July 13, 2020

Give Us the Damned Facts

Who was patient zero?

We were warned that Spring Break partying in Florida months ago would spread Covid-19 through the nation. Did it? Despite all the contact tracing which is being done (yes, there should be even more), I haven’t seen any study of how often people coming back from Spring Break were patient zero who brought the virus back to their communities. If you’ve seen such a study, please point me to it. If we had clear facts of damage that partying did (assuming there was damage), then there might be less harmful partying now. On the other hand, not seeing the data makes one suspect that the prediction did not come true and reduces the effectiveness of further warnings.

Shortly after there was a huge party or series of parties (I wasn’t invited so I don’t know which) at Lake of the Ozarks. Disapproving TV footage was shown around the world. The behavior certainly looked foolish and reckless. How many infections can be traced to that partying? I haven’t heard and it’s hard to imagine why not. Contact testing of the infected should lead us back to patient or party zero for a particular cluster.

The next major experiment in risk were protests around the nation. Some people said the cause was worth the risk. Others disagreed. The incubation period of C19 is two weeks. Shouldn’t we now know how much attending the various protests increased risk? Correcting for demographics, how much more likely was a protestor to have the virus than a non-protestor? We need this information to shape our future behavior, not just so one side or the other can say “I told you so”.

Then there was Trump’s bust of a rally INSIDE in Tulsa. Logically even more risky than an outdoors event. We heard immediately that some in the Trump entourage tested positive for the virus before or right after the event. But what happened to the attendees? Even though there were far fewer than planned, they didn’t socially distance or keep their masks on. I saw one article on the NY Times saying that cases in rural Oklahoma (where it is assumed Trump supporters came from) were increasing after the event, which is not inconsistent with infection at the event but is hardly proof. In fact, the article says, cases were increasing in these zip codes before the event. Does contact tracing lead back to the event or not? Somebody must know.

It’s unlikely that political bias is leading to suppressing this information. The right would love to attribute increased cases to the protests; the left and perhaps much of the middle would like proof that Trump was wrong to have his rally.

We have solid data that new infectees, on the average, are younger and younger. We know that young people are reckless and like to hang out. Sex and distancing are antithetical. There is strong suspicion that newly opened bars are a nexus for spread among young people. The theory makes sense. But where’s the data? We should be seeing maps of how the virus spread from bar to bar. Where are the maps? More data might persuade more people (not all) to take precautions. More data would make the decision to close bars again more palatable or might show us that they are not as dangerous as would guess they are.  More data might show that some types of bars are more dangerous than others.

Most of the data I’m asking about lives in State Health Departments. One reason they give for NOT releasing more of it is patient privacy. Here in Vermont where there are, so far, very few cases, it might be possible to guess who has the disease if a workplace or bar were named. In ordinary times we try to protect patient privacy; if you’re sick, no one knows but your doctor and Google. These are not ordinary times; we are doing a lot of things we don’t ordinarily do. We need data to guide our decisions even if privacy is compromised.

For example, Vermont has restricted who can visit the state without quarantining. We have among the lowest infection rates in the nation and haven’t had a C19 death in weeks. On a given day we have only one to three people hospitalized with the virus. We have adequate test and trace facilities, at least for our low infection rate. It’s hard to tell to what extent we owe our success to the measures we’ve taken and how much we owe to low population density. In a state highly dependent on tourism dollars, how quickly to allow unrestricted visits is a critical decision. I think our governor and our health department have done an excellent job in the crisis; but I still want to see the data they are using to make their decisions. Our cases pop up in clusters; how often was patient zero in the cluster a tourist, a Vermonter who traveled out of state, or someone apparently infected by a latent pool of asymptomatic infection already in state?

Granted, BTW, that in Vermont data based on very small numbers must be taken with several grains of statistical salt. Nevertheless, our state leaders say that they are responding to the data; I believe them; I’d like to see the data they are using to make these decisions.

Nationwide the reluctance to share data may partially be based on how inconclusive that data is. We obviously don’t understand as much as we’d like to about how the virus spreads and why it often doesn’t when you’d think it should. Our leaders may be afraid that we will make unwise decisions based on incomplete and inconclusive data. Some will. If there were no significant detected increases in cases from the Ozark parties, will people conclude that all partying is OK? Some will. Some may say that outdoors seems safer than indoors. If protesting outside is relatively safe, will we have more protests? Maybe, but that’s a decision we get to make. If the Trump Tulsa rally can’t be shown to have increased infection, will Trump get reelected? I think there are more important reasons why he shouldn’t and won’t. But we still need the data.

Part of the recent intolerance for debate has resulted in the dangerous idea that only “useful” data should be released. “Useful” data is data that gets people to act the way you want them to. For example, two reasons given for the World Health Organization and the CDC not recommending masks earlier than they did are: 1) people might have bought up all the masks that were badly needed by medical personnel; 2) people might have thought that they didn’t have to hunker down if they could just wear a mask. I wear a mask to protect others pending more data on effectiveness. More people would willingly wear masks if they didn’t believe they were being manipulated by selective release of data.

With luck and an enormous amount of work, we’ll have an effective vaccine in six months. We must make sure people take it. I think it should be mandatory. Before we come to that showdown, public trust must be earned back by releasing data whether it is “useful” or not. Give us the damned facts!

July 09, 2020

VTRANS New Policy is Unconstitutional and Just Plain Wrong

Government May Not Regulate Political Speech by Content

“Vermont’s Agency of Transportation has issued a new policy allowing street art to remain in public spaces within certain safety and decency parameters,” according to VT Digger. By itself, this would not be unconstitutional, just an issue of whether or not the public wants to see graffiti and political messages scrawled on walls, bridges, and abutments.

The new guidance was issued when “Black Lives Matter” was written on a bridge in Jamaica. VTRANS workers erased it as they were required to under the old policy regardless of content. Courts have consistently held that political entities may ban ALL writing and drawing on structures so long as the ban is content neutral. People immediately complained about the message being removed.

As quoted by VT Digger, Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn said: “it seemed that many people might think we were trying to stifle a conversation that’s very important to be having today. So we decided that we would exercise discretion and that voices needed to be heard.” Allowing voices to be heard is a decision government can make, so long as it allows all voices to be heard. But that’s not what happened.

When asked how the guidelines would apply to a message like “White Lives Matter More”, Flynn said the agency would implement the guidelines on a “case-by-case basis”. Profane messages or messages which compromise public safety will be taken down; although the definition of profanity is in the eye of the beholder, this rule would probably pass constitutional muster. But Flynn continued, “If it starts to get into the area of rights to the First Amendment, and what one person feels is appropriate versus another, we’re really going to have to look at that on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “But the current topic, racial justice, is very important. And we feel strongly that, for now, we’re going to look at it this way.”

Bong! Unconstitutional! The Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation may NOT decide on a case-by-case basis that certain topics or certain opinions on certain topics are “very important” and deserve special treatment. No matter how politically expedient such a decision might be. If “Black Lives Matter” (I agree, they do) is allowed to remain, then “White Lives Matter More”, as obnoxious as it is, must be allowed to remain also. You cannot allow the sign “good people wear masks” without also allowing the sign “real men don’t wear masks”.  Government may not regulate political speech depending on content.

On constitutional grounds, the policy can either be all opinions welcome (except those advocating violence or endangering public safety) or no writing on the bridges. On practical grounds, the only possible policy is the old one: don’t write on the bridges (I was Vermont Transportation Secretary a million years ago). If you allow all writing, do you have to police people writing over each other’s messages or does the last message stand? Does every VTRANS worker have to decide what is profane or dangerous? Is “Johnny Loves Sally” an expression of affection or a slander? If you are repairing a structure, do you need to preserve the last layer of graffiti? What about commercial messages? We have a law against roadside signs but what about a chalk sign recommending for (or against) a particular restaurant?

