2020-06-30

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 11

When the pandemic first struck, the world was overcome by a mantra of "stay home." At first, this was a sort of communal and positive message, but soon it morphed into a terrible kind of moralizing. Old ladies would call the police on kids playing ball in the schoolyard. People turned on each other.

Eventually, the case rates started to decline, and the country started to "open up" again. That was short-lived. Now we're confronting another round of closures. The difference this time is that there is no longer a "stay home" mantra. Now the mantra is "wear a mask."

Intelligent people should be able to understand that the pandemic wasn't just going to go away because people "stayed home," but if it wasn't clear at the outset of all of this, it should at least be clear in hindsight. Now, however, we're in round two. We already know to be an empirical fact that we can't fight a pandemic with platitudes like "stay home." Fighting it with "wear a mask" will be no different.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic wears on, people become progressively more moralistic. "Wear a mask" started out as ugly as "stay home" ended; what it grew into was a tortuous act of moral grandstanding. It got so bad that I had to take a break from social media and just play with my kids for a month. Now I'm back, and I can confirm that it's even worse.

To be clear, both "stay home" and "wear a mask" are useful pieces of advice to the extent that they work to reduce viral load. What we must keep in mind at all times is that the goal here is to reduce viral load. Wearing a mask isn't a failsafe, nor is it the single act of all acting that will result in a better outcome. Wearing a mask is just one personal hygiene practice among a whole set of skills that we all ought to practice in order to reduce viral load.

When you see someone wearing a mask, you still have no idea whether that person washes his hands after using the restroom or blowing his nose; you still have no idea whether that person practices social distancing; you don't know if he just spent last night in a crowded bar or at a big political rally. You basically know nothing about that person's life, experiences, or hygiene practices. If you were to suddenly conclude that this person is on "your side," the side of "SCIENCE," the side of good and right-thinking liberal people who want the pandemic to end as soon as the research will allow, you'd be making a big mistake.

Likewise, if you see someone without a mask, you know equally little about the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of his day. Don't jump to conclusions.

This kind of knee-jerking is, sadly, what I've come to expect from my American community, as is the moral grandstanding. I've simply grown tired of it, exhausted by the perpetual moral outrage expressed twenty-four hours per day. (Or Tweeted, ugh.)

What I've also, sadly, come to expect from my fellow Americans is a lack of true efficacy. That is, those who wear masks likely don't change them and wash them often enough. They probably don't wash their hands often enough, or thoroughly enough. (At the beginning of the pandemic, there were memes about washing your hands for a full twenty seconds. I wonder who still does that anymore? It's only been a few months.) They don't engage in time-tested hygiene habits like using a bidet, sterilizing their kitchen countertops and bathroom surfaces. They don't wipe down the interior surfaces of their cars.

All that is to say, people talk quite a big game about wearing masks, but when push comes to shove, no one is willing to do what truly needs to be done to reduce viral load. People are still as filthy as they ever were. I had gotten used to how dirty people are; now I have to get used to their being both dirty and sanctimonious about masks.

I sure hope someone develops an effective vaccine for this.

2020-06-23

Slate Star CoDoxxed

Get it? Because he says they're "doxxing" him.

"Doxxing" is a type of cyber-bullying in which the bully publicly reveals private information about the target, such as their home phone number or address, their employer's information, photos of the target's children, and so on. This is considered to be extremely threatening. Imagine that someone publicly posts a photo of your small child playing at the park, along with the Google Maps link to the park and a comment to the effect of, "This is where that racist Joe plays with his kids." That's doxxing. Yes, it's bad.

But that's not what's happening to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Let's dive in.

First, The Back-Story

Go ahead and cruise on over to slatestarcodex.com to get Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So's version of the story. It goes something like this: A writer from The New York Times wanted to write a story about a popular blog that generates a lot of interest and that maybe got some things right about COVID-19 early on. That was fine with Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So until the journalist said, "By the way, I've been able to figure out what the So-and-So stands for, and I'm going to put that into my story." Dr. Scott freaks out a little and says no, don't do that. The journalist says it's company policy.

So, Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So deleted his whole blog, saying that The New York Times was trying to endanger him by doxxing him "for clicks."

Before I go on, I would like to remind my readers of my previous posts about Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Here's a link. You will see from what I've written before that I consider the guy to be really weird. It's not just that I dislike his blog - and I do - it's that he seems emblematic of a very bizarre strain of Silicon Valley culture, and the deeper you get into this crowd, the heebier the jeebies, if you catch my drift. 

His blog rose to prominance when some well-regarded bloggers started linking to his posts. They all seemed to consider him very smart and thoughtful. Soon enough, "everyone" was reading him. Over time, his posts have become more performative. He started out writing like a self-conscious nerd, and now he writes as though he is playing the part of a self-conscious nerd who thinks he is a really smart and funny guy. That's fine. Fame changes you. I don't care.

What I do care about is the content of his blog. Each post tackles any number of topics. He's written on climate science and economics and technology and artificial intelligence and psychiatry and biology and sociology and anything else. He always presents his views as though he is an expert, but quite often it's painfully obvious that he's just done a couple of hours of internet research. There's no shame in doing some casual research and blogging about it, but when everyone starts calling you an expert, and you keep doing light research and presenting it as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So Presents The Answer To A Problem That People Have Been Trying To Solve For Decades, then it starts to get on my nerves.

I mean, it's dorky to do what effectively amounts to college homework assignments as an adult passing the time. But it's problematic to be taken seriously for it.

An "Anonymous" Blogger

Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So openly admits that his name is a pseudonym. First question: Why is he using a pseudonym? Maybe it's like a stage name. Lots of people have stage names. Stage names can be a lot of fun. But that's not why Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So says he uses a pseudonym. Instead, he says it's because he wants to remain anonymous.

But Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So also says that Scott Alexander is his real-life first and last name. That sure is an odd choice of pseudonyms for someone who wishes to remain anonymous. The legendary whistleblower "Deep Throat" wasn't a guy named Deep Throat McInnis, and if he was, going by "Deep Throat" wouldn't exactly be a cloak of anonymity. "Deep Throat" was not a pseudonym that resembled his or her real name at all. It was an obviously made-up moniker; it was intended to be obviously made up, because if everyone knows that Deep Throat's real name is nothing whatsoever resembling Deep Throat, then no one has any idea what Deep Throat's real name is. That's true anonymity. That's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So wanted, obviously. If he wanted that kind of anonymity, then he would have chosen a pseudonym more like "Deep Throat," or "Alone" (the pseudonym of the writer of The Last Psychiatrist blog), or "Slate Star Codex Guy" or something.

Pretty much everyone knows that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens. Samuel Clemens didn't choose "Mark Twain" as a pen name because he wanted to be anonymous. He chose it because he thought he could sell more books under the name "Mark Twain" than under the name "Samuel Clemens," and he was probably right. Mark Twain sounds way better. But when the press discovered his real name, Samuel Clemens didn't delete all his books and complain about being doxxed. He just did what any normal person using a pen name would do: He said, yep, but I write books under the name Mark Twain. And there was no issue.

The matter was slightly different with "Publius," or "Publicus," or whatever name they were using to write The Federalist Papers. In that case, they had to be anonymous because they could have been killed for treason. Notice again how "Publius" bears scant resemblance to "John Jay" or "John Adams."

It gets worse, of course. Not only did Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So choose a "pseudonym" that was actually just his real name, he published many old links to all his old blog posts, in which he discussed personal details of his life. He discussed the experiences of the patients he saw in his clinical psychiatric practice. He held public meet-ups, advertised on his blog and on his social media accounts, where he agreed to meet with pretty much any old person who happened to read his blog or follow him on Twitter. He didn't meet strangers with a cloak and a mask, either. He met them using his real face and his real name and as his own, real, self. In short, he presented himself publicly as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, Please Don't Use My Last Name Because I Want To Be Anonymous, Honest.

Not exactly the behavior of a man who seeks anonymity, is it?

Playing At Being Famous

But okay, maybe he was just naive about the matter. That could be the explanation, right?

Still, fifteen years of naivete over the course of progressively building internet fame seems to strain credulity. Once you start getting calls from The Times, wouldn't you reconsider your willy-nilly attitude toward divulging personal details? I mean, if it mattered to you that you remain anonymous, and you started to become famous, wouldn't you then quietly cull your blog of all references to your real life and real identity, and then just stick to publishing bi-weekly homework essays? Wouldn't you cool it with the public meet-ups and stuff?

You would indeed, if you cared about anonymity.

So, another possible explanation here is that Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So liked being famous and well-regarded for publishing homework essays on the internet. He liked being able to organize meet-ups and watch strangers show up, wanting to meet him. He got a taste for fame, and decided he wanted to keep up with it. That's find and dandy, too. I don't fault a man for wanting to be famous. Lots of people want that. 

Then, this feature in the New York Times should be his big break, right? Finally he gets his big spotlight in the press. Finally he can divulge his true identity, set up a Patreon account, publish a book, and maybe secure a regular writing spot at Slate Magazine, or Vox, or The Atlantic or something. If you wanted to be a famous public intellectual, isn't that what you'd do? That's what I would do. I would work hard for my big break, and when it finally came, I would try to make the most of it. I'd try to capitalize.

But that's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So would do. What would he do? Delete his whole blog and complain that he's being persecuted. Weird, right?

