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Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.

When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?

We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.

What I learned in 2020

What I learned in 2020

Looking back at 2020, it at once one of the most eventful and one of the least eventful years of my life (of all of our lives, I imagine). Mostly we stayed at home and did nothing. Very uneventful. But also, we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic, and I moved in permanently with my BFF. Absolutely earth-shattering.

And then there was this insane election and this dreadful sense that we might be close to a coup of some sort and the end of democracy in the United States. I believe that danger has passed, but for awhile there I was shaken up.

This year I’ve blogged extensively about both the political divide and the pandemic. On this final day of 2020 I wanted to think a little more about the year’s lessons.

My BFF was telling me that some Trump supporters on her social media feeds have argued that total deaths this past year are actually no different than in past years. It’s not to deny the reality of Covid-19, but to say that because of the lockdowns other causes of death have been reduced (for example, vehicle-related), so it’s evened out. I guess they think this is a reason to open up the economy again, though when I think about it, wouldn’t it make sense to never reopen, even after everyone is vaccinated and Covid is no longer a threat? Then the death rate should really go down!

In all seriousness, I understand that we accept certain levels of risk in our society. There is no way to eliminate altogether the possibility of death or bodily harm. We can’t live our lives at all if we are too cautious about accepting risk. And we have schemes to mitigate risk; we all accept the dangers of automobile use, knowing that our insurance system will absorb the costs, if not guarantee our lives. Less effectively, our health insurance system does the same for medical risks.

The point that anti-shutdowners seem to be missing is that the costs associated with Covid-19 are much too high for our healthcare system to absorb. So just accepting the risk in the way we do with the dangers of automobile use is not a good option. To bolster their arguments, pandemic deniers fall back on questioning the data altogether. It must be that it’s all overblown. And I understand part of the motivation for believing this – for many people, the shutdown has been financially devastating. It is quite a quandary.

So a big lesson of the year is that we need to restore trust in our society, and to heal the political divide. It has been tough living in this time of contentious politics. And we need to reform our fragile system so that when public health demands drastic change, it isn’t quite so destructive of people’s livelihoods. It’s certainly doable, with all the wealth in our country.

And maybe we should have been practicing some of these health measures already – wearing face masks in the flu season, for example. Certainly when we ourselves are symptomatic; this is common practice in other societies.

I know its easy for me to accept the pandemic protocols, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker. Personally, I’ve had one of the healthiest years of my life, except for a bit of a lack of exercise. Not travelling, and having the boys stay home from school has meant that I haven’t had a cold since early in the year. Usually I get sick a couple of times at least. And not commuting has been a blessing, saving both time and money. But like I said, that’s not an option for everyone.

Ok, I’m rambling. What did I learn this year? That I am very lucky. That what matters is family and loved ones. That we should enjoy life while we have it, because it is very fragile. Our whole world is fragile. Live fully in each day because time always rushes on.

The Red-Blue Wars: Fighting in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

The Red-Blue Wars: Fighting in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

My last blog post went in depth on political partisanship in the United States, with its split between the red zone and the blue zone. I wanted to add a brief note about how the Covid-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on that partisan divide. I’ve noted before how Covid-19 is also spotlighting the defiencies in our economic system. The pandemic is a major social stressor, and because we’re in a Crisis Era, it is starkly revealing long-standing problems that have been building up without any resolution for a generation or longer. It’s apocalyptic in the sense of the word’s Greek roots – it reveals what was previously hidden (or ignored).

As serious as the Covid-19 pandemic is, it is bizarre and disturbing to me that it has become a partisan issue. But it can’t be denied: which side you stand on in the partisan split does to some degree determine your beliefs about the nature of the disease and the appropriate response to it. It even determines what facts you believe, about the efficacy of measures such as wearing a face mask, or the accuracy of case counts and death counts.

Pro-Trump red staters generally believe that the threat is overblown, and are against lockdown measures, which are inherently anti-freedom and disrupt the business of doing business. Meanwhile, the anti-Trump blue wave resisters use the administration’s failure to respond cohesively to the pandemic as political ammunition. To this, red staters simply respond that Covid-19 is not as bad as the mainstream (read: anti-Trump) media makes it out to be, and that the cure should not be worse than the disease.

