The Cataclysm Sentence

Radiolab recently did a podcast on a question Richard Feynman posed to a group of undergrads: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” I highly recommend checking the episode out, but it got me thinking on what sentence I would pass on.

I came up with something along the lines of this:

“We have been to the moon and back, sent machines further still, have all of the world’s information in the palm of our hands, and yet we are all but dust and shadows, extinguished by the tribal sentiments inherited millennia earlier, that we were ultimately unable to overcome.”

I chose the first part of this sentence because I wanted to convey what is possible. When humans have a concrete goal, we work harder and achieve that goal faster than when we fumble around searching for the next big thing. I assume that the next generation of creatures, if they are intelligent, might work the same way, and so I want to pass the message on of what we have achieved so that they are able to use those achievements as a model to develop technologically faster than we were.

The second part of my sentence has a built in assumption that we annihilate ourselves. I made that assumption partly because the context in which Feynman asked the question was influenced heavily by the Cold War and partly because I believe that if humans were to become extinct, it would be due to either our own action or our inaction. I specifically emphasize the danger of tribal sentiments because whenever I run down the list of existential risks, it is at the center of the cause. We ignore the risks of climate change because our various countries are split as to its dangers and because we cannot come together as a globe to address the issue. Nuclear annihilation would only happen if two or more nations were at odds with one another. Human-made pandemics would be caused by reckless experimentation due to lack of proper regulations and procedures which is rooted in competition between nations. Same with the existential risks posed by AI.

And so, I want to pass on the message of the need to unite to put the interests of our world ahead of the interests of ourselves/our nation. Do I think that that is possible? Most likely not. But, it’s the best sentence that I could come up with, and given enough iterations, hopefully some future generation of creatures really can unite in a global/universal sense.

Explaining The Real Driver of Toilet Paper Shortages

Many media outlets have blamed hoarders for the toilet paper shortages across the country and I bet, if you polled random people, they would all blame hoarders as well, but hoarders are not the main cause of this shortage. Yes, there are some hoarders, but they make up a very small percentage of the population. A more detailed look at the shortage reveals that it is instead caused by a confluence of factors: just-in-time supply chains and predictable sales, consumers using more toilet paper at home, and consumers stocking up on slightly more than before.

Let’s start with the supply chain and the sales around toilet paper. Toilet paper sales, along with the sales of other household staples, are some of the easiest to predict. That’s because the demand, in normal times, remain very stable. Each individual will use around the same toilet paper as they used the previous year regardless of their income. If you suddenly win the lottery, you might buy some nice clothes, a nice car, or some other luxury items, but you definitely will not be buying more toilet paper. The same applies to other household items such as soap, shampoo, etc. Because toilet paper is a basic necessity that is easy to produce and is relatively impervious to the status games that we play with other consumer goods, it is a low margin product. As a result, companies mainly compete by getting the cost of production as low as possible. Combined this with toilet paper’s predictable sales, and companies are incentivized to utilize just-in-time supply chains, a practice popularized and mastered by Toyota. The basic idea is to ensure that the various components that go into making a product, and the product itself, arrive “just in time”. Doing so allows companies to cut down on warehousing costs to store inventory and ensures that employees are utilized more efficiently. In normal times, this is great. Toilet paper gets bought at a constant rate and supplied at a constant rate. But, the system no longer has any slack, and when there’s a demand spike, companies are not well-positioned to meet it.

Which brings us to toilet paper usage. In ordinary times, most people spend around half their waking day either in school or at work, so when they have to go to the bathroom, they use the toilet paper there. Now, everybody is quarantined and stuck at home, so instead of using the toilet paper at their company, they are now using more of their own. “Okay,” you say, “so they use more toilet paper at home but less at work, so there’s no net change and therefore no problem, right?” Wrong. The toilet paper rolls at work and in public places are the massive rolls that do not fit onto your toilet paper rack. In fact, companies tend to specialize in one or the other (how fitting for our age of specialization), and apparently it is a difficult process to switch from producing industrial-sized rolls to consumer-friendly rolls. As a result, the companies that produce toilet paper for businesses are overloaded with product while the companies that produce toilet paper for consumers are left with little supply, which is only exacerbated by our next problem.

