Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.


Why not President Sanders?

One important result of the Iowa Democratic Caucus is that Sanders appears to have a real possibility of winning the Democratic candidacy.  This has left some breathless.  Not only do many Democrats not think that Sanders could beat Trump, they also find Sanders’ vision of a Democratic-socialist state horrifying.  Those with excellent health insurance would like to keep it, and more importantly keep the rabble out of our waiting rooms!  (Isn’t that what it is really about?)  But I think this focus on policy visions misses the primary role of the President in government and party politics.

Presidents certainly matter for the political, legislative, managerial, and popular leadership they provide.  In crises this is most visible, but they are even more important for the leadership they provide in federal bureaucracy.  This is perhaps the most corrosive feature of the Trump administration; it seems interested in actively destroying the ability of the federal government to provide the vital regulation and other services that are needed in modern states.  I suspect that Trump has done this because of his history of fraudulent acts, and his plans to commit more of them.  Without a well-managed federal state, rich people are often able avoid following the law.  That is music to Trump’s ears.

Presidents also have discretion in how they manage the government in accordance with law, but the effects of these decisions are both temporary and limited compared to the effects of laws.  One need only see the differences between the transformative Affordable Care Act and Obama’s various executive actions (like that to protect “Dreamers”).  Laws have lasting effects on American life and norms, whereas the impacts of executive actions often do not last longer than the President who made them.

The American system is deeply conservative (in the broad sense).  Large social changes typically happen slowly and only after a significant portion of the electorate approves of them.  The Affordable Care Act, as limited as it was compared to the a socialized system, occurred only after a blockbuster victory by Obama that also brought huge majorities in the Senate and House.  And even then the reform worked within the current system.  It was relatively conservative.  Reformers and radicals may lament this, but it is a feature of our system that distributes authority across three branches of governments, as well as within the states.

The basic point I am getting at is that the election of Sanders would not bring us socialized medicine or socialized education, or socialized anything for that matter.  There is little popular support for any of these radical transformations, and no possible Congress would go along with them.  His presidency would likely bring us nominally higher taxes on the rich (and probably corporations), but likely within the current system of taxation.  And even there, nothing too radical would ever pass Congress.  It is striking to see that although Trump has transformed the moral character of the Republican party (they are essentially a criminal set these days) he has done little to change the policy positions of Congress.

What a Sanders presidency would provide us is a vision (whatever its merits) of where our system should be headed in the long-term.  Sanders, essentially, wants us to move toward a European-style system in which the government provides for much but also controls much.  That is a worthy vision, though one that is problematic.  One need only look at Europe to see how a group of states of unequal wealth and living standards can struggle to stay within a shared economy with an expansive welfare and regulatory state.  There is also evidence that, because of racist attitudes and resentment, generous welfare states may be less sustainable alongside high rates of immigration.  Given how important immigration is to the sustainability of American population and economic growth, that is concerning.  In any case, there should be a debate about Sanders’ vision, and a Sanders presidency would give our country just such an opportunity.

Of course there are questions about how effective of an executive manager and legislative leader Sanders would be.  He has spent his career taking rather uncompromising positions outside of the party mainstream (in fact he isn’t a Democrat!), and so one wonders how well he would lead effective legislative fights.  And I don’t think we know much about how well he would lead the executive bureaucracy.  I make no claims about any of this here.  Nor do I think we have a good idea of how competitive he would be against Trump.  However, I don’t think his immediate policy “plans” should be taken as serious visions of how he would change the U.S. in four (or even eight) years.  He would advocate an ideal that would frame our debates.  But it is up to Congress to decide what to do with that.

I probably won’t be voting for Sanders in the primaries, but I don’t think his radical policy views should prevent anyone from doing so.

Coffee Review Group 2

It is quite striking that among the 1st group that I mentioned above, only Bradbury’s existed when I reviewed cappuccinos in 2008.  However this second group will contain more repeats.  I have reason to believe that many of these shops have upped their game in the past decade.

  • Mother Fools (they made the 2nd best cappuccino after Bradbury’s in my previous reviews.)
  • Indie Coffee
  • Michelangelo’s Coffee House (on State)
  • Espresso Royal (the one closest to campus on State)
  • Starbucks on the square (It will be an instructive comparison…)

And then there are some newer places that will also certainly be on my list:

  • Cafe Domestique (this is a relatively new shop on Willy St.)
  • Colectivo on State
  • Cargo Coffee (I have never actually been here)

How do you review a cappuccino?

I’ve come across the criteria I used back in the day to review cappuccinos.  These will have to be revised a bit.

2008: Smoothness, Presentation, Strength, Complexity, Foam

I think I will use the following criteria in my new reviews, though these might eventually change.

2019: Art & milk surface, Espresso flavor & complexity, Espresso – milk integration, Texture

So much spam

There are currently 1,213 comments waiting in my cue for the various posts in this blog.  I probably need to install some sort of spam-blocking system….

I have noticed a couple of things about this spam over the past few years.  Most importantly, they have gotten significantly better.  A couple years ago when I would get spam comments they would basically consist in nonsense.  However, now they are more varied and elaborate, with attached names and email addresses that would look roughly legitimate to any sort of spam blocker.  They have also become more frequent.  Several years ago I would get only several spam messages a month, but  now I get several in a day.  And it isn’t as if this blog has gained any more exposure.  One still must essentially google me to find it.

