Hermitian existence

South Africa has the dubious honour to be among the top ten countries in the world with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of these ten countries, South Africa has the highest rate of daily increase in cases, over 4%.

Why? Perhaps one can blame the existing culture of disdain for the government’s regulations. It doesn’t matter that the government is trying to impose regulations to curb the spread of the virus. People ignore it and try to life as they like. One can understand why the government has lost it credibility looking at the recent history of corruption, state capture, and general incompetence.

I’m a scientist and not a politician. So I don’t want to discuss politics. Any reasonable person that sees the statistics can decide for themselves that it makes sense to isolate oneself as far as possible. So, what the government is trying to do makes sense, even if it is sometimes a bit too little too late.

The bottom line is, here I’m sitting in my house like a hermit. The hermitic existence is not so bad. The idea of living as a hermit has been part of western culture for centuries. It is intend to improve spiritual growth. I guess, it very much depends on the kind of person that you are. Not everybody can handle such seclusion for an extended period of time.

Charles Hermite
Charles Hermite

As a theoretical physicist, one can perhaps take some inspiration from Charles Hermite, whose last name sounds like hermit. He was a French mathematician who made significant contributions that are still widely used in quantum mechanics, among other fields. For example, a Hermitian operator is one that equals it Hermitian adjoint. It always has real eigenvalues. All physical states are represented by Hermitian operators

It this sound like twaddle to you. Don’t worry. What I’m try to get at is that if you currently also experience a “Hermitian “existence (as opposed a hermetic existence), then you can know that you are a real (valued) physical person. (Haha – just kidding. Perhaps only the mathematically inclined would find that funny.)

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COVID-19 numbers

In a time like this, there is much uncertainty. It may be the first time that the world is experiencing such a pandemic, but similar situations have been encountered before. People have lots of questions and they are looking for information. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misleading information available. It seems that most people don’t check such information. They just believe what they read. It is for this reason tragic when “official” websites provide misleading information.

One example is the incorrect representations of numerical quantities about the COVID-19 pandemic. Two such quantities that is for obvious reasons quite important for people is the recovery rate and the mortality rate. They give an estimate, based on the currently available statistics, of the chances for a person to recover or die from COVID-19, given that the person has contracted the decease.

The statistics, which is generally available (see for example Wikipedia), consist of three numbers provided for every country on a daily basis. These number are: the number of confirmed cases (CC), the number of deaths (D) and the number of recoveries (R). For example, on 14 June 2020, the quoted number for the whole world are:

CC = 7 763 921
D = 429 632
R = 3 682 950

From these numbers, one can now compute the mortality rate and the recovery rate. The mistake that one often finds is that these rates are computed by dividing D or R by CC. That gives a misleading result, because CC also contains the currently active cases that does not form part of D or R yet.

The correct way to compute the mortality rate is to divide D by the sum of D and R and multiply the result by 100 to express it as a percentage. In a similar way, the recovery rate is obtained to dividing R by the sum of D and R and then multiply it by 100. You will note that when you add up the mortality rate and the recovery rate you get 100%. That makes sense, because one would either die or recover. There is no other option.

Applying these calculations to the above statistics for the world, we find the mortality rate to be just over 10% and the recovery rate just under 90%. These rates differ from country to country. For instance, the current morality rate in the USA is about 15%, while for SA it is only 3.7%.

Why is it different for the different countries? This is an important question, because it affects people’s behavior. There are many possible reasons, including the age demographic of a country and the availability of medical facilities in the country. The mortality rates for different age groups are different: it increases for older people. If the number of active cases becomes too high, there may not be enough hospital beds and equipment to treat all those that need treatment. As a result, one can expect the morality rate to increase.

The government of a country needs to try and keep the number of active cases low enough so that those that need to treatment can get it. For that reason, they impose restrictions that are aimed to reduce the rate at which the virus is spreading. Restrictions may seem to be a violation of people’s freedom, but in this case it is necessary. However, a government can only do so much. If the people decide to ignore the regulations imposed by the government, because they want to exercise their freedom, then the virus would spread too fast, with the result that the number of active cases can increase above the level where the country would have enough medical facilities.

There are more numbers that are important, for instance the growth rate in the number of confirmed cases. That is a topic for another day.

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Lockdown fits me like a glove

Previous posts not withstanding, now that I’ve been living in this state of lockdown for more than a month, I realize that it is not so bad. In fact, when I hear how others are freaking out and protesting the current situation, my reaction is something like “really??!!”. Then I remember that, when it comes to normal humanity, I’m probably a bit of an outsider.

It helps to be an introvert, which means that alone-time is always valued much higher than time with people. Make no mistaken, I do enjoy the occasional social time with friends or family, but too much of that drains my energy and makes me feel awkward.

However, being an introvert is not enough to help one enjoy lockdown. There is this one dangerous condition called boredom that afflicts most people in lockdown, leading to cabin fever and then to all sorts of other things that we need not elaborate on.


So what would be an effective way to counter boredom? One would need lots of things to do. Many people perform what they call “spring cleaning.” (However, if you think about it, cleaning during lockdown is the opposite of spring cleaning.)

