August 11, 2020

Leadership in Extreme Disruption

Case studies close to home.

Imagine you’re a leader and don’t have a clue what to do. How do you make decisions in an unprecedented situation? What people and data do you rely on? How do you keep the respect of the people you’re leading when many of your decisions are going to turn out to have been wrong?

Let’s start with a simple case. You and your faithful follower (ff) are in a pitch-black space. You can talk to each other; you can touch each other; but you can’t see anything. There’s no good reason to think you’re going to be rescued; you’re first decision is to try to find a way out. Doing nothing is not an option; that’s rule #1.

You could say to ff “we’ll go this way; I think it’s the best way.” But you have no reason to think that, so there’s no point in saying it. Better to say “we’ll try one direction at a time and see what we find.” Then, if two steps take you into a wall, you’ll have learned something instead of having squandered points from your credibility bank. Rule #2 is don’t pretend to know more than you do.

“Shall we walk or crawl?” asks ff.

“Let’s crawl,” you say; “no telling where there may be a hole.” You crawl for a long time; your knees are sore; you are slowly building mental maps of the space but is taking forever; you don’t find any holes.

“Based on our experience,” you say, “we’d be able to make better progress by walking. But I could be wrong.” Rule #3 is never, never be afraid to say you were wrong. You add to the credibility bank.

You start to walk and promptly stumble into a hole which fortunately isn’t deep enough to do more than bruise your body and ego. “I was wrong,” you say again (having already allowed for that possibility one paragraph ago). “Let’s walk but with one of us in front and holding hands for safety.” I don’t know whether you and ff will escape but you’re doing a good job leading, the plan is evolving, and you still have a follower.

Back in the real covid-ridden world, who’s been doing a good job leading and who hasn’t?

Donald Trump’s done a bad job of both crisis and conventional leadership. He did some things right: shutting off arrivals from China early was correct; daily briefings were a good idea but the execution was terrible; multiple parallel incentives for drug companies to develop vaccines quickly is good traditional leadership. He was dead wrong about the impact although his early guess (rule #2) – “not gonna be a problem” – was not that different than what the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were then saying. But Trump never got around to admitting he was wrong (rule #3). Awarding himself a ten for an adequate response cost many credibility points; saying “five and we’re trying hard to do better” would’ve left him in a better position to lead subsequently – but that’s not his style. It wasn’t Trump’s fault we weren’t ready for the first wave; no one has accused him of burning stockpiles of masks, ventilators and test kits left by his predecessors. Not being ready for the summer resurgence was an absolute failure of traditional leadership; it should cost him the presidency. Advocating masks with a wink and then not wearing one is atrocious. On the other hand, a national mask mandate except for federal venues and federal jurisdictions like interstate commerce would be clearly unconstitutional.

Dr. Fauci got off to a good start admitting to a congressional committee that the US was not ready when it should’ve been. His credibility and ability to lead have been enhanced by his willingness to contradict his boss. His early prediction that the virus wouldn’t be a major problem was incorrect although it was conventional wisdom when he said it. He should just admit this instead of evading the question when it comes up. The evasion makes him vulnerable to his enemies in the White House.  Fauci reversed himself on masks as the evidence changed; that’s a good thing except he also says he didn’t want people to hoard masks when they were in short supply for medical people. The suspicion that he bends his facts to get us to do what he thinks is good for us makes him a less effective advocate for mask-wearing now than he might have been had he told us the whole truth all along.

Governor Mario Cuomo has talked a good game. His well-run daily briefings gained in comparison to the President’s pathetic ramblings. He initially underestimated the impact like almost everyone else. Once he understood the danger, he was brutally frank about it to point of exaggeration. His prediction that what was happening in New York (actually the New York City metropolitan area) would happen soon in the rest of the country was fortunately wrong – and may have reduced the willingness of the rest of the country to send even more people and supplies to NY. Cuomo’s decision to send covid-infected patients back to nursing home to reduce the stress on hospitals was catastrophically wrong. It is one of the reasons why New York’s covid death toll remains much higher than any other state even though some states have now surpassed it in number of confirmed cases.  The squabbling between Cuomo and DeBlasio is infantile and harmful to both their ability to lead and their constituents.

