As we cower in our apartments

As Pittsburgh closes down public recreation facilities to enforce social distancing during the pandemic,[1] it’s worth remembering who’s making the greater sacrifice here:
Fig. 1. Cartoon by Patrick Blower, April 6, 2020, via the Telegraph, fair use.
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  1. [1]WTAE, “City of Pittsburgh announces new social distancing restrictions,” March 30, 2020,

When ‘good’ news might not be so good

Update, April 2, 2020: Indeed, it turns out there are lots of questions about the White House models and projections[1] that Philip Bump really didn’t examine critically.[2]

Update, April 4, 2020: Yet more criticism has emerged of the models used by the White House and others to project a “flattening of the curve.” The problem here is essentially that, short of a vaccinated or otherwise immune population, the moment you lift the lockdown, the virus is free to spread again.[3] This is consistent with what Joe Pinsker wrote in the Atlantic earlier: Things can return to normal “when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person.”[4] There are a couple ways this can happen: One is that a vaccine is developed—this is unlikely before next spring.[5] Another is that enough folks catch the disease, some asymptomatically, and either recover, hopefully but not certainly gaining immunity, or die. Other folks might—this is unknown—have a natural immunity. And because testing has been so haphazard, we flatly do not know how many people fall into the asymptomatic or immune categories.[6] Either way, it basically amounts to the disease stopping when it runs out of people to infect.

Update, April 5, 2020: The Washington Post confirms that even some who die from COVID-19 aren’t being counted as having died from COVID-19 because they weren’t confirmed to have suffered COVID-19.[7] I have inserted the citation.

So my mom sent me an article from the Washington Post which appears to show that California and Washington, having acted to contain the novel coronavirus sooner, may be having greater success in “flattening the curve.”[8] Read more

  1. [1]William Wan et al., “Experts and Trump’s advisers doubt White House’s 240,000 coronavirus deaths estimate,” Washington Post, April 2, 2020,
  2. [2]Philip Bump, “Decoding the graphs that may have saved millions of American lives,” Washington Post, April 1, 2020,
  3. [3]Teghan Simonton, “Pittsburgh professors see flaws in coronavirus modeling, predict more grim outlook,” TribLive, April 3, 2020,
  4. [4]Joe Pinsker, “The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal,” Atlantic, March 30, 2020,
  5. [5]Joe Pinsker, “The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal,” Atlantic, March 30, 2020,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “When ‘good’ news might not be so good,” Not Housebroken, April 4, 2020,; Joe Pinsker, “The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal,” Atlantic, March 30, 2020,; Teghan Simonton, “Pittsburgh professors see flaws in coronavirus modeling, predict more grim outlook,” TribLive, April 3, 2020,
  7. [7]Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard, and Aaron C. Davis, “Coronavirus death toll: Americans are almost certainly dying of covid-19 but being left out of the official count,” Washington Post, April 5, 2020,
  8. [8]Philip Bump, “Decoding the graphs that may have saved millions of American lives,” Washington Post, April 1, 2020,

COVID-19 and the trolley problem

It’s the trolley problem in real life:

In the chaos of New York City, where coronavirus deaths are mounting so quickly that freezer trucks have been set up as makeshift morgues, several hospitals have taken the unprecedented step of allowing doctors not to resuscitate people with covid-19 to avoid exposing health-care workers to the highly contagious virus.[1]

What if throwing the switch to divert the trolley has a seventeen percent chance of actually diverting the trolley? Okay, this is actually the reverse of that: Read more

  1. [1]Ariana Eunjung Cha et al., “Faced with a crush of patients, besieged NYC hospitals struggle with life-or-death decisions,” Washington Post, March 31, 2020,

When nothing happened next

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (actually, during the dot-com boom), there was an Internet cafe named CoffeeNet in San Francisco’s South of Market Area (SOMA). It was reasonably successful and yes, I liked the place.

But then the landlady (we’ll call her the Wicked Witch of the East) raised the rent.

Now you have to understand that the way many, if not most, restaurants make their money is to feed people and get them out the door, clearing the table for the next guests. The idea is, ultimately, volume. An Internet cafe flips that model on its head and the CoffeeNet was modest in the costs it imposed for Internet access (I think you had to buy coffee and/or food but I really don’t remember). The CoffeeNet was even more reasonable about this if you brought your own laptop.

