Viewing Michael Jordan’s Flu Game Through Today’s Lens

1997 Finals, Game 5 against the Utah Jazz is one of many legendary moments in Michael Jordan’s career that people list when they tell you why is the GOAT, or when they tell you what a fierce competitor he was. There are conspiracy theories that he was actually hungover instead of sick with the flu and probable theories that he had food poisoning. I’m not here to litigate any of those debates. Instead, what’s been on my mind with the epic MJ documentary about to come out, and with coronavirus at the top of everyone’s mind, is whether MJ should have been in the game at all.

First, I’m going to assume that he actually had the flu, though I know that may have not been the case. So, the question is, given all that we know now, should Michael Jordan have played in the game if he actually had the flu, and if the answer is yes, how bad does the disease have to be for him to not play at all? To be honest, I really struggle with the question. On one hand, I think it should be an emphatic yes. It’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals for Christ’s sake with the series tied at 2-2. How could he not play? The seasonal flu is not very deadly especially for healthy, young men. But, on the other hand, what if he got other people sick? He could’ve passed this onto his teammates or even his opponents, who might have symptoms severe enough to force them to sit out the next game. If that were the case, then letting Michael Jordan play might punish the other team. If Michael Jordan does not play, what happens then? Are we going to treat the flu like an injury and just say that it’s tough luck? Players get hurt all the time, even in the Finals, yet we sit them out and play the series without them. But the flu is different. What if MJ insisted on playing? In the Finals, players would only sit out if the injury was so bad that they could not play so we accept that and let the series go on. But in MJ’s case, he would be forced to sit, not because he can’t play or won’t play, but because he’s not allowed to play. And it’s not like he’s some bench-warmer. He’s the best player on the team and the NBA’s premiere player. Forcing him to sit when he can play might cause riots, or at least a Twitter riot.

“Okay,” you might say, “the flu’s not that bad, so let him play.” But then, where’s the cutoff? Are we going to let a player play if he has coronavirus? Evidently not, based on the NBA’s decision last month. This is not just armchair philosophizing. This is a dilemma the NBA is probably confronting right now (or if they’re not, they should be). The NBA, and all the other major sports leagues, cannot and will not wait 12-18 months for a vaccine. They are all scrambling and creating contingency plans to get games going as quickly as possible. On the NBA side, the most common idea floated is getting all the playoff teams in one city and placing them in a bubble, testing everybody multiple times a day. There would be no fans watching the games, but at least the games will be broadcasted on TV, which is where the bulk of revenues come from anyways. So then the question becomes, what happens if one of the players contracts coronavirus? This would most likely be during the playoffs and maybe even in the Finals. What happens then? Does it get treated as a two-week injury, or do they play the games regardless of who is sick? If it’s regular season games, then nobody will complain about sitting, but what if it’s Game 5 of the Finals with the series tied 2-2 and the best player on one of the teams, say Giannis, gets it? My guess is that they would just sit him out and they would play the rest of the series without him. People in the media and on Twitter would go berserk, but the NBA probably cannot afford to just postpone the Finals for two weeks. There’s TV spots already booked, advertisers already lined up, venues already rented out, and probably a ton of other logistical issues that I’m not thinking of. Even if the games can be postponed again, what’s the ramp-up period back? Would Giannis be okay to play right after two weeks? What if he’s out of shape? Or, what if other players aren’t game ready and get hurt? The NBA probably doesn’t want to think about this and instead probably wants to just hope for the best, but I think they should have a plan in place. I lean towards playing the games without any infected players, but it’s dependent on the situation. It’s one thing for one player to be infected, but another story entirely if say five players between the two teams are infected. The reason I lean towards just playing the games, though, is that injuries happen all the time. Many championship runs were won on the backs of injured opposing players, and ultimately contracting coronavirus is not that different.

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.

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