Most consumers are not hoarders, but most people are also not stupid. They see the news broadcasts warning them of toilet paper shortages, and though those media outlets misdiagnose the disease, they are right on its symptoms. So, when people see that stores are running out of toilet paper, their natural response is to buy some more. People also understand that they should try to limit their contact with the outside world, and so they stock up, more than usual, on supplies. In normal times, people that usually only keep a pack of six rolls at home would now buy an extra pack or two, and people that normally keep a Costco-sized pack at home now decide to instead keep two. It’s not the small minority buying massive amounts of toilet paper, but the masses buying slightly more than usual.  Combined this with the additional usage of consumer-sized toilet paper and the lack of slack caused by just-in-time supply chains, and you have a toilet paper shortage.

Are you unconvinced? Change the formula a little and see how it can be used to explain why we are seeing shortages in other basic items. Take hand sanitizer and soap. There will always people who buy massive amounts of those items in times of crises to either hoard or make a quick buck, but I’d bet the shortage there is caused by most people using more soap and hand sanitizer than before. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example since the media blames hoarders for shortages there as well. How about the shortage in yeast and board games instead? I doubt anybody is hoarding any of those items. Instead, we want to entertain ourselves while stuck at home and so consumption patterns have changed on a massive scale. Or, if you want an example of the same product for different clients not being easily changed, take this example from Marginal Revolution about food intended for restaurants not being reallocated to supermarkets. Companies that were used to a stable, easy-to-predict sales flows, are now facing major supply chain shocks. And, at the root of the problem, we find not hoarders, but the changes in consumption habits brought about by the orders to stay at home.


Mask Protocol: A Quick Summary

This is my attempt to summarize all the latest info on the efficacy of masks against the coronavirus. In this post, mask = surgical masks and respirator = N95 respirators.

You should wear a surgical mask. All evidence points to it. Whether it’s effective in protecting you from the coronavirus is debatable, but the evidence points to it being better than nothing. Where it’s most helpful is in helping contain the spread. Many people with coronavirus are asymptomatic, so the mask does a ton in preventing them from spreading coronavirus to others. If everybody wore masks, the virus would probably spread a lot more slowly. In fact, we should probably wear masks all the time when we’re in a public space in the future, like they do in Asia.

You should not wear a respirator. If your local hospitals are short on respirators, you should donate them. Respirators are hard to put on properly and even doctors that have been trained in putting them on have problems wearing them properly, so you probably are not using them right. It’s much better for society if you just don’t buy them at all, given the shortage, and buying masks instead will give you basically the same results and save you money.

Yes, the media was misinformed when they said that you shouldn’t wear a mask. To be fair, it wasn’t really their fault as they were just relaying the message of the central medical authorities. Maybe the authorities thought that the public couldn’t handle the nuance between buying and wearing masks vs. not buying respirators.

So, should you buy and wear masks? Yes. Should you buy and wear respirators? No. Should we wear masks in the future after the coronavirus blows over? Yes. Will we (we in this case being Americans)? Probably not.

Against Appeals to Credentials

On the Media, a podcast that I really enjoy, recently released an episode where Ryan Broderick, one of the guests being interviewed, criticized the discourse surrounding the coronavirus. His complaint was that too many non-epidemiologists were publishing videos and articles about the coronavirus. In the episode, he specifically calls out venture capitalists, economists, “finance bros” and pundits in general, and his core disagreement is not with what they’re saying but rather that they lack the relevant credentials to say it.

For example, Broderick cites a massively-viral Medium article, published before we were panicking in the U.S., that talks about all the precautions we should be taking in the face of the coronavirus. His main issue was not that the article was wrong; he states in the interview that everything in the post was correct, yet he still has an issue with the fact that it was published by someone without a background in science. Broderick claims that this viral, perfectly-factual Medium post allowed others to publish Medium posts that were factually incorrect and gave those same people an opportunity to be featured on Fox, where they would spread misinformation on a large scale. I could not think of a more incorrect conclusion to draw from this. The original Medium post warning of the coronavirus was a great service to the U.S. Since the post went massively viral, a lot of people probably changed their actions as a result of reading it, allowing lives to be saved and the virus to be more contained. Furthermore, what Broderick should be objecting to is the fact that others published Medium posts filled with misinformation instead of objecting to the fact that they were not epidemiologists. In fact, we should be encouraging all kinds of influencers to warn their followers of the dangers of coronavirus because they’ll probably be able to reach many people that otherwise would have just ignored what the epidemiologists are saying. We should only criticize people if they spread misinformation, not if they simply have the audacity to opine on the coronavirus without the relevant credentials.

