Going viral


From all accounts this year’s flu is a nasty piece of work. I know some strong people who have been knocked down by this bug. Worry is spreading. Guys who haven’t seen a medic since “Muskrat Love” hit the charts have been getting flu shots.

Even Sparky is concerned. And let me tell you, Sparky doesn’t usually worry about anything.

So when I heard he actually cut back to smoking just one pack a day on account of this flu threat, I knew that we had a serious situation on our hands.

You’ve heard of a canary in a coal mine? He’s a grizzly in a coal mine.

I therefore decided to lay out a defensive perimeter against this flu. I used Lysol as a disinfecting agent and I wore a magic coat.

The coat, a white lab coast, is a piece of Saipan’s tourism history. I bought it for $2.25 from an Army surplus store. I put the coat on a helicopter mechanic so he could pose by a workbench looking like a clean and slick technician.

That photo became part of a marketing brochure. It went to agents in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. After that, when I was schmoozing important visitors and giving them a tour of our helicopter facilities, I’d arrange, in advance, for the mechanic to be wearing the lab coat. This showcased our true professionalism. My coworkers and I dubbed the garment the magic coat.

So that’s the story with the coat.

Anyway, back on the flu front, somebody pointed out that hosing down everything with Lysol is an ineffective way to combat the flu. That’s because the flu virus, it’s said, does not survive long outside the body, so the Lysol (which combats viruses and bacteria) is fighting on a moot front.

Hey, this gives us something to think about.

And, to me, at least, it illustrates the difference between a fact and a risk structure. You can be right about one thing (a fact), but it can lead you to be wrong about the overall picture (the ultimate outcome).

That’s largely because it’s the second-order consequences, not the first-order consequences, that can lead us to doom.

For example, one common risk is that getting the flu can open the door to opportunistic infections by bacteria. In such a case, we’ve now gone from a first-order gig, the viral infection, to a second-order gig, namely the viral infection along with a bacterial infection. Want to go further? OK, let’s say that the bacterial problem lands us in the hospital. Now we’re facing a third-order array of consequences particular to the hospital environment. With this hypothetical situation in mind, let’s consider that, in theory, the “ineffective” application of Lysol might have prevented this outcome if it staved off the offending bacteria, while heeding the “fact” would not have prevented it at all.

Actually, as for Lysol, or no Lysol, or doing one thing, or avoiding another thing, well, I don’t have any answers here. My point is merely to show a thought process pertaining to a generic structure of risk. This structure is why bad luck often begets more bad luck.

It’s not that things merely snowball. It’s that they keep jumping to ever-steeper hills.

That’s why dealing with risk, if done competently, often means employing tools to prevent these jumps. We see various names for these tools, depending on the context. Some examples are: firewalls, sandboxes, insurance, and hedges.

Meanwhile, some risks are so bizarre that you just have to laugh.

For example, I once had to observe a lobby so it could be redesigned. I observed its activity in various one-hour segments over the course of a few weeks. My attention was drawn to the snack bar. It had a coffee machine and got a lot of traffic. The machine was high-tech. It was shiny. People liked to push the buttons and mess with it. Likewise, the adjacent basket of coffee pods saw a lot of roaming hands.

Well, one regular player on that stage was a dude who spent half his time with his fingers in his mouth and the other half fondling the coffee machine. After the office staff did their occasional wipe-down of the machine, the dude, apparently owing to some supernatural telepathy, would instantly materialize. And then, via his absent-minded fidgeting, he’d give the machine and pods a fresh coating of saliva. It was uncanny.

There wasn’t a flu outbreak at that particular time. Still, that spectacle strikes me as instructive in a lot of ways.

Well, that’s all I have to say about this flu stuff, at least for now. We’ll know that the threat has passed when Sparky gets back to his usual two packs per day. That day can’t come soon enough. For now, on his reduced rations, he’s sort of cranky.

Yes, tough times, these. It’s good to have an appreciation of risk so we can use a scientific outlook. It’s even better to have a magic coat.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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