In this case, though, the constitutional issue is what matters. Government must not decide on a “case by case” basis what speech to allow. It used to be that, when free speech was threatened, the ACLU came quickly to the defense. For example, the ACLU defended the right of Nazis to march in Illinois. I’m a Jew and could scarcely dislike (and fear) Nazis more; nevertheless, I contributed to the ACLU because they defended free speech. Today, when free speech is under attack from the right and from the left, it has unfortunately few defenders… at least few who are speaking up.

Government must not regulate speech by content!

See also:

 Peter Berger: Protecting free speech for an excellent article on the probably unconstitutional firing of a Vermont principal for what she posted on Facebook.

Statement of Principles by Middlebury Faculty


July 07, 2020

ALL Black Lives Should Matter

Nine children under the age of 18 have been shot dead in Chicago since June 20 (NY Times).

Most of these children were Black or Hispanic. Where are the protests? Since the beginning of the year, according to the same NY Times article, at least 336 people, mostly people of color, have been murdered in Chicago. Their lives matter just as much as those who are killed by police. Their lives were lost because of too little effective policing; not too much. These are the Black lives that seem not to matter to protestors.

“People who have lost faith in the police are more prone to settle scores on their own, experts said. ‘The lack of trust, the lack of confidence in police and the lack of willingness to use police, I think is going to have a broader effect,’ said Mr. Abt.” Thomas Abt is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and one author of the nationwide homicide study by Arnold Ventures.

We don’t really need experts to tell us that gangs rule where the police don’t. This is not a racial phenomenon; see the movie Gangs of New York for the bloody story of Irish gangs in the underpoliced parts of that city in the beginning of the 20th century.  Also see many modern Mexican cities where peace only comes for as long as one cartel is in firm control. And weep for the Afghanis under the “protection” of one warlord or another.

The constant threat of violence and terrible schools (another subject for another day) trap people in both poverty and poor neighborhoods. Joining gangs is often the only means of survival, let alone relative prosperity. The cycle is self-perpetuating.

Gangs don’t run prisons, halfway houses, or believe in due process. Punishment for infractions of their rules range from severe maiming to death by torture of their enemies and perhaps the enemy’s family, especially if the family is likely to take its own vengeance in turn.

Establishing effective policing in an area dominated by gang violence is extremely difficult, even if there isn’t distrust of the police themselves.

“The city [Chicago] needs to do more to protect witnesses, said Rev. Ira Acree of the Greater St. John Bible Church. ‘People want to tell, but they are afraid,’ Rev. Acree told a community meeting that he organized to discuss the shootings, adding that people approach him repeatedly about doing the right thing. They tell him, he said, ‘I want to go to heaven, but I do not want to go this week.’” In other words, people must believe the police are in control and can protect them before the police can expect any local cooperation. A small pickup in police activity won’t help; there must be a surge of policing. The police must become the toughest gang in town… without resorting to gang tactics.

When I was young man in Chicago, the police were a disgrace and a menace. We National Guardsmen ended up teargassing cops during the 1968 Democratic Convention when they tried to attack demonstrators. The Kerner Commission documented what they correctly called a “police riot”. This was a lily-white police force under Mayor Richard J. Daley.

It would have been inconceivable then that Chicago would have a Black mayor and a Black police chief and an integrated police force as it does today. When this police force takes back control of the under-policed parts of the city, where the majority of killings happen, the majority of people arrested will be people of color just as the majority of people being killed today are people of color. The predictable arrest statistic cannot be a reason not to take action, even in a time of heightened racial awareness. The predictable continued killing without police control is an overwhelming reason for the Black-led and integrated police force to do the job they must do in the deadliest parts of the Black mayor’s city.

The reassertion of police control won’t work if it becomes license for the police brutality which Chicago police used to be notorious for and a terrible example of which rightfully triggered the latest protests. The police force must demonstrate that it will not tolerate lawlessness in its own ranks. There will be justified uses of violence; there will also be incidents of unjustified violence. The police should face scrutiny both when the violence is justified and when it is simply brutality; the police must earn trust by policing their own.

I’ve written about Chicago because its murder statistics are worse than most other American cities and there is good documentation of the city’s agony in the NY Times article I’ve quoted; but murder rates are up throughout the nation. According to NBC correspondent @Tom_Winter quoting the New York Police Department, all murder victims in NY in June and everyone who was shot so far in July (almost 100) were “of the minority community”. Any community which is denied effective police protection is denied its inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As important as it is to wave a flag against police brutality and remember its victims, no one can claim to really believe Black Lives Matter unless he or she believes that ALL Black Lives Matter.

See also: Fear Leads to Fascism

June 23, 2020

False Syllogisms

Avoid them as you would the flu.

“I was in the store,“  our friend said, “when someone came up to me and said ‘you’re wearing a mask so you must be a Democrat’. Isn’t that ridiculous.”

MaskedmeIt’s not only ridiculous, it’s also a false syllogism. Even if you know nothing about flu and masks and Democrats and Republicans, you can spot the bad logic. Even if all Democrats wore masks, everyone who wears a mask doesn’t have to be a Democrat. My avatar is an example since I’m not a Democrat and my avatar as drawn by grandson Jack is masked.

Long before misinformation was spread wholesale on the web, even before the printing press, Aristotle studied logic including syllogisms, presumably so he could judge the conclusions he heard at the forum when he did not have enough facts of his own.

A syllogism can be a very good way to reach a conclusion from observations (or to make logic puzzles). Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, gives this intentionally trivial example.
(1) Babies are illogical;
(2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
(3) Illogical persons are despised.

A conclusion you can confidently draw from these premises is that no babies can manage crocodiles, useful if you’re hiring crocodile managers. Granddaughter Lily and I are studying syllogisms via Skype not only in order to visit during lockdown but also because she likes puzzles and I’d like her to be able to spot bad logic.

At the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, several characters give great examples of false syllogisms:

… said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'

`You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, `that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!'

`You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!'

If we have the facts: (1) no one has been known to get the flu twice and (2) Joan currently has the flu, we can reason correctly that Joan is not known to have had the flu previously. We cannot conclude that Joan has not had the flu previously; perhaps she and many other did have the flu but that history is still unknown. This may sound like hairsplitting, but logic is essential to useful science. It’s also very useful in a democracy even if often ignored. When we know that none of millions of C19cases are reinfections in the same person, we will know that we can and should act as if no one can get the flu twice… but we still won’t know that reinfection will never happen.

The same friend who told us being identified as a Democrat by her mask went on to say that that it’s appalling how many Trump supporters in the grocery store aren’t masked. “How do you know they’re Trump supporters?” I asked.

“They’re not wearing masks.”

Apparently use of false syllogisms is non-partisan.

June 08, 2020

This Is NOT the Year for Vermont to Pass a Global Warming Solutions Act

Too Many Unknowns; Too Many Higher Priorities

On February 20, 2020, just before we knew that all pandemic hell was breaking loose, the Vermont House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.688, aka the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and sent it to the Senate. The Senate sent the bill to its Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Whether you’re for it or against it, the bill has huge implications for Vermont and Vermonters. It will almost certainly raise energy costs. It establishes a new unelected commission to set energy policy. It allows anyone to sue the state for any real or perceived lack of anti-carbon action

The pandemic hell did hit. Hospitals scrambled to make sure they weren’t overwhelmed. An astonishing number of Vermonters lost their jobs due to shutdown and fear of disease. The Committee, reasonably responding to more immediate priorities, has held no hearings on GWSA according to the legislative calendar.