On a separate note, I don’t know which economists, venture capitalists, and bloggers Broderick reads, but the ones that I follow, like Tyler Cowen, Slate Star Codex, and others have been some of the most helpful in my understanding of the coronavirus. Ultimately, I’m not really sure why Broderick insists on people having the proper credentials before they speak about the coronavirus. His job, as a journalist, literally requires him to write or speak about subjects in which he’s not the expert in. He’s able to do this by talking to experts and collecting their opinions, but I don’t know why he would think that others can’t do the same. After all, aren’t venture capitalists and economists some of the best judges of risk? Who better than them would understand the power of exponential growth, of black swans, of seemingly small things having an outsized impact? I’m so indignant about what Broderick said on On the Media because I hate appeals to credentials in general. To me it is about as good of an arguing tactic as ad hominems. If Broderick is trying to say that we should listen to epidemiologists more, then yes, I agree with him, but if that’s the case, then I think he’s going about it wrong.

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Coronavirus, Pandemics, and Existential Risk

This was a crazy week in the U.S. as Americans started to panic over many of the concerns other countries started having a few weeks earlier. The stock market tumbled some more, people hoarded essentials from grocery stores, companies issued broad work from home policies, and massive events such as the NBA season, March Madness, SXSW have either been canceled or postponed. I have been freaking out along with everyone else, but I have also been reflecting on pandemics and existential risk, and two main thoughts remain on my mind:

  1. We should have been better prepared for a coronavirus-level event as scientists, Bill Gates, mass media, and others have been warning about this for over a decade.
  2. We should properly calibrate how we think about the main existential risks to humanity and how resources are allocated to those risks (climate change, nuclear war, biological war, AI).

The coronavirus should not have been a surprise to the world. At least since the breakout of SARS, Ebola, and other recent epidemics, epidemiologists have been warning of the possibility of a spillover (a disease traveling from one species to another) causing a major pandemic. It was always one of the existential risks that Bill Gates and others have listed over the years. Contagion, a movie that depicts the effects of a far deadlier pandemic, was released in 2011 by a well-known director and had moderate box office success. As a country, America has not put enough resources into pandemic prevention in the short-, medium-, and long-term. The short- and medium-term failures can be attributed mostly to the Trump presidency, but we, the inhabitants of the U.S., have also failed to raise enough alarm about it.

The short-term failures of the government are all related to inadequate preparation for the coronavirus domestically, even once knowledge of the coronavirus surfaced. As soon as large numbers of cases were being reported in China, officials should have started turning the governmental gears to prepare. Once it started spreading to other countries, the presidency and Congress definitely should have acted to ensure that if it spread to the U.S., there would be a plan to contain the disease. Our testing is still far behind other comparable countries and earlier this week, we had tested even fewer people than Vietnam. The CDC and FDA, in a misguided attempt to centralize control of the response, prevented private labs from offering their own tests for too long. The government has also failed to give citizens the support to isolate themselves. Those of us in office jobs can just work from home with minimal disruption, but many workers have little or no sick leave, are in jobs that require their physical presence, or both. Many of those workers are likely to be out and about as most of them live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to do otherwise. Then, there are the uninsured people who cannot afford to get tested. There is probably overlap between those two groups so what ends up happening is that the poorest people cannot get tested and are more likely to both catch and spread the disease as they are forced to be out in public. The House finally just approved an aid package, but it is still waiting for Senate approval. This should have all be in the works weeks ago when we knew that coronavirus was spreading rapidly across other countries.

The medium-term failure of the U.S. government, which tie into the long-term failures, is the de-prioritization of pandemic preparation. The Trump presidency proposed major cuts to the CDC and the NIH in each of the four proposed budgets it submitted, and though Congress ended up appropriating more money to those agencies each year, Trump’s actions clearly signal the priorities in his administration. Which brings us to the long-term failures around pandemic prevention in America: the lack of concern among all citizens around the issue. As I mentioned previously, scientists, well-known public figures, and the mass media have been warning about the existential risk of a pandemic for a long time, but we, the people, have failed to properly heed those warnings. Compare the public attention paid to pandemics versus climate change or even artificial intelligence and we can see just how lacking the attention has been. Many smart, young people dedicate their careers to tackling the other two issues but it seems like far less talent is flowing into pandemic control than should be given the severity of the problem. A recalibration of our various existential risks is in order and coronavirus might be the spur we need. I have no idea what the ideal balance is for the attention we pay to each existential risk and I am definitely not saying that climate change and AI are not important. In fact, though I think we should be paying much more attention to the threat of a pandemic and should devote more resources to combating that threat, I do not want us to over-adjust because of the panic caused by the coronavirus and ignore the other threats. If anything, the risk that we should probably pay more attention to after we get through this is the threat of nuclear war as that seems to be the one that will be ignored by most people.