All this is unfortunate and sometimes prevents me from noticing comments that are from real people.  Because I usually get no real comments but many spam ones in a day, I tend to ignore or forget about comments entirely.  This is a symptom of the broader problem of the pollution of the internet.  There are far more people with unscrupulous motives, along with their bots, prowling the internet.

Certainly the internet used to be far more wild in other respects.  As the internet has become more exposed to the public there is less expectation of anonymity.  Many people (myself included) used to have entirely public blogs and internet sites in which we disclosed much and did little to hide our identities.  However, those sites were largely hidden from the wider world; they were hard to find and only strangers and our friends (when told about them) ever stumbled upon them.  It was difficult to connect the internet site to a particular person in the real world even when there might be personal details in the writing.  And there was less risk of an employer looking a person up on the internet and being able to find all kinds of private musings.  Now most people are much more careful.

The privacy of the old wild internet has been replaced by something a bit trashier and nefarious.  Though 15 years ago the internet was far less controlled by corporations and governments than it is today this has not prevented criminals and others who wish to do us harm from moving in.  Something has certainly been lost.

So much is half-written…

I’m surprised at how many unpublished posts I have hidden away in the dark reaches of this blog.  Most are half (or 1/10th!) written — more basic ideas than anything else.  However, often I have a problem of not possessing the energy to fill in the details of my thoughts.  This is in part a personal failure.  Some people are able to bash out sensical thoughts of depth and truth with one pass.  I don’t work that way.  I have to go over a piece of writing several times before I think the ideas are correct and correctly expressed (and I’m not even talking about whether it is good writing!)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to finish a few of these incomplete posts.  Here at least are a couple of titles:

“Don’t forget that Socialism actually sucks”

“Justifying the college lending system…and why it is so messed up”

The everlasting desktop computer

Last night I ordered all of the parts to create a new, and very fast, desktop computer.  My current machine is about 8 years old, though it still plays many games just fine.  Certainly it does most computing tasks with ease.  Although it was a pretty fast machine when I built, it is remarkable that the vast majority of things people use a computer for have not changed much in the past 8 years.  In fact, I am going to move my existing computer into a new and smaller case so that I can use it for office-type tasks.  I might still get another 5 years out of it.

This experience differs substantially from the life of a laptop computer.  All kinds of compromises must be made when constructing a very small computer that runs on a battery and fits on one’s lap.  Desktop computers, on the other hand, are cheap and fast.  Additionally, they aren’t susceptible to being “totaled” due to wear and mishap.  For instance keyboard problems often mean the end of life for a laptop but only a $15 replacement for a desktop.  If you can’t afford a new fancy laptop, you should probably consider a cheapo desktop; it will be just as fast as some shiny macbook pro and last about three times as long.

Coffee Review Group 1

One purpose of doing cappuccino reviews is to get out in the world and try some cappuccinos you might not otherwise encounter.  To that end, I’ll have to search out some places I haven’t been before (or were at long ago).  I’ll do that soon, but first I wanted to list the coffee shops that I already know about and will likely be top contenders.

  • Bradbury’s (the first place in Madison to serve a proper cappuccino and still one of the best)
  • Johnson Public House (#1 or #2 in my mind, depending upon the visit)
  • Grace on State (brand new and a bit odd, in the old hat shop, but seemed legitimate when I was there. Also has the honor of illegally painting one of the remaining brick store-fronts on State…)
  • Ledger Coffee (in Garver, the old beet factory)

A plateau in technological progress

It has been argued by quite a few authors (Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth for one) that we have recently seen few of the profound technological change the characterized life at the beginning of the 20th century.  For instance, between 1900 and 1950 just about every aspect of peoples’ lives in the rich world was transformed by technological, economic, and cultural change.  And most of this was progress. On the other hand, between 1970 and today (50 years!) we have seen dramatic changes in only a few areas of life.

Of course, things have gotten quite a bit better; there has been gradual change in most areas of life, and some areas (like Information Technology) has seen transformative change.  But life itself has not transformed in the way that it did between 1900 and 1950.  I was reminded of this fact while I drove back to Madison from northern WI yesterday.  It is possible that AI will soon transform transportation as we know it, but that is not especially likely.  It is turning out to be much more difficult to create self-driving cars than originally thought.  In fact, the experience of someone traveling down the highway is not tremendously different than it was in 1970.  They are a bit safer, but driving is still the relatively dangerous.  Drivers still face the basic problem of steering a large metal object down a road of questionable quality, while fighting weather, fatigue, distractions, and boredom.  Unlike in 1950, the elderly today have not experienced anything close to transformation in transportation.

Criterion for Inclusion

Starting with the coming Solstice, I will review ever coffee shop in the Madison area that offers a traditional (6 oz or similar) cappuccino.  When I did my first round of coffee reviews around 2008, that would have included probably two or three shops.  Things have certainly improved.  I’m guessing that there are at least a dozen shops that qualify now (maybe many more).  I’ll compile a list in the coming weeks!