Carbon emissions have fallen way below the most optimistic forecasts of the UN and others as factories shut and people stopped driving. Some of these reductions may be permanent as many of us have learned to work and hold meeting without driving. Some reductions may be long lasting for harmful reasons; many businesses may not reopen. We simply don’t know yet. Renewables have become a greater part of our energy mix faster than anyone thought possible as fossil fuel use declines. It’s not clear how well our electric grid will be able to handle this high a percentage of wind and solar.

Despite the uncertainty and the priorities the legislature must address, last week there were form letter posts on Front Porch Forum like this one I’ve excerpted below from Stowe urging the Senate to act on GWSA WITHOUT debate or making any changes to the bill.

“We cannot wait another year for this important legislation. If there is one thing we have learned over the past few months in regard to Covid19 and racial injustice - - we need to act and act quickly. For those of you in Lamoille County - - please call Senator Rick Westman this weekend to tell him that you're following progress on the GWSA and you'd like to see the Senate prioritize it, concurring with the House version (which passed 105-37; then there's no need for a conference committee), and pass it before they break.”

Even if you like the bill, it needs work. It’s full of internal inconsistencies. Perhaps these can be fixed in the Senate. It’s ambiguous on whether carbon sequestration (plants removing carbon from the atmosphere) counts towards the State’s carbon goal. It’s an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) abdication of legislative responsibility. Certainly one would want the Senate to consider the implications of this bill in a state which was at full employment when the bill passed the House and now has historic unemployment and lines for food handouts.

These issues should be aired in the Senate before the bill is passed and negotiated with the House. However, the legislature hasn’t even passed an appropriation of federal CARES money desperately needed by Vermonters. But this isn’t the year for that discussion.

Job one for the legislature is providing a medical and economic safety net for Vermonters already affected by the virus. Job two is making sure our medical infrastructure is ready for a possible resurgence of the virus. Job three is making sure as many Vermonters as possible can get back to work in three distinct scenarios: 1) a severe resurgence; 2) lingering outbreaks and no immediate vaccine or therapeutics; 3) effective vaccine or treatment. The legislature and administration must plan for all three scenarios. Job four is making sure Vermont kids get educated in all three of these possible scenarios. There isn’t enough money or energy for these four priorities let alone anything else.

The more important you think the GWSA is, the less you should want it rushed. We don’t know what emissions will look like next year. We don’t know how vulnerable we will be to further pandemic. We don’t know if we’ll be dealing with an influx of urban escapees or exodus of the unemployed. We must focus on this year’s priorities. Hopefully we will deal with them well enough (and be lucky enough) to consider our next steps on global warming next year.

[The original version of this post mistakenly said that the Senate Committee didn’t hold hearings on this bill.  In fact they did last week. Knowing that, it’s even more astonishing to me that people are pushing the Senate to pass the bill without any consideration of what they heard in the hearing and without even technical amendments.]


June 03, 2020

Fear Leads to Fascism

Tyrants rise from civil unrest

In an emergency, we’re used to giving up some liberties. Most of us are obeying shutdown, stay home, and civil distancing orders because we fear the pandemic. If you’re in a fire, you do what the fire people say. In general we obey police orders. A city can impose a curfew to protect lives and property. A mandatory evacuation order can be given. In an extreme, marshal law can be declared and most civil liberties suspended (Lincoln did that).

There’s probably something in primate DNA which suspends our usual obstreperousness and makes us take orders in a dangerous situation.

But there’s a dark side to this survival trait: when we’re afraid, we forget that we want to be free. We listen for a strong voice, look for a master who will protect us, and focus on the immediate danger which has frightened us rather than the long-term risk that our protector will become a tyrant.

I saw this danger first hand a long, long time ago in 1968 when I was a National Guardsman mobilized for the Chicago Convention riots. We were stationed in our armory which abutted a park in the then-decayed northwest side of the city. We patrolled the park because that’s what soldiers do and because our helicopters landed there. It was hot, boiling hot. We were heavily armed.

“I’m so glad you boys are here,” an old lady said. “We haven’t been able to come to the park at night for years.” She was Polish; her children had long since gone to the suburbs. The neighborhood was definitely not Polish anymore. And it wasn’t safe for her. She was happy to have an army on her street. We were no threat to her. We made her safe. She wasn’t worried about a civil society. She was afraid.

People we talked to on a recent trip to Russia did not deny that Putin was dictatorial; but they were quick to point out that the streets were safe and they had enough food. Apparently they were hungry and frightened under Gorbachev and Yeltsin even though they were also freer.

Nazi Germany was born from the weakness of the Weimar Republic.

This is a dangerous time for our country. Fear was already palpable in the pandemic; then there was the brutal killing by police in Minneapolis. Quickly arsonists, looters, and anarchists took advantage of legitimate outrage to loot and burn. Our cities are literally on fire. Mayors and governors in some cases did not act quickly enough to quell the destruction. It has taken on a frightening life of its own. Police who brutalize and people who terrorize BOTH need to be apprehended and punished swiftly.

We have a President who does not seem to understand Constitutional separation of powers and has no skill as a peacemaker nor apparent desire to be one. He does understand that frightened people will not only accept but even demand strong action; it’s part of how he was elected in the first place. He will, in fact, have to use the army if the violence doesn’t stop. And he will be re-elected overwhelmingly if the electoral battleground states continue to be actual battlegrounds.

We have a Democratic Presidential candidate who appears to be a decent man; but he is apparently so afraid of losing votes from the left wing of his party that he can’t bring himself to make a statement unequivocally condemning the mob violence as well as the police brutality. Governors who acted decisively to assume great power to shut down their states to bend the curve of pandemic are hesitant to use the force they have available to curb anarchy. Our republic will be much better served if local police and National Guard instead of the army bring peace the streets. There is no way they can avoid using force to do that; and, within reasonable bounds, they need our support when they do use force.

Abuse of power and opportunistic looting and anarchy are part of human nature. They are not going away. They are best dealt with swiftly and harshly.

Those of us inclined to vote for leaders who think dialog is always better than confrontation must think of the harm that ducking confrontation may cause. Those of us inclined to vote for authoritarians because we’re frightened must realize authoritarians don’t give up power lightly.

Just as protests don’t excuse looting, looting does not excuse the use of force against peaceful protestors as Trump apparently had done in Washington yesterday so he could walk unhassled across the street for a photo op. That was reprehensible.

Those who would prefer Biden to Trump, especially those who suspect Trump of despotic tendencies, should do what they can to persuade their presidential candidate and other candidates to condemn street violence and promise to deal with it; otherwise they won’t be elected (and we won’t be safe if they are).

Especially never-Trumpers should want this agony of anarchy quickly ended. A frightened electorate will vote for frightening leaders. Leaders who don’t keep us safe pave the way to despotism.

This post as adapted from one I wrote a year after Trump’s election: Fear Leads to Fascism.

See also: Shooting Looters


June 01, 2020

Shooting Looters

An historical perspective

In 1965 I joined the NY National Guard in order to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam (I’m not proud of that). The main job of the Guard then as well as now was to serve in times of local disaster. Then as well as now we built barricades from sandbags, evacuated people, and handed out food and other aid supplies. But we were always deployed armed because it is a sad fact that almost every disaster brings out opportunistic looters.

The standard doctrine we were taught was “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The reasons given were:

  1. The best way to save lives in a disaster is get people out of harm’s way BEFORE the disaster hits.
  2. People don’t obey evacuation orders when they are afraid that homes and businesses which they leave behind will be looted.
  3. It is terrible to be caught in the middle of an armed conflict between looters and property owners.
  4. Looting can only be prevented by shooting to kill looters.
  5. Looting is prevented when would-be looters fear being shot.
  6. People will evacuate if they are not afraid of looting.

