I was in Iran just months before the hostage crisis. I had purchased plane tickets just before 2001-09-11. I was watching the economy closely in 2007 because I wanted to buy a house — I did not because of the subprime mortgage fiasco that ravished the world’s economy.

I’ve seen some shit! But I have never seen anything like this. Wow.

escalated_quickly.png

This novel coronavirus pandemic has been shocking. Well, not really. I’ve actually seen absolutely no evidence of any direct effects of the illness personally.

What has blown my mind is the response. That is affecting me personally quite a bit. But you knew that because the astonishing thing about this historical event is that it is affecting literally everybody.

The response has been so unbelievable that I don’t feel alone in being shocked and somewhat overwhelmed by it. I’m just reading the news and it’s a bit like 9/11 in that a lot of people are dying, and that’s obviously bad, but you can’t help realize that the real situation is much, much bigger and will have serious ramifications well into the future.

As the flood of profoundly unexpected news comes in, I can barely keep up. Here is a collection of thoughts I’ve jotted down. Better to post them now rather than wait for the thousand page book when this thing is all over. If it ever ends.

Telecommuting

Let’s start with some personal hobby horses.

For 15 years or so, Google tried to recruit me and I was very enthusiastic. However, I was stuck in a technology backwater (San Diego) with no Google offices and would need to work remotely. I was assured this was impossible. So Google, which is it: 1. You are evil? 2. Or your work-from-home products are incompetent and/or ill-conceived? It must be one of those. I don’t mean to just pick on Google - all the stupid Silicon Valley companies who should be better at using networked computers yet who stupidly pack computer nerds into tech bro mosh pits in a region with a terrible quality of life also deserve opprobrium.

Of course I’m talking about whoever is making these high level management decisions at tech companies. The people keeping the internet turned on deserve thanks and recognition which I know from first hand experience they are unlikely to get.

itheroes.jpg

I understand that people who are more socially excitable than I am might need to go chat at a physical water cooler or fetch sticks together or smell each other’s butts during meetings or whatever. But I’ve been horrified by the terribleness of that system since I first really didn’t want to live where the other computer nerds had to live — for at least 20 years now.

notremote.png

If this virus can get even the moronic Google (come on now, let me stress the point again: they make work from home tools) to get a clue and allow remote work ( "Google tells staff to work at home due to coronavirus"), well, that is somewhat of a silver lining to me.

Of course if you’re a white collar worker enjoying this transition to remote work, make sure you’re literally one of the best in the world at what you do because the next transition will feature you competing with those people directly.

On-line education

Just as the virus was entering the news and many schools knew they were going on-line (UB has moved all classes online) an extremely surreal event happened to my wife. She got a call from an HR person at a famous university in New York looking to hire on-line education experts, which has been my wife’s profession for many years. We are not interested or able to move to the city where this university is located and astonishingly they would not consider hiring someone to work remotely! That is as bad as the Google example! And at this point in history, I suppose even worse. Once again, these are supposed to be ostensibly intelligent people.

Ask yourself how many hours of live stage plays you have sat through in the last year and divide that by the number of hours of recorded dramatic entertainment you’ve watched. Or the number of hours of live concerts you’ve listened to versus the number of hours of recorded music. Why are we still using the live performance stage play model for education? It is apparent that no one but the performers care for this style of delivery on the whole, and maybe not even them. It’s just that kids don’t get to make sensible decisions about education. Can society finally move out of the 19th century with respect to education? I’m guessing the answer is… maybe. It’s looking more promising than ever which is another silver lining.

I feel that this virus will highlight what schools are really doing for families — baby sitting. That’s fine and a real need society has, but let’s call it what it is. Or I’m wrong and the future is doomed because of what rote attendance in schools formerly provided. Either way, all of San Diego schools seem closed indefinitely now.

Remote Service

Apparently even people smarter than me have finally figured out what I’ve know since I first saw a Skype video call: a huge number of trips to the doctor are now no longer essential or even beneficial - they are recklessly toxic. Why did it take this event to get people to notice that nosocomial infections are bad? Remember what I said about people with white collars needing to compete with international players if they did things efficiently?

I’ve always respected people who make remote services effective. One example I like very much was a fantastic guitar player who posted instructional videos on Youtube. Even though he lived in the serious middle of nowhere, he had no trouble filling his schedule with good paying students from all over the world - over Skype.

I wish I my attorney lived in the same town as me because she lives in Anchorage, Alaska (and I would love to return to there). Remote services can work!

One example I’m faced with right now is a need to visit to the DMV. Who are now closed with no recourse. (I have thought about making a license plate-sized sign saying "PULL ME OVER IF YOU CAN TELL ME HOW TO GET PLATES".) Yes, they need me to prove I’m really me, I understand that. But take it from me — faking an entire on-line video conversation is actually harder than having an imposter actor show up live. So why on earth are we waiting in line at the DMV for such tasks? Honestly, driving tests can even be done remotely too by now. I’m hoping that this calamity will spawn all kinds of creative thinking to improve situations where I didn’t really want to be standing in line for hours with masses of other people anyway.

VR

I’ve been interested in virtual reality for a long time. (Mark Zuckerberg and) I have always felt that it could provide a really compelling way for people to collaborate remotely. I’m not going to make any predictions because the best prediction one can make about VR is: won’t live up to hype. However, it really seems plausible that it could do some good if everyone was as keen as Mark and I. And I’m not sure you have a choice these days.