Another Possibility

I'm just going to float this theory. I have no idea if it's true, and no skin in the game one way or the other. But it's a theory that makes sense to me.

Imagine you did homework essays for fun. Imagine you were kind of a nerd who lived with ten other people in the same house, you've gone on record saying that you don't have much luck with women, and you're basically just a clinical psychiatrist somewhere. Then imagine one day a lot of genuinely smart public intellectuals start reading your homework and say, "Hey, look at this guy. He seems smart."

So then imagine that you decide to keep up with the homework. People are reading your posts. You feel well-regarded. Heck, you are well-regarded. You get a taste of fame, and you decide you enjoy it and you want more of it. So you keep at your homework, and people keep reading you and linking to you.

And it's all pretty nice because it comes easy to you. You can do a couple of hours of internet research and write about it, no problem. So that's what you do. But at the bottom of it all, you know you're not really solving any problems. You know that your lengthy essays aren't really all that meritorious. You don't think you're all that smart, but everyone keeps saying that you are anyway. Thus, you enjoy the position you're in, you love the fame and the accolades, you like the meet-ups, maybe you even get more romantic attention than you did before.

But you don't have what it takes to capitalize on your fame because, at the bottom of it, you only have the willingness to do a couple hours' internet research per week. You know that people who write books - people like Malcolm Gladwell and James Altucher - actually spend a lot of time and money on research and interviews and collecting information. You know that it's their full-time job. And you know that, while you'd love to give a TED Talk and be interviewed by Tyler Cowen, you don't actually want to spend all your time researching the information you write about.

You know that because you've done enough internet research to understand that there is a HUGE difference between really knowing something and just sounding like you know something. And you know that your expertise is in the latter, not the former.

So things are going well. You have lots of readers, including some incredibly smart people who say nice things about you. When occasional readers point out the flaws in your arguments, you now have a legion of fans to do the additional legwork for you. All you have to do is sound kind of plausible, and there will be enough grains of truth in what you write that your fans can fill in the blanks on their own. In this way, you get them to do the legwork on your most controversial claims, and you get credit for it without having to do the hard work.

Well, that sounds a bit phony, doesn't it? Isn't that what fakers in the business world do? They get really good at sounding good, and then they pass off all their work to underlings, taking all the credit for themselves, and scaling the corporate ladder without ever having to do the hard work. This is classic charlatan behavior.

And when charlatans in the business world get caught, what happens next? They usually quit the job in a blaze of glory, finding a way to spin it such that they get a similar job elsewhere, hopping from job to job until they either get promoted or outed as a fake. And the story is always the same: "I did this amazing thing and that amazing thing, and then someone tried to take credit for my work, so I left." It's always that somebody set them up or something.

So, if you were a faker, if you were this kind of charlatan, only instead of being in the business world, you were in the world of internet blogging... imagine this. Imagine that a real reporter, a real professional writer, asked you for an interview and hit you with some hard-hitting questions that you couldn't answer because, let's face it, you're not who everyone says you are. Imagine that these hardball questions were difficult enough that you started to fear that if your fans got to read your poor responses, the veil would come off and you'd no longer be seen as Mr. Smart Well-Regarded Blogger.

What would you do?

Some people might delete the whole blog, in a blaze of glory, and claim that the reporter was trying to cause you personal harm.

I've seen similar things in the business world. I won't say for sure that this is what happened to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, but it's a story that is consistent with a particular and plausible set of circumstances.

We shall see how it pans out.

2020-06-16

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 10

From my vantage point, it is safe to say that, after those who have unfortunately lost their lives to it, children have suffered the worst from Covid-19.

We adults tend to be quite comfortable in our daily routines. Assuming we have jobs and can earn a living, we spend our time in consistent ways, day-to-day. Even adults with a robust and active social life only have time for a few hours of such socializing per week, and this often comes in scheduled ways: "date night," "girls' night," "poker night," golf on Sunday mornings, etc. For the most part, it has been possible for us adults to modify these activities to account for social distancing guidelines, or substitute them with alternate forms of entertainment. For a lot of us with stable incomes, then, our quality of life hasn't been impacted too badly.

But the story is completely different for children, whose primary social network -- schooling -- has been shut down for months. If you're a child whose extracurricular activities rely on intimate contact, such as music, dance, martial arts classes, and sports teams, even your more sporadic socializing has been elimiinated. And, depending on how strictly the family adheres to social distancing, many children have not been able to see their same-age cousins, friends, or neighbors for months. Even when that interaction can take place, it happens in a way so limited as to prohibit all the running around, laughing, and interacting that most children do with each other.

The result is that many children are stuck in a dystopian nightmare that few adults can truly appreciate.

Even worse: there doesn't seem to be any good way out of this nightmare. Some schools, intent on opening up in the fall for a full classroom schedule, have erected bizarre plastic barriers around desks to prevent disease transmission. There are photos of children being allowed to "play outside" only so long as they stay in circles painted on the ground, socially distant from all other children.

The isolation that my own children feel is palpable. Human beings need social contact, and children in particular need all the running around, and being silly, and physically touching other children that happens during unstructured play. I fear we may be grappling with the adverse mental health consequences of socially isolated children for decades to come.

2020-06-15

Another Small Benefit To Having A Routine

I've surely written before about the many benefits of having a consistent, daily routine. If I had to sum up all the benefits concisely, I'd put it this way: A daily routine helps to "automate" certain thought processes, which allows you to get things done without necessarily having to dedicate space for them in your thoughts.

Having to remember to take your medication, for example, is wasted mental effort if you can replace the "need to remember" with the muscle memory of taking your medicine as part of your daily breakfast. You don't have to "remember" how to make a bowl of cereal; so if taking your medicine is something you do right before you pour cereal into your bowl, then it just becomes part of the "cereal process" (no pun intended) and you don't have to think a separate set of thoughts about "I have to take my medicine."

Over time, I've "automated" my daily water consumption in a very similar way. Each morning, I make myself a cup of green tea to have with my breakfast. After I eat, as a final "breakfast step," I drink a large glass of water while I take my supplements (milk thistle, nicotinamide riboside, glucosamine, CoQ10, and a daily multivitamin). Within the hour, I prepare a cup of chamomile tea to drink while I work. At the same time every morning, I have a work meeting, and right before my work meeting, I either fill up a bottle of water to drink during the meeting, or I open a bottle of Topo Chico mineral water. By 10 or 10:30 AM, I remind myself that my midday workout is coming up, so I have another glass of water. With that, I've typically had 40-80 ounces of fluid before noon.

My post-workout routine also usually involves another 32 ounces of water, followed by two 12-ounce glasses of water at lunch. By the early afternoon, I have typically had twelve or more glasses of water. That makes sense for a guy who works out a lot and who eats plenty of electrolyte-rich foods. In fact, some days, I could stand to drink a bit more.

But the point is, all of this hydrating is built into my normal daily routine, so that I can get all the fluid I need without having to think much about it. The only time I really consciously think about hydrating is when I remember to drink a glass of water before my workout. All the rest of it is thoughtless habit.

There is a downside to this. Life isn't perfect, nor is it entirely consistent from day-to-day. So, by building something important like hydration into my daily routine, it means that if my routine is ever disrupted, even for simple reasons like a doctor's appointment or a one-off business meeting, my hydration suffers for it. Not only does that make it a greater challenge to stay hydrated during inevitable disruptions, it also makes the common irregularities of life, like a rescheduled meeting, more of an annoyance than they need to be.

2020-06-12

Politics As Hyper-Sensitivity

It's natural, reasonable, and to some extent a showing of good faith, to assume that other people are similar to oneself. And I think that people generally tend to do so. When thinking about what constitutes a reasonable perspective, or a reasonable expectation, or when evaluating the various "shoulds" we encounter in life, I think many of us try to think about other people as being more alike than different to ourselves. I certainly do.

The good thing about this is that it minimizes the more insignificant differences between us, i.e. sources of bigotry. If race isn't related to the matter at hand, then assuming people are more like us than different allows us to easily avoid conscious or unconscious bias.

Unfortunately, sometimes our differences really are relevant. For example, if a white man like me assumes that everyone's experience with the police is more or less like mine, he'll be more likely to overlook the very real problems of police brutality, and especially racially motivated police brutality and ethnic profiling.

This is all obvious enough. What's less obvious is that sometimes the political statements and arguments we see and hear are addressing people who bear little resemblance to ourselves, even though they may agree with our preferred policies.

One example of this might be the issue of corn subsidies. Both economic libertarians and environmental activists oppose corn subsidies, but for very different reasons. Libertarians oppose distorting market incentives with economic rents, while environmentalists oppose rewarding farmers for devastating the environment. On the issue of wind power subsidies, by contrast, economic libertarians still oppose the subsidies, but environmentalists often believe subsidizing wind power is an important step toward reducing society's carbon footprint.

What if you're browsing online opinions or memes, and you see something like this:
People oppose subsidizing wind power because they don't care about reducing our carbon footpring! I hate people who can't understand the science of climate change!
One thing you might think, if you're an economic libertarian like me, is, "My opposition to wind power subsidies has nothing to do with opposing climate science or reluctance to reduce atmospheric carbon. My opposition is entirely due to the economic damage caused by government subsidies." If I were to respond with those thoughts, however, I'd be pitting economic policy against climate policy in theory, something that I don't think would serve my position well.

