Body Count

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Lancet nCov2019 propagation model PDF Download (free): Lancet nCov2019 Model

Over time, continual bad news will discourage any civilian population, and Americans had the lowest tolerance on the planet for bad news.

Karl Marlantes, “Matterhorn” (2009)

Have you read Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes? You should. It’s not just the best novel I’ve ever read about the Vietnam War, but it’s also one of my irreplaceable sources of inspiration for understanding The Maw – that unlimited gluttony of the violent State to chomp on our bones and suck out our minds … and the oddly not-so-rare instances of individual human bravery to persevere regardless.

I would bet my life that there are thousands of instances of individual human bravery persevering against The Maw happening right now … in Wuhan … in Wenzhou … in dozens of other quarantined cities throughout China.

And in Xinjiang, too.

What was my first experience with The Maw? It was as a seven-year-old boy watching the nightly news on our little black-and-white set, where every night … EVERY NIGHT … we were told exactly how many American and South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese soldiers had been killed that day.

The American numbers were accurate, I guess, and the South Vietnamese numbers were probably in the right ballpark. But the North Vietnamese numbers of wounded and killed? Pure fiction.

The daily body count of killed and wounded North Vietnamese soldiers was, in Epsilon Theory-speak, a cartoon – an abstraction of an abstraction in service to the creation of Common Knowledge.

Hey, everyone knows that everyone knows that we’re winning the war in Vietnam. Didn’t you see the body count numbers on CBS last night?

Once you start looking for cartoons, you will see them everywhere.

Inflation numbers? Cartoon.

Employment data? Cartoon.

Asset allocation? Electoral coverage? Financial journalism? Cartoon, cartoon, cartoon.

And yes, we write a lot about cartoons. You can read more here, here, here, here, here and here. For starters.

But this is the kicker.

Because it was so important to maintain the fiction that we were Winning the War ™, and that fiction required metrics like a body count of North Vietnamese that was always a multiple of the South Vietnamese casualties and always a factor of the American casualties, American war-fighting policy was soon driven by the narrative requirement to find and count the “right number” of North Vietnamese casualties!

These were the infamous search-and-destroy missions of the Vietnam War.

This is The Maw in action.

Do a little research on search-and-destroy. Read about My Lai and Son Thang. Read Matterhorn.

And then take a fresh look at the coronavirus stats coming out of China.

Here’s the core post in a reddit thread that’s Matterhorn-esque in its truth (and a heck of a lot shorter to read).

The point of this quadratic regression on Chinese infection and death numbers as reported by the World Health Organization from the first official announcement through February 4 was the publication of this projection.

Sure enough, the WHO announcements since this prediction was published have been eerily close.

  • 2/5 — 24,363 cases — 491 fatalities
  • 2/6 — 28,060 cases — 564 fatalities
  • 2/7 — 31,211 cases — 637 fatalities
  • 2/8 — 34,598 cases — 723 fatalities
  • 2/9 — 37,251 cases — 812 fatalities
  • 2/10 — 40,171 cases — 908 fatalities

Crazy, right? The deaths being reported out of China are particularly accurate to the model, while the reported cases are leveling off (which is what you’d expect from a politically adjusted epidemic model over time … at some point you have to show a rate-of-change improvement from your epidemic control measures).

But wait, there’s more.

The really damning part of Antimonic’s modeling of the reported data with a quadratic formula is that this should be impossible. This is not how epidemics work.

All epidemics take the form of an exponential function, not a quadratic function.

All epidemics – before they are brought under control – take the form of a green line, an exponential function of some sort. It is impossible for them to take the form of a blue line, a quadratic or even cubic function of some sort. This is what the R-0 metric of basic reproduction rate means, and if – as the WHO has been telling us from the outset – the nCov2019 R-0 is >2, then the propagation rate must be described by a pretty steep exponential curve. As the kids would say, it’s just math.

Now I don’t want to get into the weeds as to whether it’s possible to model this specific data set with an exponential function (it probably is), and we’ll never have access to the detail of data we’d need to be certain about all this. And to be clear, at some point the original exponential spread of a disease becomes “sub-exponential” as containment and treatment measures kick in.

But I’ll say this … it’s pretty suspicious that a quadratic expression fits the reported data so very, very closely. In fact, I simply can’t imagine any real-world exponentially-propagating virus combined with real-world containment and treatment regimes that would fit a simple quadratic expression so beautifully.

I believe that the Chinese government is massively under-reporting infection data in the pandemic regions of Hubei and Zhejiang provinces.