Since the President chose to hand the responsibility for the pandemic response to the state governors, their different responses also highlight the partisan split. Red zone governors like Ron DeSantis were Covid-denying, refusing to take any measures until absolutely forced to by the unfolding situation nationwide. Blue zone governors like Andew Cuomo, in the initial epicenters of the pandemic, were Covid-accepting, responding quickly and earning the enmity of Trump and his supporters as a result.

Despite all this, I do think that the compliance of the vast majority of the public with mask mandates (I base this assertion on my personal observation) shows that our society is ready and willing to follow restrictions for the sake of public safety. It’s like the “grey zone” as I’ve called them – the majority who are not particularly partisan – is out there, waiting for effective leadership. You could even argue that big business, the major retail corporations who have all readily gone along with social distancing and mask requirements, are taking over regulatory functions where the government has failed to act.

But unfortunately, extreme partisan conflict shuts down the moderate voice, and that’s where our politics are. It’s gotten so bad that, in one state, red state militias, goaded by words of the President, have terrorized and plotted insurrection against the blue zone governor. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine any kind of unified response to the pandemic in the near future. It will rage on in a society utterly ill equipped to manage it from the top down.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, regarded as the worst in modern history, caused 675,000 deaths in the United States over a two year period. That was 0.6% of the population. The equivalent in deaths today would be 2,165,000 – a number we’re unlikely to reach. But the death toll already is bad enough, with no end in sight. For the forseeable future, Covid-19 will remain in the background of these trying times, shining its bleak light on our failing state.

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

I wanted to exposit a bit on some of the points I made in my last blog post about the dilemma that Covid-19 presents. As many commentators have observed, the pandemic has disrupted our economic system and starkly revealed its defects. In particular it has exposed the risks to a bulk of the population who live on marginal income and can barely, if at all, afford health insurance. But of course these were known issues already, it’s just that Covid-19 is shining a harsh spotlight on them.

I’ve categorized this post as “Strategy Review” because I want to think of this problem with one of the strategic theories I’ve reviewed in the past in mind. That would be Philip Bobbitt’s conception of a newly evolving constitutional order called the “market state.” Here’s a key quote from the linked blog post:

the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent 

The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity. This is especially problematic in the United States, which has a flavor of the market state which Bobbitt calls “entrepreneurial” – meaning that it favors individual over corporate responsibility for well-being.

Hence the quandary the U.S. is in, with its fraying social safety net, and too many people living on a thin margin. Gig economy workers are suddenly in an environment in which there are no gigs. Unskilled laborers have become “essential workers” and are expected to endure dangerous workplaces with no extra compensation, and rudimentary protection measures.

At least the public at large has shown a willingness to follow one simple, minimally disruptive safety measure – the wearing of face masks. I believe that the broad compliance with this mandate shows that society is ready and willing to cooperate and take collective action. The desire is there. But there is a political problem of extreme partisanship and incoherent national leadership.

So this pandemic has become the tempering test of the emerging market state. Can it survive as an ordering principle, or will it break under the strain and need to be replaced? One way to help think about this question is to consider the state in relation to the strategic environment, a key feature of Bobbitt’s line of thinking.

In Bobbit’s model, the nation state prevailed in a particular security environment, which pertained to the World War and Cold War eras. The rise of certain technologies – weapons of mass destruction, advanced computing, telecommunication networks – altered the strategic landscape from that in which the nation state was successful. For the new market state to be successful, it must be able to counter security threats in this new environment.

Threats primarily intrude on the order of the market state by exploiting open networks. In the quote above I explicitly mention infectious disease as a network-infiltrating danger. I had in mind SARS and H1N1, which have turned out to be the preludes to Covid-19. Other potential threats include computer hackers, social media disruptors, and smugglers of WMDs.

The best strategies against these kinds of threats are defensive; think of tower defense casual games, where an infrastructure is built up against ongoing waves of enemies trying to get past a perimeter. Hence the pandemic related shutdowns and other measures – limiting mass gatherings is a defensive strategy against an airborne virus. Surveillance is also crucial (you have to detect the network infiltrators), which is why nations which implemented intensive testing and tracking programs are the ones that have been the most successful at mitigating against the coronavirus.