My prize for good leadership goes to Vermont Governor Phil Scott I don’t think I’m just overcome by home-state loyalty. We do have the lowest infection and positivity rates in the country; we have no one currently hospitalized; we’ve had just two deaths in the last six weeks. Part of these results are certainly because we’re rural and not densely populated; but we are also less than five driving hours from the epicenters of the early New England wave. The early shutdown of the hospitality industry hurt the people who own and work in our hospitality industry greatly but may have saved us from having our hospitals overwhelmed and may make a winter ski season possible. Credit (and blame) for that decision belongs to Scott. He hasn’t tried to avoid the blame and he has been modest about accepting credit. Leaves him in a good position to lead (and get re-elected) going forward.

Phil’s briefings, never quite daily, were not only appropriately low-key but a model for letting both the experts and the government leaders speak directly to the people of Vermont. All of them, particularly Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith, are quick to admit what they don’t know. Mistakes get admitted such as not more closely monitoring the covid testing protocols at out-of-state prisons to which Vermont prisoners are sent (there has been a large outbreak there).

Scott resisted making masks mandatory for most Vermonters for the very good reason that there was not a good enforcement method so, voluntary compliance was needed. He switched his position when 1) voluntary compliance proved not to be what he hoped it would be; 2) it became clear that students returning from out-of-state as well as tourists will increase the risk; 3) the importance of reopening k-12 schools made other risks less tolerable [nb. I still think we’ll need some enforcement in some places]. Changing your mind when the facts warrant is good leadership. Don’t let your spin-doctors talk you out of simply saying “I learned things and I changed my mind.”

Leadership from congress in this pandemic. Fuhgettabouttit!

And Joe Biden is MIA. His silence may be good electoral strategy while Trump blusters and splutters but it doesn’t set Biden up well to lead as next President.

August 06, 2020

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

Like policing, schooling is essential and must be available to all. Some of what police do and the funds which pay for that work, can be better assigned to other professionals. Much of what teachers do today (or used to do before the pandemic) can and should be done by others. A silver lining of the pandemic may be to accelerate a transition to better schooling than our children were getting before the virus blew out of the bat cave.

K-12 schools, when they’re open, perform five basic functions: instruction, practice, testing, daycare, and more-or-less supervised socialization. Public schools have also become a place where children are fed who might not receive adequate nutrition at home and where some signs of child abuse or neglect can be spotted.

In-person instruction in most K-12 subjects is obsolete. If lecturing or storytelling is needed, as it often is, that is better done by video featuring the most-gifted presenters and actors. Animation makes much better illustrations than drawing on a whiteboard. Carefully-crafted educational scripts can allow both exploration and re-covering topics a student is having trouble grasping. Interacting with a computer is, itself a skill, which will help today’s students at-least until the successor to computers is invented (as it surely will be).

The schools of the future will be places where students have great broadband capability, all kinds of av equipment, and, regardless of zip code, instruction by the best presenters in the world in a context as compelling as the best games the best gamers can make. The geniuses who make this wonderful content and keep it up to date will be very well paid; they won’t belong to the teachers’ unions; and the cost of production will be spread over the tens of millions of students who benefit from it.  Depending on grade level, two to five hours of the school day should be online.

There do need to be monitors while the kids are watching and interacting with the content (otherwise they might not watch or interact); but these people don’t have to be content experts; they will be more like very well-trained day care workers. If shutdowns of schools are necessary in the future, the content will be consumable at home with mom or dad or a pod doing the monitoring.

Much practice can also be done online. However, students benefit both from well-moderated group discussion as well as very individualized clarification of points they just don’t grasp initially They do benefit from hands-on labs. These are jobs which do benefit from human teachers who are both good with kids and familiar with the content. These teachers should be well-educated and well-paid. They should NOT be protected from firing by their union when they prove incompetent or unwilling any more than brutal or incompetent police should be protected.  Children probably don’t need to be with the teachers providing moderation, clarification, and hands-on experience for more than a couple of hours of each school day.