Just like the American government massively over-reported North Vietnamese casualty data in the Vietnam War.

It’s not only that I believe the numbers coming out of China are largely made up.

More importantly, I also believe that Chinese epidemic-fighting policy – just like American war-fighting policy in the Vietnam War – is now being driven by the narrative requirement to find and count the “right number” of coronavirus casualties.

nCov2019 is China’s Vietnam War.

From a narrative perspective, China is fighting this war against nCov2019 exactly like the US fought its war against North Vietnam.

It’s what the Best and the Brightest always do … they convince themselves that the people can’t handle the truth, particularly if the truth ain’t such good news. They convince themselves that they can buy enough time to win the real-world war by designing and employing a carefully constructed “communication strategy” to win the narrative-world war.

That strategy proved to be a social and political disaster for the United States, as the cartoon tail (gotta get more NV casualties for Cronkite to report) ended up wagging the policy dog (send out more counterproductive search-and-destroy missions).

I think exactly the same thing is happening in China.

And I think the social and political repercussions will be exactly as disastrous.

PS. A couple of thoughtful readers on both the original reddit thread and here on my Twitter feed have asked whether it makes a difference to look at the daily reported cases and deaths rather than the cumulative reported cases and deaths. It’s a good question, as cumulative data can give the illusion of being “smoother” than the underlying phenomenon truly is, and the way you get around this is typically to evaluate the individual data points that are added together to get the cumulative data points.

First, it really is a good question, and it’s why I assign very little meaning to the high r-squared results for the quadratic regression on the reddit thread.

Second, though, you’ve got to be really careful with standard econometric techniques for evaluating the daily event count data (typically a Poisson regression), because the *assumption* that underlies those techniques is that the observations are, in fact, independent of each other. In other words, the standard assumption is that the number of new deaths or new cases today is independent of the number of new deaths or new cases yesterday, and I would submit to you that this is obviously not a viable assumption. There are ways to relax this assumption (for example, assume a negative binomial distribution for the underlying stochastic nature of this phenomenon rather than a Poisson distribution), but I am pretty certain that just by writing those words I have lost 99.99% of my readers.

So instead let me give you a numeric example of why I believe that – just like the American military leadership in the Vietnam War – the Chinese party leadership today is assigning a “target” death rate for the nCov2019 epidemic, and how that target plays out in both the daily and the cumulative reported data.

Let’s imagine, for example, that you’re President Xi, and you’d like to show that you are Winning the War ™ against nCov2019. You can’t just say that the epidemic is over and the disease is cured, because you’ve got more than 100 MILLION people in a military quarantine, and it’s kinda obvious that the disease is anything but cured. But you want to show progress in Winning the War ™.

So maybe you come up with a rough formula that goes something like this …

Yesterday we told everyone that 500 people have died since the outbreak. That’s a made-up number, of course, but that’s what we told everyone. Today let’s tell everyone that an additional 15% of that number died yesterday, so 75 new deaths for 575 total dead. And tomorrow let’s tell everyone that 14% of that total number died, and the day after 13%, and then 12% and then 11%. Clear progress! Got it, my loyal cadres?

In fact, China reported a total of 491 cumulative deaths from nCov2019 through Feb. 5th. If you applied my incredibly rough and cartoonish model, then, of 15% new deaths on Feb. 6th, and 14% new deaths on Feb. 7th, and so forth and so on, you’d end up with the following daily data points on new and cumulative deaths:

  • Feb. 6 — 74 new deaths — 565 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 7 — 79 new deaths — 643 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 8 — 83 new deaths — 720 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 9 — 87 new deaths — 810 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 10 — 89 new deaths — 901 cumulative deaths

And now here’s what China and the WHO actually reported:

  • Feb. 6 — 73 new deaths — 564 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 7 — 73 new deaths — 637 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 8 — 86 new deaths — 723 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 9 — 89 new deaths — 812 cumulative deaths
  • Feb. 10 — 96 new deaths — 908 cumulative deaths

I mean … c’mon, man.

I just gave you a ridiculously naive and idiotic model of “Progress in the War against Coronavirus!”, and it’s incredibly predictive for the reported data ON A DAILY BASIS for a nation of 1.4 BILLION people in the throes of an unimaginable public health crisis.

They’ll need to tweak this ridiculously naive and idiotic model, because the 1% improvement per day is clearly too optimistic even for the willing stooges at WHO to keep swallowing, but tweak it they shall. And the willing stooges at WHO will keep reporting the official numbers.

You remember what happened to the American narrative of Winning the War in Vietnam ™, right?

