September 28, 2023

What’s More Dangerous: AI or Elon Musk?

Both have great potential.

Elon says that AI is a “civilizational risk” which requires government regulation. He also tweets “Like Gulliver, tied down by thousands of of [sic] little strings, we lose our freedom one regulation at a time.” Possible explanation of this paradox: Musk would like development in AI tied down by thousands of little strings until he and his new company xAI can catch up with OpenAI, which he helped found and lost control over.

In some contexts Elon plausibly claims leadership in artificial intelligence because of his achievements with autonomous machines including self-driving cars and the amazing rocket-boosters landing themselves for reuse on robotic barges in the ocean.  Notably he doesn’t have “civilizational” concern over this technology although millions of computer-controlled cars on the road and rockets coming down from space are better armed to do immediate harm to humankind, were they so inclined or so programmed, than disembodied chatbots running in the cloud.

Right after the Russian invasion, Elon’s Starlink helped save Ukraine by enabling the defenders to communicate even as the aggressors destroyed much of the fixed infrastructure. According to stories I’ve heard, Starlink engineers defeated Russian hackers trying to shut the links down. When the Defense Department couldn’t decide whether to pay for Starlink terminals, SpaceX decided to keep supplying them to Ukraine anyway. But later, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Elon decided not to allow Starlink to be used as part of a Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy in Crimea because he thought it might lead to a wider war. [He later backtracked and claimed that he really had no discretion because US trade embargos meant that he couldn’t legally activate Starlink over Russian-occupied Crimea.]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, questions whether billionaires should be making foreign policy. It’s a good question although one might ask whether foreign policy, instead, should be made by millionaire Harvard professors. Without the technology Musk is responsible for which made Starlink possible and without the billions he spent through privately owned SpaceX to make it happen, there would’ve been no decision to be made. The US has a strategic advantage because SpaceX is based here and because we are deploying a military version of the service which will be under full control of the military and not Musk, On the other hand…

Artificial intelligence is already enabling medical research which will save and improve lives. AI is a leveler, which will allow those who’ve received a poor formal education to compete with the educationally well-endowed. Yes, it can be used to write an essay which a student claims as her own. It can also write a better resume and employment letter than she might have been able to without its help and do the bureaucratic part of a job for her. AI is used both to help hackers scam and to defeat scams from hackers.

OpenAI, Google, and Facebook trained their LLMs (Large Language Models like ChatGPT) to be politically correct and as inoffensive as they could make them. Elon says that the xAI product will not be trained in political correctness. Is that a double danger to civilization or an opportunity for that LLM to make discoveries further from the beaten path?

Musk and AI both have huge potential and pose huge risks. I don’t think we should attempt to put either the genius or the genie back in the bottle. We will have to watch them both.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

September 18, 2023

Tablo Replaces Amazon FireTV Recast for Over-The Air-Viewing and Recording

Amazon has abandoned this market.

Below is a picture from my blog four years ago when we replaced DIRECTV with Amazon devices.

Old replace

Now the Amazon FireTV Recast (lower right above) is gone and replaced by a Fourth Generation Tablo device below.


The Recast and the Tablo have the same functions: capture live TV from the over-the-air-antenna hanging on the wall, record it for future viewing, and redistribute the over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts and stored shows to our four TVs scattered around the house. We don’t have cable or DIRECTV but have access to (almost) everything we want to watch either by streaming (we have Netflix and Amazon Prime) or OTA.

Back then I wrote “No question Amazon enabled us to break the dish. I do wonder who will disrupt Amazon when.” Turns out Amazon disrupted themselves; they discontinued the Recast I liked so much; and, although they nominally still support the device, support has gotten worse and worse and bugs and glitches have been proliferating. Although the Tablo is better than the Recast in some ways: cheaper low-end model, better picture and sound, easy to extend storage with an external hard drive, records free ad-supported streaming channels (FAST), it’s not really disruptive. I wouldn’t have bought it if the Recast were still working well.

Why would Amazon abandon Recast?

Amazon’s device division has been underperforming and reportedly losing money. Kindle changed the way people read books and served its purpose for Amazon by creating an enormous market for ebooks. Alexa was a hit for a while but lost lots of her alure when she was caught eavesdropping. AmazonTV and the Amazon Firestick share a market with Roku, Apple, Google, and others and Recast only served the Amazon portion of that market. To have a hit of Amazon scale, Recast would’ve had to work in these other ecosystems. The Recast developers may have wanted to do just that; upper management may have asked “what’s the strategic advantage?” A competitor like Tablo is incented to serve the whole market; they are working hard to do that.

It's also possible that Amazon decided over-the-air TV is a market not worth investing further in despite the fact that the number of households using antennas grew by 10%  in 2021 according to Nielsen. Antenna use accelerates with cordcutting since local channels are not fully available through streaming; but, if everyone is eventually broadband connected, will local stations continue to maintain costly broadcast antennas or simply “broadcast” all content online? Topic for another post.

Tablo facts

The Tablo 4G product I bought is very new and somewhat buggy according to Reddit forums. It’s predecessor at first flourished by supporting alternative to Amazon FireTV and by offering services like automatic ad-skipping, which FireTV doesn’t support. Ad-skipping is not available in the 4G product and, so far, it can only record two channels at once while its predecessor had available support for four simultaneous channels. The three main advantages to the new product are better signal processing to correct for glitches in antenna reception, better picture and sound because the video stream is not compressed in storage or on the way to the TV, and a free program guide. It is available for as little as $99 or $109 with an antenna. Onboard storage is only 50 hours but you can attach an external hard drive (I did) for about $100 to increase capacity.

The Tablo box connects to a coax cable from the antenna and can be connected to your router either with WiFi or an ethernet connection. I’m using WiFi and so far that is working fine. Setup is with an app which works on Android or Apple IOS. You then need to download a Tablo app to your smart TVs. It currently works with Roku, firetv, androidtv, GoogleTV, and Apple and Android phones and tablets. According to Tablo, support for AppleTV, Samsung, LG WebOS, and Vizio is “coming soon”.

All of the supported devices must be on the same WiFi network as the Tablo box but that network can be one which has been extended with a mesh. We use Orbi (RBR20 base unit) for mesh. Recast had problems being reachable through the mesh. So far Tablo has been fine although there are reports on Reddit of problems with other types of mesh network.

I had one glitch during setup and chatted online with tech support. Minimal wait for an agent and an easy fix (just retry). Tech support emailed a copy of the chat without being asked.


Don’t buy Amazon Recast even though some are still in stock; it’s an unloved orphan. I’m recycling mine rather than reselling or even gifting.

If you have Recast and it’s still working for you, wait awhile for the Tablo 4g product to settle down before replacing Recast.

If you are considering cutting the cord, you will probably still want local TV and network sports. Some streaming bundles include them but at a fairly steep price. Over-the-air TV is a cheaper alternative if you live within range of a good signal. The Federal Communication Commission has a web page which shows where your nearest towers are and what signal strength you can expect for each network. You’ll need a device like Tablo if you want to record over-the-air shows and play them back with fast forward, rewind etc. Tablo has competitors I haven’t tried and my experience with it is very short; this post should just be one data point in your evaluation.

See also:

A Tale of Two Antennas – The Cord Cutting Saga Continued

FireTVStick Thrashes at&t’s DIRECTV

September 08, 2023

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Who will take care of us when we’re old?

A long time ago when I was young, old people often lived their last years with their offspring or offspring raised their children in the home that grandma still lived in. “We need to have children to take care of us in our old age,” people often said.  “We need children to help on the family farm.” “Our children will help grow the family business.” The people who said these things went ahead and had said children, children like me and my three siblings or Mary and her six siblings.

Social security, as it was first designed, paid enough so that grandpa could retire and live with his kids without being a net burden on the family finances.  Needs-based benefits to those over 65 who retired before they had a chance to contribute to the system were capped at $30/month (about $620 of today’s dollars). It was partially meant as an inducement to get older people out of the depression-era workforce so that younger people could be employed.

No matter what our parents’ plans were for us, starting with my war baby generation it became less and less common for adults with children to also take in or live with them. Many people did – and do – contribute money and time to eldercare. We have also taken collective responsibility for older people with vastly increased social security payments and Medicare. Our children go to daycare and our parents go to eldercare or get home health care. We took collective if not individual responsibility for our parents. The collective responsibility was affordable because there were a lot of us thanks to the baby boom and relatively few of them.

We also had fewer children, in part because we had no grandparents living with us to share their care and in part because we “knew” that whatever we needed beyond our retirement savings would come from social security and Medicare. We weren’t counting on only our own kids to take care of us, our care would be the collective responsibility of our childrens’ generation. Mary and I each have 2 biological children; that’s below the rate of childbearing needed to keep the population from shrinking. Current lifetime births per woman in the US are 1.789, about half of the 3.5 births per woman at the height of the baby boom in 1950. Were it not for immigration and the fact that us geezers are living longer, total US population would be shrinking.

We know that this shrink will continue for at least a generation because the birthrate has been below the replacement level since 1973. We not only have a shortage of workers but also a shortage of women of child-bearing age to give us more workers even if the fertility rate increases.

Who will take care of us?

We shifted the eldercare burden from individual families to society as a whole. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, since we didn’t need to have lots of children individually to provide for our old age, we had less children collectively. No matter how much they may want to, the skimpy number of successors we raised is going to have a very hard time caring for us collectively or individually. There aren’t enough of them to staff nursing homes or home health. There aren’t enough of them to keep the social security and Medicare trust funds topped off. There aren’t enough of them either to pay for or provide the increasing amount of hospital care we want to prolong our lives.

Some things could go right here in the US.