Testing require only monitors and computers. The testing is essential, however. It provides feedback for tailoring both practice and instruction to the individual students, vocational guidance, and a measure of how effective the instructional material and the teachers supervising practice are.

Daycare and supervised socialization occur together whether at mealtime, sports, or what used to be called recess. Coaches are needed for sports and do need special skills. Again video can teach and illustrate athletics but supervised practice is even more important for muscular skills than for intellectual ones.

On the average, children will only be with content experts (LIVE teachers, coaches, arts instructors) three hours or so every school day. They will still be with adults most of the rest of the time, but at least half the time the adults will be monitors and skilled daycare workers. We will only need half as many teachers per student as we do today; but, thanks to excellent content available in every school, the students will get a better education.

Hiring fewer teachers can mean both more selectivity and higher pay for people who can make an enormous difference in children’s lives.

Note that daycare starting at almost any age fits into this model. For the very young, there’s more care than teaching; but some teaching should start very early. Public, charter, parochial, and private schools will all be able to use the excellent course material at a very reasonable price per student. Assuming broadband availability, the instructional material will also be available for home-schooling when parents feel that’s needed or desirable – or when schools are closed. We will still have to be pay more for teachers and monitors to work in dangerous neighborhoods – and should pay more. But the instruction available in urban and rural depressed area will be as good as it is anywhere else; it will offer a path from poverty.

See also: Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

              Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

August 03, 2020

Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

The police are willing to work.

Beyond the ludicrous argument that we don’t need law enforcement, there are sensible reasons for moving some functions and the funding to accomplish them away from police departments and to those who are trained for the specific functions. The reasons for moving funding away from the traditional public schools are at least as compelling.

This post is about moving money and functions away from teachers who can’t or won’t teach during the pandemic to those, including parents, who will watch and educate kids. The next post is about what the pandemic is teaching us about permanently shifting funds from teachers to those best equipped to perform the tasks that were wrapped up in “public schooling” before the pandemic.

Teachers who don’t teach shouldn’t be paid. This is not meant as a punishment. If waitpeople or nurses can’t work because their workplaces are closed or because they are individually too much at risk, they go on unemployment even though the shutdown or their vulnerability is not their fault.  Waitpeople and the owners of restaurants have incentive to be as creative and flexible as they can to keep their jobs. Teachers’ unions, on the other hand, believe their members have a right to get paid whether they work or not. Teachers might be a bit more creative about returning to work if their salaries depended on actually doing their jobs.

The money paid to teachers who don’t teach is needed by parents. If your daycare center is closed because of COVID, at least one parent won’t be able to go to work; however, you do have the money NOT paid to daycare available to offset some of the salary loss. When you stay home because teachers are not taking care of your children, the teachers are getting paid anyway and you’re not. That’s wrong.  Your tax dollars are paying for a service you’re not getting.

The money paid to teachers who don’t teach is needed to pay those who can and will. If your favorite restaurant is closed by the pandemic, you can use the money you didn’t spend there at the grocery store (thanks to many essential workers who have stayed on the job through the pandemic) or at a restaurant with outdoor dining. If your children can’t get educated at their public school, you need the money which would have gone to pay those teacher salaries to pay daycare workers, private schools, tutors, and/or for online courses.

Outrageously, the Los Angeles Teacher’s Union is demanding that charter schools in the city be shut down as part of the price of their returning partly to work. They want to make sure no one else does the job they are not doing.

Coming Next: what the pandemic has taught us about permanently “defunding” teachers.

See also:

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

July 30, 2020

Forward To a New Normal - The Scratch Version

In my last post I wrote a warning that we have no way back to the pre-pandemic normal and put ourselves in danger by trying to get there rather than accepting that we have to move forward to a new normal. When we taught our children how to be safe near fast-flowing streams, we taught them to swim for shore  - not towards the point where they fell in. They didn't believe us until we took them to a  river for a demonstration.

