Gamestop, and all that

Just in case you haven’t noticed, there is a big thing going down on the New York stock exchange at the moment.

Short sellers targeted a company called Gamestop (ticker: GME) which is pretty much Blockbuster for video games in the U.S., meaning that they have bricks-and-mortar stores all over the place selling video games. As you can imagine, that’s not been going too well recently, so the stock price was gradually falling; right up until someone on a sub-Reddit called “wallstreetbets” pointed out that there was more stock being shorted than had ever been issued by the company. This surprised and shocked a lot of others, and provoked quite a lot of people to try to establish a short squeeze, to teach the pesky short-sellers a lesson . A short squeeze is where the price rises instead of falling, making the short holders loss-making, so they have to actually buy shares to return to the lender, thereby pushing the price up even more. Anyway, the whole thing has turned into a cultural war between the evil Wall Street manipulators and the righteous mob, who started buying shares in GME hand over fist, and causing a massive bubble. The mainstream media (even in the UK) are now falling over themselves to make out that it’s all under control, market regulators have been alerted, and there’s nothing to see here. The BBC, ever lighthearted in the face of news, points out that some people have even been confusing the Robin Hood Society with a share trading platform called Robinhood – how droll!

Anyway, all this led me to the following article, which I want to put out for your consideration, even though I haven’t fact checked any of it (I don’t know how to) and I have know idea who wrote it. I think it counts as an “interesting thing in the world” anyway. It’s a bit concentrated, but I thoroughly recommend that you read it.

(The original link to this document at has mysteriously disappeared, but I found it elsewhere and I now host it myself, so that you can read it. This version contains several appendices as well as the article itself. Incidentally, references to around the last part are spurious – it’s a site advertising highly dubious services of a sexual nature!)

This article was written in 2007, as far as I can tell. I doubt anything much has changed since then. After reading this, do I wonder how the SEC will choose to deal with the “regulatory problem” posed by Gamestop.

Meanwhile, the GME shorts have doubled down and found a few more billions to add to their short postition, driving the price down – a bit. But the righteous mob is not giving up! Since this is obviously a massive bubble in the making, I signed up with a trading platform which trades on the NYSE, so that I too can “stick it to the man”, make a bundle and feel smug. I had to pass two “tests” of my understanding of financial markets to be allowed to trade in ordinary shares – I’m pleased to say I aced them both (although I did have to cheat, and look up the difference in voting rights between preferred and ordinary stocks). Alas, it took ages to get some money through, so I will have to wait until tomorrow before I can buy my (one) share. And FYI, DeGiro don’t deal in fractional shares (some other platforms do). But they are super-cheap. And now I am almost “in the game”. Bwahaahaa!

Of course, nothing I say, have said, or implied, or you have misinterpreted, should be construed as investment advice; or indeed taken any more seriously than you, as final arbiter of your own judgements, decide to think fit. You should be aware that I am not even a regular Redditor, but a mere blogger, with the financial education of a wallpaper brush, and the intelligence of a damaged thermometer.

End-of-life planning

Another subject I’ve been ranting on about for years to anyone who shows the slightest hint of interest, or (occasionally) no interest at all, has drifted to the top of the shallow pile of topics niggling at me for a chance to feature in for this blog. This one is slightly tricky to approach, and for an unusual reason – I have to be very careful to avoid running foul of the law. But more of that later.

For most people, end-of-life planning means writing a will; establishing whether you want to be buried at sea, or cremated, or buried, and possibly where; and noting down what aged pop songs you want everybody attending the inevitable solemn celebration (of a full and happy life sadly torn away after a noble battle with disease) to sit through, for no obvious reason except the possibility of an unseen smirk from beyond the grave. But that’s not what I mean. For me, it’s about planning how to end my life.

Having seen various people grow old, and experienced some others dying “before their time” has made me consider my own life, and what I would choose for it. And realistically, there seem to be only two choices.