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While neoliberal hot air floats over gig workers’ heads, here’s the Trump administration

Part of what makes COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns so terrifying for gig workers is that we know we are taken for granted, generally forgotten except for the briefest pleasantries when people need our services. The very point of this labor arrangement is that no long-term relationships are involved. We don’t matter, we’re utterly expendable, and the independent contractor scam, more formally known as worker misclassification, makes sure we don’t matter and that we are utterly expendable. Read more

Elon Musk, groan, again

Update, March 23, 2020: The promised ventilators remain to be seen, but Elon Musk did indeed deliver 50,000 N95 masks to a University of Washington researcher on March 22.[1] He had originally promised 250,000;[2] it is possible others have been distributed elsewhere.

Update, March 29, 2020: Tesla apparently (Update, April 4, 2020: see next update) ordered ventilators from China and is giving some to Los Angeles and some to New York City. It is apparently preparing to manufacture its own ventilators in Buffalo, New York, which it will also donate.[3]

Update April 4, 2020: Elon Musk donated CPAP machines—used to treat sleep apnea—rather than the type of ventilators hospitals need to treat COVID-19.[4]

I have to say that I just don’t handle Elon Musk well.

First, I want to focus on substance rather than personality. But he surfaces in part through an unsettling and bizarre combination of arrogance—even a weirdly well-intentioned cruelty—persistence and audacity, sometimes, as I have previously noted, not really very logically,[5] but nonetheless inescapably.[6] I can recognize the merits of a case study here, but the thought of actually conducting it repulses me entirely.
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  1. [1]Sydney Brownstone and Brendan Kiley, “50,000 N95 masks delivered to UW researcher’s home thanks to Elon Musk, Tesla,” Seattle Times, March 22, 2020,
  2. [2]Zachary Shahan, “Elon Musk: Should Have 1000 Ventilators Next Week, + 250,000 N95 Masks For Hospitals Tomorrow,” CleanTechnica, March 21, 2020,
  3. [3]Steve Hanley, “Tesla Cuts Jobs In Nevada, Sends Ventilators To New York,” Clean Technica, March 29, 2020,
  4. [4]Kathryn Krawczyk, “’Ventilators’ donated by Elon Musk can’t be used on coronavirus patients, health officials say,” Week, April 2, 2020,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The consciousness of Elon Musk,” Not Housebroken, August 30, 2020,
  6. [6]John C. Coffee, Jr., “How the SEC can be the babysitter Elon Musk needs,” CNN, April 23, 2020,; Nathan Crooks, “Elon Musk Says You Can Change the World Working 80 Hours a Week,” Bloomberg, November 26, 2018,; Tim Higgins, “Elon Musk Cleared by Jury in Defamation Case Over ‘Pedo’ Tweet,” Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2019,; Tom Hoggins, “Tesla is ‘structurally unprofitable’, analysts say,” Telegraph, June 3, 2019,; Geoffrey James, “Elon Musk Is Wrong. You Can Definitely Change the World on 40 Hours a Week,” Inc., November 29, 2018,; Russ Mitchell, “If Elon Musk is your boss, get your resume ready,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2019,; Eric Ting, “BART picks a fight with Elon Musk on Twitter over tunnels,” SFGate, May 25, 2019,; Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, “Another NASA moonshot? Nope. You can’t BS your way to space,” ZDNet, July 19, 2019,; Alistair Walsh, “Elon Musk won’t stop calling diver a pedophile,” Deutschewelle, September 9, 2018,; Li Zhou, “Elon Musk and the Thai cave rescue: a tale of good intentions and bad tweets,” Vox, July 18, 2018,

We are not going to be alright

Enforcement of Tom Wolf’s order shutting “non-essential” businesses in Pennsylvania due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was to begin at 12:01 am today,[1] will be delayed until March 23 at 8:00 am.[2] In an earlier iteration, the order was explained this way:

“This isn’t a decision I take lightly at all,” [Tom] Wolf said. “It is one that I’m making because medical experts believe it is the only way we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients.”[3]

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  1. [1]Kara Seymour, “All ‘Non-Life-Sustaining’ Businesses In PA Must Close By 8 PM,” Patch, March 19, 2020,
  2. [2]KDKA, “Coronavirus In Pennsylvania: Gov. Wolf’s Order To Close ‘Non-Life-Sustaining Businesses’ To Be Delayed,” March 20, 2020,
  3. [3]Megan Guza, “Gov. Wolf orders nonessential Pennsylvania businesses to shut down,” TribLive, March 16, 2020,

The abandoned

Update, May 14, 2020: Added figure 1.

Some of the very sad things I see as I drive around the Pittsburgh area are abandoned houses (example, figure 1). Some were just ordinary houses. But some were really, once upon a time, quite grand.

Fig. 1. Abandoned houses in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Photograph by author, May 14, 2020.

I hear and see a number of stories. Some houses suffered fires. I’ve been told that some are abandoned when taxes come due and it takes too long for the county to claim and dispose of the properties. Read more