Still, I hope that coronavirus leads to society paying more serious attention to the risk of pandemics. In some ways we have been quite lucky. Though the coronavirus seems to be more fatal than the seasonal flu, it is not extremely deadly and does not seem to have much effect on children and healthy adults. It has allowed us to see the cracks in our system, specifically the supply chain risks, the inadequacy of our current testing capabilities, and the containment flaws in the U.S. With the American public sufficiently scared, we are now in a better position to contain the next pandemic. The coronavirus could have been so much worse. Imagine a virus that, like the coronavirus, has a long incubation period (or even longer), but is much more contagious and deadly, yet takes a long time to kill so that people have plenty of time to spread the disease. Though the coronavirus is spreading across the globe relatively quickly, it is not as contagious as some of the most contagious diseases out there; measles for example is much more contagious. As a frame of reference, the R0 (the number of people, on average, that each person infects) of coronavirus is estimated to be around 1.5 – 3, whereas the R0 for measles is around 15. Imagine if we had been hit with the worst-case scenario pandemic before the coronavirus. There is already panic among the people as everybody hoards supplies and food, leaving stores bereft of necessities. But at least there isn’t chaos in the streets. People are not looting stores or destroying public property. A sufficiently bad pandemic could lead to all of that. If our hypothetical virus was spreading even more rapidly, causing far more deaths (including child deaths), the panic sowed would be enormous. Now that we are facing coronavirus as a society, we should realize that it is far from the worst-case scenario and will hopefully be better prepared in the future as a result.

So, what should those preparations be? I do not work in epidemiology nor am I even a scientist, so I cannot prescribe specifics, but I do have general suggestions. First and foremost, xenophobia is not the answer. Sure, companies should seek to diversify their supply chains so that they are not so dependent on a country halfway around the world, but the debate about whether to globalize is already long past. Globalization is here to stay and regardless, we need to come together as a planet to deal with the other existential risks we face. Geopolitical isolation is not the answer. Instead, we should be investing more money into pandemic detection and testing capabilities once one is detected. We should definitely not prevent private labs from providing testing especially when governmental tests are inadequate. Our best and brightest should be encouraged to pursue careers in epidemiology. Our government should have policies in place to provide citizens with financial relief whether it be in the form of healthcare support or paid leave support so that the poorest in our country can get tested and isolate themselves. Even though we are still in the early innings of fighting the coronavirus in the U.S., I am optimistic that we will overcome it with relatively minimal damage to our society and that we will be in a better position to deal with an even worse pandemic in the future.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels




The Romantic Realism of Linklater’s Before Movies

Richard Linklater’s three Before movies depict the evolution of a relationship over time by showing us just three days of Jesse and Celine’s life, each day nine years apart from the others. Through the long, winding conversations the two have, we are easily able to fill in the years in between. Though they’re smarter, better looking, and more charming than we are, and though their conversations are probably more clever and philosophical than our own, we can still see ourselves and our relationships in them – they feel so real. Trying to articulate exactly what I love so much about these movies is hard as my fondness for them ultimately comes down to a feeling more than anything else, but I’m going to try anyways, so let’s start with Before Sunrise.

The movie is an almost ethereal love story between Jesse and Celine in their early twenties, when they are still brimming with optimism and hope about the future. The two meet on the train and hit it off so that when the time comes for Jesse to get off, he asks Celine to get off the train with him to continue their conversation. As they walk around Vienna, they wax philosophical about love, life, and religion reminding us of the 2 am dorm-room conversations we had in college. They are still young and innocent enough to not get bogged down in the daily problems that working adults deal with, allowing their conversations to wind from one abstract concept to another. The scenes in the movie are wonderfully shot – the scene in the music booth was fantastic, the fake-calling was hilarious, the homeless guy was incredibly endearing, and Jesse convincing the bartender to give him a bottle of wine was the thing that only young people in love would try. But what resonated with me the most was their utter infatuation with one another; it reminded me of a special time in my life, of the unique rollercoaster of emotions that you only get with your first love. Though it’s a boy-meets-girl love story at heart, what makes this movie special to me is that there is no traditional conflict; there’s no other romantic interest or terrible event that can tear the relationship apart. It’s simply about two people falling in love with each other, walking around Vienna in long takes, having wonderful conversation; Jesse and Celine’s chemistry is so great that we do not need anything else. The movie has a great ambiguous ending, leaving us to wonder whether the two meet up again in six months. And though Linklater could’ve left it there, nine years later, he gives us Before Sunset.