The first is the default option, which consists of growing as old as possible, until something happens to stop that from continuing. Here in the UK, if you reach 80 without dying, it’s quite likely that our estimable NHS will be able to keep you going for quite a few years, but eventually, inevitably, something will kill you. The leading cause of death in the UK for people over eighty is Alzheimer’s, which is generally not a happy condition. The chances are you will spend at least the last 2-3 years of your life in some kind of care home, where you will be attended to (more or less) by people you don’t know, and who don’t know you. There will be a large turnover of both staff and residents – just the environment to be most disconcerning to Alzheimer’s sufferers. If you don’t have Alzheimer’s, you will probably not enjoy the company of those who do, and either way you will certainly suffer to some extent from a progressive reduction of faculties, possibly including walking, talking, thinking clearly, tasting, continence, sense of touch, memory – you get the idea. You may eventually give way to Covid, or flu, or some other cause of contracting a pneumonia which finally does for you. Or heart disease. The chances are, no matter how positive you have been throughout your life, that at some point you will start thinking that really, you’ve lived long enough. By then, of course, it will be far too late to do anything about it. Overall, it doesn’t look like a very appealing way spend one’s final time.

The second option is to do something deliberate, to avoid the first option. Most people immediately say “Dignitas” at this point, but I say, why? It’s perfectly possibly to effect a much more personalised result without all that inconvenient international air travel (not to mention expense), if you just do it yourself. And you don’t need to start thinking about knives, or poisons, or guns, or tall buildings, or anything violent, or even painful, at all.

This is where it gets tricky. Although suicide is no longer illegal in the UK, assisting someone else’s suicide still is. And so if I tell you that I intend to commit suicide some time around my eightieth birthday, or possibly before that if things take too much of a downward turn, that’s fine. But if I tell you exactly how I intend to do it, that could be construed as abetting in someone else’s suicide – even if I haven’t even met them, and had no idea that they were reading my words. Strange, eh? Anyway, I think with a subscriber base which currently numbers exactly four (one of whom is my wife) I should be fairly safe. Nobody’s going to wade through all this prose when the rest of the internet has so much to offer on the the pros and cons of all sorts of methods.

Back on topic, I’ve picked eighty because:

1) It’s certainly going to be downhill all the way from there. (In many ways it’s downhill all the way from a lot younger, but nobody would point to a huge increase in function after 80, would they?
2) It’s an average lifespan, more or less. Surely that’s enough?
3) It’s a nice round number.

But why pick an arbitrary number at all? Why not just see how it goes? “Pete – you might still be having fun at eighty, and not want to go! ” (I hear you cry). Well, if you don’t set a fixed date, it’s obvious what will happen – it will get harder and harder to decide “today’s the day!”, your loved ones will keep trying to talk you into delaying just a bit longer, and eventually you will have left it too long, and your ability to take action will have disappeared (or been removed – for your own good, of course). And it’s back to the default option.

Whereas, with the published plan, all the arguments can be done and dusted in a civilised way many years ahead of time, and I can have my dying wishes in peace. And I’ll be prepared to die, because I’ll have been expecting it for years, too.

And so I have every intention of slipping away somewhere around May, 2037 (if I make it that far). I just can’t tell you exactly how it will be done. What I can do, I suppose, is to give you a little science lesson.

It is a seemingly-little-known fact that a lack of oxygen doesn’t cause a feeling of being unable to breathe. Its actually a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood which causes that feeling. If somebody is forcibly smothering you, it doesn’t matter which chemistry was the cause of your distress, but in other circumstances it can make all the difference. People in unpressurised aircraft, for example, can fly so high that there isn’t enough pressure of oxygen in the air to supply their needs, but they don’t feel short of breath, because the carbon-dioxide is still being scavenged out of their lungs in the normal way. The effect is, apparently, a bit like getting a bit drunk – sort of woozy, with some excitement, and a feeling of slight euphoria. If prolonged, and sufficiently extreme, unconsciousness follows. This tends to result in a loss of control of the aircraft, which loses height, and the pilot often recovers his senses in the thicker air nearer the ground in time to land the plane, which is how come he can tell us what it felt like. Importantly, it’s not uncomfortable.

Similarly, underwater re-breathers, which work by removing carbon dioxide from exhaled air and adding fresh oxygen before supplying it for inhalation, must be carefully monitored: if the oxygen runs out (or you simply forget to turn it on), you won’t be alerted by any uncomfortable feelings – in fact divers call oxygen-starvation euphoria “rapture of the deep”. But for divers, an error leading to unconsciousness is more likely to result in accidental death.

