Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Drive our cars

One of the cultural changes that has been slow to happen under the Coronavirus is the revitalization of car culture. Sure, you're not supposed to be leaving your house for any reason, but you're not violating the spirit of the restrictions by getting into your own car with your own family members and driving around indefinitely.

In that sense, western countries are headed to where Saudi Arabia has always been -- the car an extension of the zone of freedom that otherwise only existed inside your house. And with the trend in oil prices, it might even be that fuel prices are headed to about the same level as Saudi Arabia.

Above, a video from nearly a decade ago that celebrated / gently mocked this feature of the country.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Crisis playlist

When you need to evoke an alternative mood to cope with the pandemic.

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

De facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, gets the inaugural coronavirus test at a new drive-through testing facility in Abu Dhabi.

Photo via UAE News Agency (WAM).

Quote of the Day

From The Anthropology of Epidemics 1st Edition by Ann H. Kelly, Frédéric Keck, Christos Lynteris, (published just over a year ago!) -- the chapter by Carlo Caduff:

Today’s mass media fascination with the next pandemic is partly due to the fact that it operates as corroboration of the mass media’s own discursive problematic: the necessity of creating and maintaining a constant sense of newness. The function of mass media communication, according to Niklas Luhmann, is to simultaneously ‘generate and process irritation’. Invested in the production, circulation, and consumption of irritation, mass media communication stimulates ‘the constantly renewed willingness to be prepared for surprises’. The trope of the next pandemic, in this sense, is a fertile ground for the mass media and its discursive problematic.

No surprise that a reference to the great Niklas Luhmann kicks off the analysis.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In the long run, we're all recovered

National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper abstract --

Andrew Atkeson. No. 26867 This note is intended to introduce economists to a simple SIR model of the progression of COVID-19 in the United States over the next 12-18 months. An SIR model is a Markov model of the spread of an epidemic in a population in which the total population is divided into categories of being susceptible to the disease (S), actively infected with the disease (I), and recovered (or dead) and no longer contagious (R).

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Gambler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Donald Trump's ostensible bid to have the country reopen by Easter makes perfect sense. If you're familiar with what bankruptcy does to incentives.

A bankrupt firm has an incentive to take the riskiest gamble possible.

It already owes people more than it can pay. That's what being bankrupt means.

So if the gamble goes badly, it owes even more than it can pay. Nothing changes.

But if it wins, and wins big, it gets to pay all those pesky creditors off -- preferably when they've already agreed to take less -- and the firm is suddenly liquid again and keeps all the excess.

It's why countries generally try not have bankrupt firms hang around too long. The payoffs, as Nassim Taleb might say, are yuuugely convex, and that's often not a good thing.

Especially when we the people are the roulette wheel. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Apothecary at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.
Let's see for means: O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary,--
And hereabouts he dwells,--which late I noted
In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.
Noting this penury, to myself I said
'An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.'
O, this same thought did but forerun my need;
And this same needy man must sell it me.
As I remember, this should be the house.
Being holiday, the beggar's shop is shut.
What, ho! apothecary!
Enter Apothecary
Who calls so loud?
Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor:
Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon's womb.
Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua's law
Is death to any he that utters them.
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear'st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.
My poverty, but not my will, consents.
I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.
Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.
Image: Emmet Walsh in the 1996 Romeo and Juliet. And here's Trump's remarkable medicinal tweet

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague (2)

Der Spiegel (along with lots of other publications) -- But it was a visit to the après-ski bar Kitzloch not far from the valley station in Ischgl that proved fateful for many partygoers. A bartender there is thought to have been infected with coronavirus and responsible for passing the disease on to numerous tourists, particularly from Scandinavia and Germany.

[previously in this series]

Seinfeld characters for our time

The Sidler and the Close Talker.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

And then came the virus

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Photo of the Day

King Abdullah of Jordan, running the country by video-conference, in this case a meeting with several Cabinet ministers to get a distance education program up and running by Sunday.