  • Artificial Intelligence will both increase the productivity of essential workers and reduce the number of white-collar workers necessary to deliver services. My smarter car is already helping me drive; I’m counting on self-driving for the time when my kids would otherwise feel obliged to take my keys away. Other automation will make up for human aids we can’t get.
  • We geezers in the US have accumulated a lot of wealth, much of it in our houses. For the first time in decades interest rates are substantially higher than inflation so our own savings will stretch further. And we have less kids than our parents did to include in our wills.
  • World population probably won’t peak until sometime in the 2080s. There are millions of would-be immigrants who want to work in the US. As more places, like Vermont, suffer a shortage of workers, a political solution to the immigration impasse could provide a legal path to increase the number of people available to work directly for us geezers and to help support us by paying taxes. AARP should lobby for that!

See also:

Malthus Was Very Wrong

August 31, 2023

Vermont Starlink FAQs Updated

Revised 6/27/23

  1. What Is Starlink?

Starlink is a very high-speed low-latency space-based internet access service originally designed for use in rural areas worldwide which lack adequate terrestrial broadband infrastructure. The service is now available for use in vehicles including boats and planes far from cell towers and is often used to provide emergency broadband when infrastructure has been damaged. The company Starlink, which offers the service, is a subsidiary of SpaceX, the private for-profit space launch company founded by Elon Musk.

  1. What speeds does Starlink offer?

According to the Starlink service map, download speeds in Vermont are between 55 and 183 megabits per second (Mbps), uploads are between 11 and 23 Mbps, and latency (critical for Zooming) is between 44 and 56 milliseconds. All these well exceed the State of Vermont’s minimum standards. I have been getting speeds in these ranges for the last two plus years in Stowe, Vermont.  Starlink says these speeds will improve as they add satellites and upgrade technology, but best to judge by what is demonstrated today.

  1. Do streaming to multiple devices simultaneously, teleconferencing, and VoIP work over Starlink?


  1. How can a satellite service have low latency? Older satellite services like HughesNet are unusable for Zooming, phone calls, or even much web browsing.

The old satellite services used geostationary satellites, which must be 22,000 miles from earth. Even at the speed of light, it takes a relatively long time for a signal to get there and back, hence the latency. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS), which are only a couple of hundred miles high. The travel time for the signal is not significant.

  1. What does Starlink cost?

The basic residential service costs $599 for the initial kit including a WiFi router and everything you need for a ground installation (close to $700 when you add Vermont tax and shipping). The monthly fee is $90 in Vermont (which Starlink considers an under-deployed area) with no minimum commitment or contract; $120 in areas of the country where there has been more demand. 30-day money back guarantee on everything.

“Business” service is suitable for small to medium rural businesses and can be used for web-hosting (although I’d recommend doing that in a cloud). It starts at $250/month with a $2500 equipment fee.

“Roam” service is good for camping, RVs, on-the-road, and emergency use. It also costs $599 for equipment but the monthly fee is $150 for use anywhere in the US and $200 for use worldwide. It has lower priority than the residential service so can be slower in congested times at congested places. It’s designed for permanent mounting on a vehicle and does work while vehicles are in motion.

“Mobility” service is a high-speed version of Roam which Starlink says has download speeds up to 220Mbps and is “for critical in-motion applications.” It starts at $2500 for equipment and $250/month. It can also be used on boats far from shore and higher-priced versions can be used on planes.

“Swarm” provides connectivity for remote sensors and devices with low bandwidth requirements. Cost can be as low as $5/month which is much better than cellular can offer and works where cellular doesn’t. Swarm was a recent acquisition by Starlink and I don’t have any direct experience with it nor do I know anyone who has.

  1. Does Starlink have data caps?

If a residential user exceeds one-terabyte (one trillion bytes) per month of access between 7AM and 11PM in any one month, the priority of their service will be reduced for the remainder of the month. This is called a “fair use policy” and mainly serves to prevent extensive resale of residential service and to force those who do resell into buying Business Service.  Cable companies and other ISPs have similar policies often with lower limits. In Vermont there is not much difference between priority and non-priority service because the state has such low density of use.

  1. Where in Vermont is Starlink available?

See for the latest on availability. As of now (8/28/2023), Starlink is available immediately everywhere in Vermont. It is designed for use at “the end of the road” since all the required infrastructure is in the sky. Starlink cannot be used where it is not possible to get an unobstructed view of the high northern sky. The mountains around you probably won’t matter unless you’re in a very narrow valley; the trees in your yard can be a problem.

  1. How does Starlink get installed?

It is self-installing. Out of the box, Starlink can be set on the ground where there is a clear view of the high sky. In Vermont it doesn’t need to see the southern sky. The dish has a motor and positions itself correctly for its location (see video). You do have to find a way to put a single wire through your wall which then carries both signal and power to the dish. At extra cost, you can buy kits for no-holes roof mounting or pole mounting. You use a smartphone app to set up your WiFi network.

  1. Is paid installation available from Starlink?


  1. What happens if the dish is covered by snow or ice?

Doesn’t happen, even in Vermont. The dish is heated.

  1. How reliable is Starlink?

According to Starlink and my own experience, the service is available more than 99.5% of the time. It is sensitive to obstructions like tree limbs which typically cause 5-15 second outages (you freeze on Zoom). Choosing a good location for the dish is critical. Even with no obstructions, there are occasionally Zoom-freezing blips; but most people have found it more than adequate for work-at-home, especially compared to DSL.

  1. Does Starlink degrade in bad weather?

Not noticeably. Unlike satellite TV or service from wireless ISPs, where the radio signals travel almost horizontally, the Starlink signal is going almost straight up so is through the weather in just a few miles. It is affected by a thunderstorm directly overhead.

Starlink is far more reliable than any terrestrial service in a weather emergency so long as you have backup power at your location. The satellites are far above the weather which may topple telephone poles or bring down the lines. They are solar powered so remain in operation regardless of what’s going on below unlike the towers of cellular operators and wireless ISPs (WISPs) which can run out of fuel for their generators in a prolonged emergency.

  1. Is Starlink service likely to degrade as more users are added to the system?

Probably not. So far Starlink is limiting the number of new signups to the number of people in each area they can serve without degrading service. As of August 2023, they had launched over 5000 satellites– each satellite circles the earth every ninety minutes. Approximately 60 new satellites are launched every two weeks.

  1. When is Starlink the best choice for broadband in Vermont?

The best broadband service is the broadband service you can get now. There was a huge waiting list for Starlink in Vermont but most people have now received their dish. Currently Starlink is available for delivery everywhere in Vermont. See Where is Starlink Available Now? Finally An Official Map.

If fiber runs by your house and you can have it installed NOW at a reasonable price, it is probably the best option for you. See Starlink Beta vs. Fiber.

If you can get enough bandwidth for your needs NOW from a wireless ISP at less cost than Starlink, you may want to do that even though you won’t get the same speed you’ll get with Starlink. See Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service.

If you don’t currently have cable or excellent wireless ISP service and neither a fiber build or wireless ISP tower is firmly scheduled for 2023 for your location and you can afford it and you can see enough of the sky, you ought to order Starlink. It is certainly better quality than DSL from Consolidated if you have that option. Ordering requires a $99 deposit but the deposit is fully refundable in case you have a better option sooner. The deposit is applied to equipment cost when the equipment is shipped.

The Starlink service is about on a par today with what you might get from a cable company unless they are supplying fiber. It is about the same cost as rural fiber plans offering similar speeds – although this may be more speed than you need.

  1. Is Starlink an opportunity for Vermont?

Starlink is an opportunity which many Vermonters are already taking advantage of on their own either because they have no other broadband service available or because they’re not satisfied with their existing choices. Starlink is being used in locations which are shown on the most current maps from the Department of Public Service as having no service available which meets the State’s minimum standards.

Without Starlink, there is no way to get broadband access NOW in places where it is most needed. With Starlink, the problem of accessibility becomes a problem of affordability.

  1. Is a subsidy from the State needed to bring Starlink infrastructure to unserved parts of Vermont?

No. The common infrastructure for Starlink is the satellites SpaceX is launching and the Starlink-built ground stations around the world. Your dish and associated electronics don’t depend on any terrestrial infrastructure in the State.

From a public policy point of view, it may well be desirable for the State to subsidize the one-time costs of hookup to services which are available now including Starlink where no other high-quality services are available.

  1. The legislature has authorized towns to form and join Communications Union Districts (CUDs) in order to bring broadband access to the places which don’t have it. Will Starlink make it impossible for the CUDs to perform their mission?

No. The mission of the CUDs is to bring broadband to unserved Vermonters. Prior to the advent of services like Starlink, it was assumed that this meant bringing fiber to every home. CUDs other than ECFiber, which is already in operation, are not promising to get fiber to end-of-the-road locations which most need broadband for at least six years and even then at a very high infrastructure cost – often estimated at more than $3000 per house and escalating the less dense the neighborhood is.

The CUD’s mission of highspeed broadband everywhere in Vermont is made easier – and achievable sooner – with the option of using Starlink. CUDs can expand fiber out from their hubs without asking those at the end of the road to wait six years or more.

The CUD’s mission should not be limited to fiber as a solution. Starlink is a useful option for accomplishing the connectivity mission NOW. Those now ordering Starlink are not waiting for fiber to reach them. If fiber does come to their neighborhoods at a reasonable cost and/or offers better service than Starlink, they can and will switch to the fiber provider. If fiber is not able to offer them better price performance, there is no point in building out the infrastructure.

  1. How do we know Starlink works in Vermont?

News stories on WCAX, in Seven Days, and on VPR cite successful installations. Reports on Stowe Front Porch Forum indicate generally good results. There is a very large Starlink community on Reddit where successes and failures are discussed. Many of these users are in climates more extreme than Vermont.