This happened. The Tet Offensive happened.

In real-world, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the Viet Cong and the NVA regulars. In narrative-world, though, it changed everything. North Vietnam wasn’t on the “verge of surrender”. We weren’t “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. What everyone knew that everyone knew about the Vietnam War changed on a dime.

The Tet Offensive changed our Common Knowledge about the Vietnam War.

We are one photograph like this from Common Knowledge about nCov2019 changing in exactly the same way.

It’s coming.

PPS. If you’d like to see how professionals who are not toadies of the CCP might model the spread of nCov2019, I highly recommend this Jan. 31st article in The Lancet:

Money quotes:

In our baseline scenario, we estimated that the basic reproductive number for 2019-nCoV was 2.68 (95% CrI 2.47–2.86) and that 75,815 individuals (95% CrI 37,304–130,330) have been infected in Wuhan as of Jan 25, 2020.

If the transmissibility of 2019-nCoV were similar everywhere domestically and over time, we inferred that epidemics are already growing exponentially in multiple major cities of China with a lag time behind the Wuhan outbreak of about 1–2 weeks.

I’ve attached a PDF of the full report below (Lancet nCov2019 Model), and there is no subscription required to download.

PDF Download (paid subscription required): Body Count

Lancet nCov2019 propagation model PDF Download (free): Lancet nCov2019 Model

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  1. Avatar for Schase Schase says:

    Ben, what I like best is your insight into what is visible in plain sight but unobserved.

    What I like second best is Rusty’s BBQ last summer.

    Is the narrative about the virus “for sale” as currency in the political utility market? Looking forward to hearing what comes out of DC.

    “Conventional journalism could no more reveal this [Vietnam] war than conventional firepower could win it, all it could do was take the most profound event of the American decade and turn it into a communications pudding, taking its most obvious, undeniable history and making it into a secret history. And the very best correspondents knew even more than that.”

    — Dispatches by Michael Herr

  2. Avatar for bully bully says:

    George Carlin" My first rule: i don’t believe anything the government tells me"
    Ben, I believe this is a piece that needs more public readership, how do we go about accomplishing that? ( Short of going on an ET subscription drive of course )

  3. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Thanks, Don! The best way to spread the word about ET notes to a broader audience is to promote on social media … Twitter is the best for this, but LinkedIn and Facebook work. We’ll be sending out an email on this note tomorrow, so forwarding the emails to anyone you think might listen is fantastic help, too. AND we should all be on an ET subscription drive at all times, of course!! - Ben

  4. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of putting select articles on Medium?

  5. Excellent work Ben! Confirms my suspicions all along that Chinese health statistics are no different from Chinese economic statistics. They always contain a message, but not necessarily any “truth”. Even 5 minutes of critical thinking about what flaws may exist in the data collection or the logistics of collecting and processing all the necessary data reveals an utter farce. But in the absence of better data, people will cling to the farce. Reflexivity in markets and economies suggests that this strategy can work to a degree with the economy. Mother nature has a way of creating her own narratives though…

  6. Cartoons are relative, like Final fantasy XV (2016) and “Winnie the Pooh”. At all times there will be somebody telling an “objective” view of reality with occasional tendency to flirt with reality itself. Besides, suggestion boxes regarding inflation and employment are wide open for improvement. Asset allocation, electoral coverage and financial journalism are anomaly rather than the norm being available to 4% of the global population. I know I learned a lot from all of them.

  7. Per CNBC this afternoon/evening:
    Feb. 11 - 103 new deaths - 1,011 cumulative
    908 * 1.10 = 91 Uh-oh… fantasy model is already breaking.

  8. Avatar for bully bully says:

    Ben, do I get a free face mask for every subscription sold?
    Just asking…

  9. Interestingly, believing something is quite easy. All one must do is believe, meaning do not resist whatever it is that is the be believed. But disbelief, now that is an entirely different matter, especially when one is disbelieving “officially sanctioned” belief.

    To do this, a rational and logical man or woman must attempt to counter the official belief with facts, figures and so-called truth. One must attempt to displace the previously declared belief with another belief that is truth, or at least more true than the official belief.

    I follow a simple process when attempting to determine if an official belief should actually be believed. Watch what the official behind the promoted belief does and not what they say. What China is doing, locking up hundreds of millions in quarantine on a true exponential basis, speaks so much louder than words.

    China is lying, proven by what it is doing rather than what it is saying. And given similar circumstances, the rest of the world, including the USA, would (attempt to) do the same thing.

