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On Masks

Why do they work? What could make them better?

Lots of folks don’t seem to understand masks. I’ve seen some folks say that the virus is too small to be stopped. But most pollutants, dust, viruses, do not exist in air by themselves in a simple and lonesome form. Even when floating in air, things want to stick to other things. Regular stitched masks without special filters aren’t perfect, but they can block a lot of small conglomerations. Moreover, the more doublings of cloth can make that even better. The tradeoff of doublings up is the efficiency of breathing—the thicker the mask, the harder it is to pull air through.

In a different area, cholera in water, see NIH: Fogarty International Center: February 2015: “Sari cloth can filter cholera from water, research shows”. In that study, villagers in Bangladesh used simple cloths, folded twice (for four layers), to filter water as they collected it. It filtered 99% of cholera bacteria from the water in lab tests, and while the real-world use probably wasn’t as effective, it still cut cases and the cases that developed were milder.

Simple interventions can be effective. Masks do help, even if they aren’t N95 masks. Even if people make some mistakes in wearing them part of the time. They still help.

Separating the mouth covering and the nose covering would improve masks.

The nose is a challenge due to the variety of shapes, but more importantly it could be continuously covered even when the mouth needs to be uncovered. It is very easy for the public to cover the mouth and not realize their nose is uncovered, mainly because of the natural tendency to forget our noses. Noses are passive. Mouths are active. We do all sorts of things with our mouths, like eat, drink, brush teeth, talk, sing, whistle, play musical instruments, chew gum, and so on. Most of what we do with our nose is breathe.

I’ve often seen, sometimes in person, but often in photographs, people without their noses covered. I admit, I made the mistake on one occasion, myself. It’s an easy mistake, but we breathe through our noses, so it’s important to cover.

By covering the nose itself, or through some other method of protecting the entrances to the nasal airway separately, most of the inhaling could be protected and a common mistake could be countered. It would also make the masks more comfortable to wear, as a combined design is harder to make than two separate designs.


One of the most important things about that Sari cloth study is the fact that cases were milder. Masks do not block all cases, but likely do lead to milder ones. That may help reduce the transmission rate, but even if it doesn’t, it surely saves lives.

The Challenge of Open

The balancing act of opening up while avoiding spread requires much caution and planning.

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.

A White House that Practices Harm Production

We recognize the harms and risks in the world. Whether it’s the dangers of automobiles or pollution or living in flood plains, the general goal is to manage risk. To reduce it, to hedge against it.

But this administration does the opposite. It orders child-separation and full intolerance policies. It welcomes trade wars and healthcare premium hikes. It invites worry and doubt among allies while praising the brutal.

Repeatedly, the administration has lied without compunction. Baldly lied to allies and to the public alike. Has made indefensible and unmerited statements. Even some before the courts.

Abuse. The administration has made statements that serve absolutely no other purpose beyond petty abuse of public employees, of political foes and allies, of public figures.

This administration has failed to act on crises. From Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, to opioids, to the mental health of farmers, to protecting the country against the Russian Federation’s interference, this presidency has been asleep at the switch.

There has been an utter joke on ethics practices. Scandal after scandal in cabinet-level positions. Repeated refiling of financial disclosures from the president’s own advisors. The president himself double-dipping like it’s the early 18th century, paying his inaugural largesse to friends and God knows whom. Making the Secret Service rent his golf carts. Having foreign countries stay at his hotels to ingratiate themselves.

Immigration, which needs to be made orderly and regular by changes to the law, has become even more chaotic thanks to poor planning and lack of any attempt to compromise or improve on the status quo. The White House’s rhetoric only serves to inflame and to whip into a frenzy those who believe immigration is a sin.


Leadership means guiding the nation forward, avoiding or minimizing risks in the process. Instead, this failure of a leader sends the nation toward folly on a number of fronts simultaneously. And no attempt is made to explain. No questions are taken at his rallies. The questions taken from the press are regarded with scorn.

Good government means reducing harm, not accruing it. Whatever the intentions of this president may be, he is making the nation worse.