Photo via Petra News Agency.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Literary portrayal of all Coronavirus Twitter

A bit more on this classic Irish novel here. The parallel with the glass-tapping gladiators enforcing the new social norms should be clear. 


In Hogarth's classic contrast of the effects of beer and gin, neither of the depicted people are practicing social distancing. Irish twitter has managed to convince itself to its own satisfaction that people in pubs are Gin Lane, while there's some other form of social activity (perhaps a collective walk past Gin Lane to tut tut?) which is acceptable.

To be fair to Irish twitter, it's not that much different from the stern gaze cast upon crowded restaurants in New York City and Washington DC by people who somehow just happened to be walking past, and then reported their outrage on Twitter.

If you're against people in cities trying to socialize, you might just want to leave.

PS Hogarth really is one of the timeless greats, as his adaptability to Brexit parody illustrates. 

Impossible Missions Force

The Board of the International Monetary Fund is scheduled to have its annual discussion of the economy of Italy on Wednesday 18 March, 2020 (per its public calendar).

That's going to be an interesting discussion. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020


On 5 January 2020, the World Health Organisation issued a detailed statement about a pneumonia of unknown cause that was occurring in Wuhan, and of which the WHO local office had been informed a few days earlier (31 December 2019). This was a critical stage in what would become Covid-19. But the world news at the time was consumed with the US - Iran tensions, with the drone strike against Qassim Soleimani on 3 January, and the Iranian retaliation, during which they shot down the Ukrainian airliner, on 8 January. Not by coincidence, the USA and Iran are two countries that find themselves scrambling to get on top of situations that others had noticed a while ago.

And now the Iranian militias in Iraq are it again. From that perspective it might be an advantage if Trump uses the stock market as opposed to an Iran feud as an indicator of his success. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

We'll take a border in the Irish Sea

Here's the main part of the exchange between Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump yesterday, which includes what at this point is old news, that Trump doesn't understand the difference between the UK and Ireland (by the way Irish people, don't take it personally, he also doesn't understand the difference between ENGLAND and the UK) --

Q Mr. President, can you confirm if Ireland will be excluded from your travel ban — your European travel ban you announced last night? 

 PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, they know, and I think it was made very clear last night who is and who isn’t. And we’ll be discussing that. We’ll be discussing some other moves that we’re going to be making. And I think it’s going to work out very well for everybody. But it’s a world problem, and you do need separation in some cases. You have some areas that are very heavily infected, and you have some areas that aren’t, frankly. But we do need separation for a little period of time, in some cases. 

PRIME MINISTER VARADKAR: Just saying that the President has excluded Ireland from the travel ban. And one of the things that we have in Ireland is CBP, American border security, in Ireland. I went through it myself yesterday, and they were asking the right questions — whether people had been to China, things like that. So that puts us slightly in a different position. 

PRESIDENT TRUMP: And one of the reasons the UK, basically, has been: It’s got the border; it’s got very strong borders. And they’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much infection at this point, and hopefully they’ll keep it that way.

Two things to note. First, Leo answered the question (correctly!) about what the American President's policy was. Second, he noted that in one key respect, Ireland actually has a better claim to the exemption to the UK, because the US border control is IN IRELAND. So if the USA decided to further restrict travel, they'll know that in Ireland, they don't have to deal with potentially infected people arriving in the USA. The UK does not have that.

UPDATE 14 March: Ireland the UK will now be included in the US travel ban. Understandable given the common travel area, but less understandable given the different approaches of the two countries. Could Ireland still sneak in an exemption from Trump not understanding it's a different country?

Truly, Peace in our Time

Yesterday, the President Macron of France informed the country about the steps being taken to deal with a grave national crisis -- and said that Germany provides the inspiration for what needs to be done:

Nous irons beaucoup plus loin. L'Etat prendra en charge l'indemnisation des salariés contraints à rester chez eux. Je veux, en la matière, que nous nous inspirions de ce que les Allemands ont su par exemple mettre en œuvre avec un système plus généreux, plus simple que le nôtre.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Trump's chaotic address

He mumbled something about the UK being exempt from his travel ban on Europe.