  10. Well, with the Apple event in March, guess we will find out how clean the Foxconn facility is when they ship all those AirPods and iPhones via FedEx first week of April. We all know that Chinese citizens are coming forward and raising their hand saying, “I have a fever”. If the numbers are cartoonish, there will be no pretending after that. I know, I know, way out there.

  11. Avatar for ianfvr ianfvr says:

    Has been interesting to hear the passion with which some people here in the US repeat the narratives like “it’s just a flu” etc. then you look at the twitter videos of the charter flights from Wuhan or the “gear” Chinese medical teams are wearing. You are so right. The cartoon seems meant to break the independent spirit out there. It’s too hard a gig to marry such diverging ideas like “it’s nothing” yet China / the cruise ship etc is on lock down. Easy to give up given how much energy is required to hold all of that in your mind and do it alone.

  12. C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.

  13. Ben - thanks for factually challenging the coronavirus narrative. It is interesting, though it is now denied, that Tencent in China accidentally published coronavirus numbers far in excess of the official government’s: 154,023 cases, 79,808 suspected but unconfirmed cases, and 24,589 deaths. This was reported 2/6/20 in Zerohedge and various other outlets before it was taken down & denied as “doctored”. Here’s the link to the Zerohedge article:

    Thanks for your always unique & enlightening articles. I look forward to them!

  14. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    A fave quote!

  15. “Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.” - Otto von Bismarck

  16. The Age is changing: people can go and get the info for themselves; the days of the official narrative grow cloudy and dark.

    This new age of instant and personal research brings it’s own problems, but naive credulity isn’t one of them.

  17. Great read. My fav line;
    “It’s what the Best and the Brightest always do … they convince themselves that the people can’t handle
    the truth, particularly if the truth ain’t such good news”

    Reminds me of the poignant words of Col. Nathan Jessup ( Jack Nicholson ) from A Few Good Men ( 1992);

    “You Can’t Handle the Truth…I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom…You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know…You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me…”

    No, No, No…I believe the Truth will set you free.

  18. My time in China makes me very sceptical that any such ‘every one knows that everyone knows’ moment will come in this case. If the virus stays in China and only mild outbreaks escape I don’t think the media’s focus can hold on it long enough to break the common knowledge game. I think the only viable way that happens is with an outbreak internationally that simply could not have happened unless what we think we know is wrong. Maybe that happens, but I don’t think it does - not only are the CCP the best equipped propagandists in the history of the world, outside China there are a LOT of vested interests in making sure the common knowledge doesn’t break in the name of the ‘good public order’ and ‘don’t spread rumours’ memes. I think I’m less optimistic than you that a common knowledge moment will come - more likely a ‘lost’ 100,000 people who’s families who lose everything unless they sign papers saying Grandpa Joe died of a unrelated heart attack.

  19. I have no doubt that the Communists are fudging the numbers. The epidemic is likely much worse than has been reported thus far. Time will tell, but it serves to say that the vast majority of problems on the planet originated from “The State”. That is as true for our great experiment in “limited government & freedom” as it is with Nazis and Communists.
    As for Vietnam, it was won on the ground (including the Tet Offensive) but was lost inside the beltway and in the “hearts and minds” here in the US. The fight against Communism was morally right but fraught with strategic errors. We would have been better off to assist Ho Chi Min right after WWII rather than allowing the alliance with Communism. I always cringe when someone says “the Cold War was one without a shot being fired”. Tell that to the families of the 120,000 dead in Asian wars and of the thousands lost in incidents around the globe and the stars on the wall at Langley.
    Sadly, the Chinese government’s statistical manipulation is going to effect much of the world population otherwise outside the sphere of Communism. As with elections, totalitarianism has consequences. In this case as with many prior, it means human lives, often on a large scale.

  20. Dispatches! I haven’t read Matterhorn yet (on my list) but Dispatches is the best non-fiction ever written about the war in Vietnam. Maybe the best non-fiction about war full stop. Vive la Pack.

  21. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    FWIW I generally agree with this.

  22. Avatar for bnuner bnuner says:

    Boy, you called it. Finessing the numbers now, 2/12-13, by saying the rising count is done using a more accurate test.

  23. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

    It occurred to me reading this that the elite - LBJ, McNamara, Westmorland really believed that they would win a war of attrition that would also contain communism even though it led to what was patently absurd and obvious to participants on the ground. Not saying the analogy is perfect but I can’t think of anything more absurd than negative interest rates and QE infinity. BTW, Hackworth’s book About Face is also a great one on the subject.

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