There are other activities that one may become involved with due to the lockdown such as cooking. However, if cooking was not part of you daily routine and if it does not suddenly become a new found passion, then it can soon develop into a onerous chore. The same applies to many other chores that are suddenly imposed on one by the lockdown situation.

So what would then be an effective activity to counter boredom? The answer is flow. You need something that you are passionate about, something that involves activities that challenge you, but for which you are capable to meet these challenges. It can keep you busy for hours. While you are doing it, you enter a state of flow; you don’t even realize that time is flying by. Instead, you are completely focussed on what you are doing. And you enjoy it!

My passion is theoretical physics research. When I’m busy performing those calculations or developing those derivations, I am almost unaware of anything else going on in the world. The activity puts me in a positive frame of mind and keeps me there for the duration of the activity.

It is a good thing that I have embarked on a particular challenging project just before lockdown started. There are times that I don’t have anything interesting and challenging to work on, but now I do. My setup at home is perfectly geared to perform this work. In fact, it is even better than at work. So, I’m glad for the opportunity that lockdown provides me to do this work. I hope I can finish it before lockdown is lifted to the point where I need to go back to work.

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Consequences of lockdown

It is now just over a week since we entered lockdown. The statistics of the number of known COVID-19 cases seemed to have flattened off, but the authorities warn that there may be many more people that are infected that we don’t know about yet.

don’t panic, don’t panic

So, here we are going about our business in as far as one can go about one’s business sitting at home. Of course we need to stay positive. This is especially important for those of us living alone. As a result, I find myself thinking about the situation, observing how things develop and trying to think what it will lead to. I came to the conclusion that the world will probably never be the same again. Even assuming we get through this (and I guess one must hold onto the conviction that we will get through it), there are certain things that (I think) will change forever.

What does the future hold?

Perhaps you’ve already heard that one of the effects of lockdown is that more people will start to work from home. Video conferencing will become more prevalent. So will online file-sharing facilities and all that kind of stuff. (Let’s just hope the internet keeps on working.) However, I think there is another consequence that has been largely ignored. It is something I call the collective impetus.

So, what is this collective impetus? A long long time ago there was this TV series called Star Trek. It actually spawned several different series. One of the iconic antagonists that appeared in many of these series, but especially in Star Trek Voyager is the Borg, a cybernetic hive mind that called itself the Collective. It would inform its victims: “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

Some time ago I started to see a resemblance between the Collective (the Borg) and those people that are constantly on their cellphones. It occurred to me that the obsession of these people to be in contact with others (so much so that they even do that while driving a car) effectively means that they are gradually becoming part of a collective hive mind.

Enter lockdown. Now, what little face-to-face interaction people had is drastically reduced. As a result, more people are forced to keep contact with one another via cellphones. Hence the collective impetus. The society that will emerge after the lockdown may look significantly more like a collective than before the lockdown.

Is this what cellphones will look like in the future?

One can even imagine that cellphones will eventually start to look like the devices on the heads of people in the Borg. Perhaps this is the next phase in the evolution of the universe. Perhaps people will lose their individuality and the whole collective hive mind will start to act like a single organism. What about those of us that refuse to become part of this collective?

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Pandemic panic!

It barely allows thinking about — a world in the grips of a decease. I’ve developed an addiction for the statistical information given on wikipedia on the progress of COVID-19 infections. Looking at those exponentially growing curves, one does not know whether one should ran around screaming or hiding underneath the bed. The positive thing is that China has more or less gotten through this thing. Some other countries like South Korea also seems to have things under control. However, most countries, including highly advanced countries like the USA, simply don’t have it under control yet. Before this pandemic, one might have wondered whether one should start learning Chinese. Don’t bother. After this pandemic, everybody that got through this will already be speaking Chinese. … Just joking.

don’t panic, don’t panic

Actually there are some silver linings. The air pollution has dropped significantly. So earth is getting a break. Perhaps this is earth’s way for trying to shed some other decease it picked up called humanity. I can already tell you, it is not going to work. In fact, it probably won’t even make a dent in the overpopulation of this planet. To do that, the number of fatalities would have to be within an order of magnitude of the entire population of the world.

Earth our beloved planet

There is another aspect that may be much more severe. The socio-economic impact of this decease is going to be quite severe. The worst case scenario is a complete break-down of civilization. Not long ago Elon Musk has given a grim warning about the possibility of the fall of civilization. The problem is that such a process is so slow that you don’t see that it is happening. So, I’ve asked myself, how would one know that civilization is in the process of falling? The two things I identified were: when the airplanes are not flying anymore and when the internet does not work anymore, it signals the fall of civilization. Well, we now have the situation where the airplanes stopped flying. Hopefully we’ll get through this thing and then they’ll fly again. Or will they? The internet is still working. Will it stop working at some point because people cannot maintain it any more due to the decease? That would be very bad.

don’t panic, don’t panic

Well, let’s assume we are going to get through this thing without all these bad things happening. But, I don’t see us getting through this thing without some lingering effect. Let’s just hope that lingering effect is going be a positive effect. Perhaps it will teach us to be more careful with this world. Perhaps we’ll also appreciate each other more, care for those that need more care, be less self-centered and less obsessed with material wealth.

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