Vegetarianism

My personal reasons for minimizing meat consumption are: catastrophic environmental problems, dubious health effects (antibiotics and other residual veterinary drug metabolites), hard to clean messes in my kitchen, and generally poor value - other people have other reasons. This virus highlights another very sensible reason: livestock practices seem related to big pandemics. The penultimate paragraph of this NIH article talks about how SARS and other diseases made the jump to humans because of "animal husbandry and marketing practices". Not saying it’s true but an idea to think more about than you did a few weeks ago.

Unsustainability

I do not find the direct victims of this illness especially interesting. Flu. Like always. Maybe twice as bad this year. Old people should be twice as worried as they were before. Other than that there doesn’t seem much to say. I’m sorry if that sounds insensitive and awful but consider that in December I did have pneumonia and was lucky to survive — for all anyone knows, I could have had the famous virus! Any worse off, I’d have been dead and being dead is bad. I get that and so I totally understand what the victims are going through. But my little brush with such an illness and the other putative (stats are very bad at this point) victims of the illness are not what’s really impressing me.

What is really blowing my mind is the response. My response to the response is: There is no fucking way we can sustain everyone simultaneously taking dozens of consecutive vacations. That is the end times. This Atlantic article describes the non-health aspect of current events as "a consumer-economy apocalypse". And, "…not a recession…an ice age." A Bloomberg article says "…the economy is headed toward its worst quarter in records since 1947." Etc.

I’m not usually one to care much about the markets or GDP etc., but you can’t have all humans just stop contributing to civilization. I’m sorry — that is worse than a bunch of old people dying because it also includes a bunch of old people dying.

Of course it’s not all humans that must put aside any productivity. Remote workers are still working. And so are "essential" workers. This made me wonder, who likes being called "non-essential"? Ouch. Isn’t capitalism supposed to tell us who is essential? I think what they mean to say is "essential during an actual emergency". But emergencies, pretty much by definition can’t last a long time. Just as you can stop breathing if you encounter an underwater emergency, we can stop all kinds of things in the economy for a short while. But if people think that’s going to work for months… I am very skeptical.

essential.jpg

I saw this anonymous comment somewhere and thought it was kind of funny: "The irony of COVID is that medical bills is the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the US so its fitting that the whole country will soon be bankrupt because of a medical emergency. Nothing could be more American." Unfortunately the problem is not just related to the bad health care idiosyncrasies of the USA.

Politics

This kind of a stress test on civilization is a great time to re-evaluate priorities in our elected representatives. Will Americans get their shit together and elect people who respect science, facts, and the complexity of the world? Will public health care become a priority in the USA, the backwater of public health care? Will public transportation (and air travel) become even less fun than it already is?

I mentioned the DMV and (non-hypothetically) that without the government functioning, I can not secure property rights; will "libertarians" get a clue? Well, of course not. But they should!

Contrarian Thoughts - Virus As A Blessing?

shootingless.jpg

Unlike the characters in this absurdly prescient satire, I don’t want to see Baby Boomers dying but I can’t help feel that the most powerful generation in history made their own bed on this one to some extent.

boomer.jpg contraboomer.jpg

Remember, 2.9 million Americans will die this year just because people die at the end of their lives. Boomer deaths by normal mechanisms (such as respiratory infections) will seem statistically out of place because the entire Boomer cohort was statistically out of place. Will we call it a pandemic? We’ll all be very annoyed if this turns out to be a statistics mistake. We’ll only know once actual data is collected — still waiting on that!

testing.jpg

Another interesting thing to think about is population immunity based on interactions. Not just to novel corona viruses. It could be that once we reintegrate, we, as a population, are much weaker because we have all been isolated. I have speculated that handshaking, for all its obvious cootie potential, may also serve as a mild form of inter-human inoculation. Will handshakes become permanently uncool in the future?

It occurred to me that this virus is a big social Darwinism experiment. Introverts will presumably be reproducing at the same rate they always have (improbably, some how), but one can imagine a slowdown in the phenotype of humans who can only reproduce as a result of large drunken gatherings. And as far as I can tell, that’s most of them in countries that speak European languages.

introvertftw.jpg

I’ve seen lots of reports in the pseudo-press about this virus saving lives overall because of reduced air pollution. I can affirm that with much less traffic out there, the air quality on my bike ride this morning was better than it ever has been. Think also about the number of people taking a healthy walk outside who now have vastly fewer other entertainment options. How many lives will that save?

And on the topic of "saving lives" by sticking a huge stake into the heart of the economy? I’m not sure that WEIRD people want to go there. Let’s… Talk… About…

Cars!!!! No this has been long enough and that deserves its own post!

Prognosis

I believe there is no way a complete shutdown of society globally can last more than a few months. I also believe that society can not shutdown completely enough to confidently suppress a very virulent virus. I am guessing that this disease will mysteriously disappear in a few months. This has happened in many of the pandemics of the last century. Of course no one knows what’s ahead and it’s quite likely any and all of those predictions are wrong. Whatever happens, we’re in uncharted territory and it’s going to be interesting. And hopefully not in the worst way it could go.

Stay well!

UPDATE 2020-03-27

I just remembered Google Flu Trends. That was actually a reasonable data set to analyze. Let’s put that creepy surveillance capitalism to use! Sure the data is terrible, but there is so damn much of it. Of course with the massive reaction, the data are going to be tricky to understand. Here is another interesting project along the same lines: https://healthweather.us/ Surely companies like this and this are collecting interesting data about exactly how feverish their customers are.