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Created

Maggie’s Magic Toothbrush

Just an idea I’ve been toying with. First draft quality.


(Origin story.)

Maggie smiled at herself in the mirror of the old dental sales display. She was at the “Tooth Museum” as her cousin called it, where her mother, a dentist, would take her every year on the anniversary of losing her first tooth nine years ago. Officially it was the Museum of Dental Art and Science.

She’d seen the evolution of dentures, from animal teeth and wood all the way to the 3D printed ones that had embedded microcontrollers. She’d seen the exhibit on tooth fashion—braces and whitening and capping, the money makers. Funny how fashion always made someone rich. But today she was let in to the junkyard—”excess archives” they called it.

The archives were all the stuff they didn’t show you. Like her girlfriend’s comic books—she’d show off her #1 Vegetable Massacre, but her frickin’ mattress was propped up by all those boxes full of books she never saw. The excess archives were all the things they didn’t even want, but hadn’t gotten rid of. And that’s how Maggie found this old salespiece, from when dentists went from town to town.

It had a mirror, because even then sales was everything. Make the customer open their mouth and point out what needs fixing, what you can do for them. Let them see for themselves. Everyone likes to smile, and who doesn’t want everyone to like to see them smile?

Maggie wondered if it was real mercury on the mirror, that maybe they couldn’t put it out on that account. The regular archives might have better version already: more complete, better condition, or more definitive. Or maybe it just didn’t fit with enough of the exhibits to really sell itself as part of a package of curiosities to discover.

It had all these pull-out trays with little stickers to cross reference their belongings in some cabinet somewhere. The teeth on offer, the soaps and brushes and picks, those were all cataloged and kept separately.

Maggie pondered the modern version, figuring it would have a digital display where you could zoom in on the teeth. It would outline them and label them and probably report the albedo and all sorts of junk. It would have a built-in scanner, for capturing the full shape information.

She idly pulled out an empty tray, long thin slots for brushes she guessed. Horse hair? Wooden handles, surely, just like the cabinet. Straight ones, though. Harder to angle them and get a good bristle-surface contact. Still, better than just chewing on sticks. And better for the environment than all that plast—it wouldn’t slide all the way in.

She pulled it back out a bit and slowly pushed it back in, but it butted up against something on the right side. She could feel the tray want to go on the left, but the right—something was behind it. She pulled it out all the way and took a look.

Metal handle for something, she thought, reaching her arm in the hole where the tray went. Her fingertips brushed it, but couldn’t quite get there. She pulled out the tray above, and this time she got it.

Categories
society

The Challenge of Open

Shutting things down is hard, but minimizing transmission of pestilence in anything approaching normal conditions is at least an order of magnitude harder. Avoiding it entirely would require far more than what society is willing (perhaps able) to do.

We must recognize that opening up a bit means the containment will be less than it has been. It means some people will get sick, and some of those will die. It’s the nature of opening things up, just as some fraction of cases today still occurred under the relatively closed conditions we have.

The trade-off of opening up a bit is to be prepared to test and trace and isolate cases. Not doing so, and not planning to do so, invites uncontrolled spread and a fast retreat to stay-home.

A good mental model is cars. We have done a ton to make cars safer. Seatbelts, airbags, licensing, crumple zones, and so forth. They aren’t completely safe. People still die from car crashes. But we’ve tried to minimize that harm. The plans being worked on by businesses and governments are similarly designed.

They are weighing all sorts of options and considering the logistics, acceptability to customers and the public. Like on the Apollo 13 mission, trying to connect a square CO₂ scrubber to a round air exchanger takes a lot of thinking through. Unlike that mission, the danger is mostly contained as long as people stay home and the clock is more about trying to get people where they can work safely.

For example, if you went to a fine dining establishment, how would you feel about having the wait staff instruct you how to bus your own dishes or wipe your own table? Is that something we can comfortably ask the public to do? Or do we stick to take-out only, depriving work from those who would normally be in the dining rooms? Or do restaurants switch to disposable tableware and some easy way to biohazard the entire table in one fell swoop? Or some other option? What are the risks? What are the costs? How do we balance it all?