We believed this doctrine. Equally important, would-be looters believed we believed it. Looting rarely happened when armed police or National Guard were present. Hardly any shooting happened.

At the time, there was no overtly racial tone to any of this. The disasters we deployed for were largely caused by mother nature or a faulty power grid. We were not expected to hold fire for white looters or to let black-owned property be stolen.

However, in the mid60s US cities were engulfed by a wave of “race riots”. Like every other disaster, then as well as now these riots brought out looters. It quickly became clear that the simple “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” wasn’t going to work. We couldn’t tell who was just protesting, who was there to loot, and who was just protecting his or her property – not like a beach community after an evacuation order when almost the only people there are first responders and looters. Moreover, these were race riots. The protestors and the looters were almost all black. The National Guard and police (at the time) were almost all white. White people shooting black people fanned the flames. We still turned out with rifles and fixed bayonets; we often didn’t have any bullets although we were well-trained with tear gas.

Not shooting meant the looting and arson went unchecked. The damage was mostly done to black communities. Looters then (and perhaps now) do most damage near home. A black woman pushed aside my bayonet to shout into my gas-masked face “shoot that [racial epithet deleted] on the roof! Don’t you see him? He’s burning the building where my babies are.” I was on the South side of Chicago during the Martin Luther King riots supposedly protecting a fire truck, which was being shot at and pelted with rocks while responding to arson fires. I had no bullets.

Parts of Newark and Los Angeles have never recovered from the damage done.

The Washington Post says the sentence “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” as tweeted by President Trump originated with 1967 Miami Police Chief Walter Headley who said “I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” I don’t know where Trump heard this phrase (and I doubt that WaPo does either); but I do know that Headley was just quoting then current law enforcement doctrine.

More importantly, we do have to deal harshly with arrested looters as well as with brutal police. Unfortunately both brutal use of power and the urge to loot are part of human nature. It is not racist to insist that looters be punished nor is it anti-police to say that that crimes committed by law officers need to be successfully prosecuted. It is both racist and cruel to withdraw law enforcement from black neighborhoods and it is unproductive and wrong to blame all the police in our mostly well-integrated police forces for the actions of a few or the tensions they all operate under.

See also : After the Storm

May 20, 2020

In Basketball the Virus Would Only Get an Assist

Keeping score correctly is crucial to planning the recovery.

The novel coronavirus didn’t kill J Crew, Nieman Marcus, or J C Penney; it only gave them a little shove. Their business models were broken and failing before C19 came out of the bat cave. Neither recovery energy nor recovery money should be aimed at resurrecting them as zombies or protecting others like them who will likely fail soon. Their demise makes room for new businesses and new business models just as winter clears the deadwood to make room for spring growth.

Four colleges closed last year in Vermont before anyone here even knew where Wuhan was; they were done in by a lethal combination of demographics, over-pricing and over-building spurred on by government loan program, and their failure to prepare their graduates for even the best job market in decades. The virus will probably give other colleges the final push into oblivion, but it won’t deserve the blame for their demise. Higher education (in fact all education) badly needs to be reinvented in the US. That reinvention will be retarded by any attempt to go back to the old normal. We may have learned some of the ways education can change from our forced response to the virus.

Supply chains over-optimized to bring the very cheapest goods and components to the US were a bad idea. The virus didn’t only break them; it demonstrated how fragile they were. If we subsidize the companies that relied on these broken supply chains back into business, they are much more likely to continue their bad old ways than new companies which reinvent a balanced supply chain that combines local and global sourcing, diversity of supply, shared inventory, and just-in-time manufacturing of critical components.

The virus didn’t force us to over-leverage; blame for that belongs with the Federal Reserve which could never bring itself to allow the wealthiest to suffer losses from the 2008 recession. Now the virus has brought the danger of all that over-leveraging home. What is the Fed doing? Doubling down on its last mistake and practicing the wealthfare it has become so good at. Cheap credit for corporate dinosaurs and no credit for startups and small business prolonged the last recession. I fear it will do even worse when disguised as pandemic relief.

On a much more human level, the virus is getting credit for even more deaths than it has caused. This disease has been a ruthless killer of the vulnerable; but underlying diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and obesity as well as simple old age were as responsible for many of these deaths as the virus which was the last straw. I’m 77 and hypertensive; if C19 gets me, it won’t have acted alone.

If we incorrectly give coronavirus full “credit” for all these deaths, we are making the implicit decision that almost all health spending should go to fighting this particular disease. That would be a mistake. There’s a huge amount we must do to reduce diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and obesity (we can’t do much about old age) so that the next pathogen doesn’t have as much vulnerable tinder.

The novel coronavirus ruthlessly mowed down the most vulnerable people and institutions. Even in the short-term we cannot make it our Moby Dick and focus on it alone.  Our recovery efforts should be towards a new and more anti-fragile normal; the old normal was broken in too many ways before the virus struck; now it is Humpty Dumpty and we need to move the eggshell out of the way.

See also:

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Wealthfare Cheats

The Internet Turbocharged Globalization

May 18, 2020

Judging the Swedish Experiment with Covid-19

Only time will tell

Unfortunately discussion about Covid-19 in the US has become highly political. Contrary to what both Donald Trump and his adversaries in the mainstream media think, it’s not all about him and his reelection chances. Lives and livelihoods can both be saved by learning what there is to learn about dealing with this virus; that learning can’t happen with partisan blinders on.

Sweden has taken a different course than much of the rest of the world. They haven’t shut down their economy; they haven’t closed their schools; they haven’t told people to stay at home. As quoted in The New York Times, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell said: “Once you get into a lockdown, it’s difficult to get out of it. How do you reopen? When?” Much of the US is facing that problem now.

Sweden’s infection and death rates are higher than neighboring Scandinavian countries, which did lock down. Does that mean that the Swedes were wrong to take this approach? We don’t know yet.

On the other hand, estimates are that as much as 25% of the Swedish population may have been infected by May 1 without overwhelming their medical system. Sweden’s death rate is much lower than that of hard-hit European countries like Spain, Italy and France and about the same as Ireland (locked down). It’s quite possible that Sweden will be less affected than its neighbors by whatever next wave of the virus hits because of partial “herd immunity”. Does that mean they were right to take this approach? We don’t know yet. Maybe there’ll be a vaccine by this fall (don’t count on it) and herd immunity will be injectable everywhere.

Obviously, all things being equal, you’ll have a higher initial death rate if you don’t lock down than if you do. On the other hand, if Sweden has minimized the danger from future waves of the virus, it’s death rate over time may be equal to or lower to its neighbors. The Swedish experiment would have obviously been a failure if their health care system got overwhelmed, but it didn’t. If Sweden has a roughly comparable mortality experience to its neighbors over time and has better preserved its economy, their experiment will have been a success although probably not one that could have been replicated everywhere.

But was Sweden right to take this risk even if things turn out well? Nassim Taleb, a wizard of black swans, says you don’t congratulate someone who wins at Russian Roulette. Were those leaders who called for a more severe lockdown wrong if their countries do no better or perhaps worse than Sweden? Maybe not. They had to make decisions with what they knew at the time. I think I would’ve chosen lockdown over the possibility of an overwhelmed health system. Bending the curve to below our hospital capacity made sense to me and, in general, the US has succeeded at that (for now).

But the history of viruses is that, once they evolve into dangerous pathogens, they don’t go away. Their effect can be minimized by vaccination (if it’s invented), treatment (once it’s invented), herd immunity, and contact tracing as we have done successfully (so far) with Ebola. Continuing shutdown to suppress the number of cases far below our treatment capacity may lead to more infection later and the perceived need for a ruinously long lockdown.  