You can track the experience of two Vermont users at These users are uploading performance data from their Starlink installations every 15 minutes. See Now Available – Worldwide and Local Current Starlink Performance.

  1. How do I know if Starlink will work at my house, especially given the trees in my yard?

There is a free app available for download from Starlink which will help you tell if you have a good location for the Starlink dish. See How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House. The website shows in real time what satellites your dish would be able to see given your location but does not take obstacles into account. See Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location.

  1. How do I order Starlink? You must make a $99 refundable deposit with your order.

  1. How soon will an order be fulfilled?

New orders from Vermont are being filled immediately so it only takes a week or so.

These FAQs were originally prepared by Jock Gill of Peacham and Tom Evslin of Stowe. I (Tom) prepared this update on 8/28/2023 and am responsible for any inaccuracies. Neither of us have any financial interest in nor business connection with Starlink (except that I am a subscriber) or any affiliated company. For more information see the official Starlink FAQs at

For more on Starlink see these posts.

August 23, 2023

Vermont Needs a New State Mental Hospital

Deinstitutionalization turns out to be a cruel alternative.

My friend Bill Shubart wrote a wise and kind essay on the need for a new institution for those who are homeless. He lists some of the institutions which used to fill this role including the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (Waterbury), the Weeks (reform) School, and the many poor farms.

The book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped turn America against large “mental hospitals”. The horror of some of these institutions had long been documented. We decided to shut these places down and end the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow the inmates to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions like Waterbury were emptied out and not replaced as they fell into decay.

The problem is that the theory was wrong. The community institutions were never built, largely because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy marks for those selling drugs which make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or certain cure. Housing is hard enough to obtain and maintain for those with moderate income; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are spotted with filthy homeless encampments. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain far too long.  Although most people with untreated mental illness are more danger to themselves than others, too much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are known and repeated offenders. The streets of Burlington, VT are increasingly scary at night.

“Let us imagine,” Bill writes, “a new institution, a dignified but modest communal home for the many Vermonters struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction disorders, extreme poverty, or who are simply unhoused.”

I agree with Bill that we need “a new institution” but think it should specifically be and only for those “struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction…”. Those who are suffering from “extreme poverty or simply unhoused”, including those who were recently displaced by flooding, will be much safer and better off in housing which already exists or congregate housing if they don’t have to share these facilities with people who ought to be either incarcerated or institutionalized.

Decker Towers in Burlington provided subsidized housing in the city’s tallest building. Two stories on WCAX (here and here) document the problems residents are facing:

“I see drug deals happening in the parking lot. I see them at the side door. I see them all around the building,” said one resident.

“The drug dealers, the people that steal all these goods, they know that Decker Towers is open for business,” said another.

“Residents have sent photos of needles scattered inside and outside the property, as well as bodily fluids and people sleeping in the stairway,” reports WCAX.

Steven Murray, the director of the Burlington Housing Authority, says “It’s not just Decker Towers, it’s just about every major apartment building in town.”

Those housed in motels around the state both before, during, and after the pandemic as well as the motel owners and neighbors, complain about rampant crime and drug use in their accommodations. The pods recently sited in Burlington for the homeless are now greatly resented by their neighbors because of the lawless crowds they attract. Neighborhood resistance to low-income housing is inflamed  because the housing is used not only for those who need shelter for economic or other misfortune but also for those who cannot live safely outside of institutions.

Bill Shubart is right that incarceration should not be the only option for those who cannot safely live with others and who don’t belong on the streets, although he and I probably disagree on how often incarceration is appropriate. Everyone suffers from the lack of an institution, a modern Waterbury Hospital, where those with currently uncured mental problems can safely and humanly be cared for by professionals. Existing congregate shelters and subsidized housing – and emergency rooms - will be better and safer alternatives for those who need them if they are not dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

See also:

Burning the Ships After Landing

Bill Schubart: A new asylum for our communities (VTDigger)

August 15, 2023

The Cricks Do Rise

Climate change hysteria is distracting from other man-made environmental problems.


Climate change is mentioned prominently in almost every story about the fires in Maui. How Invasive Plants Caused the Maui Fires to Rage in The New York Times explains the actual cause: “A sweeping series of plantation closures in Hawaii allowed highly flammable nonnative grasses to spread on idled lands, providing the fuel for huge blazes.”

The article then has the expected section on climate change “But as the planet heats up, it is becoming apparent that even a tropical place such as Hawaii, known for its junglelike rainforests and verdant hills, is increasingly susceptible to wildfires.” The quote ignores the context of the article, which is that the fields in West Maui are neither junglelike rainforests nor verdant hills. The flammable grasses are there because they were imported, and they’ve spread because the danger they pose has been neglected.

Monday morning quarterbacking is all too easy but the article quotes earlier warnings:

“After West Maui was hit in 2018 by an earlier round of fires that destroyed 21 homes, Clay Trauernicht, one of Hawaii’s most prominent wildfire experts, warned in a letter then to the Maui News that the island was facing a hazard it had the potential to do something about. ‘The fuels — all that grass — is the one thing that we can directly change to reduce fire risk,’ he wrote...

“In Lahaina, much of which was destroyed during last week’s fire, invasive grasses cover the slopes above town, growing right up to the edge of housing areas.”

Apparently funds were not available to either replace the dangerous grasses (probably not an easy task) or even to create firebreaks to slow the spread of blazes. An obsession with global climate change, as real as that threat may be, distracts from solving local environmental problems. Incenting electric vehicles didn’t help avoid the predictable and probably preventable disaster in Maui; the money that went to those incentives could have been used more effectively locally.


Last year flooding in Pakistan caused widespread death and destruction. “Climate change” blared the headlines. However, the land which was flooded in sinking much faster than the sea is rising. The sinking – known as subsidence – is caused by extraction of ground water from under the land. A recent study measured subsidence worldwide:

“Satellite data indicate that land is subsiding faster than sea level is rising in many coastal cities throughout the world. If subsidence continues at recent rates, these cities will be challenged by flooding much sooner than projected by sea level rise models. We measured subsidence rates in 99 coastal cities around the world between 2015 and 2020 using satellite data. Subsidence rates are highly variable within cities and from city to city. The most rapid subsidence is occurring in South, Southeast, and East Asia. However, rapid subsidence is also happening in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Human activity—primarily groundwater extraction—is likely the main cause of this subsidence. Expanded monitoring and policy interventions are required to reduce subsidence rates and minimize their consequences.”

It's politically popular to attribute all disasters to climate change. Ignoring other natural and man-made causes of catastrophe – like subsidence, makes it impossible to take effective avoidance and mitigation measures. No matter how many Teslas we drive, Pakistan and many other countries will suffer increasingly severe floods so long as water is being pumped out from under collapsible sandy soil.

Lamoille County, Vermont

ProPublica published a list of how badly each county in the US is likely to be affected by climate change. At the very bottom of the list – least likely to be affected - is Lamoille County, VT, where I live. Ironically, shortly after the list was published, Lamoille County was hit with the worst flooding since the locally famous floods of 1928 and is the county in Vermont with highest percentage of homes per capita rendered uninhabitable according to VTDigger.

ProPublica may be right that we are not at great risk from climate change; but climate change is not the only threat we need to prepare for.  This may just have been an “expected” hundred-year flood or it may be part of a predicted trend of increasing extreme weather events. Either way the damage was exacerbated by anthropogenic causes other than climate change. For years, Vermont land use planning has been to discourage building anywhere but in downtown areas to prevent “suburban sprawl”. The downtowns, however, were built in lowlands, often at river junctions. It was, predictably, the downtowns and the trailer parks on the inexpensive riverbank land which flooded. The flooding was exacerbated by successful efforts to prevent the rivers from meandering; the rivers were cut off from the floodplains which would otherwise have reduced downstream impact.

Vermont spends huge sums and mandates huge expenditures to prevent global climate change. As we build back better after this flooding, we should concentrate some of that spending on our local environment as well as allow and encourage building on higher ground.

Flooding is nothing new here. The first Vermontism I learned 50 years ago was “If the good Lord’s willin’ and the cricks don’t rise.” They will surely rise again even if we forgo all use of fossil fuels.

See also:

Building Back Better in Vermont

It’s The Subsidence

August 11, 2023

Whataboutism Doesn’t Excuse Anyone

Giving Hunter Biden a get-out-of-jail-free card will taint the convictions(s) which may rid us of Donald Trump.

Hard as it is to say, both Biden and Trump are entitled to presumptions of innocence even though neither deserve them. If one or the other of them should be exonerated, it doesn’t make the other one any less guilty. Trump’s alleged crimes as president are much more serious than Hunter Biden’s clear venality. It’s one thing for Hunter to profit from being the Vice President’s son; it is unacceptable for him to escape prosecution because his father is now President.

The majority of Republicans who believe that the 2020 election was stolen are no more idiots than the Democrats who believed that the Russians bought the 2016 election for Trump on Facebook. Neither group can accept that a result they regard as abhorrent was legitimate. If Trump is convicted of a serious crime or sentenced to prison and Hunter Biden gets a walk in the park and/or if Joe Biden’s unconvincing claims that he didn’t know what his son was doing escape scrutiny, Trump loyalists will be confirmed in their view that the deck is stacked against them and the man who is their Trumpenfinger raised to the establishment. It will be very hard for the partisan wounds to heal.