The problem here is that people who argue against "climate-deniers" are not arguing against those of us who oppose subsidies on economic grounds. By participating in an argument against "climate-deniers," we're unwittingly carrying their water. What we should do instead is not assume that we're being spoken to. There are "climate-deniers" out there who oppose wind power subsidies on those grounds. If someone wants to argue against such people, that's none of my business, because I'm not one of them. If someone wants to argue against what economics says about subsidies, well then, that's my fight. But the climate-denial thing is not my fight.

At least for me, it takes an extra step to remember that someone might be arguing against a real argument that some less-informed person made, but that that less-informed person might actually be real and really made those arguments.

(Note: I do not claim here that people who disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming are uninformed. I'm only using this as an example of people who make arguments that I don't make, whether or not they are true.)

This holds true for any issue. I often hear political arguments against conservatism, against libertarianism, or in favor of socialized medicine or any number of things I oppose. It's tempting to assume that anyone who shares my beliefs does so for the same reasons or with similarly well-reasoned arguments. But the reality is that most people are engaged in arguments that I would never personally choose to have. But, hyper-sensitive as I may have been in the past, I have grown accustomed to thinking that people are making bad-faith arguments about my beliefs. After all, I'm against wind-power subsidies, and I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real.

So from now on, I'm going to try to remember to only fight fights that are relevant to me. I can make arguments against subsidies. I can make arguments in favor of reasonable economic policies. I can make ethical arguments informed by psychology. I can argue against the illusions we hold and the defense mechanisms we employ. I can make these arguments because they are personal to me, and because I know something about them, and because they are involve my actually held beliefs.

But if someone wants to argue against something I never said, from now on, I'll just assume that they're talking about someone else, a real person who really does hold those beliefs, and try not to mix my beliefs up with some people who probably don't share my own thoughts. I'll be less hyper-sensitive and stick mainly to my own positions.

2020-06-07

The Fountain Of Youth

It's hard to write a post like this without either bragging or sneering, but I assure you, I am doing neither.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the grocery store. I opted to use the self checkout kiosks, but because I was buying wine, a store clerk had to come check my ID. When she saw my date of birth, she said, "Oh my god!" I asked her what was the problem, and she said, nothing, only that she was surprised that I was as old as I was. "I would have believed '89." In truth, she had thought that was more than ten years younger than I really am. In other words, she thought I was in my twenties.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon in a local park. The park has a short trail down to what passes for a "waterfall" in flat Texas prairie country. It's a nice, short hike, and somewhat steep in parts. My GPS watch had it that the whole thing was 0.88 miles round trip. I checked it when we arrived at the waterfall itself, and it read 0.36. As you can see, this is not much of a "hike," but much more of a short walk down the hill and back up.

To be sure, it was hot outside, and the path is steep in some places, requiring us to choose our steps carefully in order to make it back up. But a 0.4 mile walk up the hill can only be so gruelling. I'd call it pretty much nothing.

So, I was surprised when I noticed that a solid majority of the other people in the park that day came up the hill panting and gasping for air, plopping themselves down in the nearest shady spot to catch some oxygen. I mean, they were really out of it. By all appearances, they looked as though they had just finished an 8-mile tempo run or something.

Later in the day, I went for a run. It was very hot outside, so I was running shirtless, with my hair pulled back under a bandana, and a pair of sunglasses on. As I crossed the street at one busy intersection, someone from a passing car called out a question to me: "Hey! How old are you?" I didn't have the impression that they thought I was extremely old. I didn't have a chance to answer, because I was running fast and in the opposite direction of the passing car, but I smiled to myself as I thought about what that person would think if they knew I was 40 years old.

A few years back, I was doing box jumps at the gym. A twenty-something fellow gym-goer came up to me between sets and told me, "I hope I can do stuff like that when I'm your age!"

"It's use it or lose it," I told him. "The only reason I can do this is because I won't stop."

Like I said at the outset of this post, I'm not saying this to brag about myself or to criticize other people. I take all of these situations -- and the many more I could list -- not as evidence of my great fittness, but rather evidence of how far people will let themselves go.

Ten years ago, I used to be amazed by the fact that most people my age had no idea what their own bodies were capable of; that most of them had no idea what their own bodies were supposed to look like, because they had never taken the time to get in really good shape. The human body performs differently, and of course looks differently, when it's fit. Overweight people, people with "dad bods," skeletal waifs, and the like have really never experienced things like agility, being sure on their feet, being able to lift heavy things with confidence and carry them across the room or something. And they don't know what their own bodies would look like if they did.

But nowadays, I don't really think about that anymore. Nowadays, I am struck by how much faster most people are aging than I am. I watch as friends and acquaintences slowly put on more and more weight, unable to tame their cravings or counteract them with physical activity. I watch as even young people give up on sports and fitness, except the few who go to the gym, mostly to look sexy, attract a mate, get married, and then ultimately do what they had planned on doing all along: let themselves go. I hear people talk about their aches and pains, their inability or unwillingness to walk any short distance, their struggle with having to climb a few flights of stairs.

It's the practical problems they all have that make the biggest impression on me. The atrophy of their bodies has made even the simplest aspects of life difficult. Small wonder so many of them drive their cars even when they're only going to the park a block away. Small wonder they all seem to be aging so much faster than me.

I spend a lot of time in the sun, and I have a chronic disease that is aging my body at an accelerated rate. It should be I who looks older than others. But I don't, and my best guess is because I have always adhered to the adage of "use it or lose it."

The fountain of youth is real. It is simply the act of sticking with a good diet and a high level of physical activity throughout your life. Don't stop. Don't let yourself go. Don't put on 15, 20, 50, 100... pounds and then turn around one day and realize that you look 40 or older when you're really 30 or younger. Keep yourself healthy, well into old age. Use it or lose it.

2020-06-04

A Belated Thank-You

Yesterday, while running, I thought back to an old experience I had as a teenager.

Like many teenage boys, I suffered from Osgoode-Schlatter syndrome, which is basically a severe case of "growing pains." It's worse than it sounds. The overactive growth plates in my knees were producing so much bone tissue that they swelled up painfully, and I was unable to run for almost a year. My legs were constantly in pain. To this day, I still have lumps of bone on my knees as a result of my condition.

In Autumn of the worst year of my Osgoode-Schlatter syndrome, I had big plans to run on the high school cross-country team - or at least with the team - despite my being only in the eighth grade. The pain dashed my hopes, but my sister was still on the team, and so I still found myself attending all the cross-country meets and watching my friends run and have fun on the team. For a young man whose only connection to joy was running, it was difficult to watch.

One day, at a cross-country meet, it became a bit too much for me, so went back to my parents' car, sat down in the passenger's seat, and cried. I just wanted to be alone and cry. To my chagrin, the head cross-country coach - an incredibly gentle and kind-hearted man - saw me crying in the car and came to console me. He put a hand on my arm and did his best. I don't remember saying anything. I think I was trying so hard to hold back my tears and make it look like I wasn't crying, that I couldn't do much but make monosyllabic grunts to everything he said. He stayed with me a long time, then caringly said good bye with a few more words of encouragement and went back to the team.

This got me to thinking about another coach at my high school. He was a football coach, and I didn't play football, so I only knew him as my history teacher. He was a very witty guy, and always seemed happy. I enjoyed his history class a lot, and I figured he must like me okay, mainly because I laughed at all his jokes. But one day, at a parent-teacher conference, he very seriously and very meaningfully told my mother that if she ever wanted me out of the house, she should send me to his.

I don't know why my mother told me about that. I also don't really know why he said that, what he could have seen in me that would give him any indication that that was something that ought to be said. At the time, I found the whole situation confusing. But now, with 25 years of hindsight serving me, I'm overcome by that man's kindness.

The truth is that I was slipping further and further into depression when I was in high school, a depression that would stretch across the next decade of my life. When you're suffering from something like that, and especially when you're a teenager suffering from something like that, it's common to scapegoat your problems. Thus, at the time, I ascribed all of my "depression" (I didn't call it that back then) to the rather oppressive religious-conservative community and their relative inability to relate to a somewhat eccentric, differentiated person like me.

As I had it, "people hated me." A look back with better hindsight, though, proves otherwise. Here are two important members of the community who could see how much I was suffering, and who did reach out to make my life better. The truth is, my community could have been there for me, if I had only allowed them to be.

Of course, that would have required a more complete understanding of my situation. I was emotionally stunted and ill-equipped to have normal social relationships of any kind with any person whatsoever. I was a broken human being. I needed years of personal growth to achieve whatever semblance of normalcy and mental health I've managed to achieve. (I am certainly no longer depressed, and haven't been for a long, long time.) It's too much to ask of my teenage self to recognize what was being done for me, on a completely kind-hearted and unsolicited basis. I didn't have the emotional tools required to recognize it.

But I recognize it now. Furthermore, I recognize that these two examples I've provided aren't the only examples. Many people would have helped me, if I could have been helped. It's not their fault that I couldn't be helped at the time. All the same, 25 years later, I appreciate what they did for me. It stuck with me. I'm thankful for it. And I'm very sorry I couldn't see it then and avail myself of the support that was being offered.