How do we decide?

We must decide what levels of risk we are willing to take. “Zero” is not an answer; it’s always been riskier to leave the house and drive to work than to stay home. There’s always been risk of contagion in public places; the more crowded the more the risk.

We must look dispassionately at the results of experiments like Sweden’s and the US State of Georgia. We must ignore what is or isn’t good for Donald Trump. And we should judge our leaders by whether what they did seemed right at the time they did it, not with 20-20 hindsight.

May 13, 2020

The Elephant That Is in the Airport

A humbling experience.


The poster in the foreground of the nearly empty airport is about C19, the elephant which is clearly in the room. Apparently no one had time to change the poster in the background which identifies climate change as “the greatest challenge of our time”.

I blame it on the drug companies. If only they’d been as good at marketing as the renewable energy industry, every hospital in the world would’ve been overstocked with protective equipment and ventilators long before the pandemic hit. If we spent what we spent on the ethanol boondoggle and subsidizing electric cars for rich people on pandemic preparation, we might have had templates for diagnostic kits, therapeutics, and vaccines ready before C19 came out of the bat cave. We needed an Al Gore of plagues.

It’s not as if we didn’t have early warning. There was H1N1; there was avian flu; we worried about Ebola, but it has been too ruthless in killing its hosts to be a successful pandemic. Bill Gates warned that pandemics were the greatest near-term danger to our civilization and even put 100s of millions of Gates Foundation money into preparation. But we weren’t ready; weren’t nearly ready.

Ironically the pandemic has done much more to reduce CO2 emissions than climate change treaties, incentives, mandates, and angry 17-year-olds at the UN. Emissions were flat last year before the pandemic; they are, of course, way down this year, far below even the most optimistic assumptions used in climate change models. The scenario where large numbers of us simply stop driving and flying were not modeled; who would’ve thought…

That’s where the humbleness comes in. We really don’t know as much as we think we do about our future; nor do we control it nearly as well as we think we do. Even with the world fully focused on this pandemic, the models of its likely spread are consistently wrong on  both the upside and the downside. We don’t know why New York City was hit as hard as it was and why even more crowded Mumbai has (so far) not been. We are only beginning to learn that infections in China and the US and everywhere else may have started long before they were detected. We don’t know why some people seem to super-spreaders. We have no idea whether C19 will come back with a vengeance this fall, even where it appears to be waning. We don’t know why the irresponsible partying in Florida during spring break didn’t lead to traceable outbreaks wherever the partygoers returned to.

 At least four lessons from this rant:

  1. Pilots are taught never to focus on a single threat or a single instrument to the exclusion of everything else in and around the plane, sure way to fly into the ground when a lightbulb malfunctions. Letting the threat of climate change overwhelm consciousness of all other threats was poor public policy.
  2. Models are of much less use than a non-mathematician would think in projecting the course of mathematically chaotic phenomena like disease or climate or the economy. Models are a tool for understanding through simplification; but not all complex interactions can be simplified usefully.
  3. “Listen to the science” is a guide but not a panacea. Climatologists (and those who fund them) will tell you that climate change is the elephant in the room. Epidemiologists (and those who fund them) will tell you we should focus solely on disease. An asteroid could smash into earth – it’s happened before. In a democracy, political leaders must balance the warnings and the threats and the limited resources available and make choices. In a democracy we must chose smart leaders.
  4. When everyone is looking in one direction, look the other way. Otherwise you could get your pocket picked.

See Also:

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

May 11, 2020

The Internet Turbocharged Globalization

Just in time, it is becoming local as well.

Back around the turn of the century, the Internet reduced international communication costs by 99% in just a couple of years. In 1998 phone calls to China and India from the US cost more than $1.00/minute and data communication costs were similarly high. International supply chains were very difficult to set up and costly to manage because of the cost of communication. Internet telephony brought call rates down to pennies per minute, partly through technology and partly by making an end-run around the international telephone cartel managed by the UN. A huge investment in undersea fiber and technical advances in fiber capacity as well as Internet pricing brought data rates down as well. The Internet model made these advances in communication accessible to almost anyone who could get access to the Internet, not just to large corporations.

A factory in China could then look at graphic specs from a US prospect as easily as a US-based competitor could. Discussing a bid across oceans was no more expensive than across town. The enormous amount of data exchange needed to manage an international supply chain was no longer significantly expensive. Collaboration was enhanced in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years previously. Innovation flourished. Globalization was turbocharged.

Globalization accomplished many great things. Worldwide, there was an explosion out of poverty with a consequential increase in education and life expectancy. Child mortality plunged and birth rates went down in tandem. Consumers in the already-developed world had access to a plethora of incredibly cheap goods including generation after generation of more and more powerful electronics – almost all of which were built in the developing world.

We ignored the dangers of over-concentrated and complex supply chains. In a world where prices can be readily compared, the temptation to go for a momentary price advantage by concentrating supply overshadowed the fragility of single-sourcing and long supply chains.

Then the virus hit the fan.

We couldn’t even get enough masks to protect our hospital workers. They come from abroad and “abroad” needed its own production. Tried to make masks and found out we don’t make enough specialty paper or elastic domestically. Tried to make ventilators but all the parts come from somewhere else. South Korea went immediately to test and trace; we couldn’t because we didn’t have enough test kits or chemicals to use with them. South Korea is a lot closer to the beginnings of its supply chains than we are. Many of our supply chains run through South Korea.

The Internet made it too easy for us to outsource too much to too far away; short-term thinking made us ignore the risk of no plan B.

Better late than never, the Internet has also come to the rescue.

Work at home let many of us “non-essential” workers continue to work.

Americans all over the country began making masks. They used the Internet locally both to scratch up raw materials and to make their masks available to those in need. Local businesses and non-profits with 3d printers downloaded open source specs for face shields and other medical necessities and started printing. The Internet made it easy to find a local restaurant that can deliver and possible for the restaurant to stay at least partially open. Those who needed to stay tightly locked down were able to find local delivery services for groceries; those who couldn’t pay found local volunteer organizations, which had sprung up to meet their need. Certainly no nirvana but better than it would have been if the Internet weren’t there for us to collaborate on.

After years of talking about it and experimenting around the edges, both education and medicine went online because they had to. We learned how to Zoom.

Local has been everything in this crisis. One state is not like another; even regions of the same state are different. Local news and information are critically important. In Vermont and much of the rest of the country local daily newspapers have withered away and local tv and radio have cut their news staffs. VTDigger, Vermont’s online news source (on whose Board I am) has had a fourfold increase in traffic. Hyper-local Front Porch Forum is at the heart of self-help and help-your-neighbor efforts in almost every town in Vermont. Select Board meetings on Zoom are at least as accessible as they were in person.

Some of this has been so good that we won’t try to do it all in person even when the bug’s been banished back to the bat cave. Traffic may be reduced permanently by telecommuting. We can make room for social distancing in offices by having only a fraction of the workforce come in each day (if at all). Perhaps the same will be true for schools. Telemedicine can increase the availability of healthcare and reduce cost. Online college might actually be free. Just-in-time local 3d print-to order-shops will take some of the business from globalized supplied chains and add security.

But there is one enormous “but”: we must make sure everyone has access to highspeed broadband. The quality of all these online solutions is marred by the fact that a small minority does not have broadband access; we can’t switch service delivery online while even a small minority don’t have access.  It will be a crucial part of planning for not only the next emergency but also recovery from this one to achieve broadband for all. We can do that.