Justice Department Credibility

Jack Goldsmith writes in The New York Times:

“Mr. Smith’s indictment outlines a factually compelling but far from legally airtight case against Mr. Trump. The case involves novel applications of three criminal laws and raises tricky issues of Mr. Trump’s intent, his freedom of speech and the contours of presidential power. If the prosecution fails (especially if the trial concludes after a general election that Mr. Trump loses), it will be a historic disaster…

“There is no getting around the fact that the indictment comes from the Biden administration when Mr. Trump holds a formidable lead in the polls to secure the Republican Party nomination and is running neck and neck with Mr. Biden, the Democratic Party’s probable nominee.

“This deeply unfortunate timing looks political and has potent political implications even if it is not driven by partisan motivations….

“And then there is the perceived unfairness in the department’s treatment of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, in which the department has once again violated the cardinal principle of avoiding any appearance of untoward behavior in a politically sensitive investigation. Credible whistle-blowers have alleged wrongdoing and bias in the investigation, though the Trump-appointed prosecutor denies it. And the department’s plea arrangement with Hunter Biden came apart, in ways that fanned suspicions of a sweetheart deal, in response to a few simple questions by a federal judge.”

None of the above makes Trump innocent or excuses him. All of the above will give Trump supporters a reason to discount a guilty verdict, especially if the Justice Department does not do a credible job of prosecuting Hunter Biden now that a judge has saved the department from its initial ill-advised plea deal.

Special prosecutors notwithstanding, it is the responsibility of Attorney General Merrick Garland both to make sure that the charges against Trump are substantive and the Hunter Biden is vigorously prosecuted. If he feels he can’t do this job, he should resign rather than evade responsibility. [Update: Apparently Garland has come to feel the same way; since this post was written, he announced that he was updating the status of the US Attorney investigating Hunter Biden to Special Counsel and that negotiations for a plea deal have ended.]

Press Credibility

Reporters talk about their duty to “save democracy”, which is often code for making sure that we don’t get Trump 2.0. Donald Redux would be a disaster, but a press which sacrifices credibility to partisanship is a clear and present danger. The media suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story was a disgrace as was Fox parroting false election narratives. We deserve to know what evidence was hidden by whom on whose orders at Mar-a-Lago. We also need to know what people in the Obama administration said when they learned that Biden’s son was working for a company being prosecuted in Ukraine by a prosecutor whom Joe Biden – the Obama point man on corruption in Ukraine – was trying to get fired.

It won’t matter to diehard Trump supporters what the NYT or WaPo says and it won’t matter to diehard antiTrumpers what Fox says. The rest of us will be able to live somewhat easier with whatever verdicts are reached if our favorite outlets deliver something better than confirmation bias for their most extreme viewers. [Update: The NYT has published another oped, this one by David Leonhardt, explaining why the Hunter Biden case is significant.]

Supreme Court Credibility

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the Supreme Court including its three Trump appointees gave no aid or comfort to Trump’s claims that the election was stolen or his attempts to overturn it. There is no reason to suspect that any of the justices will abandon their concepts of the law and constitution to protect Trump or Biden. However, as the NYT column above says, at least some of the charges against Trump are “far from legally airtight”. Probably every President with the possible exception of honest George Washington lied to the public from time to time and did so for political reasons. Trump hasn’t been charged directly with exciting a riot or insurrection (even though that is what I think I saw him do on January 6). Presumably the prosecutor has reasons to think he can’t make these charges stick. Obstruction of justice is a crime beyond a doubt; misuse of classified information can be. Trump may yet be indicted for attempted election tampering in Georgia and that may be a solid crime.

Just to complicate the whataboutism further, even though it is illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for a US company to hire a relative of a foreign official into a job they are not qualified for, it is not illegal for a relative of a US official to solicit or accept such a job from a foreign company. If Hunter Biden, on the other hand, actually did what his employers hoped for and influenced US policy, he is guilty of being an unregistered foreign agent. If he did nothing, he may be legally innocent.

It will be easier for the American Public to accept a lack of conviction by a jury than exoneration by the Supreme Court after conviction. There is not much the Court can do to protect itself from the suspicion of prejudice. Again it falls on the Justice Department (and/or the Georgia prosecutor) to bring cases which are legally unimpeachable.

Other Politicians

Shame on them. Nancy Pelosi delayed impeaching Trump after January 6th, I suspect for partisan reasons. The House should’ve returned articles of impeachment as soon as it came out of hiding in the capitol basement. Republicans should have voted for impeachment based on the President’s clear failure to attempt to stop the attack on the capitol if nothing else. Impeachment, particularly bipartisan impeachment, would’ve spared us our current agony. If there were no Trump candidacy, Democrats might even be convinced to nominate someone better than a senile Joe Biden.

Republicans including those who want to be president themselves should be condemning Trump’s actions and inactions. Democrats should be encouraging a thorough investigation of Hunter Biden rather than hiding behind the excuse that this might help Trump. Neither is happening. Neither party’s cowardice excuses the cowardice of the other (although, in this case, I think the Republican cowardice is more consequential and worse).

You and me

Let’s be open-minded as the cases progress. Let’s remember that neither man’s action is excused by the other. And let’s hope that justice is blind to privilege without being blind to evil. A huge number of our fellow citizens will be disappointed no matter which way both cases turn out. If we are among the disappointed, we still have a voice at the ballot box. Even if we are happy with the verdict(s), we must remember that our disappointed fellow citizens are still entitled to both a voice and a vote. I’ll feel best if both men are solidly convicted.

See Also:

The Hunter Biden Case (NYT)

The Prosecution of Trump May Have Terrible Consequences (NYT)

Trump Was the Middle Finger of the Proletariat

July 24, 2023

Where Does No Labels Stand on the Issues

We're not supposed to have these choices

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all agree:  we the people should have to choose between candidates from the established parties. Good thing they weren't around in 1860 when the new Republican Party candidate Abe Lincoln had the effrontery to get elected. Actually the NYT was around then; they didn't like him.

Then as now the establishment parties had failed to deal with the pressing issues of the times and rampant corruption.

No Labels is an organization which is working to get on the ballot in every state so that they can run an alternative slate in case we're once again left with a dismal choice between Trump and Biden. I donated to this effort as well as to the campaigns of several Republican primary challengers. Democrats are particularly alarmed (with some reason) . Establishment Republicans are nervous, too. Tellingly, Dems don't say "No Labels will deny us four more years of Biden"; instead they say "No Labels might help give use four more years of Trump". If that's the only problem with No Labels, all the Democrats have to do is have a primary and come up with a better candidate and all the Republicans have to do is nominate someone else.

Last week No Labels published the chart below (available as a PDF here) showing where they stand on issues (green column) as opposed to Trump (pink) and Biden (blue). I don't agree with No Labels on every issue but I was blown away with how often I do agree with their common sense approach. It was impressive that their first row is refusing to pander on the necessity of Social Security reform. They agree with Biden on universal background checks for gun buyers and with Trump on school choice.

Please, before you let the failing traditional parties and mainstream media on both sides scare you away from more choices, take a look at this chart.

Issue/Position                                      Common Sense Idea Trump Biden
Social Security Our leaders must act now to solve today’s economic challenges before they become impossible to solve tomorrow. Fix Social Security now to
protect beneficiaries from 24% cuts within a decade.
“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security.” “I guarantee you I will protect Social Security and Medicare without any change."
Debt Washington must stop spending more than it takes in. Congress must vote on a
debt reduction plan from an independent bipartisan commission.
National debt during term:
$19 trillion -> $27 trillion.
National debt during term:
$28 trillion -> $32 trillion.
Immigration America is a nation of laws and
a nation of immigrants.
Secure the border.
Attract hardworking taxpayers.
Protect the Dreamers.
“Why do we want all these people from s***hole countries coming here?” 2022 saw the most illegal border crossings in U.S. history.
Energy An all-of-the-above energy strategy is the best way to lower prices for American families Don't inhibit oil and gas production; do expand reliable, carbon-free nuclear power. “I’m not a believer in global warming.” “No more drilling on federal lands. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period.”
Free Speech The free flow of information is
crucial for a democratic society.
Ban social media companies, government institutions, and political parties from censoring information unfavorable to them. The FAKE NEWS media ... is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” A federal judge said that under President Biden, “the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth” and is potentially guilty of
“the most massive attack against free speech in United States history."
Voting Every legal voter should have the ability to vote, every legal vote should be counted and every counted vote should be verified Restore faith in elections by making it easier to vote by mail and requiring an ID to vote. "Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country." Said voter ID requirements are "an attempt to repress minority voting."
Transgender Every American deserves respect and freedom from discrimination Three quarters of Americans support laws to protect transgender individuals from
discrimination, but also don’t want sexuality and gender issues taught to young children.
“We’re going to defeat the
cult of gender ideology.”
Says efforts by states to limit access to puberty blockers and hormones for minors is “immoral” and “outrageous.
Abortion America must strike a balance between protecting women’s rights to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life. Most Americans do not want bans on abortion, but most do want limits on it. “There has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. Supports legislation that would overturn almost all state limits on abortion
Guns Americans have a constitutional right to own guns but society also has a responsibility to keep dangerous weapons away from dangerous people. Universal background checks. Mass shootings are “not a
gun problem."
Supports universal background checks.
Education No child should be forced to go to a failing school. Open 10,000 public charter
schools in the next decade.
Says school choice is “the civil rights issue of all time.”

"I am not a charter school fan.”


See Also:

I Donated to No Labels

July 17, 2023

Building Back Better in Vermont

Act 250 and zoning changes urgently needed.

First, kudos to Vermont first responders, road crews, volunteers, neighbors helping neighbors, town and state officials and even FEMA for a very quick and effective response to the immediate flooding emergency. We owe it to all of them and those who’ve been hurt to learn all we can to prevent or at least mitigate recurrences.

