The Prince and the Vizier

The story goes that there was once a young Prince who, being inexperienced, was taken to the cleaners during a negotiation with his wily Vizier. “The prince set a contest and as a reward, decided to give the winner whatever he wishes, boasting of his wealth, being under the illusion that his wealth is virtually endless. The Vizier won, and asked the prince for the prize: a single grain of wheat and a chessboard.”


What?! Just a grain of wheat! Are you insulting my wealth?” yelled the prince.

“No! Your majesty!” The Vizier explained. “You have to promise to double that grain of wheat until the chessboard is full, so on the first day you give me one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, on the second day you double it on the second square (giving me two grains), on the third, you double that on the third square (giving me four grains), and so on, until the sixty fourth square on the chessboard.”

That progression turned out to be more than all the wheat in the Islamic world. It was certainly more than the Prince had in his kingdom. The Wheat and Chessboard problem is an object example of the dangers of underestimating the power of exponents. That property was invoked by Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg who warned Deutsche Welle that Liberia and Sierra Leone are now lost to Ebola.

“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” he said. That time was May and June. “Now it will be much more difficult.”

Schmidt-Chanasit expects the virus will “become endemic” in this part of the world, if no massive assistence arrives.

With other words: It could more or less infect everybody and many people could die.

The only thing that can be done now, he dolefully said, is to prevent the virus from spreading to countries like Senegal and Nigeria. The compartment is flooded. Dog the watertight door if you want to save the ship.  Is he right? One way to visulize Ebola’s spread is via a graph from Wikipedia.



Another way to look at it was shown by Virology Down Under. With an accelerating rate of spread, you can seemingly add more new cases in a day than the entire previous week.  Part of this is exacerbated by the fact that numbers are reported at discrete intervals.  The arrival of new data makes the needle “jump”.  Still, it’s alarming.


Ebola will not end the world. The disease doesn’t kill every one of its victims. Ebola may not even spread across Africa. Nigeria, for example, has demonstrated an impressive ability to control the spread of the disease. But the power of nonlinear rates of propagation often explain why bureaucracies are caught flat-footed by events. A problem is “small” until suddenly it is not.  But never fear: WHO is confident it will stop it.

The WHO in Geneva refuses to comment on Schmidt-Chanasit’s statement.

WHO spokeswoman Fadéla Chaib, though, says that there is “of course” still hope for both countries.

“We can bring the situation under control in 6 to 9 months,” she told DW.

And perhaps Chaib is right. But she is not obviously right because no explanation is provided. There must be some reasoning to support her assertion beyond “the UN is big and ebola is small”. How exactly will WHO bring the conflagration under control short of letting it burn out?  Assurances such as these are like those “strategies” politicians are fond of enunciating where they presume a result without saying how they will get there.


The New York Times, for example, is skeptical of the WHO’s estimates.  Virologist Bryan Lewis at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech says it will take at least 12-18 months to bring under control and infect “hundreds of thousands”.

“We hope we’re wrong,” said Bryan Lewis, an epidemiologist at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech.

Both the time the model says it will take to control the epidemic and the number of cases it forecasts far exceed estimates by the World Health Organization, which said last month that it hoped to control the outbreak within nine months and predicted 20,000 total cases by that time. The organization is sticking by its estimates, a W.H.O. spokesman said Friday.

But researchers at various universities say that at the virus’s present rate of growth, there could easily be close to 20,000 cases in one month, not in nine. Some of the United States’ leading epidemiologists, with long experience in tracking diseases such as influenza, have been creating computer models of the Ebola epidemic at the request of the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined to comment on the projections. A spokesman, Tom Skinner, said the agency was doing its own modeling and hoped to publish the results soon. But the C.D.C. director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, has warned repeatedly that the epidemic is worsening, and on Sept. 2 described it as “spiraling out of control.”


When will Ebola be brought under control? From the NYT’s interviews it seems like an open question. The power of fires, epidemics — even ISIS — to surprise illustrates that we often have a smaller margin that we think. That is why phenomenon with the potential for exponential growth must be hit early and hard.

Recently president Obama warned that the ebola virus “could mutate” if it were not controlled.  But a moment’s thought would show that if the virus mutated each time it rolled the dice, the best way to prevent mutation is to shut down the casino. Stop the epidemic.  Because once you let a fire, epidemic or extremist ideology get past a certain size, it outruns what you thought your safe margin was.  Only early this year the president thought ISIS was a ‘jayvee’ team.  Now he’s looking for help to damp it down.  It’s hard not conclude that it got the jump on him.

However as Ian McCay of Virology Down Under notes, there is no evidence so far that it has become airborne. The real voodoo is in the nonlinear rate of spread. “It clearly doesn’t ‘need’ to be airborne to spread efficiently,” he writes.  Like the wheat and chessboard, all it needs is another square.  It would be nice if the authorities could blame some extraordinary bad luck, like a freak mutation, for the current conflagration.  The  truth is probably more prosaic. They were faked-out by self-deception and complacency.


If so our politicians must avoid being like the prince of legend.  Afters years of believing the Design Margin was endless, that the Stash had no limit, politicians can’t appreciate the fact there are certain classes of problems where it is absolutely lethal to kick the can down the road.

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