See also:

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

May 07, 2020

Beware Phishing on Facebook


I got the message above which said it came from a person (blacked out) who really is a friend on Facebook and otherwise. I clicked on it to see what video I might or might not be in. A new page opened in my browser which looked like it came from FB. It said the video required additional verification and asked me for my email address and FB password. Stupidly I gave these even though a quick look at the URL would've told me the page didn't come from FB and a closer look at the message would've told me this friend would never have used such bad grammar. The page that then came up was an ad for a direct marketing company - no video. But I think that page was just meant to make me think I clicked on a come-on and forget about it.

In fact I'd been hooked by the phish. Just gave my FB credentials to someone who can use them for who knows what and certainly would use them to phish for my friend's credentials by sending messages from my account. There is a black market on the Internet for stolen credentials. I came to my senses within five minutes and changed my FB password. Fortunately, I only used that password with FB.

It is possible that a highly efficient bot phished my friends before I got the password changed. If you got something strange from me, DON'T click on any link, please accept my apology, and also let me know.

Quick lessons:

1) Once you've logged into FB, do not give your login credentials again. The one exception is that FB will ask you for your old password when you are changing to a new one.
2) Don't assume a message comes from the friend it says it came from and don't click on any links in a message unless you're sure that it actually came from your friend.
3) If you're sending a message with a link to a friend, tailor the message with something personal to give the friend some assurance it is from you.

BTW, email phishing is very similar. I wrote about it at https://blog.tomevslin.com/2006/02/dont_be_a_phish.html. Too bad I didn't follow my own advice.

April 30, 2020

25th Internet Independence Day is Today

It's the 25th anniversary of the official birth of the unofficial Internet.

I'll be on a streamed Zoom panel with some of the people who made the Internet what it is at 5PM EDT today https://livestream.com/internetsociety/iid25 moderated by futurist Dan Berninger. other panelists are Esther Dyson, Gary Shapiro, Jeff Jarvis, James A Lewis, and Andrew Odyzko, May be interesting to see what can we see of the future from inside the c19 discontinuity.

Scratch in Quarantine

Grandchildren to the Rescue

We can’t touch our grandkids physically now, but we are in touch with them more than ever while they have no school and we can’t socialize otherwise. Usually we Skype but with a purpose. Mary reads books online with granddaughter P and does sewing projects with granddaughters M and L.

I Scratch. Scratch is a very graphic programming language invented at MIT and an excellent tool for teaching programming (except when it isn’t. complaints below.). 10-year-old granddaughter M is planning on being an astronaut and is assiduously preparing for her career. We’re working on multiplication tables and “scratch cards”, which she’s coded so that she and other home bounds can practice the times tables online. Her scratch cards are shared at https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/387802724/ in case your grandkids might enjoy them.


Along with the rules of if, else, when etc., I use Scratch to teach the programming ethic of sharing tips and code. We grownups use sites like stackoverflow to share; but Scratch has its own simplified sharing mechanism and its own wiki to consult for hints on hard-to-figure out things. With Scratch you either share or you don’t. I’d prefer more selective ways to collaborate, but the designers and overseers of Scratch consistently opt for simplicity.

Grandson J, 12, is an accomplished artist. He drew the quarantine mask on my avatar. He also loves games. So no surprise that he likes to use Scratch to build games with Anime-like characters. He’s become particularly adept at using the signaling and sensing structure of Scratch (its best features IMO). Two of his games are shared at https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/377539440/ and https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/377243754/.


Scratch is always open source; that means that you can see and learn from and copy the code from any shared project. You are asked to credit projects you learned from. Comments are open for all these projects and I hope we get some constructive comments.

Granddaughter L, 10, and I have always enjoyed exchanging riddles. She excels at logic puzzles and math. She and I have been working on formal Boolean logic, but Scratch is not particularly good for that. It has the logic operators AND, OR, XOR and NOT; but you can only assign the value “True” by assigning 1=1 or some other tautology. Complex mathematical and logical statements are almost impossible to read. L and I are going to move on to Python soon and I look forward to showing you what she does with that.

 See: An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

April 27, 2020

Wealthfare Cheats

Trotters in the Trough Threaten Relief Programs.

The Payroll Protection Program(PPP) is a pretty good idea, especially seeing how quickly it was thrown together and the partisan atmosphere that produced it. Money is lent to “small” employers if they need it to keep the doors open and people on payroll. The loan is at 1% interest but can be forgiven if used for rent, mortgage, utilities, or salary; essentially it is free money but well-spent compared to having the businesses close and more people go on unemployment, potentially for a long time. Obviously businesses which don’t have to lay everyone off will have a better chance of restarting once the crisis abates.

Businesses which want the money must certify “Current economic uncertainty makes the loan necessary (emphasis mine) to support your ongoing operations” according to the terms factsheet. The banks which actually make the loans on behalf of the Small Business Administration (SBA) are not required to verify this assertion for the very good reason that the money would not be dispersed in time to keep people employed if there were a verification process. But lack of verification immediately led to abuse.

We’ve all read about public corporations like Shake Shack which were shamed into giving back the 100s of millions they’d scoffed up. The Treasury Department made it clear that it is not “necessary” to have this money if you have other sources of cash, as public companies usually do.

Nominally the loans were restricted to organizations with 500 employees or less, but this limitation is riddled with exceptions left over from other SBA programs (footprints of lobbying past). The total loan to any one company was supposed to be $10,000,000 but companies were able to apply multiple times through multiple subsidiaries.

Not surprisingly, the money ran out long before the needs of small organizations were met. You must apply through a bank which is a certified SBA lender (most are). If you were an organization with a good banking relationship, you found a banker on your doorstep with an application (almost no risk for the bank and they get the deposit). But, if your organization needed to establish a banking relationship, by the time you’d done this, the money was gone. Not good.

A fair amount has been written about abuses in the private sector and shaming seems to be correcting some although it’s hard to know what’s happening in companies which aren’t public. What has not been written about (that I’ve seen), is abuses by non-profits, which I think may be more widespread than we’d hope.

I was on four boards when the program was announced, three nonprofit and one for-profit. All were approached by their banks urging applications for PPP money (and making light of the word “necessary”). One of the nonprofits had already had a layoff and would’ve had to cut further without a loan. The PPP loan was clearly necessary and was approved. Two of the other nonprofits, like everyone, were anxious about what the future will be; but they finally decided that, since they were not facing near-term layoffs, they should not take money from those organizations that would otherwise let people go. The for-profit company was also not immediately affected, and its investors made some funds available because of uncertainty and their feeling that they should not personally profit from the receipt of PPP funds. No application there either.

Nevertheless, the cavalier attitude that bankers, lawyers, accountants and advisors take towards the certification of necessity make me certain that there are abuses of PPP waiting to be discovered in the nonprofit world.

We need emergency programs like PPP. However, it becomes impossible to reach the needy when the well-connected jump into line ahead of them. The programs are, of necessity, light on pre-verification because the money is needed now. However, we the people must make clear that there will be post-accounting. Fraud must be punished legally; unethical behavior, which may not be illegal, should be punished in the marketplace.

April 24, 2020

Live on WDEV

This afternoon (April 24)  at 1PM ET I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing how our federal system is working in addressing the C19 crisis. Appropriately the show is postponed from its usual morning slot because of Gov. Scott's news conference at which he'll announce the next step in opening up Vermont's economy. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.


Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

April 21, 2020

It’s Time for a $15 Minimum Wage – At Least

We Know It’s Deserved.

I’m economically conservative and a capitalist. Higher wages will tend to raise prices. There will be at least a marginal loss of job opportunities when paying very low wages is no longer an option. However, minimum-wage and near minimum-wage workers taking risks have made it possible for the rest of us to shelter at home. They earned a big raise. Many employers will not be able to afford higher wages in the tough times ahead UNLESS higher wages are required by law.