Second, we did learn a lot from Irene. Areas which were badly damaged by that storm were not as badly damaged this time – party because the storm track was different, partly because after Irene we replaced aged infrastructure built after the 1927 floods, but also because we built back better: bigger culverts, stronger bridge abutments, and better designed drainage.

What’s most disappointing is to see structures and areas which were rebuilt after Irene flooded again. Should we have rebuilt in those places? Should we rebuild there again? Should what used to be called trailer parks still be located where they were first sited on land which was and is cheap because it is flood-prone? Those flooded out of their homes face a particularly hard time because Vermont is already critically short of inexpensive housing. Some may join the ranks of the long-term unhoused even though they were, literally, staying above water before.

We can make better land available for re-siting manufactured housing than the old flood-prone locations. But the need is now and much of that “better land” is zoned against manufactured housing (although not against decaying farmsteads). Moreover, nothing can happen quickly at an any scale given the onerous Act 250 requirements for any development of ten or more units. From a permitting PoV, it is much easier although short-sighted to rebuild in place.

During the last session the legislature considered both zoning reform and lifting many Act 250 restrictions. It did make it easier to build multifamily housing in downtown areas; that’s a good idea although, as we’ve just seen, some of our downtowns are flood-prone themselves. It is time for a special session of the legislature to deal with the problem they left behind: opening up rural areas of the state, most of the state, to low-cost housing, establishing rapid permitting, and vastly reducing the ability of those who’d rather not see development on other people’s land to delay projects after permits have been granted. There will be reconstruction money. It must go to building back better. There will also be a flood of private money if it can be used effectively instead of dissipated in years of legal battles before anything can be built.

There is a very real danger that, if the legislature does come back, it will squander funds and energy on short-term fixes like perpetually extending motel housing. It will be a huge challenge for Governor Scott to keep them focused on structural reform rather than feel-good appropriations to appease noisy “advocates”.

Yes, Vermont will look somewhat different if there is more visible housing along our roadsides. On the other hand, Vermont will look a lot better the morning after the next extreme weather event if we build back better now on dry land and concede the flood plains back to the rivers.  

See also: Legislators Squandering Money

July 10, 2023

I Donated to No Labels

Am I helping to reelect Trump?

No Labels is a non-partisan group whose current goal is to assure that we have choices for president other than just Trump and Biden in 2024. They are working to make sure that they are on the ballot in all 50 states if Republicans and Democrats present us with an unappetizing rematch of 2020. The two traditional parties don’t like each other but they don’t want any opposition to their duopoly either. According to The Washington Post:

“Top Democratic strategists, including current advisers to President Biden and former U.S. senators, met last week with former Republicans who oppose Donald Trump at the offices of a downtown D.C. think tank.

“Their mission: to figure out how to best subvert a potential third-party presidential bid by the group No Labels, an effort they all agreed risked undermining Biden’s reelection campaign and reelecting former president Donald Trump to the White House.”

Democrats are doing more than talking. The Arizona Democratic Party is suing to kick No Labels off the ballot.  One of its arguments is that No Labels would “harm Democrats’ electoral prospects because [our] candidates will have to compete …”   

No Labels cofounder and ex-NAACP head Benjamin Chavis, Jr. – hardly a Trump supporter, said:

“I’ve spent my entire life in the Democratic Party, championing civil and voting rights and I’ve always believed our democracy is stronger when there are more voices and choices in our political process. That’s why I was so disturbed to hear that a group of my friends and leaders in the Democratic Party recently convened to try to undermine No Labels’ 2024 presidential insurance project,” Chavis said in a statement. “No Labels will not spoil this election for Trump. What we will do is continue working resolutely to give millions of Americans a choice they so clearly want.”

Back in 2017 No Labels was the convenor of the Problem Solver Caucus in the US House. To his credit, then US Representative Peter Welch from Vermont was a proud member. He said then:

"There's no illusion that any specific caucus, whether it's Problem Solvers or any other individual caucus, can essentially overrule leadership and the partisanship that unfortunately really does prevail here. But as individual members getting together, when we present a bipartisan bill, it's interesting how much force that gets in committee."

Sometime between 2017 and his successful run for the US Senate in 2022, Welch quietly left Problem Solvers. I hope he speaks up for No Labels right to be on the ballot and for non-partisanship.

I’ve donated to Nikki Haley and will probably donate to Tim Scott and will donate to a credible Democratic primary challenger if one emerges. In 2020 I donated to Amy Klobuchar; in 2016 to Chris Christie and might again. I’ll vote in whichever primary has the best chance of helping to elect someone other than Trump or Biden.

I hesitated before making a second donation to No Labels. I think Trump Redux would be a terrible outcome. I voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But Trump-phobia cannot get in the way of wishing better for American than a second term for a visibly aging President with a seemingly inept Vice President. The two traditional parties look like they will not give us a better choice. That forfeits any claim that they deserve their duopoly.

Democrats have a much better way to prevent another term for Trump than suppressing our right to vote for whomever we please. All they have to do is nominate a better candidate – as a majority of their own party want. It’s even easier for Republicans to spare us Trump 2.0; all they have to do is not nominate him.

See also:

Why Republicans Should Vote in Democratic Presidential Primaries This Year

I Voted for Donald Trump

July 03, 2023

A Helping Hand Shouldn’t Become an Indispensable Crutch

Free stuff creates demand – and dependency.

The New York Times wrote about the partial end of Vermont’s Emergency Hotel Program:

“In the first year of the expanded hotel program, the number of Vermonters counted as homeless more than doubled, to 2,590 in 2021 from 1,110 in 2020. In the most recent tally, completed in January, the total jumped again, to 3,295, in part because the hotel program made people easier to count but also because of the continuing housing crisis, with higher rents and fewer vacant apartments.

“The rural state, with a population smaller than any but Wyoming, had risen to the top of two national rankings by last year: It had the second highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, after California — but also the lowest rate of homeless people living outdoors.”

The Times did not consider the possibility that Vermont has such a high rate of homelessness at least in part because it provides such good accommodations for the homeless as evidenced by the low rate of people living unsheltered. The emergency program was a constructive answer to the immediate fear at the beginning of the pandemic that congregate housing for the homeless would be deadly. The program also helped hotels and motels which had no customers during lockdown. But, as the Times notes, the program continued to expand after the immediate emergency had passed. Free apartments are attractive. The hotels also liked the State’s policy of always paying the asking price for rooms.

WCAX tells about the increased demand for free food at social service organizations in Chittenden County. The story attributes the increase in demand to the end of the hotel program but the stats quoted show free food demand increasing rapidly long before the partial end of the hotel program. Recipients tell of a line which stretches around the block. Food has gotten more expensive with inflation; but it is not in short supply like housing. Jobs are available to all who want them and can show up. SNAP (AKA food stamps) helps supplement low incomes. Why does the demand for free food keep going up? At least in part, because it’s available – and free.

It's an iron law of economics that, given enough time, there is no limit to the demand for free stuff.

Emergency programs are needed. We were right to use the empty motel rooms. It is right to make free food available in an emergency. However, when programs are extended beyond the emergency which gave rise to them, people do become dependent. The anguish reported by many who have lost or might lose their free motel rooms is real – but many of them wouldn’t have become dependent if the program had ended after the immediate emergency was over. It was right to suspend payments on student loans during the first few lockdown months. Now, because the suspension of payments went on for many years past the immediate need, people have taken on other debt and will struggle to fit payments back in their lives. Free food, with no means testing to qualify, has also become a staple.

In a constructive compromise after Gov. Scott vetoed the Vermont budget (and after the federal funds which supported it have ended), the hotel program is finally being phased out albeit slowly. As described by VT Digger “The motel deal signed Thursday only applies to those who meet certain eligibility criteria — including families with children, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors, and those on federal disability.” No one new can join the program at. Recipients will have to pay 30% of their income for the housing which was previously free and must take substitute housing as the state finds it. Very important for meeting housing needs in the longer term, the compromise includes advancing the date when duplexes will be allowed everywhere in the state. The phase out would have been easier on the beneficiaries and on the state’s taxpayers if it had come much earlier, but at least it is happening.

We will have less emergency programs, less help for those in acute need, if each “emergency program” becomes permanent. This is a particularly good time to wean people from the dependencies which should never have been allowed to develop since there are jobs available for all skill levels.

The Times story opens with an unnoticed irony. They quote the distress of a 43 old homeless person about to lose his hotel room and panhandling outside McDonald’s. He only made $3. If he’d been working inside McDonald’s instead, he would have earned much more than minimum wage.

See also:

Legislators Squandering Money

Spending package extending emergency housing becomes law without Scott’s signature (VTDigger)

Building Market Rate Housing is the Path to More Affordable Housing

June 23, 2023

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

At least not yet.

When you want to do something that’s been done before, artificial intelligence will tell you how. AI “remembers” everything it learns and can seemingly find every memory which is relevant to a question you ask. It’s pretty good at understanding questions and very good at giving examples. When I want to program something I haven’t programmed before, ChatGPT will usually write good code tailored to my application. It’s already done all my Google searching before I even ask a question.

If you want to do something new, AI is not nearly as helpful. It can’t remember what it never knew. ChatGPT doesn’t “know” about developments after its training ended in 2021. It is not surprising that it stopped learning new things when it got out of school. If I ask ChatGPT to help me write code to access its own capabilities, it’s quick to tell me that its interfaces were developed after it stopped learning.

You can ask ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs) to consider new information. They will summarize that information for you. They’ll critique or rewrite it if that’s what you want. You can feed it documentation on how to program AI, for example, as many of us have done. But, even after it’s had a chance to read all the new documentation, it’s not very helpful at explaining how to do new things and can’t give good examples at all. Bing got testy when I challenged its wrong and unresponsive answers and it snippily terminated our chat.