Oxygen makes up about 20% of the air we breathe, and almost all of the other 80% is nitrogen. So nitrogen is pretty much just oxygen-free air. It has recently been proposed as a “more humane” method of execution than lethal injection in the U.S. because it’s simple, painless, and difficult to get wrong. The only real problem lies with the inevitable use of the term “gas chamber” which has, er – unfortunate connotations. Nitrogen is cheap, non toxic, and has a variety of industrial uses, including food storage and filling racing car tyres, so it’s quite easy to come by. Some suppliers just charge a deposit for the bottle, without any ongoing rental charge, so it’s easy to keep it in readiness, for years on end. With a regulator from Ebay providing the usual pair of pressure gauges , you’re all set to to leak it out into the small confined space of your choice.

Most people have convenient access to a mostly sealed box with comfortable seating and good visibility, which would be an ideal choice for a relaxing snooze of arbitrary length – I refer, of course, to your car. A car two other advantages: firstly you can take it to somewhere with a nice view; and secondly, should someone eventually open the door to see whether you are “all right”, they won’t find themselves in a state of accidental underwater rapture (or unconsciousness) while they are reading the note you left for them . One must think these things through, to avoid unintended consequences.

How long one can unwittingly survive without much oxygen at all? it’s a bit of a moot point, but half an hour unconscious should make sure you are absolutely beyond repair. Which isn’t too long to snooze undisturbed in a National Trust car park, for example.

There are a few issues with this whole scheme, of course. One’s wife, for example, may agree in principle with the strategy, and express a wish to join in, but then show a tendency to vacillate every time she thinks about her grandchildren. Discussions may ensue, but I think it’s important for me to be very clear about the plan well in advance, and absolutely refuse to give any ground. Some friends have tried to make me feel it’s my responsibility to stick around as long as I can, just to keep them company in their dotage, but I’m afraid I just don’t buy that. We all need to accept that our friends and loved ones may die before us, and surely the ideal way for that to happen would be pleasantly, in the manner of their own choosing, wouldn’t it? After all, who else should we burden with such decisions?

And if I am solidly inflexible, surely that makes it easier for everybody else to decide what they want to do with the end of their lives, at least as far as their relationship with me goes.

It wouldn’t be good news for the care sector if everyone started doing this, of course. But it would be good for the planet, and good for the next generation if they get to inherit some of my good fortune, instead of finding that I’ve spent it all on stretching my life out to the last grisly drop. It also makes financial planning A LOT easier if you know how long the money needs to last, which would make annuities much better value! I honestly can’t see a down side to deliberately choosing a pleasant end to a life which nobody could call “cut short”, rather than suffering a grinding, drawn-out decline into ghastly, frustrating, joyless incapacity. Can you?

PCR testing – Science or Politics?

(now updated, to reflect comments from interested parties – thanks!)

PCR skeptics suggest that at the high Ct (amplification cycle threshold) values used for COV-2 testing (above 35, say) the test could result in positive results even in the absence of any meaningful virus presence.  PCR supporters say that the PCR test is definitive.

The only real way of showing beyond doubt that a test sample contains the virus is to grow a viable culture.  If you can’t culture a positive sample, and no disease develops in the patient, how can you demonstrate that the PCR test is correctly detecting a virus? This article (referenced by Colin Bannon’s very pro-PCR blog post) states that at Ct = 35, a full 97% of samples can’t be cultured.  That’s not a very good proof of the efficacy of the test.

(From the article: “It can be observed that at Ct = 25, up to 70% of patients remain positive in culture and that at Ct = 30 this value drops to 20%. At Ct = 35, the value we used to report a positive result for PCR, <3% of cultures are positive.“)

Furthermore, the generated polynomial suggests that by Ct = 38, no samples at all will be able to be cultured.  What does that say about the validity of the PCR test at Ct > 40?


Here’s another view – this article (from 2003) is about developing PCR testing for smallpox DNA.  It has the advantage that the samples being used are cloned, and have precisely known quantities of viral DNA.  It’s very long and complicated, but the bottom line is that the ultimate limit of detection was found to be about 12 gene copies, at a Ct of 40.  What, then, would be the meaning of a positive test a Ct=45, which is 32 times more sensitive? There is only a 0.375 probability that there is even a single genome to be found in that sample. 

And so the idea of believing that results of PCR testing at Ct > 40 does look highly suspect – as many experts in the field agree (including Kary Mullis, inventor of the PCR test). 

And yet the WHO were recommending testing at Ct = 50 (over 1000 times as sensitive!) at the outset of the COV-2 pandemic.  One has to wonder why.