That was then and this is now.

I'm teaching my grandchildren Scratch programming, not water safety. The project below teaches the same lesson without even needing to get wet. Click on the green flag to get started. If you do nothing, the swimmer will drown in a vain attempt to get back to where he fell in. You can use the left arrow key repeatedly to get him safely back to shore.

Depending on whether you go directly to my blog or get posts by email and depending on what browser you use, you may not see the game or clicking the flag won't work. In either case, just click here to play.



See also:

An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

Scratch in Quarantine

July 27, 2020

Forward to a New Normal

Striving to recover the pre-pandemic normal could be fatal.

Our kids grew up swimming in swimming holes and playing near streams running fast and frigid in the spring. “If you fall into a moving stream,” we told them umpteen times, “don’t try to swim back to the point on the bank where you fell in. You’ll be swimming against the current and you’ll get exhausted and drown.”

“Then what’re we supposed to do, “they asked on cue; “float over the waterfall?”

“Just point yourself towards the side and swim in that direction without worrying that the spot on the side you’re headed for keeps changing. You’ll get to the side very quickly. Once you’re out of the water. You can worry about how to get back where you want to be.”

We had to take them to a moving stream and have them practice to prove to them that they get to some point on the side in the same amount of time whether the stream is moving or not so long as they don’t try to choose a particular landing point. Sounds very Zen but just vector physics 101.

We will exhaust ourselves before we get through the pandemic if we try to get back to the world the way it was rather than just taking the shortest route to physical and economic survival and then figuring out what we want the new world to look like. All we know now, all we can know now, is that the new world will be different than the old. We have to go with the flow and see where we end up.

In practical terms things like wearing masks, wearing masks (repetition intentional), social distancing, test and trace, and reopening schools and businesses count as swimming for the shore. The schools and businesses we reopen will look very different than they were pre-covid; once we are free of this virus as an overwhelming threat (it may just be one of the diseases we worry about), we will certainly want to change our schools and businesses some more. They still probably won’t look like what we had before.

None of us should worry that the compromises we make to get to shore commit us to a specific future. We probably won’t have to wear masks forever; we can worry about the forever part later because we need the masks to be safe and open up now. We probably won’t have to give up our privacy so test and trace can work; but we have to now. Teachers won’t have to take the apparently minimal risk of infection from their students forever; they must now or the money we pay them must go to educational and childcare alternatives.

It’s only a few strokes to some shore, even in a fast-moving stream. We will drown if we try to swim back to the place where we fell in.

Play swim to the new normal from:

Forward To a New Normal - The Scratch Version

July 20, 2020

We Need Massive Turnout and Unambiguous Results from the November Election

In person voting

The last thing we need is an ambiguous or disputed election. Because the pandemic is unpredictable and may well be rampant in some places, we must prepare to vote by mail if necessary. If you are not highly vulnerable and/or are in a place where the flu is under good control come election day, you should vote in person. What demonstration of our values is more worth going to then the line at the polling place?

If you can march in a protest or a Fourth of July celebration, you can march to the voting booth.

We’ve already seen in primaries that mass numbers of mail ballots lead to long delays in tabulating results, especially if ballots which were mailed but not received by election day are allowed. A long delay in knowing who the next president is going to be would be a terrible event for the country. It may happen; but better if we can avoid the delay by voting in person.

Mail ballots are more vulnerable to fraud than in-person ones, if only because we’ve had less experience with the former than the latter. So far there has only been one egregious case of such fraud discovered (committed by a Republican). But we cannot be naïve about either the number of people who would like to hack an election or the ingenuity of hackers. Mail in votes will be subject to even more challenges than hanging chad; some challenges will be legit; all need to be heard. If you want to reduce the chance of dragged out election results, vote in person if you can.