I'm sorry that I wasn't the person then that I am now. But to those who ever extended a hand and tried to help a young man who needed it, but couldn't see it, I offer you a belated and very heart-felt thank you. Thank you.

2020-06-01

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 9

In Omnipotent Government, Ludwig von Mises describes how the foundation for a Nazi takeover of Germany was laid in part by large groups of unemployed men hanging around in militias. They say idle hands are the devil's playground, and that is probably true.

As of this writing, there are close to 40 million newly unemployed - or should I say disemployed? - people in the United States, thanks to "lockdown" or "quarantine" policies that we now know were far too draconian than they needed to be, given the severity of COVID-19. What have all those idle hands been up to lately?

*        *        *

No one knows what was going through Derek Chauvin's head when he knelt on top of George Floyd in broad daylight, with cameras rolling, as the latter man begged for mercy and finally died. Chauvin and the four other officers involved in the killing were fired. As protests erupted in Minneapolis over the systemic mistreatment of blacks in the US criminal justice system, charges of third-degree murder were ultimately brought against Chauvin; although it's fair to wonder if the killing really was third-degree murder, and not second-degree murder as most reasonable people have concluded.

What an odd name, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, get it? Like chauvinism.

And so protests erupted. Soon video emerged of white men, dressed all in black, wearing gas masks, and carrying umbrellas in the sunshine, systematically breaking windows with hammers and lighting things on fire before quietly walking away. On the videos, the peaceful black protesters try to stop them, but they can't. It is suggested by the various publishers of these videos that these disguised white men are the ones who turned the protests into riots.

Who were these men? The mayor of Minneapolis suggested that they were white supremacists from out-of-state. They might also have been members of "Antifa," which is not really an "organization," per se, despite news that the White House wishes to label them as a terrorist organization. Antifa is an ideology more than an organization. Those aligned with Antifa often show up at left-leaning protests and cause trouble. They ostensibly wish to fight anything they view to be "fascism," but their ideological agenda is a Marxist-Leninist one. So were those who started the riots in Minneapolis "members" of Antifa? Who knows?

*        *        *

Within hours of the riots, the sympathetic left on social media took to their news feeds, their tweets, their status updates, and their stories to urge "people" not to condemn the riots, but to instead seek to understand why black victims of systemic racism in the United States would wish to riot in the first place.

I find this reaction to be odd.

It's odd because no amount of police brutality justifies a violent mob attacking innocent bystanders and looting private businesses. An argument could be made that Black America has a legitimate moral cause to destroy government buildings, court houses, police precincts, and the like. But stealing TVs? Such actions can only be morally justified on Marxist-Leninist grounds, i.e. according to the ideology of Antifa and its ilk. Private property is, according to this belief system, yet another tool of oppression, and it is fair and right, and perhaps even erogatory, to destroy it.

Of course, no one participating in a riot has spent any significant amount of time seeking epistemic moral justification for their actions. All they're really doing is seizing the opportunity. When "everyone else" is looting and destroying, you may as well get yours, too. Whoever started the riots knew this to be true of mobs, in fact they were counting on it. You only try to start a riot when you believe that the mob will follow-on with whatever destruction you've chosen to initiate. That's the whole point of inciting a mob.

It is for this reason that people should not seek to understand the rioters. Violent mobs don't have a cause. Violent mobs don't have a modus operandi. Violent mobs are breakdowns of social order, in which any terrible thing can happen. Looting and vandalism are comparatively modest outcomes here. The real dangers of a violent mob are murder and rape. Anyone who has any experience with a dangerous, teeming hoard knows this to be true.

Peaceful protests and violent mobs are in two entirely different categories. No, we should not seek to understand a mob. We should run for our lives, and then morally condemn them in the strongest ways available to us.

*        *        *

I'm a 40-year-old American man. Sadly, this is not my first race riot. I am old enough to quite vividly remember the LA riots that broke out in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King beating. Then, members of the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted of using excessive force on Mr. King, despite the beating having been captured on video. If you're young and you've never seen the video, or if it's been a while since you've seen it, I recommend you remind yourself what was on that video. Watch it again, and keep in mind that the courts found the police not guilty of using excessive force.

When you're done watching that video, watch Rodney King's public statement to the media on the riots. Rodney King himself, a well-spoke if not particularly eloquent man who was quite nearly beaten to death by the Los Angeles Police Department, observed the ensuing LA race riots and spoke out against rioting, famously imploring people: "Can we all get along?" Watch the video. You can see the horror, the confusion, and the sadness on his face.

Then, imagine being beaten nearly to death, imagine successfully bringing a trial against the monsters who almost took your life, imagine losing that trial, and then imagine watching all of your supposed "supporters" burn your home to the ground, taking many African-American-owned small businesses with it.

Finally, imagine seeing all that and sympathizing with the mob. That is what today's woke social media leftists want you to do.

*        *        *

Of course, it's impossible to sympathize with a mob. The mob will turn on you. You do not control a mob. All you can do is follow the mob wherever it goes, and if the mob chooses to drag you down, the mob will do so, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

On social media, a woman suggested that my decision to speak out against violent riots "speaks volumes" about my supposed racism. On the contrary, however, I think it speaks volumes about the far left in today's society that they endorse the mob. Their memories are too short to remember the LA riots, and certainly too short to remember the race riots of the early 1960s. It has been utterly fascinating to contrast the ideological responses to racial violence then and now.

Perhaps if George Floyd had lived, he would have served as a cooling voice during today's riots, as Rodney King did almost 30 years ago. I don't know, of course. I know nothing about George Floyd other than that he was an innocent man murdered in broad daylight in front of a camera, and that American society has grown so accustomed to seeing such videos that we no longer consider them to be shocking.

*        *        *

There were protests, which sadly turned violent, and there are think-pieces and social media updates. Everyone is navel-gazing about this, and while they do, they urge high-minded thoughts about the state of race relations in America today. Whites are urging each other to check their privilege and to learn about the black experience in America.

All such commentary is self-indulgent silliness.

While it's always a good idea to engage in self-improvement and to become a less bigoted person, white racism did not kill George Floyd. Police brutality killed George Floyd, systemic police brutality, fed with dollars from the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. A narcissistic, emboldened police force with near-immunity in the courts and one of the most politically powerful labor unions in the country killed George Floyd. A corrupt and unassailable criminal justice system that has financial incentives to murder and/or imprison blacks and latinos killed George Floyd.

You're not going to solve that problem by reading about Martin Luther King. You're not going to solve that problem by allowing more black voices a chance to be heard. You're only going to solve that problem by dismantling the police state.

It's natural for human beings, when confronted with an unsolvable problem, to assume instead that they are confronted with an easier problem, and to solve the easier problem instead.

Thus, and somewhat incredibly, we see that there is at least one problem in America that is a more unsolvable problem than racism: The police.

2020-04-30

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 8

Over the past weeks, a lot of the early information about covid-19 has unraveled.

The overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred among old people with preexisting conditions. Predictably, the rest of the people in American society have started to wonder whether it's fair to shut down the economy and disemploy millions in order to save people whose life expectancy was already quite short, even before the pandemic hit. I say this now without judgment: This sort of resentment was inevitable from the beginning, and the truth of the matter is that the economy will have to start cranking again, no matter what any of us personally believe about the ethics of the matter. Human life did not grind to a halt during the Spanish Flu pandemic or the days of the Black Plague. Life can, will, and must carry on; the sick will be left behind. This is as true anything about human beings can be. Carrying on despite what might befall the unfortunate ones is what we do.

The integrity of the epidemiological models that shaped public policy has also started to unravel. The dangers of covid-19 may have been over-hyped, at least in a manner of speaking. This is a difficult matter for a person to wrap his head around. On the one hand, covid-19 has caused an undeniable spike in human mortality. People are dying out there, and in greater numbers than comparable recent years. At the same time, the virus is far more widespread than anyone realized -- a fact that sounds bad until we realize that is proves that perhaps a majority of infected people show no symptoms, that a definite majority do not require hospitalization, that a decided majority will survive covid-19, and that the strain on the health care system was largely over-estimated. Deadly as the disease may be, it's not nearly as deadly as feared.

And so, as Texas will do tomorrow, the American economic system will soon reopen and life will return to something approximating normalcy.

Excepting, of course, the fact that life will never go back to normal again. The way we have pursued entertainment during the pandemic proves this.

As I expected -- but probably neglected to write down -- people are not as interested in being active outdoors as their initial response to the quarantines might have lead us to believe. At first, people were working from home and taking every opportunity to get outside for periodic walks, runs, and bicycle rides. From my observation, that has trickled to a halt. Once again, there are cars on the road and heavy traffic everywhere. The air is thick with exhaust again. It's hard for me to cross the road on foot, because the vehicles on the road have returned, and are just as aggressive as ever. The charms of walking down the local footpaths and listening to the birdsongs and the croaking frogs has expired. I haven't seen an egret in weeks.

But none of that means that people are trying to get back to normal. What we've discovered under quarantine is the wealth of entertainment available to us from the comfort of our own homes. Of course, most of us have access to streaming video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and so on. Now major Hollywood film studios have announced that they will continue to release movies straight-to-streaming even after the lockdown ends. And why not? Our home "theaters" are wonderful: comfortable seats, ample snacks, and alcohol, no fighting for parking spaces or trying to get early tickets, no second choices... Video entertainment has never been better.