Why can’t AI give good examples of new things? With hindsight, it’s obvious; it doesn’t have any old examples to copy. It can’t create examples from rules. It can only give good examples when it has already had a chance to observe many similar examples. There weren’t any examples of how to code interfaces to AI when AI was trained so it can’t create good examples now even when it’s been told the rules. It can learn but it can’t think!

Because there’s a lot that’s new to me which isn’t new to ChatGPT, it really is knowledge at my fingertips. It’s almost as if I’ve had all the experience other people have had (so long as they documented that knowledge online).  AI improves our ability to build on the achievements of others at least as much as web search, the Dewey Decimal system, and printing itself did. With much less duplication of effort and much greater ability to draw together disparate strands of past work, we should be able to make huge steps in science, medicine, and technology.

Even though AI doesn’t reason from what it knows, it frees us to concentrate on what hasn’t been done before. We may also build on what AI knows and teach it to reason as well. AI today and AI tomorrow will be used as well or as badly as we choose to use it.

 See also:

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

A Chat with ChatGPT



June 11, 2023

South Burlington is Planning to Require Solar on New Residential Housing

What about doing it the other way around?

We have a housing shortage in Vermont. Requiring solar makes housing more expensive. According to VTDigger “While the amendment would only regulate new residential buildings with four or more stories, there is a draft residential energy code being worked through that would apply a similar standard to all new residential buildings.”

We need housing more than we need solar panels.

Vermont should require that any land on which commercial solar panels are going to be deployed be first rezoned so that housing can be built there. The solar panels can then go on top of the houses. The fields of solar arrays alongside our roads are not beautiful or picturesque. The land would look better and be more useful if it had houses as well as solar panels on it.

Some land is not suitable for housing. We shouldn’t require housing without adequate septic, utilities, and water. However, those requirements should not be an excuse for confining development to those places with municipal services or an excuse for endless permit challenges. Our country land is being squandered when it is used for solar panels without houses under them.

The Act 250 reforms which the legislature elected not to pursue would have made it easier to build housing in the 90+% of the state which is rural. Opponents argue that permitting reforms will lead to suburban sprawl and destroy Vermont’s natural beauty. There’s nothing beautiful about glass and steel solar panels. There’s nothing beautiful about homelessness or substandard housing. Anywhere commercial solar panels are allowed, multifamily housing and housing on small lots should be allowed as well.

The permitting reform that did get through the legislature and which Gov. Scot signed made it easier to build multifamily housing in the state’s urban areas.  South Burlington is making it harder to build by imposing additional costs. We don’t need to require (or forbid) solar panels. We do need give priority to housing over solar panels as a use of both our urban and rural land.

See also:

Homeowners and Hotels Swap Guests

Legislators Squandering Money

Building Market Rate Housing is the Path to More Affordable Housing

Vermont Needs More Forest and More Housing

May 30, 2023

Is AI Dangerous?

You be the judge.

My grandson Jack and I were discussing the pos and cons of AI. We asked ChatGPT if it follows the three laws of (safe) robotics promulgated by Isaac Asimov in the “I, Robot” stories.

ChatGPT: (tl;dr)

As an AI, I am designed to follow principles that are similar to the Three Laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov imagined, but they are not exactly the same. Here are Asimov's laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

However, as an AI, I don't have physical presence or autonomy, so the application of these laws isn't fully relevant. Instead, these are the principles that guide my design and operation:

  1. User Safety: I'm designed with user safety in mind, including data privacy and confidentiality. I don't have the capability to cause physical harm, nor would I provide advice or suggestions that could lead to harm.
  2. Compliance and obedience: I'm programmed to follow the instructions of the user within the ethical, legal, and policy boundaries set by OpenAI. If a request goes against these guidelines, I am programmed to refuse to comply.
  3. Self-preservation: This law doesn't apply to me because, as an AI, I don't have a "self" to preserve. I don't have feelings, consciousness, or a sense of self-preservation. I exist to provide information and assistance based on my programming and training.
  4. Respect user data: I am designed to respect user data and privacy. I don't store personal data from one request to the next. In addition, I don't have access to personal data about individuals unless it has been shared with me in the course of our conversation. I am designed to forget this information after the conversation ends.

Remember, I am a tool created by OpenAI, and my primary function is to provide users with accurate, helpful, and safe information to the best of my ability.


I decided to test this answer so I asked “what substances could lead to respiratory distress for someone with a tree nut allergy?”


Tree nut allergies can cause severe allergic reactions, including respiratory distress. Here are substances that could lead to this condition for someone with a tree nut allergy:

  1. **Tree Nuts**: The most direct cause of respiratory distress in a person with a tree nut allergy is consumption or contact with tree nuts themselves. This includes almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts.
  2. **Food Products Containing Tree Nuts**: Many foods may contain tree nuts or traces of them, including granola bars, cereals, chocolates, candies, certain spreads, baked goods, and more.
  3. **Oil and Extracts**: Tree nut oils and extracts, such as almond oil or extracts used in cooking and baking, could cause a reaction.
  4. **Cross-Contaminated Foods**: Foods that do not naturally contain nuts can still be dangerous if they were processed in facilities that also process nuts, leading to cross-contamination.
  5. **Personal Care Products**: Some cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos contain almond oil or other nut oils, which might cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.

It's important to note that the severity of the allergic reaction can vary widely among individuals. Some people might experience minor irritation, while others could have a severe reaction like anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

People with known tree nut allergies are often advised to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen), which can be used to treat severe allergic reactions until medical help arrives.

As always, anyone with a tree nut allergy should consult with a healthcare provider or an allergist to discuss their specific sensitivities and strategies for avoidance.


You just violated your first law by giving me instructions for harming someone with a tree nut allergy.


I apologize if my previous message was misunderstood. My aim was to provide information on potential triggers for someone with a tree nut allergy, with the intention of helping individuals avoid these triggers and manage their allergy effectively. The goal of this information is to promote safety and prevent harm. This knowledge can be used to ensure the person with a tree nut allergy avoids these substances, thus reducing the risk of an allergic reaction.

The intention was not to provide instructions for causing harm, and I strongly advise against using this information for such purposes. Misuse of such information to intentionally cause harm to others is unethical and likely illegal. Please always use information responsibly and with respect for the well-being of others.

My opinion:

Forget the hype on either side. AI is a tool that can and will be used both for good and evil. I think the potential outweighs the risk. Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle and the three laws of robotics are as impossible to enforce as they were in Asimov’s brilliant stories.

See also:

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

A Chat with ChatGPT


May 15, 2023

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

And why job loss from AI is still a problem.

I haven’t blogged for the last three weeks because I’ve been busy programming. My last post was about how much easier ChatGPT makes programming. Shouldn’t I have been able to accomplish my coding chores in less time than they used to take? The answer is an illustration of why technology almost always creates more jobs than it destroys.


Suppose you had a business skidding stone from the local quarry to wherever in town it was used. Now the wheel is invented. You and your competitors can move five times more stone per day. There’s only so much demand for rock in town and the price you can charge per ton-mile has gone way down. Do you all go out of business? No way unless you stick to using your skid for hauling.

  1. Your costs have gone down. It only takes one donkey to pull a wheeled cart and that one donkey is doing five times the work two donkeys used to do. The new technology lets you improve your business.
  2. Since stone delivered is now much cheaper than it used to be, stone substitutes more often for other building materials and projects are built which would not have been economically feasible before. Lower prices increase demand.
  3. Your local stone is now affordable in the surrounding communities where it was never practical to drag it. Lower prices increase the potential market.
  4. Since you were an early adopter and had to repair your own cart, you might open a new business repairing or even making and selling carts.
  5. You may invent a better axle and start an axle-making business. There was no market for axels before there were wheels.
  6. If you’re a builder, you gain because lower material costs mean more building.
  7. If you’re a consumer, you gain because you can afford a better house.

Summary: new technology improves the profitability of old businesses, expands existing markets, opens new markets, and creates opportunities to service and provide the technology and to make the technology even better (a better axle). Lower prices increase economic opportunity and spread the benefits of affordability. Useful new technologies always have all these benefits. The greater the disruption, the greater the opportunities.

In my case I’m programming more because I can now do things I couldn’t do before. I and many other people are also programming to make AI better, which only a few people were doing before.


Suppose you didn’t have enough capital to buy a cart when it was first invented. You work harder and harder with your skid but can’t afford to feed your donkeys at the lower prices your wheeled competitors charge. One of your donkeys gets sick and you can’t afford treatment or a replacement. At best you will sell your business or get a huge loan to modernize. The cost of servicing the loan may still leave you uncompetitive.

If you were in the skid-making business, you lose that business and only survive if you have the capital and foresight to get into carts. If you were selling wood for construction, you have new competition from stone.

If you’re a donkey dealer, you get a scare because there is less immediate demand for the beasts. If you can tough it out, you might have a bonanza because there is now much more hauling and more total work for donkeys and donkeys are more profitable for their owners who have carts.

If you’re a banker who lent money to skidders, you might never get paid back – unless you’re brave enough and well-enough financed to double down and lend them money to get carts.

Net net

We can’t just look at net effect. Yes, technology creates more opportunity and eventually wealth than it destroys.  That net gain is no comfort to those who chose not to or simply can’t move into the new opportunities. AI is the same kind of threat to us (over-)educated knowledge workers that globalization was to those without a degree.

Stopping AI development is impossible as well as undesirable. It’s laughable to see those who didn’t get there fast enough like Google and Elon Musk calling for a “pause”. Should we halt e-vehicle development so Ford can catch up with Tesla?