Since Ireland has a common travel area with the UK, does that mean that Ireland is exempt?

UPDATE: Yes, Ireland is exempt. The ban covers Schengen area.

Which means that one way for Schengen zone countries to escape the ban is to ... suspend Schengen. 


The latest escalation of Coronavirus restrictions in Italy has closed many many types of business.

But not tobacconists.

Even though the virus is a respiratory ailment.

Photo: Corriere della Sera

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Rugged Collectivists

But today, Mr. President, you directed us to bring together insurance companies — health insurance companies — that cover, through private insurance and through their support of Medicare and Medicaid, almost 240 million Americans.   

That's an interesting definition of American healthcare provision.  The private insurance companies get to count the people paid for by government programs!

Coronavirus is the Bourgeois Plague

A new occasional series.

Wall Street Journal --  After years of squeezing ever more workers into tighter office spaces, companies are realizing how efficiently the modern workspace can spread diseases like the coronavirus. Cubicles and private offices have made way for open floors, where a sneeze or cough can circulate uninterrupted. Companies have removed physical barriers between employees, encouraging them to socialize as much as possible.

Also in WSJ --  A strategy meeting for senior managers at Boston-area biotech Biogen Inc. late last month has emerged as a hotbed for novel coronavirus infections, resulting in more than two dozen around the country so far, according to public-health and company officials. The spread of coronavirus infections from the meeting highlights the potential dangers in going ahead with the gatherings and conferences that are a staple of conducting business but which also threaten to amplify epidemics. “There’s a lot of handshaking, there’s a lot of being in close quarters, and that puts you at risk,” said Manish Trivedi, the director of the division of infectious diseases at AtlantiCare in New Jersey. “You eat something. You rub your eyes. You touch your face.” Senior Biogen managers who attended the strategy meeting at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel have since traveled to gatherings of investors and doctors, as well as returned to their homes in communities that are also now confronting infection risks.

To be continued ...

UPDATE 17 APRIL: The New York Times has more details on the Biogen superspreader fiasco -- which describes what is almost a parody of upper middle class existence. 

The stupidity virus

Notwithstanding the increased need to focus on Coronavirus, this excellent New York Times article leads to the conclusion that there's a fresh group of idiots planning to get stranded near the top of Mount Everest in a repeat run of last year's overcrowding fiasco on the Nepali side  -- about which nothing has been done. Collectively, we might be beyond redemption. 

The Coronavirus asterisk

From the Trump Peace Plan for Israel / Palestine, page 16

Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Coronavirus reading list

More on Malthus here.

It's amazing how quickly people lapse into his world view. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Leo, don't shake hands with him

This is the apparently just-ousted Trump Administration Office of Management and Budget Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney: March 16, 2017, wearing his St Patrick's Day shamrock, defending proposed cuts in public feeding programs for elderly people and school children in poverty. This was the low point of Irish-Americanism as a progressive force in American politics.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will do a slightly ahead of schedule St Patrick's Day visit to the White House on 12 March. He can cite Coronavirus as a reason to have no interaction with this character in his new role as the Northern Ireland Special Envoy. 

To Hell or to Ulster

Mick Mulvaney is likely paying the price for having blurted out the truth about Trump's Ukraine quid pro quo, and for having botching the implementation of it. 

Friday, March 06, 2020

Life comes at you, etc

February 2017. Mike Pompeo, then CIA Director, presenting Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, with the George Tenet medal for anti-terrorism achievements.

MBN really did have some anti-terrorism achievements, including surviving proximity to what turned out to be a trial run of the underwear bombing technique.

MBN was apparently arrested earlier today (Friday) and charged with treason.

Photo via Saudi Press Agency