Add to that the fact that video gaming is the best it's ever been, and we get to play them essentially in the same gorgeous theaters in which we watch our blockbuster films. The kids can even engage in social media as they play video games, with services like Twitch becoming major forces in how people connect with each other.

Music, too, is readily available at home. We can stream any song we want to hear now, thanks to the likes of Spotify and Amazon Music. The sound quality is as good as it's ever been. But that's not all; major music acts have put on free concerts from their own homes. Some of them do it every week. For musicians who already have a following, it's doubtful that the quarantine will erode their fanbase. It's very good to be a music fan these days.

And then we have the services, all the glorious services. Peloton, Zwift, Strava, Beachbody On Demand, and the likes are booming as people confined to their homes have realized that they don't actually need a gym subscription after all. We thought we would miss our favorite restaurants, but they all deliver now. Alcohol, too, can be delivered, and the cost is not actually as high as anyone expected. Yesterday, I saw an advertisement for a free 5-day guitar home instruction course, in which none other than Paul Gilbert himself teaches you how to play a classic Racer X song. For free! (Yes, I did sign up, and if the first lesson is anything to go by, this will be nothing short of remarkable!) Every conceivable kind of music-production software is on sale for pennies on the dollar of what you'd otherwise have to pay.

The toys now available to us, which we are all now inspired to avail ourselves of, are absolutely dazzling. It is absolutely inconceivable that we will experience such wealth of leisure and then go back to a world of public theaters, gymnasiums, overpriced restaurants, and boring old guitar lessons from the pimply kid at Guitar Center.

Thus, even as we discover that we in less danger from covid-19 than we feared, we are also discovering that we are less reliant on public spaces than we ever imagined. I expect that American life will transition away from densely packed public spaces like New York City public transportation, toward the spacious, comfortable, rural environments of the Midwest. If the prospect of doing yard work doesn't appeal to you, you can always pay to have it done.

This suggests, too, that some of the most valuable work in the coming years will not be the paper-pushing office busy work that so many of us do. Instead, it will be the service-level work that keeps our lives so comfortable: groundskeeping, deliveries and logistics, cloud computing and streaming, artificial intelligence, task automation, and so on.

They always said that necessity is the mother of invention, and brother, I believe it!

2020-04-06

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 7

A short while ago (less than two weeks?), Tyler Cowen wrote about how, in a world undergoing a global pandemic, "the speed premium" increases. That means that the information we received a short while ago will start to feel far less current than it would have in a non-pandemic world.

One case in point is this blog post itself. I read it when it was first published, on March 25th, and by now it almost feels like "ancient history." I had to scroll five pages into the Marginal Revolution blog to find it.

Everything I read about SARS-CoV2 last week seems almost quaint today. Last week was a world in which the United States, and especially Texas, had many thousands fewer COVID-19 cases, and deaths, than this week. That world no longer exists today.

Last week, I was feeling a lot of despair about COVID-19. This week, news is coming in from everywhere, and much of it is good news. The outbreak continues unabated in the United States, that's true, but on the other hand, there are dozens of organizations working on finding the best possible vaccine. There are also a number of non-vaccine therapies currently in testing. The speed with which all this has occurred is truly remarkable! It's inspiring, and it gives me hope.

One interesting thing about the prospect of a SARS-CoV2 vaccine is that this is not the only coronavirus out there. In fact, many coronaviruses lead to the common cold. For decades "a cure for the common cold" has been a metaphor for doing something ingenious that will revolutionize human life across the globe. Although COVID-19 is a frightening illness, it may yet give rise to a literal cure for the common cold. This would be stunning, in a very good way.

Can I allow myself to have that much hope? Perhaps it's a response to the fact that a lot of COVID-19 commentary I'm reading has been almost apocalyptic in scope. People aren't just pessimists, they think this might be the thing that destroys liberal democracy itself. In light of all that doomsaying, it is somewhat comforting to speculate that one of these many coronavirus vaccines might end up being good enough to inoculate us against the common cold.

And while I'm at it, I think the economic hardships we endure during this pandemic will inevitably spur progress through technological and economic innovation. In a few years, life is going to be much better than I ever thought it would be, if I can only hold out long enough to live to see the day.

To that end, I'm extremely disappointed in the vast number of people I see on social media who simply refuse to self-quarantine. They continue to believe that the virus is no big deal, despite many firsthand accounts to the contrary, accounts from clergy, politicians, professional athletes, well-known business-people, and so on. Every COVID-19 account attests to the severity of the disease, and yet some people continue to disbelieve.

These are the people who will risk my life. I think it's only a matter of time before they learn their lesson the hard way. The only question is whether I'll get infected before they figure it out. I hope not. I do not like my odds with this disease. 

2020-04-03

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 6

There are little narrative snippets that exist in people's minds. I think Richard Dawkins calls them "memes." These aren't funny social media post memes, but concepts that spread among human beings that summarize concepts or events, and not always accurately.

Here's an example: "Elvis Presley invented rock and roll by fusing Southern black blues with his home-town gospel music; the Motown artists took this medium further; The Beatles made rock and roll intelligent, and then the punk revolution stole rock music back from the pretentious prog-rockers."

Is this story accurate? No. Is it more or less the accepted official Rolling Stone Magazine history of rock and roll? Yes. It's a meme. People believe it. People repeat it. Its accuracy is less important than its pervasiveness.

One problem with such memes is that they are impossible to overturn once they take hold. It doesn't matter how much rock and roll was invented by Johnny "Guitar" Watson or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. It only matters that they're not in the official meme. Another problem with such memes is that they lend themselves too easily to motivated reasoning. If a person really wants to believe that The Beatles were geniuses, then they're going to accept the meme, no matter what. The fact that there were better, more intelligent, more ingenious musicians around at the same time - both in and out of rock music - becomes irrelevant. The Beatles "just had something," or, "you don't understand unless you were there." The most persistent memes are non-falsifiable and uphold a deep-rooted prejudice of some kind.

And so, it's been interesting to watch memes arise and take hold of the COVID-19 epidemic.

First, social distancing was about saving lives; then it was about not overwhelming the health care system; now, it's about reducing the infection rate to the point that a "track-and-trace" policy can be implemented. What's striking about this evolution is that the meme becomes more refined over time, but its function and a soundbite never diminishes.

I am practicing social distancing and have every intention of continuing to do so. Still, my alarm bells start to ring when the advice I get starts to sound more like a soundbite, and less like a real explanation of anything.

I've been thinking about the spread of COVID-19. In the beginning, we were told that COVID-19 was spread through "close, intimate contact." This was one reason why they told us that "masks don't work." In hindsight, though, it's incomprehensible that an entire cruise ship or aircraft carrier, or an entire Chinese city, could suffer an enormous outbreak through something that requires "close, intimate contact." If infection occurs primarily from the inhalation of infected sputum, then masks should be an important tool to reduce viral load; and we now know, of course, that they are.

Still, for weeks now, we've all been terrified of other people's coughing. Even without specific government-enforced social distancing guidelines, it seems unlikely that the spread would not have slowed despite school and daycare closures, work-from-home policies, the closing of restaurants and bars, and so on. Sure, initially most people would resist the idea of social distancing, but as the stories continue to get worse and the numbers continue to climb, this explanation is no longer sufficient. The meme doesn't reflect reality.

I have no real point here, except to say that I think the spread of COVID-19 across more or less the entire human population is inevitable, and that I don't think anyone really knows how it spreads. I think this is a far more dangerous and mysterious virus than anyone yet realizes, and I think it will be many years, perhaps decades, before the full mystery is revealed.

2020-03-30

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 5

Last night, I had a dream that gently drifted into being a dream about the xenomorph monsters from the Alien movie franchise. At a certain point in the dream, things turned sort of greyish like the movies, and from that point on, I was being chased by an unseen xenomorph that would destroy me the moment I let my guard down.

The night before that, I dreamed that I was in a crowded convention center of some sort, with people all over the place, glass elevators, ornate gardens, and everything that you might expect from a fancy hotel/resort. A few young, twentyish hooligans started causing trouble, bothering people, being mildly violent, annoying, and bullyish. When they came in contact with me, I did what I usually do with bullies, which is deny them the satisfaction of having their way. And just as in real life, this infuriated the bullies to the point that they decided they wanted to literally kill me. Their numbers increased dramatically, they became cruel and merciless, they started killing everyone in their path. Just when they had me surrounded, I would find a way to escape, usually taking one of them down in the process. As the dream proceeded, it got gorier and more gruesome, and also more harrowing. No matter where I ran, there was a crowd of violent hooligans waiting to pulverize me.

In both of these dreams, I woke up in the middle of the night because they were so intense, then I would calmly nod back off to sleep and find myself back in the midst of the same dream. The dream would continue like that until I woke up again. This process repeated itself several times until I made a conscious effort to put the dream out of my mind and think of something else.

I didn't connect the dots until this morning. A menacing force chasing me everywhere I go, with a feeling of inevitability about it all; people being killed, and me knowing that it is only a matter of time before it's my turn. These are coronavirus dreams.