For example, with grocery delivery in-demand, can stores work with delivery services to streamline the process, to minimize transmission, improve contact tracing, and increase service throughput?

There are tons of businesses and they all need solutions that fit their business and the community. Some of them will make mistakes.

But the number one tool we have is technology. All manner of businesses need to look at how they can use phones and computers to rework their business so that contact is minimized. And that’s going to require new software. Now more than ever it should be built with standard interfaces, where one app can be used by multiple businesses rather than requiring every last business to have a custom app built. We simply do not have the developer bandwidth to do the latter.

It’s a heavy lift. But the alternative of an unprepared reopening—something some states might try (and something that, unfortunately, many on the right media are urging)—will see another spike and more death than necessary. And the economy will still be worse off for those states, after they have to tuck tail and deal with another round of stay home. Their citizens will be less willing to trust those governments, and they will be watching on TV as the slow-and-steady states see slow-and-steady improvements.

Society has been wounded by the virus. We are convalescing and have fresh stitches. Communities that try to get up and run will tear their stitches and have to be rushed to get themselves sewn back up and then back to bedrest. Places that take it slow, cautious, will heal faster and be back on their feet.

Unfortunately, with interstate travel, there’s always the risk of the stitch-tearer bungling into another patient, tearing her stitches too. The virus can bloom in a foolish state and infect a smart state anew.

As things do open up a bit, remember that you have the right to say no. If you think the precautions are inadequate, you should seek alternatives. If a business is asking you as a customer or worker to do something you think is unsafe, you should speak up.


In some other universe, Americans are seeing a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and, for the first time in decades, they are seeing what the machine, firing on all cylinders, is capable of. It must be a thing to behold, but sadly we are deprived it and its comfort in these trying times.

Categories
society

Risk and Economics in a Pandemic

There are a lot of different ways to think about recessions. One is a traffic model. A bustling economy is moving a lot of cars with little trouble. A hurting economy is moving fewer cars slower. Depression is outright gridlock. The need to get cars moving is the recovery mechanism. (The slow cars are slowing each other down, which is akin to cascading financial problems.)

Another metaphor is a tree, battered by disease or wind, having lost some of its leaves. It has to slow its growth to repair itself instead. In some cases, government provides artificial sunlight, artificial rain, etc. to nurture the tree along.

The main thing about economic downturns is that they are a signal that, in some way, our collective resources were misallocated. Either we didn’t regulate enough, or didn’t spend enough on the right things. Sometimes we took a calculated risk and are just unlucky. Other times, we did not calculate risk correctly.

One of those risk calculations is the healthcare and insurance system. It doesn’t fully cover the nation, and it’s largely subject to the same kinds of economic problems as the rest of the system. Under a true universal system, whether Medicare-for-All or not, that wouldn’t be. It would dramatically reduce the suffering, but it would also help to prop up the larger economy. To divorce vital industry from the economic winds is a great ballast. The tradeoff of ballast is that growth in (at least parts of) healthcare would be more limited. Slower to accelerate, but slower to halt.

Another risk calculation, made (or failed to be made) by Donald John Trump, was to underfund, reduce, and dismantle parts of our shield against pandemics. Even now, he keeps pushing for quick fixes, corner cuts, and premature reopening, all which threaten to undermine public health efforts that economic recovery depends upon.

Governors and mayors weighed the risk of stay-home orders. Ministers did, too. The risk, plus some luck either way, results in a signal of whether the decisions were apt. Sometimes the signal is in lives lost.

The Republican party in the state of Wisconsin decided the risk of having people vote the normal way at the normal time during decidedly abnormal public health conditions was worth the risk of more suffering and death.


The economic fallout will take some time to really become apparent in all of this. It depends on the length of the shutdown, which depends on the ability of government to manage test coverage in a way that ensures we can reopen and stay open. So far, that’s not materialized.