But wait – the WHO changed their minds last December!

So now we are surely all good, aren’t we?  There may be a few false positives due to poor test technique, but better safe than sorry, eh?  Alas, not quite. The WHO, while acknowledging the problem, go on to fudge the issue by saying it’s all very complicated, so they can’t make any actual recommendations.

Meanwhile, the actual false positive rate depends hugely on the presence of the virus in the population being tested.  If you only test people with symptoms, your positive results have a high chance of being right.  If you test everybody, and very few people are actually infected, your positive results have a high chance of being wrong.   It’s counter-intuitive, but true.  Here’s a video explaining the maths.

One can tell which situation applies from the test results themselves.  If, as this paper from June and Dr. Bannon’s blog suggests, the vast majority of test results (even in pillar 1) are negative, that strongly suggests that there is low prevalence in the population being tested, and thus that most of the positive results are indeed false positives.

But does any of this matter to patients?  No.  Patients have symptoms and feel ill.  My neighbour’s family has been sick for 2 weeks now, and are still far from well.  If everybody who had a positive test result had been whisked away and quarantined somewhere, would they still have caught the virus?  I don’t know, but it’s obviously wise to try to avoid catching this disease, and if false positives encourage safer behaviour, doesn’t the end justify the means?  Well, maybe – or maybe not, if the lack of honesty on which their advice rests undermines trust in so-called “authority figures”.  Or maybe that trust is misplaced to such a large degree that it needs undermining.

And that’s politics!

Outside in the real world, it’s undeniable* that there are a lot of hospitalisations going on. Hospitals don’t take people in just because they’ve had a positive test result – you need to be properly ill, with symptoms. People in ITU with COVID-19 symptoms is another fairly dependable measure – and even more so, excess deaths, which isn’t dependent on any kind of test results. Excess deaths are up now too. All in all, I think it’s best to believe that whatever the true meaning of PCR test results, there probaby really is a pandemic of some sort going on out there, and take whatever precautions you can, to avoid being a casualty. See my friend Dr. Bannon’s many excellent blog posts on how best to do that.

So to answer the question posed in the title – it’s whatever you want it to be. PCR testing is jolly clever, and certainly useful, whilst not being totally reliable. If you want to look at the science, there’s plenty to talk about.

But if you want to talk about politics, and whether the story reported by mainstream media is being manipulated with sinister intent – fill your boots! Just not with me – for now, I’m going back to excessive drinking.

*It has been pointed out to me that it’s not actually undeniable – just reported everywhere. That’s true. It’s hard to get solid, dependable information: most sources, even if they have no specific editorial agenda, pick a side – either “same as the mainstream” or “rebellious” (often labelled “conspiracy theory”, whether there is a suggested conspiracy or not). Is this years’s hospitalisation rate actually higher than a bad flu year? I’m not sure….

Maybe not as bad as you think?

Here’s a very interesting article from the New York Times in 2007

It’s the story of what happens when you believe unquestioningly in the results of a test which has a high false positive rate – in this case, using a PCR test (which, when correctly designed and implemented, are very good for distinguishing between similar diseases) for diagnosis (which is a very different task). I’m sure bells are starting to ring, but in case not, note that the UK COVID-19 response has so far regarded PCR tests (along the lines of those specified by the WHO) as the “gold standard” test for SARS-COV2.

I’ve commented in the past to anyone who would listen about the document from the WHO website which seems to recommend 50 amplification (doubling) cycles, leading to a potential amplification factor of more than 10^15 (1 followed by 15 zeroes). This truly fantastic number is widely understood to lead to very large false positive rates which render the test completely useless for most purposes, and certainly useless for diagnosing individuals in populations with a low probability of occurrence. If the false positive rate of your test is much larger than the incidence rate, the majority of positive test results will be false ones. You cannot determine the incidence rate from that data. It’s like trying to detect very quiet noises through a hearing aid which hisses. The more you turn up the volume (amplification cycles) the more hiss you hear, and the less chance you have of knowing what’s underneath. That failing is almost certainly the case for the current range of SARS-COV2 PCR tests. Here’s another view (from Canada):

Even the estimable Dr. Fauci says so in this interview clip.

So a lot of informed people seem to put the sensible limit somewhere around 30-35 cycles.