During the day, I feel calm. It's inevitable that I feel a little stir-crazy. I go running every day, but aside from the neighborhood streets and the inside of my own home, I haven't had a change of scenery in a long time. Other than that, I am happy. I get to spend time with my family, I get to focus on exercising, and eating right, and playing my guitar. All those things are going well, and so it's easy to feel calm when I'm focused on things that make me happy.

Clearly, though, the specter of death and pestilence is working its way through my psyche. It comes into my dreams and gives me nightmares. My wife and I talk mostly about coronavirus -- what it's like to grocery shop now, which people are keeping their distance and which aren't, what are the prospects for a cure or treatment, what the latest numbers from epidemiologists, clinicians, researchers, and so on...? The fear sets in. It's hard to think about much of anything else, even as we stay calm, for the most part.

The people around here are not taking this quite as seriously as I think they ought to. The outdoor parks and paths are packed with crowds who do not keep their six feet apart. Every day, when I run, there are more and more cars on the roads. The sidewalks, which I used to have to myself, are now overrun by people walking and running. It's fine that they walk or run, but they often bring two or three dogs with them, taking up the entire sidewalk, and then refusing to move over for fellow pedestrians. New to outdoor exercise, they have never been versed in basic trail etiquette. That would be bad enough, but refusing to make way during a deadly pandemic seems particularly egregious.

For my part, I give them all a wide berth. Many of them say hello, but a few stare me down. Angrily.

Real information about the virus is impossible to find. The internet is replete with analyses that report a less-than-one-percent fatality rate. Good news, right? One analysis claims that none of the Chinese patients who had "severe" symptoms died; none of them. The deaths are only among those who experienced "critical" symptoms and required ventilators. So more than 99% of people recover from COVID-19.

Side-by-side to these reports are news stories of hospitals being overrun by dead bodies.

It is mathematically true that a virus with a high infection rate and a low fatality rate can still produce millions of deaths. Still, one can't help but feel as though there are competing narratives in the news. One narrative wants to convince us that the virus is not as bad as we think it is; the other wants to convince us that this is the worst thing that has happened to humanity since the Holocaust. Maybe both things are true, but how can a man make sense of that?

I think the senselessness, the lack of good information, the uncertainty of it all, is what amplifies the fear and causes it to penetrate into my dreams. It would be nice for the uncertainty to resolve itself somehow.

But wishful thinking doesn't get anyone anywhere, either.

2020-03-23

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 4

When I was about 13 years old, I had an odd and scary dream.

I was walking through the halls of my junior high school sometime during the late winter months. The sun was shining outside, but it was still cold, with snow on the ground that had begun to melt, making the ground muddy, but still hard from being frozen. In my mind, I had the sense that the world outside the schoolhouse was radioactive; one could go out there for a few moments, but after that the radioactivity would being to corrode the body and kill a person within minutes. Still, I decided to take a shortcut from one hallway to another by going outside. I walked out one of the doors, crossed the muddy, sludgy ground, found the next door and... discovered that it was locked. Then, reality set in and I realized that I didn’t have time to get back to the other door. I awoke from my dream knowing that I was going to die from the radiation.

This was a vivid dream that always stuck with me, presumably only because the dream itself was so vivid. I remembered this dream yesterday when I went to Costco yesterday to do some grocery shopping.

They had us all lined up outside, and were only letting us in the store a few at a time. I did my best to keep six feet of distance between myself and the person in line in front of me, but the person behind me kept scooting up closer and closer to me — even despite my dirty looks and obvious discomfort. Waiting in lines like those is essentially a ticking time bomb. As in my dream, too much time spent in that kind of crowd may eventually kill me. It’s an awful feeling.

My trip to Costco only got more surreal when I made it inside. I had shown up early to try to “beat the crowds,” but unbeknownst to me, Costco had decided to open early. The only people who walked out of the store with toilet paper were those who had shown up in time for the early opening. Still, I was able to get most of the things I wanted. The clerks in the store ushered us toward a specific path; we all had to shop in the same direction. That, too, felt odd and restrictive.

Seeing all my fellow shoppers inside, it started to become obvious to me which people were going to definitely get this disease, and which perhaps had a shot at avoiding it. I’d say about half of us did a good job of keeping our distance from each other, politely letting people go ahead, and giving folks a wide berth as they shopped. Others had brought the whole family to the store — both parents and multiple children, with everyone crowding around the shopping cart. They’d talk loudly, spend a lot of time standing in one place, sort of “occupying” a location of the store, discussing and debating items on the shopping list. They looked exactly as they might have looked on a “normal” day. The cashiers were all wearing protective gloves, but I noticed that one of them was scratching her nose with her gloved hand.

I’m not faulting or criticizing these people. I’m not suggesting that they’re not taking the situation seriously. Rather, it seems that some people’s habits are too hard to break, even in light of the severity of the circumstances. And these habits may well prove deadly for them.

It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions these past few days. At times, I feel crushing fear for a pandemic that seems utterly inevitable. I expect it to kill some of my dear loved ones. I am terrified that it could kill me, and then what would my poor daughter do without me? I am committed to remaining disease-free for the sake of my family; and yet, at the same time, I am rational and I know what the evidence says. The evidence says that the majority of us will get COVID-19. The evidence says that people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a much higher death rate; and that even those who don’t die must often spend weeks in the hospital with tubes stuck down their throats and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Images of the polio patients in iron lungs haunt me before I go to sleep.

But, at other times, I’m impressed by the beauty of Spring. The leaves are coming out on the trees, and Texas is becoming warm and green again. There are birds everywhere. People, ostensibly practicing “social distancing,” have decided to spend more time outside with their families, in local parks, being active. The pace of life is quite a bit slower, which is nice. I am treasuring my time with my daughter. We have been bonding a lot lately. She spends her evenings cuddled up close to me, I with my arm around her, holding her tightly. Then there is the medical news — stories of potential antiviral treatments, and vaccine tests, and technological solutions to various medical shortages. These give me hope.

Of course, all hope borrows against time. It all ultimately comes down to whether the vaccines and treatments will be ready and available if and when this virus strikes me. Can I hold out that long? Can I continue to live like this? Will I lose my job? In the worst-case scenario, what must I tell my family before I succumb?

The emotional toll of life in a pandemic is much higher than I realized. The fear is real. You can see it on people. I hope most of us can pull through this.

2020-03-19

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 3

At last, for me, the economic reality of this situation is starting to set in. With most everyone stuck at home, bars and restaurants closed, shopping centers empty, the threat to the economy has become clear. Yesterday, for the first time yet, I started to worry about job security.

My family is comfortable, and we will probably be okay... probably. It really depends on how things proceed in the COVID-19 world. The experts tell us that a vaccine is 18 months away. I don’t see how most of the world can continue to operate like this for 18 months. Production of all things is bound to slow down. Paychecks will stop flowing. People will be stretched. Then what?

The comfortable and the wealthy can afford to stay home and simply ride it out. Most people, though, cannot simply stop working. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, nobody can afford to just stay home forever. Eventually, most people will be forced to choose between putting food on the table and avoiding the coronavirus. Starving is a certainty, while contracting COVID-19 is a spin of the wheel. Every rational person will take their chances with getting the disease before they acquiesce to starvation.

In light of that, this is how I imagine things will play out:

People will stay home as long as they can. Some of us will lose our jobs while others will be forced to go back to theirs. Most of us will eventually have to leave home and get to work. Maybe there won’t be any good office jobs for people like me, and we’ll have to take supply chain jobs: deliveries, shipping/receiving, warehousing, manufacturing, and so on. But we will simply have to work; there is no other choice.

Thus, the virus will continue to spread. It is inevitable. It will spread and devastate until we have a vaccine or other treatment. Then, finally, we will go back to normal.

I think some norms will have to change.

Most obviously, working from home will become not only commonplace, but more normal than not. This will be a change for the better, on all kinds of levels. Office complexes are breeding grounds for communicable illness; staying away from them is a matter of prudence. I think telecommuting technologies will blossom. Call centers, for example, are typically staffed in huge buildings, but there’s no reason call center employees couldn’t work from home if their phones are connected to the central call routing system. Most office work could probably be done at home. And it will be, thanks to this pandemic; or at least, that’s my prediction.

Sanitation norms are also going to have to change. Today, I see people wiping down their shopping carts, wearing masks, etc. I think we’ll see a proliferation of touchless technologies: credit card payments with a “tap,” Android Pay, Apple Pay, etc. These technologies involve scanning, rather than inserting or swiping a card. Manually handling paper currency will have to fall out of favor, as it mostly already has. I can only hope that Americans will start to use bidets, wash their hands more thoroughly, be more mindful of coughing, sneezing, playing with their noses, and so on. Those are harder norms to overturn, but I think it will happen.

A few months of social distancing will be enough to convince people to keep their distance on the streets. I expect there to be fewer hellos and more allowance for “personal space.” At the same time, I expect social networks to blossom. Not Twitter or Facebook, obviously, but the networks that actually matter to people. Video game networks like Twitch and Zwift will expand. Strava will do quite well. I imagine virtual socializing will fill the void caused by physical social distance. This will be highly disruptive, though, because it takes a different skill set to excel in social media than it does to excel in face-to-face interaction.

In what other ways might our lives be about to change?

2020-03-17

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 2

Let's talk a little bit about grocery shopping.