Before Sunset is my favorite of the three. After nine years, Jesse and Celine are finally brought back together in Paris by Jesse’s book about their magical night together. We quickly learn that the two did not meet up in six months; Jesse flew to Vienna but left heartbroken as Celine, unbeknownst to Jesse, had to attend her grandmother’s funeral instead. The two are now seasoned adults who have grown jaded by their years in the workforce and, as we later learn, their inability to find another person who they connect with as deep as they did with each other. Though their conversations remain philosophical, they are no longer the college-dorm musings of the first movie, but instead remain grounded in the reality of their own experiences. Both characters lie throughout the movie and try and pretend that everything is okay in their lives as they try and get a feel for the other person, but slowly, as the movie progresses and they dig deeper into each other’s lives, we learn the truth. Their lies are layered like onions; with the removal of one lie, comes another lie, until ultimately the character breaks down with the truth. Jesse for example, starts by lying about whether he showed up in Vienna eight and a half years ago, then neglects to mention that he is married with children, and finally does not confess that he is in a deeply unhappy marriage until he breaks down. Celine goes through a similar process where she first presents herself as a careerist, then as an independent person who is okay with a rarely-present boyfriend, before finally revealing the truth. Both still haven’t gotten over their night in Vienna nine years ago and all their relationships since have failed to live up to the ideal of that night. Their lies, through commission and omission, kept their conversation cordial, but as they walk around Paris and talk, they both realize that the chemistry they felt nine years ago is still there. They had become so jaded that they were used to shrouding themselves with lies but now, the walls slowly start to come down and the emotions come flooding out. Those emotions feel so true to the human experience, feelings of everyone else living such wonderful lives while their own is falling apart, of aimlessness, of regrets over what could’ve been and what is. The movie is a concise 80 minutes and though it’s over in the blink of an eye, we feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply; the movie feels as if we’re catching up with close friends that we haven’t seen in a while. The two scenes where Jesse and Celine break down are master-classes in acting and the movie ends perfectly, with two characters knowing exactly where they belong and experiencing pure bliss. Once again, Linklater could’ve left it there, but instead he plays with our expectations of love by giving us Before Midnight.

Before Midnight is an entirely different kind of love story than the previous two movies. Celine and Jesse are no longer meeting for the first time, or reuniting after daydreaming about each other for years, but have instead been living together for nine years. Their love no longer revolves around infatuation but is instead a deeper, more mundane love, the type of love that all love eventually becomes, which is not to say that it’s a worse kind of love, just different (I’d argue that it’s actually a better kind of love). We spend the first half of the movie seeing them interact with other characters such as their children or their friends in Greece, but when we finally get them alone together, we can quickly see that their conversations are still witty and enthralling. Throughout the first half of the movie though, we can feel an argument simmering in the background and it’s not until they get into their hotel room that tensions erupt. The fight hits close to home because it feels so much like ones that I have. It starts over a rather insignificant thing, but quickly escalates into something else entirely with both sides trying to score points while using unfair, though true, attacks. The argument seems to fade multiple times, but comes back stronger each time until the climax when Celine tells Jesse that she doesn’t love him anymore and leaves the hotel room for the third time. I’ve never had a fight escalate that far (and hope that I never do), but it’s so effective in the movie. We don’t believe Celine because we’ve seen the first half of the movie and the other two movies, but still, it disabuses us of the notion of a perfect love. Movies usually end at happily ever after, but here, we see what’s really after. The trilogy comes full circle, as Jesse and Celine fight like the older couple on the train in the first movie. There’s no such thing as true love, or at least not the true love that movies typically sell us. But what’s left is an enduring love, a love that can withstand withering arguments, one where the other person truly understands the other, a genuine life-long partnership. And so, the movie once again ends beautifully ambiguous, with us left to imbue the ending with our own thoughts and imagine the future in store for the two.

Hopefully at the next nine year mark, Linklater blesses us with yet another sequel. The series feels complete, but it felt complete the previous two times as well. Narratively, it probably makes the most sense for Celine and Jesse to be divorced in the next movie, but, since I’m a romantic at heart, I hope that’s not the case. Regardless, I trust Linklater to do the characters justice and it would definitely be cool to revisit the characters every nine years, like a fictional 7 Up series.

Photo by Timi Keszthelyi from Pexels