Which makes no sense! The economic output lost from having to keep protections higher, or the economic output lost from having more waves of virus or worse waves, are both in excess of the societal cost of ramping up testing to the level needed to avoid them! For all the monies appropriated by the Congress, for all the nonsense dispensed by the president (including his fantasy over an anti-malaria drug), they haven’t done the one thing! Testing! Even if a quinine-based drug were a magic bullet, testing would still be king!

The decision between minimizing risks and maximizing economy is false. Those who see what should be very welcomed reductions in projected deaths and say, “We should open up,” are inviting much larger outbreaks and tolls. Failure to expand testing is bad for the economy. Risk is what’s hurting the economy, so taking on more of the same risk is to invite ruin.

Happy and/or Merry Easter!

Categories
society

One Way or the Other.

Successful leadership in a crisis requires trust and steady fact-based decisions. Trump was completely unstable at the best of times, and he had zero trust from anyone who pays attention.

After leadership, you have the logistics of handling a crisis. It’s not that difficult. You simply learn what steps are necessary, what materials needed, and you do the work. A computer could have done it, but not the Trump administration.

A computer would have taken input that said, “Need masks. Need ventilators. Need other PPE.” It would have put out requests to the proper channels to find out availability and begun the wheels of industry a-turnin’. It would have called for shutdowns and distancing. A computer.

The hard part of logistics in a crisis comes from the bad news. Trying to keep people going through it. Keeping focused. The decisions should be self-evident. You get the ventilators. You get the PPE. You close the beaches. You prepare for recovery.

Not Trump. First it was “magically disappear.” Then came “hoax” and “flu” and automobile fatalities. Only now, after a month-plus of fucking around, they’re saying 100 000, if all the right cards are dealt. They had an entire, color-coded plan and they didn’t even look at it!

Which is the whole point: this has never been a serious administration. There’s no commitment to governing. There’s just the fucking around, the schtick. There was never going to be success. There wasn’t any ability or thought to attempt success from. They didn’t just ignore warnings, but treated the warnings with contempt. Warnings are for people who might actually give a shit, who want to do the right thing.

And we’ve seen it downballot, with several prominent Republicans now under investigation for cashing out stocks on the warnings while they didn’t lift a finger to stop the actual mess.

The nation has a choice that it always has, that we all have: do the right thing or suffer the consequences. Either this administration finds the ability to handle the pandemic, and the pandemic runs one course, or they don’t, and it runs a much more costly course.

But let’s be clear on that choice, just as we should be clear about the election in 30 weeks: the choice isn’t even close. The economy will do better if the pandemic is handled properly from here forward. The lives saved will be far greater if the right choices are made, based on science and boring old logistics that a computer can do.

To fail, you have to try. Trump is the don’t bother president. The un-president. The lazy sod that wants to take credit if only 100 000 of our brothers and sisters die. He’s not responsible, whatever happens, because he’s not leading. He’s only there because he was elected, not because there’s a job to be done. Whatever work the administration does is incidental to Trump, or is done to fluff his ego.

Sure, they go through these indecent motions to have him sign off on decisions, but he’s not in charge other than as an obstacle to the various administration factions doing what they want to do. They are required to thank the president, to appreciate him in public. That’s not appreciation, if you’re coerced. Doesn’t matter to Trump, as long as people believe he gets credit for work that he doesn’t even care about.

There are a lot of people sick and dying because of this president’s inability to do his job. There are a ton more trying to patch around him, to keep things working despite Trump. The Republicans in the Senate took this risk, they bet against the nation, when they failed to hold a real trial and failed to convict him for his high crimes. This country owes itself to do better than these jackals.


If Biden were president today, the nation would be far better prepared, on top of which there would be an effort to ensure broad insurance coverage. He would have made healthcare improvements instead of a giant tax giveaway for the rich, and he would be doubling down on healthcare now. Trump never put forward a plan, and the only reason that millions have healthcare at all today is that Senator McCain told Trump to go fuck himself when it mattered most.