In the "early days" of the outbreak (say, two weeks ago), store shelves emptied almost completely of hand sanitizer. I understand the impulse; I tried to buy some, too. I only ended up with a small bottle for each person in my household, but I expect these bottles to last for quite a few weeks. But this was the beginning of what was ultimately a series of highly irrational responses to the pandemic.

I say irrational because there is only so much hand sanitizer is good for. It's not a bad idea to use some after touching some public surfaces. For example, my daughter and I might go to a playground, spend some time there, and then put some hand sanitizer on in the car on the way home. But it's just a precautionary measure. Our main preventative measure is getting home quickly and washing our hands. A rational response would be to make a run on soap, not on hand sanitizer. As of this writing, however, there is plenty of soap on store shelves.

Toilet paper was next to go. Again, I am not sure what the rational reason is for buying up all the toilet paper on store shelves. Nothing about COVID-19 would suggest that we are in for a toilet paper shortage. But that's how the masses responded. They quickly made a run on toilet paper, of all things.

It's useful to keep these facts in mind when observing the stock market's response to the pandemic. The stock market has predictably plummeted. I keep reading articles, comments on social media, etc., about what the market seems to be indicating about the economy in the future. But I don't believe what's happening to the stock market is any more credulous than the irrational run on toilet paper. That's not to say that betting on a quick recovery is easy money, but I don't think the market has, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of the global economy any better than my neighbors have, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of their bowel movements.

There are other grocery store oddities occurring:

  • Frozen vegetables are gone, but fresh vegetables are still plentiful. That, despite the fact that one can turn a fresh vegetable into a frozen one simply by putting it in a freezer bag and placing the bag in the freezer.
  • Walmart and Amazon have little of any kind of grocery left; Kroger is still very well stocked. What does this mean about shopping patterns? What does it mean about the comparative business models of these companies?
  • Sparkling water, apparently a substitute for bottled water, has become almost as scarce as regular bottled water. Strangely enough, there are pallets of Topo Chico available at Kroger, absolute tons of the stuff. Do people think "Mexican" sparkling water is dirty? Do they just not know what Topo Chico is?
An odd fact has arisen from this grocery shortage, too. I'm accustomed to buying things online. When they're in-stock, I add them to my cart, finalize my purchase, and then receive my shipment. But now, when I attempt the same process at Amazon or Walmart (online), it doesn't matter if the item is in stock when I complete my purchase; it only matters if the item is in stock when the store decides to send it to me. Yesterday, for example, I ordered eggs from Walmart, to be picked up at 4 PM. (Actually, I placed my order two days ago.) At the time I finalized my purchase, eggs were in-stock; but Walmart wouldn't schedule a pick-up time until 4 PM the following day. In the meantime, they sold all the eggs out from under me, so that when I arrived to pick up the groceries I ordered, the eggs (and many other items) could no longer be sold to me.

A similar phenomenon occurred at Amazon: I placed a number of in-stock items into my virtual shopping cart, but when I went to finalize my purchase, Amazon wouldn't sell the items to me because they didn't have delivery available until three days hence. So, it didn't matter that the items were "in stock."

Think of this as though it were concert tickets. You buy tickets and have them mailed to you; then, you show up at the venue only to discover that the venue won't honor your tickets because the seats you purchased had been sold to someone else, out from under you.

This is a very bad business practice. I understand the realities of shortages, but the whole point of shopping online is to enter a different queue. Or, if all of us customers are in the same queue, then my place in line should be honored as it is. I ought not get bumped down the queue just because someone else entered the queue from a different doorway.

Anyway, these are some of the shopping issues we're dealing with these days. I honestly expect this kind of thing to pass quickly. I bet shopping, at least will be back to normal within a week or two. But we shall see.

2020-03-16

Living Amid A Global Pandemic, Part 1

By all accounts, we are living through a once-a-century global viral pandemic. The last time anything like this happened was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which happened 102 years ago. I'm not a history buff, but I've also never read any firsthand accounts of what it was like to live through that pandemic. At best, I've read a couple of articles, and perhaps I've seen a few video shorts about the 1918 flu pandemic within the context of documentary films about the time period.

Much of what we know about the turn of the century is from firsthand accounts: letters written to relatives and lovers, newspaper clippings, and journal entries. I'm not vain enough to believe that anything about my blog will survive the next hundred years, much less that anyone will care about my experience. But, what if?

In that spirit, I thought I'd try to document some of my thoughts and experiences from the pandemic virus that, at the present writing, is called "SARS-CoV2."

First of all, let's talk about the name. A few years back, there was another scary virus called "SARS." I don't remember what SARS stands for, but the RS at the end means "respiratory syndrome." (Possibly "Sudden Acquired Respiratory Syndrome?" Check Wikipedia.) Actually, SARS is the disease caused by a virus that was called "SARS-CoV." So, this virus is like the revenge of SARS: It's also a coronavirus that causes pneumonia, but this is the second one they've found, hence "SARS-CoV2." This virus causes a condition called COVID-19, which again is an acronym for something like "coronavirus immune disease, from the year 2019."

I'm obviously not an expert in viruses, but as a layman, it seems really dumb to me that we're calling this virus and its disease by separate names, and that both of those names are acronyms, rather than "the Wuhan flu" or something. (Yes, I know it's not a flu.) Every other major disease has a name, not a code. Call me crazy, but I think people would have a better time dealing with the realities of this disease psychologically if they could give it a name rather than an acronym. But that's just my opinion.

Now let me say a few words about what it was like when this virus started. News of the virus started making major headlines I'd say in January 2020. At first, it was yet another strange illness to come out of Asia. We've experienced those before: swine flu, H1N1, SARS, and so on. I even remember when I was a young boy, there was something called "the Taiwanese flu" that made headlines. So Asian flus are not an unusual thing to read about in the headlines.

It only became unusual when the Chinese government locked down the whole of Wuhan and stories started coming out about how quickly and viciously this virus spread. Within a couple of weeks, it had spread to Japan, South Korea, and to a now-infamous cruise ship. At that point, I became aware of an online map of the spread provided by Johns Hopkins University. I started tracking the cases in real-time via that website. For some days, tracking the virus was quite a scary thing to do. I'd watch the red dots pop up on the map like pox. Eventually, I had to remind myself that every infectious virus spreads like this; this was just the first one I'd seen a map of. That thought helped me calm down a bit.

By March, the virus had reached Texas. At first, everyone was telling jokes about it, but over time the jokes became more sardonic, and eventually people just stopped joking. Schools and offices announced their temporary closures. I myself am currently working from home now, in fact. When these closures happened, that's when people in general started panicking a bit. There was a big, 2-or-3-day run on groceries. People bought up all the hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Eventually, they also bought up all the eggs, milk, frozen vegetables, canned goods, and so on. My current belief is that this panic was irrational. There was no good reason to empty the grocery store shelves. I guess people can't help themselves. I ordered groceries online, and I'll pick them up later today. I don't expect food shortages to be the persistent norm. I have no fear of that. In a few days, I expect grocery shopping to normalize again.

Now word is coming in of the US government's forced closure of bars and restaurants. This is new territory for a country that prides itself on its libertarian values. There is a little bit of debate out there about whether these forced closures are the right thing to do, but most people agree that they are. I, personally, feel otherwise. I think we should voluntarily minimize contact with other people, of course, but I do not think the government should forcibly close our businesses and our social institutions. That's a debate to be had for the future world's historians, I suppose.

For the next couple of weeks, at the least, we'll all be stuck at home, telecommuting to work, looking after our children, and trying to keep busy with things other than nights out and alcohol. Having recently reduced my consumption of both restaurant food and alcohol, I expect I'll have an easier time than most. I also like to exercise at home and go running in my neighborhood, and play music, so once again my introverted and somewhat boring nature has proven to be a major advantage for me in extenuating circumstances.

Young, single people are probably in the worst position right now. Without social interaction, their lives are bound to get lonely. For my part, I have my daughter and my wife to keep me happy. It's a great time to be in a committed, monogamous marriage, isn't it? And indeed, some of my friends have already wondered aloud if there will be an increase in pregnancies in the coming months.

Most of what we Americans know about live among SARS-CoV2 comes from the accounts of people who have already gone through the first wave of the disease, people in China, Italy, and South Korea. So I am waiting for my life to resemble theirs circa-10 days ago. We shall see.

I'll continue to write more about this on my blog.

2020-03-09

Stationary Waves And Coronavirus

The concept of temperance has been a feature of this blog for many years. When I talk about temperance, I'm not talking about eschewing alcohol, but the two ideas do have commonalities. Temperance, broadly construed, means having enough restraint to not just do, you know, whatever the hell you want to do, whenever the hell you want to do it. Temperance means keeping your hedonic urges in check long enough to make sensible decisions in accordance with your longer cognitive time-horizon. See this old post on the issue for a brief primer.

There are many articles and blog posts out there discussing the matter of what is the correct policy response to the coronavirus epi/pan-demic. There is plenty of criticism to go around. Who did what, and did they do it how soon? What aspect of testing or messaging did the CDC botch, what can be learned from the mass quarantines in other countries?

