For me, I still see the value in giving a smaller state proportionally more say in choice of the President. No Presidential candidate would ever visit Wyoming otherwise, for instance. But the winner-takes-all mentality has some issues. Why would any Presidential candidate campaign in California, when it votes heavily Democratic? Instead of visiting every state, only a few key states are visited, where there is a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Those states change from year to year, but they are still the same.

The winner-takes-all mentality was done to support a particular political party. It tends to favor a two-party system, like we have today. It is the sole reason that since 1968 no third-party candidate has received a single Electoral College vote. As I like to say, the biggest thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on is they don't want a third party! Throughout most of the country's history since 1824 two parties have had a dominate role in politics, although which two parties changes from year to year.

The big question then becomes what should we do about the Electoral College. Many people want it to be scrapped entirely, voting directly for President. I don't agree with that for several reasons. First of all, I do think that smaller states should receive more support in the choice of President per person to ensure minority rights. I believe the way the Constitution was written that very much is the case. Secondly, each state has their own election rules and practices. With the current system, if a state chooses to make polling places more difficult, at best they affect the outcome of that specific state. Unless a truly federal election, with equal rules in every state is enforced then I think these differences will lead to much more serious problems.

What do I think the solution is then? Proportional allocation of delegates. If California, which receives 55 delegates, votes 60/ 40 Democrats, then send 33 Democrats and 22 Republicans to the Electoral college. This does give a slightly higher weight to smaller states, but would encourage a Presidential Candidate to pay attention to the entire country, not just the battleground states.

I should say that in no circumstances do I think that the popular vote should change the course of the election. Everone currently is playing by the Electoral College, it seems wrong to change the rules just because of the difference of the popular vote.

Lastly, some thoughts on the National Popular Vote compact. 15 states and DC, with a total of 196 Electoral College votes have sworn that if states totalling 270 votes all agree, they will all cast their votes in to the popular vote, thus bypassing the Electoral College. This would absolutely not require a Constitutional Ammendment. Each state is allowed by the Constitution to chose how they elect their President. However, this would certainly be an Interstate Compact, which requires Congressional approval. It's an interesting way to bypass the Constitutional Amendment process, and could in process work, but only with Congressional approval. I personally dont' see enough states agreeing to this, at least not anytime soon, but theoretically it could happen.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Hunter Biden corruption, and what was Joe Biden's role?

There has been accusations from many sources that Hunter Biden has used his dad's name, and possibly influence, to score cushy jobs across the world, principally in Ukraine and China. Of particular interest was an interview with Tony Bobulinski. Let's look deeper in to this.

Let me start with this. There is considerable evidence that Hunter Biden had jobs and otherwise received money for no particuarly good reason. Joe Biden did in fact sit on the board of Burisma, an energy company in Ukraine, when Joe Biden was VP. His official responsibility was to provide legal advice. There is no record of him actually visiting Ukraine. It is reported that he received a $50,000 salary per month, but that isn't verified. There is a paper trail that could be Burisma trying to give him money without openly acknowledging it, but that has not been confirmed 100%. There has been no direct evidence linking Joe Biden to the deal at all. While we are on that subject, yes Joe Biden did request the firing of Viktor Shokin, Ukraine's top prosecutor at the time, but this was widely considered at the time a good thing, by allies and both US political parties. This attorney was corrupt, and there is no evidence this actually helped Burisma survive.

Another item of note is a laptop that is believed to have belonged to Hunter Biden. On that laptop a number of emails were recovered. None of those emails demonstrate that Joe Biden did anything to favor Hunter Biden's business deals, but they certainly do show that Hunter Biden was trying to leverage his dad's influence.

Tony Bobulinski, a well known non-partisan businessman who has worked with Joe Biden's son, Hunter, and brother, James, appeared recently on Fox New, principally Tucker Carlson's show. In the interview, he made a number of serious allegations, using evidence he had collected and provided to Tucker Carlson ahead of time. Tucker claimed that the only copy of that documentation was lost in the mail. It turns out that it has been found and is currently being delivered where it should be, but it does seem strange that the only copy of this documentation was mailed, and not transmitted via the internet.

Bobulinski said that, in 2017, Hunter Biden consulted with his father about forming a new venture with CEFC China Energy Co. to invest in real estate and technology in the U.S. Note this was when Trump was President. This deal ultimately fell through, although Joe Biden supposidly had a 10% stake in that deal. It is certain that Hunter and Joe's brother, James, both had a piece, the only claim that Joe Biden had a piece of that deal has come form Rony Bobulinski. Even Fox News, who studied the documents, claims that Joe Biden had no part in the dealings.

So let's summarize this. Hunter Biden likely received money from foreign governments, although that has not been substantiated. Likely he sought to use the influence of his dad, but there is litlte evidence that Joe actually paid any real attention to the dealings. When Joe Biden did not have major office nor was running for President, his son and brother came to him looking to do a deal with China, likely using his name to help push the deal forward. One man, without the evidence to support that, has claimed that Joe Biden was involved. While it is likely that Joe Biden did at least meet some business associates of Hunter's while Vice President, there is no evidence he did anything more substantial. Now I will say that I don't believe that Joe is completely ignorant of the entire thing, but I don't think he is actively involved in the scheme.

Now let's get to some speculation here. It seems likely to me that Hunter Biden did in fact try and use his father's influence to win business deals. I'm not certain he did in fact earn $600,000/ year from Burisma, but I can easily believe he received more from them than he should have given his abilities. I don't think that Joe Biden took the bait in any way at all. I do think that Joe Biden was in the loop when he was a private citizen on some of these business dealings, but the deals ultimately fell through, and there isn't any evidence that he accepted such a deal. I do believe that this should continue to be investigated, as there is enough there to raise suspicion, but I suspect it would end up with Hunter Biden in jail, with no wrong doing tied to his father at all.

What does it mean to be a "Free" nation?

One of the things that I frequently see in online discussions is the concept of a "free" nation. But what exactly does that mean?...