Election safety

  1. States should require masks at indoor polling places. We don’t want this to be a federal requirement; we don’t want the feds under any president patrolling the local voting booths. We do want the polling place to be safe for poll workers and for those who do go to vote. No one is disenfranchised by this requirement so long as voting by mail is an option.
  2. States and cities must commit themselves to dealing effectively and sternly with any attempts from the right or the left to disrupt physical voting. People are afraid today that the use of federal officers in Portland is a portend of Trump-inspired interference in elections. I think (hope) the fear is overblown. However there is nothing either the reactionary right or revolutionary left would like more than a chance to claim the other side “spoiled” the election if they don’t get what they want – which may be neither Biden or Trump. IMO states and cities should immediately start sternly controlling violence from either side and not create any reason or excuse for federal interference now or on election day.

Please vote.

July 15, 2020

Should K-12 Schools Reopen?

And should teachers be furloughed where they don’t?

Opening K-12 is not a danger to kids. Not opening obviously hurts their academic, social, and emotional development.

In Vermont, where we have been fortunate to have only 55 deaths from C19, no one under 40 has died from the disease.

Nationwide (from the WSJ) “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 children under age 15 have died from Covid-19. In a typical year 190 children die of the flu, 436 from suicide, 625 from homicide, and 4,114 from unintentional deaths such as drowning… Only two children under age 18 have died in Chicago—fewer than were killed in shootings in a recent weekend.” [nb. The kids would’ve have been safer in school]… Teens appear to be more infectious. Yet schools that have reopened in most countries, including Germany, Singapore, Norway, Denmark and Finland, haven’t experienced outbreaks. Some schools in Israel had outbreaks last month after class sizes were increased, but most infections in both teachers and students were mild.”

Of course the countries that have reopened have lower case rates than many American states. But American children are not dying of C19. It does make sense to keep class sizes small, stagger the flood of adults for pickup and dropoff, and be outside as much as possible.

Closed schools are a disaster for the poor.

In Vermont our worst poverty is rural and white. In other states the poor are clustered in blighted urban areas and a large percentage, but not all, are people of color. In both cases no school is a disaster. Most poor single mothers don’t have the skills or opportunities needed for work-by-zoom jobs. They can’t afford to stay home; they can’t work if the kids can’t go to school; their own schooling probably didn’t make them well-equipped to provide home instruction. Moreover, as bad as many of our schools are, they are also a refuge from broken homes and dangerous streets. They are a place where children are fed and a place where some cases of home child abuse are detected and reported. These children, many of them Black, are among the lives that matter.

Poor children are more likely than affluent ones to live in multi-generational homes and more likely to live in homes where people must go out to work. They may be as likely to be exposed to the virus at home as at school. It is bad if they bring the virus home to grandpa or great grandpa. These families should have an opportunity to choose – for the very shortterm – whether their children should go to school. They have no choice if the schools are closed!

What about the danger to teachers?

Teachers are at more risk if they go to school than if they stay home; the risk is more from parents and other teachers than children; but it is real. Police, grocery workers, health care workers, furnace repair people and plumbers are also at risk because they can’t work from home. Teachers, too, are essential workers. Like others in essential jobs, they should work or go on unemployment.

Teachers through their unions are challenging plans for school reopenings. They can’t argue that remote learning worked because it usually didn’t. They are not slaves; they don’t have to go back to work; they shouldn’t keep their jobs if they don’t. They do have a right to be part of the discussion. They should be able to discuss methods to keep the kids and themselves, in that order, safe. They cannot expect parents who can’t go to work because the schools are closed to keep paying teachers who won’t teach.

What do we give up to keep schools open?

My daughter Kate pointed out that the school debate has fallen into our far-too-deep partisan chasm. One side says open everything and the hell with masks; the other side says everyone has to huddle at home regardless of the degree of danger.

There are some risks we must take and some risks we don’t. Opening the schools is necessary; opening the bars (where the disease is active) is not. It is total risk that we must manage. No adult should be in a school building or on school grounds without a mask; talk to me about your freedom elsewhere.

K-12 schools should reopen. Teachers should be treated like the essential workers they are.

See also:

Defund Teachers During the Pandemic

Defunding Teachers for Better Education and More Equal Educational Opportunity

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 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 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.

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