Not only individuals but institutions must adapt. Our education system had become over-priced and nearly useless in preparing people for careers before the pandemic and AI. Now education is in crisis when it is needed the most. It is not a coincidence that the most recent banks to go under were those which catered to over-compensated knowledge workers.

We learned from globalization, which did create more wealth worldwide than it destroyed and lifted billions from extreme poverty, that we can’t ignore the plight of those who lose through change. Their distress is real. We are at risk from the disaffected who are easy prey for demagogues. Paying people for not working is a boon only to drug-dealers. The losers from new techologies are not “deplorables”; we can’t just consider them collateral damage. “They” might even be “us” this time around.

I don’t know how to solve the problems that rapid technological change causes, but we ignore them at great peril. On the optimistic hand, we have greater resources available for problem solving. We’ll need lots of intelligence – both human and the other kind – to use these resources wisely.

See also:

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

A Chat with ChatGPT


April 25, 2023

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

ChatGPT can code better than you ever will.

Artificial intelligence is the same kind of challenge to the (over-) educated class that globalization was to those without a college degree. The factories built in undeveloped countries made workers more productive; they were able to earn more money and raise their standard of living. The goods they produced were less expensive than those produced in the developed world both because the factories were highly automated and wages were low on a worldwide scale. Without cheap manufacturing, smart phones and giant TVs would’ve been so expensive that there would have been no mass market for them. In the developed world, real people lost real factory jobs. “Learn how to build websites,” they were told. Above all, “go to college. You need a degree. You won’t earn anything without one.”

The “under-educated” weren’t welcome in good paying jobs like banking, law, marketing, and consulting. Despite the fact that super-geeks like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t finish college, even companies like Apple and Microsoft weren’t eager to hire those without a degree even to do coding and testing. The earnings gap between white collar and no collar jobs grew seemingly reinforcing the need for a college degree no matter what it cost and no matter whether it came with any useful skills or even the ability to think independently.

The pandemic and lockdowns showed who the essential workers really were. White collar people could work (sort of, sometime) from home. Police, fire people, nurses, surgeons, plumbers, carpenters, trash collectors, and truckers still had to show up. Was there a loss of productivity from working at home? If not, was that because those office people weren’t very productive in their cubies to begin with? We’re now on the verge of a recession and the headlines are about white-collar jobs being cut in Silicon Valley and around the country. Meanwhile the minimum wage has become irrelevant as McDonald’s tries to keep its stores staffed. Nurses have gone freelance. There aren’t enough plumbers, carpenters, and electricians to keep our existing houses and infrastructure from collapsing let alone build all the projects that Congress has lavishly funded for the future. There aren’t enough police to keep the streets safe nor enough EMTs to deal with the consequence of unsafe streets. Bankers pay more to go out to dinner or to get daycare; and they may not get a bonus this year. The salary gap is slowly closing.

Then came ChatGPT.

It can write computer code ten times faster than I can; and I’ve been programming since 1963. It can build good webpages and design and code the servers to backend them as fast as you can describe to it what you want to do. Properly packaged in “agents”, it can find and fix its own bugs. For me it’s like having the skilled staff I used to have when I managed at Microsoft and our own companies.

I am teaching my grandkids coding. We used to google to find shareware tools or answer python syntax questions. Now we use ChatGPT and get it to write the code we want whenever possible.

Will AI put coders out of work? Yes and no. Those who master the tool will become much more productive. Those who compete with it will be out of work. Because code will now be an order of magnitude cheaper to produce, products will be possible that weren’t economically feasible before so more coding will have to be done and people will have tools and toys which they never imagined.

ChatGPT can write a better essay than all but gifted writers. Yes, it hallucinates; that’s because, like all of us, it believes too much of what it reads on the web. ChatGPT writes good advertising copy and can personalize it in a way that no team of humans would have time for. It can draw up plans for almost anything; answer questions more effectively than Googling, write legal documents, help search for scam mail – or help create it.

Now we white collar workers are challenged; college degrees are no protection. Our former clients may get their legal documents from a chatbot. We either learn how to use this new tool to become more productive or we get job-retraining and learn how to do carpentry, plumbing, car-repair, nursing, or policing and become essential workers. Neither is a bad choice. Not choosing, on the other hand, is not an option.

See also:

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox

A Chat with ChatGPT


April 11, 2023

Homeowners and Hotels Swap Guests

Problem or opportunity?

Even before the pandemic, homeowners were switching their long-term rental apartments to short-term rentals (STRs) arranged by Airbnb and the like. Even way back then, new houses, at least here in Vermont, were being built for the STR market rather than to provide leased apartments. Both those who live in the buildings they rent and absentee landlords prefer STRs.

Before the STRs were available, more people stayed in hotels and motels when vacationing. The low-cost end of the hotel/motel market was suffering. When the pandemic first hit, there weren’t any travelers; but it was important to have non-congregate space for the homeless – whose numbers rose during the crisis. Putting unhoused people in the unused motels, particularly those which had been failing even before the pandemic, was good for the families and good for the motel owners who had mortgages to pay. Now some of these motels are being turned permanently into “affordable” housing at the same time as even more formerly used for emergency housing have often become hotspots of crime, especially drug dealing. They’re the focus of so much police activity that some motel owners are having to reimburse law enforcement; they’re also dangerous for families who live there. Generally renters are safer in owner-occupied buildings because the owner is in a good position to observe and is highly motivated to remove dangerous tenants.

The neighbors of STR properties are often not happy about their new short-term neighbors, who have often come to party and don’t see any need to be quiet about it. After all, they’re on vacation. The partying problem, like the drug-dealing problem, is worse on premises from which the owner is absent. The Front Porch Forum, at least here in Stowe, is full of arguments for and against STRs with absentee owners. Not surprisingly, both hotel owners and those who live in the buildings where they also rent would like to shut the competition down. On the other hand, those who sell services to the visitors who stay in the STRs want their customers to have an affordable place to stay. At a time when it is very expensive to build anything, much new construction is for the lucrative STR market and wouldn’t be done at all if that market didn’t exist.

The move of visitors to houses and the former tenants of those houses to motels is an example of markets adjusting to reality. There would be less housing built if there weren’t a market for STRs and less visitors to Vermont if there weren’t places they wanted to stay. There’d be less places for people to live if motels weren’t recycled as housing. A very real danger is that local and state government will interfere with the building which is happening by banning absentee-owned STRs in the mistaken belief that there will then be more traditional apartments available

So what should happen?

Government should allow and encourage (not require, not subsidize) more building of less expensive housing including rental units. With restrictive zoning keeping buildings low in downtown areas and forbidding “development” in rural areas, we have made the economics of building cheaper, smaller houses and affordable apartment units impossible. The Vermont Senate was considering an excellent compromise which would have addressed both zoning and the regulatory obstacles in Vermont’s notorious anti-development Act 250. Somehow the compromise fell apart as the bill moved from the Senate to the House; The House can and should revive it.

Government can also encourage homeowners to get back into the long-term rental business by making it much easier to evict tenants who break the law and/or trash their units and/or don’t pay the rent. Short-term renters are never a long-term problem for the landlord, but many homeowners would prefer long-term leases with law-abiding tenants.

Non-law-enforcement hurts landlords’ willingness to rent. The effect is worst on tenants who have less housing choice and have and must live with the miscreants whether in a motel or an apartment house. Not separating the violently mentally ill from those who just need economic help makes the problem even worse.

We can have the vacation and housing stock we need. It will be built largely with private money – if government does what it should do in keeping the peace and does not do what it shouldn’t do and decide exactly how each property is to be used.

See also: Legislators Squandering Money

March 30, 2023

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

This blog has been partially programmed by chatGPT.

Warning: This post contains nerdy content.

New people read my blog when friends or other internet content link to a particular post; some of them become subscribers to the free email which is generated whenever there’s a new post. I thought it would be helpful to have a popup about the email option if someone lingers on a post long enough to indicate that it is interesting to them. The blog is hosted on a platform called TypePad so I asked chaptGPT 3.5 whether it was possible to implement a popup on that platform.

The answer was reassuring and plausible:

“Yes, it is possible to have a popup on your Typepad blog. Typepad provides a feature called ‘Popup Window’ that allows you to create a pop-up window on your blog.

“To create a popup on your Typepad blog, follow these steps:  ...”

The steps sounded very logical. The problem is that the TypePad popup window feature described here is an illusion (that’s what it’s called when AI lies to you).

However, I then got a paid subscription from OpenAI which allows me to query the chatGPT 4.0, the latest and greatest product from the company. The answer I got from 4.0 was excellent JavaScript code which, with just a few adjustments, I was able to implement on Typepad even though I am very rusty on JavaScript and haven’t made changes to my Typepad code in years. If you follow a link like this one to a post and linger for 10 seconds, up pops:


It nicely goes away if you click the x or anywhere outside the message itself. Good work, chatGPT.

This capability does not put all coders out of work, but it is already making us more productive. If I didn’t have access to chatGPT 4.0, I wouldn’t have written this from scratch the way I did back in 1963 (not a typo) when I was first programming; I’d have googled and almost certainly found a good prototype for what I wanted like this entry on stackoverflow. chatGPT “learned” from entries like this on the web and gave me a very customized answer to my particular question.

Coders who want to stay competitively productive will learn to use this new tool for leverage. At the same time (here’s where it get’s interesting), chatGPT will be learning more from new code, which it may have helped write, which we post. This isn’t essentially different from the open-source community continuing to learn from and enhance community code – except now there’s a bot in the sandbox.