PHE, on the other hand, puts a limit at 40 cycles in their SOP document – and then says if you needed more than 40 cycles to get a positive result, you should test again! The reluctance to accept the validity of a negative test result from their “gold standard” test is – erm, a bit peculiar, don’t you think?

Anyway, it turns out there’s much more that’s wrong with the WHO’s PCR test. Here’s a recent article about it.

All in all, it does seem that the SARS-COV2 PCR test is a very flawed thing. However, it is still, undeniably, the best thing available on a wide scale – and thus, for politicians (and other people who have to decide on policy), that’s what they will use. It doesn’t really matter if it’s not fit for purpose – it’s the best they’ve got. And then they believe the statistics that flood forth, and imagine that every positive test has detected a super-spreader in waiting, and impose regional and national lockdowns, to avoid a catastrophe they won’t be able to explain their way out of. In all probability, they actually think they are doing the right thing. After all, the UK government started out trying to let the whatever-it-was just “run through the population” and that was a dismal failure, so what else can they do now?

The same sort of thinking probably explains the WHO’s continued support of their “test, test, test” policy. It’s just the safest option from their point of view. As long as they aren’t responsible for any of the collateral damage.

Incidentally, the much-vaunted new lateral flow tests, while not suffering from exactly the same problems, have their own issues. They are neither accurate enough nor repeatable enough, and thus don’t really have much to say about the likelihood of any particular individual developing Covid-19, which is what we actually care about.

Anyway, I think the take-away from all this is that in all probability, there’s actually a lot less SARS-COV2 about than we are being led to believe. So that’s good, isn’t it?

Where did SARS-CoV-2 come from?

I don’t know, of course. Neither does anyone we’ll ever meet, probably. But I have heard very heated comments on the topic of whether the Lab at Wuhan might have been involved – some people saying that such a thing is impossible, and the technology doesn’t exist (yet). That’s a bold claim at the best of times – just because you are “an expert” and you can’t do something, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Especially if your dismissal includes “yet” – an admission that it could be possible, later (or maybe now, elsewhere). Others claim that the presence in the genome of various recognisable features “proves” that it was mutated in a sequence of animals.

Anyway, I came across this, which seems to me to be pretty conclusive about what’s possible these days. It’s a publication in the U.S. National Library of Medicine from 2014, about success at generating a version of a bat coronavirus, with greater ability to replicate both in vitro and in mice, “by incorporating the (SARS)-CoV spike (S) glycoprotein ectodomain”. Sound familiar?

A Mouse Model for Betacoronavirus Subgroup 2c Using a Bat Coronavirus Strain HKU5 Variant

Interested parties will want to read at least the whole abstract for themselves, but here are a couple of extracts: (emphasis mine)

Synthetic-genome platforms capable of reconstituting emerging zoonotic viral pathogens or their phylogenetic relatives provide new strategies for identifying broad-based therapeutics, evaluating vaccine outcomes, and studying viral pathogenesis. IMPORTANCE The 2012 outbreak of MERS-CoV raises the specter of another global epidemic, similar to the 2003 SARS-CoV epidemic. MERS-CoV is related to BtCoV HKU5 in target regions that are essential for drug and vaccine testing. Because no small animal model exists to evaluate MERS-CoV pathogenesis or to test vaccines, we constructed a recombinant BtCoV HKU5 that expressed a region of the SARS-CoV spike (S) glycoprotein, thereby allowing the recombinant virus to grow in cell culture and in mice. 

I don’t profess to know a huge amount about either genetics or viruses, but I am pretty sure this shows that:

  • current technology exists which can combine viruses in a way similar to zoonotic adaptation
  • people are out there doing exactly that, with the specific goal of incorporating the SARS spike which attaches the virus to the ACE2 receptor in mouse (and human) respiratory cells into a bat corona virus – thereby making a potentially pandemic-capable “novel virus”.

Add to this the possibility that someone might make a mistake in a safety protocol somewhere, and a laboratory leak seems just as credible a source for SARS-CoV2 as any other story. IMHO.

I suspect that all those funding and performing such research have an (understandable) reluctance to (1) expose themselves to any blame, or (2) admit to the obvious risks of such undertakings. Hence the relegation of all “SARS-CoV-2 was released from a lab” ideas to the “conspiracy theory” bin.

It’s not a conspiracy theory – I’m not suggesting there has been any conspiracy at all. It’s just completely possible.