In one sense, I think it's natural that people want to look at it from those angles. I can sympathize with that inclination. It's much easier to have a debate about public policy and to get worked up about all the wrong things someone else did than it is to simply acknowledge that pandemics occur approximately once every one hundred years, and that using political machinery to stop the spread of viruses is ultimately a futile endeavor. We'd have better luck stopping an incoming asteroid.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing that the government can do to protect you from communicable viruses. They will spread, because that's what viruses do. It's the circle of life.

On a personal note, most readers will probably have nothing to worry about with respect to COVID-19, anyway; the death rate for most people appears to be somewhere between 0.1% and 1.0%. Those are very good odds for a virus like this. But for me, it's different. I'm "immuno-compromised." I'm a type 1 diabetic. For me, the death rate might be something more like 9%, and the rate of hospitalization independent of death is much higher for me than it is for the population at large.

This thing can kill me.

On the one hand, we could say that coronavirus is a public health emergency. On the other hand, we should probably say that the public health emergency already exists. I see just how much other human beings spread their germs around on a daily basis. You people are absolutely filthy. I see multiple people per day walk out of public restrooms without washing their hands. I see people playing with their noses, mouths, eyes, and then putting their hands all over public surfaces. I see people cough without covering their mouths, I see people spit out of their car windows, I see people blow their noses by plugging one nostril, leaning to the side, and blasting debris onto the sidewalk. It's disgusting. And these aren't low-brow "others" in some "other" part of town. These are the middle and upper class people in "nice" neighborhoods. These are the normies. And they're filthy, filthy people.

Earlier this morning, I saw a Facebook advertisement for a bidet. The comments under the ad were everything I've come to expect from filthy Americans. They expressed incredulity and skepticism, they laughed, they mocked, they teased... This is happening during a global pandemic. Here we have a centuries-old device that can vastly improve American hygiene and reduce the spread of communicable illness, and even during a global pandemic Americans' response is one of mockery and skepticism.

That mockery and skepticism, combined with Americans' refusal to wash their hands, cover their mouths, and avoid blowing their noses on the sidewalk, is what will ultimately be to blame for the spread of coronavirus and diseases like it. It's easy to point fingers at the CDC for botching "testing," but the demand for "testing" would be decidedly low if Americans knew how to wash their hands, backsides, and faces, and knew how to keep public surfaces clean and disease-free.

Naturally, there's nothing I can do from my perch above my keyboard, writing on an unread blog about how Americans are a travesty of public filth. But maybe things could get a little bit better on the margins if we all thought a little bit more about temperance.

If you find it tempting to blow your nose on the sidewalk, exercise a little temperance. Find your way to the nearest tissue, and use that instead. If you find it somewhat of a hassle to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom, exercise a little temperance. The expedient thing is to skip the hand-washing step, but the right thing to do is to wash your hands. You might not see the point of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze in the privacy of your own work cubicle, but I urge you to exercise a little temperance on the margins. Cover your mouth, then go wash your hands. And, for god's sake, get a bidet. They are $15 and install in seconds. Jesus.

Practically speaking, it's unlikely that you'll be able to prevent every cough, sneeze, and itch that needs scratching. You won't always be able to find your way to a bathroom in time to wash your hands or do whatever else you need to do. But if you can exercise a little temperance on the margins, then there's a slightly better chance that people like me won't die.

Please, I beg you, exercise a little temperance. Be a little bit more hygienic. This disease does not really need to spread widely in an environment in which people practice good hygiene.

2020-02-14

Information Asymmetries

If there's one thing everyone knows about diabetics, it's that we eat artificial sweeteners. Judge us if you must, but we find that artificial sweeteners make life tolerable. As a normal person, you have access to all kinds of tasty treats. Not us. We pretty much only have access to artificial sweeteners.

I knew I had completely embraced my condition the day I started buying artificial sweetener in bulk. A big, bulk box of artificial sweetener packets costs something reasonable and lasts for something like two years, plus or minus the scale of my hyperbole. It is stunning how many little packets fit in a shoe-sized bulk box. I use two to three packets per day: one for my morning oatmeal, one for my morning yogurt, and one for a cup of tea I have at some point during the day.

No one else in the house eats the stuff, so it was a mystery when I looked in my pantry one day and noticed a big bag of artificial sweetener.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Artificial sweeteners come in four different format.

The first format is liquid. To my knowledge, the only people who use liquid artificial sweetener are industrial food producers in factories, and people who like to light dollar bills on fire for fun. That's my way of saying that liquid artificial sweetener is very expensive.

The second format for artificial sweeteners is tablet. The sweetener is compressed into a little pill-sized cookie, and a few dozen of them are poured into a plastic bottle. When you want a little sweet treat, you drop a tablet or two into your tea or coffee, and then wait for seventeen hours while the tablet fails to dissolve. Finally, you lose patience and stab the undissolved tablet with a teaspoon until it becomes several shards of undissolved tablet. You drink the unsweetened tea or coffee with a grimace on your face until you reach the last few drops at the bottom, containing all of the undissolved shards. They slip into your mouth with the final drops of tea, forcing you to chew them up, gag, and ultimately hate yourself. It should not surprise you to learn that the tablet form of artificial sweeteners is a favorite among seniors.

The third format for artificial sweeteners is my personal favorite, paper packets full of powder. The packets are pre-measured by weight to ensure that each one contains exactly the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar. Taking a sachet by the topmost seam, you can give it a vigorous little shake, producing a satisfying percussive sound, not unlike maracas. Doing so forces all of the powder to the opposite end of the sachet, at which point you can tear the packet at the top seam and pour the powder wherever you need it to be. The sachet is small enough that it can be precisely aimed; spilling is minimal. The powder dissolves instantly, so instantly, in fact, that if you pour it over a steaming cup of tea it sometimes dissolves in the vapor itself without ever reaching the cup. For this reason, I typically opt to pour the sweetener in alongside the tea bag, prior to pouring in the water. Perhaps the only drawback to artificial sweetener in paper packets is the fact that it is usually mixed with dextrose, which is a sugar. Why industrial manufacturers of artificial sweetener have chosen to mix real sugar in with fake sugar as a bulking agent is beyond me. I wish they wouldn't. Still, there is no superior format for artificial sweeteners than paper packets.

Fourthly and finally, artificial sweetener comes in large, plastic, resealable bags of powder. Near as I can tell, this format was developed for people who like to bake with artificial sweeteners, and who have developed an emotional attachment to scooping raw ingredients out of bags. When folks make cookies, they scoop sugar and flour out of bags. If you find this sort of thing comforting, the food industry has provided a solution for you: artificial sweetener in large, plastic, resealable bags. A second advantage of this format is the absence of dextrose bulking agents. A teaspoon of sweetener is a teaspoon of sweetener. On the detrimental side of the picture, artificial sweeteners weigh much less than sugar granules. Consequently, when you open the large bag, air enters the bag along with your scooping implement. When you then proceed to close the bag, the air escapes, and with it a thick cloud of sweet, white dust, which coats the lungs. To my knowledge, the health impacts of inhaling artificial sweeteners have never been studied. We diabetics are a living experiment.

With that in mind, we can return to my pantry, where, for years, there contained the selfsame bulk box of paper packets from which I drew my artificial sweetener. On this particular day, though, I noticed the addition of a big plastic bag of raw sweetener. My mind effervesced with questions. Where did it come from? Who would buy such a thing? When would I ever use it? Within moments, I had dismissed its very existence. I had my paper packets, which I would continue to use at my leisure. No need to worry about an irrelevant and useless thing.

I should have known at the time that I would one day run out of paper packets and need to purchase a new box. I should also have been more self-aware, for when do I ever buy what I need before it's too late? So it was; the day came when I inevitably ran out of paper packets and was forced to scoop my sweetener out of a bulk bag, inhale the white cloud of dust springing forth as the bag closed, and so forth.

It was a livable situation, but not a lengthy one. I replenished my stock of paper packets soon enough, but in the interim an ecological thought occurred to me. Paper packets come in a cardboard box, so after the sweetener itself is dispensed, all that remains is completely biodegradable packaging. By contrast, the plastic bulk bag involves less overall packaging waste, thanks to the absence of individual, per-portion sachets; but that packaging it does have is not biodegradable. Paper products require lumber, which must be forested. Or should I say deforested? Plastic products are extracted from the ground and refined with ample carbon footprint, deep and wide.

As a consumer, I have no insight into the comparative merits of either form of packaging. The price difference is negligible, and I can be trained not to inhale stevia dust. My point here is that I would like to make the most environmentally sound choice at the margin, but I have no knowledge of which option is the more ecological. I can see benefits and drawbacks to either choice. An informed consumer could make an informed choice, but the finer points of the effects of packaging materials on the environment are complex enough that I doubt any consumer - or, indeed, any lone person on earth - knows the answer to this question with certainty.

With better information, we could all make more informed choices. Not all of us would choose artificial sweeteners based on their environmental impacts, but some of us would, and that would represent a more efficient marketplace. It's hard to say that the asymmetrical information of packaging represents an enormous deadweight loss, but life can, and does, get better over time. If somehow this kind of information could be gathered and delivered to people making simple every-day decisions at the grocery store, then there's no telling what kind of improvements could be made to the environment, or to life in general.

The problem, at least in this case, is our inability to fuse together the relevant facts in a way that informs market decisions. I'm cynical enough to guess that any such attempt would quickly become politicized to the point of uselessness, but wouldn't it be great if humans could find a way, anyhow?