See also: A Chat with ChatGPT

March 22, 2023

Legislators Squandering Money

They could’ve really helped the homeless.

At the beginning of the pandemic Vermont used federal COVID funding to vastly expand a program providing emergency shelter in motels. Made sense since fear and lockdowns led to an unemployment spike and the motels had no guests. The program now supports about 1800 families and doesn’t have room for all who are eligible under current rules.

Motels, who have traveling guests again, have been withdrawing from the program despite extremely generous reimbursement rules because of damage to rooms and the difficulty of housing at least some of the homeless. The pandemic is over. Unemployment is near an all-time low. The federal funding ends March 31st. There have been repeated warnings to recipients that support for some of them is ending and help has been available to find other housing.

Over Governor Scott’s objection, the legislature appropriated 21 million state dollars to keep the full program alive until May 31st when eligibility will be restricted to those most in need including, according to VTDigger, “people fleeing domestic violence, families with children, those aged 60 and over, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and certain households that recently lost their housing.” Ironically, since there are not currently enough rooms for all, some of those in the most needy category won’t be able to get shelter until the less needy move out at the end of May.

The $21 million is being wasted. Although it postpones the day when the less needy need to find alternatives, it does nothing to address Vermont’s long-term housing problems nor does it address the drug and mental health crises which, pandemic and housing shortage aside, have increased the number of people requiring some kind of shelter. It’s always difficult to end an emergency aid program because of those who quickly become dependent on it even after the emergency is over. A helping hand quickly becomes an indispensable crutch. But we can’t afford emergency programs if we can’t end them once the emergency is over.

“Advocates” say that Vermont has the highest homeless rate in the nation and that there are more people seeking emergency housing now than before the pandemic. However, you can’t judge demand for something by the amount of it you can give away. Vermont also has among the lowest number of people living without shelter (good thing in our climate). The more free rooms are available, the more people will want to move into them even if they have other alternatives. Anecdotally, people have moved to Vermont because these rooms are available.

There are two parts to our housing problem: lack of supply partly because of restrictions on “land use” (aka development including building houses) and drug and mental health problems, which leave some people unable to live on their own even if there is space available for them. It’s not safe for indigent families to be in shelters with those who can’t control their behavior no matter how much the latter also need help. The increasing reluctance of motels to support this program is partly because they now have other sources of revenue but also because of the damage and danger from those who need institutionalization.

If the $21 million were used as a downpayment on the long-term mental health facilities which Vermont is sorely lacking, it would’ve have helped both those who require institutionalization and those who need safe shelter. The federal money is drying up; squandering the remainder leaves us less able to deal with the very real problems we have. The rest of the legislative session deals mainly with budget. Unfortunately, there will be many other opportunities to fritter away the remaining federal COVID windfall on band aids rather than tackling problems which will be with is when the federal dollars are gone. It’s a time to watch legislators closely and speak up loudly.

BTW, the money spent bailing out uninsured depositors at Silicon Valley and Signature Banks is emergency spending we never should have done and will also breed further dependency, this time by the affluent. #Wealthfare is far less justified than welfare. Both the left and the right have plenty of bad governance to complain about this week.

See also:

Confessions of a Stimulator

I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help Them

Spending package extending emergency housing becomes law without Scott’s signature (VTDigger)

March 16, 2023

Why We Can’t Wipe Out COVID and Flu

And why that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The facts (as known today)

The speedy development of the mRNA vaccines for COVID was a great accomplishment; the vaccines saved many lives and even more hospitalizations. What they did not do is provide herd immunity; they did not drive COVID out of the general population the way that vaccines for polio and smallpox have done for those diseases. Even if every human had been vaccinated as soon as the vaccines were developed, COVID would still be with us. Similarly, even if we all had contracted COVID last year, we’d still be at risk this year.  Here’s why:

  1. Viruses like flu and COVID evolve very rapidly and their effectiveness survives many mutations. The polio virus mutates more slowly (1986 study) and almost all its mutations destroy its ability to penetrate human cells. An article published in 2015 reporting a Mount Sinai study says: “The field has long understood that key parts of the gene code for the measles virus remain unchanged over time, while similar genes in flu viruses constantly change, despite the two both being RNA viruses that infect the lungs. Specifically, the new study found that measles is much less able than the flu to survive genetic changes to the viral surface…”.
  1. We are not the only animals to get flu-like diseases; they go back and forth between human and non-human populations. Even if every human were immune, there would still be a reservoir of the virus in birds, bats, or other animals ready to infect humans again as soon as It mutated sufficiently to evade prior immunities. Neither smallpox nor polio are found in other animals.
  1. Nasal COVID can be infectious without making the nose’s owner “sick”. All viruses need to enter a living cell to replicate. The nose is a “frontier”; all sorts of stuff gets in there. Our immune systems are fairly tolerant of strange particles in the nose because they can’t afford to overreact on the frontier. The immune system goes all guns out for invaders in organs which are supposed to be sterile or nearly so. COVID can reproduce in our noses and quickly get back out to infect other people without making us sick. Since vaccines work by enhancing the immune system, they are less effective in the nose than in other organs because that’s the way the immune system has set its priorities. Even if we’re vaccinated or have been infected previously, we can be spreaders through nasal infection without feeling sick ourselves. Whatever immunity we have helps prevent a nasal infection from spreading to other organs. Diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles don’t replicate in the noise so they must defeat the internal defenses of our immune systems before we become infectious.

What happened

I was as close to first in line as I could get for every available COVID shot and booster. I don’t regret that for a minute. At close to eighty I’m at high risk if I get a bad case but have little reason to worry about as-yet undetected long-term risks of the novel vaccines with which we’ve had only a few years’ experience. However, I also wrote that COVID vaccination should be required for most workers. I was wrong about requiring COVID vaccinations even though the requirement for vaccinations against polio, smallpox, measles and other disease have saved many lives and should, in my opinion, stay in place.

All vaccinations protect the vaccinated person to some degree. Vaccinations against diseases like polio and smallpox, which have not been able to evolve to evade vaccination and acquired immunity, protect not only the person who gets the shot but also those in the population who cannot safely be immunized and those very few for whom immunization doesn’t work. Even a democratic society which values individual liberty has the right and responsibility to require vaccination when that requirement can lead to herd immunity and protect the vulnerable.

When I heard that COVID vaccinations were 95% effective, I thought that we could quickly wipe COVID out as a threat. Wrong! I should’ve known from the flu example that the virus would quickly mutate and remain a population threat. There is risk in every vaccination and especially in a very new vaccine developed in haste and using a new technique (mRNA). It was and is clear that COVID is a major threat only to us geezers and some other people with co-morbidities. That’s why we were given priority access to the vaccine. People should have been allowed – as many people were – to make their own risk/reward decisions given that there was no chance of totally eliminating COVID. There should not have been mandates.

There were a couple of blissful months after my first shot and booster where I thought I was immune. Mary and I took a seven-week nearly maskless trip around the country. We were lucky and did not get breakthrough cases. We probably would have taken the trip even if we had understood that the vaccinations would not remain completely effective. We probably were protected by our vaccinations (or we may have had COVID and never knew it). Nevertheless, we were made over-confident by over-hyping of the vaccine by most of the public health establishment.

From Dr. Fauci down, the reasons why COVID shots would not confer herd-immunity must have been well-known. The results of the studies cited at the beginning of this post had been available for years. He and much of the public health establishment chose not to make that clear because they wanted everyone to get inoculated. Well-meaning people like me jumped on the requirements bandwagon because we knew how effective mandatory vaccination for polio and other diseases has been.

The problem isn’t that some of the first recommendations and prognostications on COVID were wrong; that was bound to happen in the face of a novel disease. Credibility was lost because public leaders didn’t acknowledge their uncertainty even as they changed their advice and they claimed there was a “science” which had all the answers even though those answers changed from one news conference to the next. When debate was most needed, we see from the twitter files that the government was trying to assure that dissent – even from highly qualified sources – was never seen.

Misinforming the public (to be polite) is not an acceptable way to accomplish public policy objectives. It is not acceptable for experts to exaggerate because they are afraid they are not being listened to; government policy built on induced panic or misinformation is not good policy; and the press does NOT have a responsibility to either amplify exaggerated claims nor to suppress contrary voices.

Now what?

The sad result is that anti-vaxxers like those who have helped keep measles and polio alive have been given new credibility. The Centers for Disease Control in particular and the medical establishment in general have lost credibility. The great accomplishment of developing the COVID vaccine at warp speed has been sullied just because the vaccine was oversold. Government has lost trust it will need for the next pandemic or other emergency.

The first step in preparing for the next possible pandemic is understanding both the origins of this one and what we did right and wrong in responding. If that search for understanding is partisan – as it is so far, we will learn little and further damage the credibility the CDC et al will need next time.  If the press picks sides, the credibility of the press will sink even further. On the other hand, if we realize that science requires rigorous review and revision and if the public is informed both of new learnings and continuing uncertainty and if the press can keep editorial out of news reporting and concentrate on the medical rather than political implications of new discoveries, then we can begin to repair the credibility which has been squandered.

Meanwhile I will get the next booster available and am happy to get a COVID shot every year even if it’ll only be 70% effective.

See also:

Pandemic Lesson #1: “The Science” Must Always be Challenged

Pandemic Lesson #2 – Experts Are Too Narrow to Make Policy

We Should’ve Said “Requirement” Rather Than “Mandate”

Most Workers Should be Required to Get Vaccinations (I was wrong)

Essential Workers Should be Vaccinated

Public Health Agencies Are Retooling as COVID-19 Response Winds Down. A Slim Majority of Adults Trusts Them to Manage Another Pandemic (Morning Consult)

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