Biden would have a national purchase coordinator for masks, gloves, and gowns, with a proper distribution system. The rapidly-depleting stockpile—meant to be a stopgap to distribute to states and localities while production ramps up during a crisis—would have been properly maintained and properly used to get us to full production, which under Trump we’re nowhere near. There would be a much stronger testing capability, so that we could know not just if a sick person has the virus, but if it’s spreading undetected. What we have is so piecemeal as to likely make the pandemic worse in places that are undertesting. What we have in Trump is someone who still denies problems that are clear as day! They’re trying to cobble together blindspot data from community surveys and internet-of-things thermometers.

Joe Biden is not only better, he’s a thousand times better. He will not be a perfect president, but he won’t be incompetent. That’s something to be excited about: waking up to an American presidency that actually cares. Someone who won’t make a very silly bet with tens of thousands of lives, that the virus would just vanish by yesterday. That’s a big fucking deal.

If Biden were president, we would be in a much better position, not waiting to hear how many needless deaths Trump will inflict on our nation through his complete failure to lead.


But there’s another side to be told here. Terminally underfunding the federal government and state governments means we’re always playing catch-up on critical functions. Taxes need to go up. We need to pay for the country we want. That’s more necessary for states, but it’s true for both. That kind of partnership (Trump likes to harp on NATO allies for not spending enough; if he were consistent he would have been saying, for years, that states need to raise their revenues) is what is needed to meet these trials.

There is so much work to be done, and sooner or later the naysayers in the GOP will have to get out of the way of progress, or we’ll keep seeing people die and we’ll keep seeing inadequate governance. Biden can work to push them toward realistic funding and changes, but there has to be internal change among Republicans. They must recognize that failing to pay for government is the same as failing to govern.

Categories
earth

Not a War–a Fire.

Lots of metaphors around these days. Fire is one of the better ones. Fire spreads; disease spreads. Fire is dangerous; disease is dangerous.

War doesn’t spread the same way, though its devastation does. It’s more targeted. It is man-made.

Nobody says, “Let’s let the fire burn, we can’t shut the economy down because of a little fire.” Good people don’t offer up grandparents in immolation.


The administration’s response to the fire, to the disease, has not been good. It has gotten marginally better, but threatens to get worse again. The response, and the disease. Which is the big problem with letting a big-time loser direct the fire department. Not good.

Places that do not heed the basic rule of fire safety—deprive it of fuel—will be scorched worse than those places that do. For a disease, human contact is spreading the embers to new fuel.

With developed diseases, like influenza, we have vaccines. That’s a controlled burn or a fire break. Sets some distance. People still get flu, but we try to make it harder for that particular fire to spread. With this new fire, it will take time to develop a vaccine. So we have to spread the fuel apart—social distancing.


As with fire, this disease will spread to any fuel it can reach. Different houses will burn differently. Some will be spared, others will collapse. These are human lives we’re talking about.

You don’t reopen until the fire has abated, until it’s under control. You don’t mess around with fire. Places that do will, with high probability, get burned. Already, due to Donald John Trump’s errors of judgment, more are sick than should be. And some probably getting sick because of his unfounded optimism. All these Republicans who have downplayed the threat, and their counter-culture media drones, they’re fanning the fucking flames. Morons.


Anyway, stay safe out there. Be thankful for the mail carriers, the doctors, the grocery workers, and, yes, the firefighters. Right now they’re all firefighters.

Donald John Trump is a firebug. Don’t listen to his lies. His job is to make sure all those firefighters are equipped, and that we’re doing all we can to stop the spread, but he’s not. That’s a failure.


As a side note, the term shelter-in-place refers to an immediate stoppage of nonessential movement during an acute emergency. Basically, during a shelter-in-place situation, unless the danger to you is greater where you are than the risk of moving, you shouldn’t. It applies to wherever you happen to be at the time of the order.

The orders being issued aren’t correctly described as shelter-in-place. They are stay-at-home. Nobody expects someone to start living out of their local gas station if that’s where they are right now. During a real shelter-in-place, one would be expected to stay at the gas station until the immediate danger had abated and the order lifted.