So you can see the fundamental problem the United States has, with its “entrepreneurial market state.” It is just too open of a society. It is large in extent, and its citizens are used to free travel and a high degree of autonomy. Which is why so many are railing against the measures (though I still think the majority accepts the need for them).

Not only that, the ethos of the independent, self-made American (the “entrepreneur”) means there is resistance to the concept of public assistance, which is another useful defensive measure. The government is calling what pandemic aid has been given “stimulus” money, a complete misnomer. If the economic recession were on the demand side, meaning people didn’t have money to spend for goods or services, then the term “stimulus” would make sense. But the recession is supply side, meaning that businesses can’t deliver goods or services because of the shutdown measures. The loss of income to these businesses is the problem being alleviated, so the money is relief money, not stimulus money. But we can’t call it that, lest we admit that we aren’t a purely capitalist society.

Have other societies, with more of a “managerial market state” (Bobbitt’s term) fared better? Those would mostly be other developed countries of the West – in Europe, for example. I’m not sure of the answer, though it would be interesting to go over Bobbitt’s work, identify his taxonomy of states, and then see how each has done in the 2020 pandemic. There may be a pattern. It would be a bit of lengthy task, but might be worth the time.

Meanwhile, it’s plain to see one thing that has suffered in reputation in light of the pandemic: globalization. It is, in fact, globalization, with its increased access to markets and increased movement of goods and people, that is the reason new viral diseases keep popping up and rapidly spreading around the world. This latest one, Covid-19, seems to have put the brakes on globalization for some time to come, probably for at least a generational cycle. It had already lost its popularity among anyone except economic elites anyway.

What will happen to the market state? I’ve already noted in previous strategy review posts that we will not simply revert back to the nation state. Time isn’t reversible, for one thing, and the changes in the strategic environment – the nature of threats to the security of society – remain. We still need a state capable of countering danger in a complex, networked world.

It’s not just communicable disease that exploits networks. What about dangerous ideologies, spread on social media? If you’ve seen the Netlfix documentary The Social Dilemma you know what I mean. Given the deep political trouble the United States is in, there may be even hotter fires for the market state to endure before it is strong enough to rule in the twenty-first century.

The Covid dilemma

The Covid dilemma

This sign sits in front of a strip mall in the area where I live. If you visit the site listed you might get the impression that it was created by some of the same people I’ve blogged about who denigrate the Pennsylvania governor’s Covid strategy. I get it; I do. If you are a small business on a thin margin, how can you survive an extended shutdown?

It all comes down, I suppose, to the trade off between freedom and security. Between protecting lives and maximizing economic opportunity, both of which we expect our government to do. But what happens when the two goals are mutually exclusive?

One option is to take a defensive approach, and provide supplemental income to those in need while restrictions are imposed to mitigate against an infectious disease. But to some, that smacks of welfare and is undesirable. No handouts, they say. Just freedom.

These times are clearly testing the resilience of our system. We want openness, but a virus is exactly the sort of thing that exploits an open network. But with little in the way of a social safety net, closing the network inflicts pain. That is the dilemma.

Some kind of plan at the national level would really help out here…

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

It’s more contagious than other deadly coronaviruses we have encountered, like SARS. And it’s far deadlier than other very contagious viruses, like H1N1. That is what experts are telling us about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19. To reiterate, the virus is both very contagious and much more lethal than the flu. That is why mitigation is warranted.

The current case fatality rate is around 6%, according to this dashboard. That is like, if you get the disease, you roll a d20, and on a 1, you’re dead. Do you like those odds? Do you want to be infected by this virus, or have someone you know become infected? I would hope not. So why don’t you just wear a face mask in public? And avoid crowds? Why is this so hard?

I think about this whenever I see the viral videos of beachgoers or partyers ignoring all social distancing recommendations, or of the crowded hallways of a just opened school. I think about it when I drive by a restaurant and see people out on the tables dining, or even when I walk up to the Post Office and see them gathering at the ice cream place that’s up the block, standing in line or sitting on the benches without wearing masks.