The minimum unemployment check is temporarily $600/week. That’s $15/hour for 40 hours of NOT working. Certainly the gross wages for working ought to be at least as much as for not working. Even if the unemployment payment comes down as currently scheduled; wages ought to stay at least at $15/hour.

Full employment was driving wages up above the minimum wage before C-19 hit. That’s great when it happens, but wages are likely to plummet as many people find that the jobs they had are not there to return to. We cannot let that happen. From a practical PoV, we as taxpayers will end up supplementing low wages with various forms of needed welfare. Frankly, I’d rather pay enough at the grocery store so that the grocer can pay workers a decent wage than have to make up the difference through taxes which will support the workers unevenly and much of which will have to pay for the bureaucracy which administers the various programs.

Businesses with low margins and for whom labor is a significant cost CANNOT pay significantly more than the prevailing wage or they lose business to competitors who pay lower wages and therefore have lower costs. When all competitors were forced to pay more due to low unemployment, individual businesses were not disadvantaged competitively by paying more. The purpose of a minimum wage is to avoid a rush to the bottom in tough times. All things being equal, higher wages mean higher prices which means less demand which means less sales. If there is a sales decline because of higher prices to pay higher wages, it will be spread evenly.

However, demand for essential things like groceries and trash-hauling is not very elastic. We have to eat; we have to get rid of the trash. Restaurants are more of a luxury, but the sad fact is that many restaurants won’t reopen. Those that do will not be able to serve as many people, at least initially, since there’ll be a need for distancing. It will not be terrible if restaurant wages go up, so long as wages go up for all restaurants.

Some costs are going to go down and those lower costs will at least partially make up for higher wages. The cost of oil today – for the first time in history – is negative. We won’t be paid to drive gas-guzzlers.  Oil won’t stay negative, but I think energy costs in general will stay historically low for years to come. That means the energy cost of farming, of manufacturing, and of transportation will go down. Downtown real estate may be cratered by Zoom; the cost of retail space is going down quickly. Unless the government pulls another massive bank and corporate bailout – which it may, the price of assets like planes, oil wells, and even banks themselves will fall. The cheaper these assets are, the less capital businesses need and the more people businesses can hire. Recessions used to cause this sort of redistribution of wealth – but, following the recession of 2008, wealth was protected by government bailouts and wage and employment growth were both sluggish for ten years. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

The $15/hour minimum wage should be federal. States, like businesses, have a competitive problem if they raise their minimum wages faster than their neighbors. States should be free, as they are now, to set their own minimums higher than the national floor as their conditions warrant.

There should be some narrow exceptions for very small startups, perhaps work-from-home jobs, and some summer jobs for kids. We are paying essential workers more now because we see they are essential. We owe it to these veterans of the C-19 war to pay them what they are worth when we’ve won.

See also:

Don’t Bail Out the Oil Industry (or the Banks)

We’ve Been T*RPed

April 13, 2020

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Predicting Tomorrow is More Fun than Watching Today

Work from Home

I’ve been wrong many times in predicting that remote work-at-home would cut way back on the amount of commuting people do. This time it’s going to happen because it’s already happening. The tools for remote collaboration have gotten much better; the Internet held up (fingers crossed) under an enormous shift in volumes. We have been forced to learn what we needed to learn to work mainly from home.

Many of us have taken a crash course in remote meetings. They’re a hell of a lot better that the old phone conferences. With Zoom and other tools, I’m even spared my usual problem of not remembering people’s names since the names are with their video feeds. Side bar texts are a much better way to make snide comments than passing paper notes or whispering.

The last company I started had no servers even though it was information intensive because our information and access to it was safer and more flexible if the servers were in the cloud. Turned out, of course, that cloud-based servers (as long as security is good) make it much easier to shift work from an office to home.

If I were starting a company today (I’ve given up on that), unless there were machines to run, crops to tend, people or animals to care for, there’d be no office at all. For the foreseeable future, hotel rooms will be cheap enough to rent whenever and wherever we need to be together. Ditto for restaurants.

It will be almost impossible to convince people that they need to drive an hour or more for a one-hour meeting, find parking, and then drive back an hour. “Why?” we will ask. Can’t we do this online? A lot easier to schedule one hour than three. Don’t even have to worry about feeding the dog or letting him in and out.

The Implications are Huge

Downtown office space is going to have a long and severe recession. Some businesses won’t reopen, of course. But many businesses won’t choose to have an office even when people can work together again. Offices are expensive. Offices are as much a relic as typing pools, coffee carts, carbon paper, and filing cabinets. Why heat and cool both a home and an office when just one will do? And why commute?

Downtown hotels and restaurants will suffer except to the extent they quickly adapt to become the meeting place for those without an office.

If you don’t have to go downtown to work, then you don’t have to live downtown unless you want to. Downtown rents will come down. Sprawl will be enabled by remote working and partially driven by health concerns whether urban planners like it or not. The environmental price of sprawl will be mitigated by both no commuting and much less need for separate heated and air-conditioned workspaces.

Much schooling can stay at home.  Maybe we’ll have free online college for everyone. There’s no reason why every young adult shouldn’t be able to take the best online courses in the subjects they’re interested in. No need to incur huge debt to live in a palace just so you can get to a lecture by a local “expert”. Socialization is important but it’ll cost extra.  

Check the price of oil. The crash in oil prices is caused not only by less driving, of course; but the Saudi’s and the Russians and even us Americans aren’t going to be able to sell our oil at very high prices when driving doesn’t resume at its former level and offices stay shuttered. Cheap energy is like a huge tax cut except we don’t have to pay for it later. Environmentalists will be concerned that low energy prices will incent energy use. But, for the next couple of years, crippled economies and much less driving and office space will push emissions way below the rosiest UN scenarios. Renewables have already become a much bigger part of our energy supply because fossil fuels bear the brunt of any cutback.

We must finally finish the job of getting broadband everywhere people live, especially since where you live often will now often be where you work and learn.

Vermont Will be Aided and Challenged by Another Wave of De-urbanization like the one which brought Mary and me here long, long ago. More on that later.

We’ve also learned that the real essential workers are the ones who can’t work from home. If they weren’t on the job, we’d be starving and sick. Remember the scorn people had for burger-flipping and shelf-stocking and trash-hauling jobs. Turns out these jobs are more essential than what most of us do. People who do these jobs will be paid more and all of us who depend on them will pay higher prices. Fair enough.

April 08, 2020

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

Governors Led Containment and Now They’ll Lead Release

The Lockdown

America’s system of states with a great deal of independence from the federal government has served us well during the pandemic. Most Governors acted quickly to shut down schools, public gatherings, and businesses as the magnitude of the threat became apparent. Note that the areas hit first like the State of Washington already seem to be on the road to containment if not recovery. With hindsight, we’ll say some states acted too quickly or too slowly – but that’s only with hindsight. We’ll also never know whether states which get through this relatively unscathed would have fared worse if they hadn’t shut down. This is the real world and not a case study in a classroom.

States have been able to learn from each other. That’s one of the advantages to having more than one approach to solving a problem, particularly a problem no one in office in the US has ever had to confront.

Even if you approve of the President, it is highly unlikely that he or she would be able to do the right thing (whatever that is) for each area of our huge and diverse country. Vermont doesn’t need special provisions to keep subways running and New York City doesn’t have to make sure the maples get tapped while the sap is still running.

BTW, the federal government has so far not done a good job of keeping national stockpiles of critical items or speeding their manufacture. That is its role – but the governors have coped the best they can, and states are beginning to share supplies as needed.

The great release

Just as it would have been a grave mistake to wait too long to take precautionary measures, it will be a mistake if government attempts to keep individuals and the economy in lockdown. The “economy” is not just some abstraction which makes money for capitalists, it’s the environment of goods and service we all live in. Many of us can shelter in place for a while because the economy was strong and because it can coast for a while and use its surpluses to help those in need. We are also only able to duck exposure because other people are taking risks for us. That is not a “sustainable” situation.

Once we are past peaks which would have overwhelmed our hospitals, first responders, and medical professionals, we must go back to work and makes sure that the essential workers who have been sheltering us have whatever “non-essential” things that we provide. We quarantined to “bend the curve”; and, fingers-crossed, we may be close to having done that in many places. Now is the time to look at where, when, and how the rest of us can get back to doing our share.

The when and how isn’t going to be the same everywhere. That’s why states have a key role. Even in Vermont, our metropolis of 40,000 people is a relative hot spot while two of most rural counties have no confirmed cases at all. The government of Vermont is going to be able to do a much better of job of deciding under what circumstance and with what appropriate precautions we can go back to work, occupation by occupation, than anyone in Washington, DC could possibly do. We will experiment in some ways; our neighbors will experiment in others; and we’ll learn from each other.

Of course, there is still a huge role for the federal government. The availability of kits for “test and trace” will help determine how quickly we can emerge from our bunkers; getting those tested and produced should be a federal responsibility. We can’t wait for a vaccine before we come out of hiding; but we’ll need vaccines approved and manufactured and available before we’re truly out of the woods. Getting a vaccine out is a job for the feds and private businesses although it will be up to the states to make sure everyone who is medically able to take the vaccine gets a shot.

As the stimulus dollars trickle in from Washington, DC, we don’t want them all to flow right back to Washington the state where Amazon is located. We want to be able to spend locally to restart our local economies. We can’t do that if the stores are shuttered. We can, though, if the stores are following appropriate local guidelines which allow social distancing.

All governors (and state legislators where they’re involved) will make some mistakes either in moving too quickly or too slowly. Those who are politically courageous will continue to shoulder responsibility and make decisions as the facts on the ground in their states seem to warrant. The best leaders admit their mistakes promptly and fix them. The worst mistake is to think that one federal policy will fit this whole huge country coming out of lockdown.

Tom, having some places under quarantine and other not is like having a peeing area in a swimming pool

Many smart people are concerned that coming out of lockdown in one place puts everyone else at risk. It’s hard to deny that there’s some risk. But the history of this virus is that it can be contained locally with only the worst clusters shut down. There was a crisis in Wuhan but not Beijing. There is certainly a crisis in NYC; but there is not in Plattsburg, NY. My son and daughter-in-law just had a healthy baby born by c-section in a hospital in Italy (you better believe I was worried). There is only one ridge line between the city they’re in and Lombardy, from where we have seen the terrible pictures of exhausted medical workers in over-burdened facilities.

Thanks again to all those who are working to keep us safe. We’ll be out and about soon, so we can do our share for you.

April 02, 2020

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

Back in 2015 Bill Gates wrote in his blog:

“The world is simply not prepared to deal with a disease—an especially virulent flu, for example—that infects large numbers of people very quickly. Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.”

He was right. This year, in an interview you may already have seen, Bill explains what we should have done and now can do to prevent another pandemic.

Even since 2015, medical and computing technology have advanced so far that, given a year or two, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again at an almost trivial price compared to what a pandemic itself costs. Since it is human nature to always arm for the last war, I’m confident that we the world will do what needs to be done to cancel at least viral pandemics. Doesn’t mean we won’t face other catastrophes, but we can put this threat behind us.

One reason that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates understands what must be done to fight human viruses is that computer viruses are very good models of the human pathogens they are named after. Even better, lessons learned in keeping computers safe can save human lives

Computer viruses

A computer virus captures your machine and forces it to send out replicas of itself to infect other machines.  A human virus forces your cells to make zillions of replicas of its nasty self; if it’s a respiratory virus, it forces you to cough and sneeze to infect other people. Gastrointestinal viruses cause you to spew liquids. Yuk.

Both human and computer viruses spread “virally” (of course), so long as each infected person or machine infects more than one other person or machine. Once the transmission rate goes below one, the infection dies out in the human and computer population.

For computer viruses we all run anti-virus software which detects known incoming viruses and blocks them before they can do damage. Since new viruses are created by evil hackers all the time, the software must be updated constantly with new detection methods for new viruses. This updating happens in the background and we don’t pay much attention to it. New viruses still claim some victims; but, once they are known, new detection and destruction algorithms are developed (sometimes automatically) and distributed before the virus can become epidemic.

Human viruses

Human viruses are made of genetic material (RNA or DNA). They each have a distinct fingerprint. The human immune system learns this fingerprint and builds a chemical template to not only recognize the virus but to neutralize it. The immune system doesn’t forget; it keeps the virus description filled away for future use. That’s why we have an immunity to most viruses assuming we survive them. Vaccination is effective against viruses because it teaches our immune system what to look for and how to disable it BEFORE the actual attack.

Each year we update our flu vaccine to keep up with continual mutation of the flu virus. Enough of us are vaccinated or have immunity because we’ve had a similar virus so that the annual flu “only” takes 290,000 to 600,000 lives/year according to the World Health Organization. Many people that an infected person comes in contact with are immune; and so the spread rate is kept low enough for our medical people and infrastructure to cope.

The virus which causes COVID-19 is called a “novel” coronavirus because no human has ever had It before. None of us has an immunity; there is no vaccine for it. When a community or family is first exposed, everyone is a potential steppingstone for the virus. Stopping the spread is extremely difficult before we have a good and speedy way to identify who is infected, before we have effective treatment, and before we have a vaccine.

We may have good detection for coronavirus in the next few weeks and good distribution of the detection kits shortly thereafter; that will slow the spread but not before a terrible price has been paid. With luck we may soon have medicines which are effective against it; but they do have to tested both for efficacy and possible side effects and then manufactured in large quantities. We won’t have a vaccine safe enough for mass distribution before the end of this year at the earliest.

Fast forward a few years and this doesn’t happen again

We can and will use the tremendous advances in gene science over the last decade to develop the super-computer powered ability to recognize even a novel virus within days if not hours of having a sample – just as we do with computer viruses.

For respiratory viruses there will be machines like breathalyzers readily available all over the world (perhaps they will even be used as breathalyzers) which can recognize specific genetic material. These are analogous to the virus detection software you already have on your computer. These breathalyzers will be updated constantly with the super-computer developed detected algorithms for each new virus emerging from the bat cave or wherever. Testing will be easy, cheap, and almost immediate. Contact tracing and selective quarantine can happen as fast as they are needed. Similarly, detection mechanisms for gastrointestinal pathogens may be built into smart toilets. Just fast detection will be an enormous step.

But, better yet, we will be able to able to use genetic recognition capability to fabricate vaccines which need minimal testing before being widely used. Machines to manufacture the vaccine will just download the pattern and we can have huge supplies almost immediately. Early detection will give us time to test the vaccines; we may pre-manufacture some when a new virus is detected just in case it becomes epidemic. It’s our own antibodies, again like preloaded antivirus software, which will fight off infection as soon as there is a vaccine to tell them what to look for.

It’s a little more of a stretch but I think we will similarly be able to do quick and safe fabrication of new pattern-based medicines to help those who do get infected.

BTW, annual flu deaths will also be vastly reduced with these same capabilities – assuming people do get vaccinated.

We don’t need to have another pandemic.

We do need to get through this one. Please stay safe and join me in thanking the heroes who are working while we self-isolate. One of the great pleasures after the pandemic will be figuring out how to reward them.

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