I mean, seriously, it’s that important to eat out? You know you can get takeout, and all parties involved, both the customer and the vendor, can be masked, right? If it’s really that you’re trying to support the restaurant business, you could get takeout but tip like you were dining in, and just forego being waited on because, you know, pandemic.

But apparently it’s all too much for an impatient country, restless from months of being stuck at home. A country with failed national leadership and no cohesive plan for dealing with this disease. A country that bases its beliefs on the science of the pandemic on political partisanship, so that whether or not to wear a mask depends on being blue-zone or red-zone.

So we almost flattened the curve, early on there, but then pent-up energy and sheer orneriness overcame us, and back up it goes.

I feel like we’re at the beginning of some weird apocalypse movie trilogy. I call the current installment Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots. I see them everywhere – the anti-maskers, the plandemic conspiracy theorists, led by the Covidiot-in-Chief. Now I’m just waiting for the inevitable sequel. Lord knows what madness comes next.

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

Memorial Day 2020 will be remembered as the day America blew off the experts and partied with the coronavirus. Reading the news articles about how crowds gathered at beaches and parks, ignoring the social distancing recommendations of the CDC, I can’t help but notice the irony. Memorial Day was instituted as a holiday to honor those who have died performing their civic duty. And America chose to celebrate it by ignoring civic duty altogether.

Maybe it’s just that the definition of civic duty has changed. After all, the President told us just after 9/11 to do our duty by going shopping. As citizen-consumers of the neo-liberal market state, it is our responsibility to sustain economic activity at all costs, even if the cost is the lives of those vulnerable to a contagious new virus.

This could be seen as a consequence of the failure of leadership at the Federal level, with the current President actually touting conspiracy theories. It’s a crying shame that partisanship has split the country to the point that it determines what facts you believe. I get that it’s hard to know what’s really going on, given that even the experts on disease control can only make a best assessment based on limited data. But would it really have been so hard to just enjoy this weekend from home?

Next Memorial Day should be dedicated to those who are now going to die because so many people chose to ignore social distancing and spread SARS-COV-2. Next Memorial Day should honor those who did their duty for freedom, by suffering and dying of COVID-19, thanks to this weekend’s hordes of the irresponsible and ignorant.

Beachgoers on Memorial Day in Port Aransas, Texas
Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

It’s been a couple of years since I published a Workout Album post. In the meantime, I swear, I was going to the fitness center in my apartment complex on a semi-regular, albeit infrequent basis. I was listening to my standby electronic music while I exercised – maybe some Shpongle Remixed, or some Hanna Haïs. But that’s all in the past. You see, they won’t let me into the fitness center any more!

So after a month or so of pandemic lockdown I was noticing the ill effects. A whole day of literally no physical activity except for briefly moving from one room of the house to another. It made me realize how much extra activity I was doing before just from commuting to work and walking about at the office. Now I was homebound, and it was often too cold, windy or rainy for a walk, seeing as this is the year of perpetual winter, among other disruptions. My body was getting stiff from inactivity, and my lower back was aching, which is my red flag that I am being too sedentary.

What to do? Luckily, my best friend and partner, in whose home I am quarantining, had a solution. She dragged an old device out from under a bed (I presume) and we got to working out again. That’s right, I’m talking about the Wii Fit. Everyone had one back around 2008, remember? And yours is probably still under a bed somewhere.

My BFF’s son expertly crafted our Miis, we did our body tests (my current Wii Fit Age is 46, BTW), and got to it. And what fun it was! It was a bit of nostalgia trip, re-experiencing the balance board and the different activities. It might not be the perfect exercise system, but it’s solved the problem of complete lack of activity.

I find that Wii Fit’s method of rewarding with credits and encouraging improvement with scores and rankings motivates me. And some of the activities are a lot of fun. I generally favor the balance games, especially the slalom, and the yoga. My favorite aerobics is the boxing, which is a really good workout. We have been fairly disciplined in working out regularly, and it’s having the desired effect. I may not get to the level of buffness of that guy from Hobart, but I am confident that my health is going to improve.

It does mean, however, that my workout music for the forseeable future is going to be the Wii Fit theme music. I don’t think there is anyway to change it. I guess I’ll get back to the Shpongle later.

That’s Mii in the middle.

Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…