Open Thread 150

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit. Also:

1. Thanks to Jeremiah for his work on the SSC podcast. Going forward, the podcast will be run by Solenoid Entity.

2. All in-person SSC meetups are cancelled indefinitely, for obvious reasons. There will be a videochat meetup at 17:00 UTC on March 24, run by Joshua Fox and Less Wrong Israel. See here for more information and how to sign up.

3. There were some great comments on the Hoover book review, for example this thread comparing Hoover to Robert Moses.

And economist Scott Sumner, an expert on the Great Depression, wrote a great post explaining exactly how Hoover was vs. wasn’t to blame.

And a few people linked me to this review by Adam Cadre of a different Hoover biography. It’s generally great, but what really blew me away was this answer to one of the questions I asked on my post – why was Hoover so good at international relief, but so reluctant to relieve his own country?:

Many wondered why Hoover, who had made his name dealing with hunger crises overseas, did so little about the one that unfolded in his own country during his presidency.  One columnist growled that “the only mistake [the] starving unemployed of this country have made is that they did not march on Washington and under the windows of Mr. Hoover in the White House display banners reading, ‘We are Belgians!'”  A senator expressed disbelief that Hoover would happily feed “hungry Russians, hungry Bolsheviks, hungry men with long whiskers and wild ideas”, but not starving Americans. 

But Herbert Hoover believed in American exceptionalism.  It made sense to him that people in places like Belgium and Russia might find themselves starving and in desperate need of help, for they did not hold to the tenets of American individualism, and so it was only to be expected that their inferior philosophies would lead them into dire straits.  But that couldn’t happen in America. It just couldn’t.

The surest sign that I accomplished what I wanted with the book review was that a few days later, when some people on Twitter were comparing Trump’s coronavirus response to Herbert Hoover, more knowledgeable people pointed out that this was wrong: Hoover is exactly who we would want leading the response right now!

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1,019 Responses to Open Thread 150

  1. andagain says:

    “But Herbert Hoover believed in American exceptionalism. ”

    Perhaps he thought the exceptional thing about Americans was that the Russians and Belgians claimed to be starving because of civil war and/ or foreign invasion by the most powerful army in the world, whereas the Americans claimed to be starving because of an economic downturn which still left the average American much wealthier than people in almost every other country in the world.

    He may have been wrong, but you can see why he might have thought that the Americans were not facing that big a problem.

  2. Statismagician says:

    Possibly relevant to someone’s interest: OpenEpi is a site (there’s also a desktop version) which will do epidemiological calculations for you. If you’ve ever wondered, say, exactly how many participants you need in a clinical trial, or how to calculate the per-exposure morbidity rate of some new and exciting pathogen, this is the tool for you!

  3. Nick says:

    By sheer coincidence, I came across this page, while looking at the Wikipedia page for Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It’s all Antarctic, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot there.

  4. ldsrrs says:

    It would be fun to read a zombie apocalypse story based on the COVID-19 events and timeline. I think many features of the virus could be kept the same, like its incubation period, asymptomatic cases, and rate of spread, though of course it would need to convert a large portion of those infected into zombies.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      How exactly does Zombie Rand Paul eat people’s brains without violating the NAP?

    • Garrett says:

      Instead of brains they hoard toilet paper? It could be a comedy story.

    • Silverlock says:

      Even better, you can play it in Left4Dead and Left4Dead 2. The virus in that case is supposed to be a strain of rabies rather than coronavirus, but you get zombies, contagion, and carriers. You also get to run a roller coaster and shoot zombies while you are playing rock music (sort of) on stage.

    • Del Cotter says:

      The apocalypse stories astutely give the infected a tropism toward the uninfected: a zombie plague where everyone, including the zombies, politely stayed inside or practised social distancing would be a lot slower. There wouldn’t be a girl in the garden, to reference Shaun of the Dead.

  5. johan_larson says:

    Our friends with the spaceships the size of small moons are back. They have noticed our troubles with the bug that’s going around, and they want to help. There are limitations on what they can give us, since transfer of advanced technology to primitive societies has caused no end of heart-ache, but they can definitely give us anything we could produce for ourselves. They are offering 100 tons of goods. What do we want? Test kits? Masks? Ventilators?

    • fibio says:

      Well, we could just ask them for a hundred tons of the vaccine. The issue currently is not that we can’t make it, it’s that it takes too long to develop and test.

      • johan_larson says:

        If one cubic centimetre is a dose, and the vaccine is as dense as water, each cubic metre contains one million doses and weighs one ton, so we’d have 100 million doses of the vaccine.

        Who should get it? Health-care workers? The elderly? If it were distributed by population among the countries of the world, the US would get about four million doses.

        • The Nybbler says:

          We only ask for the dry ingredients of the vaccine, “just add water” (and any other common ingredients). We’ll also ask for full instructions on reconstituting the vaccine they give us, and on making it; these should not take up much of the weight.

        • Garrett says:

          Good news, everyone! For most vaccines it’s a 0.5 mL injection. That *doubles* the number of doses available.

          I’d divide the doses between relevant healthcare workers (emergency medicine and intensive care doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists) and the general population. For the general population I’m torn between trying to do assessments of those most likely to be infected and require hospital treatment, or merely to auction them off as a way to address some of the current budget deficit.

          • Matthias says:

            Auctioning off is not a bad choice from an econ perspective.

            But what do you mean by current budget deficit?

            My host country doesn’t usually have any budget deficits. And the poster didn’t say anything about the aliens giving the goods to any one specific polity. Perhaps they should give them to Jeff Bezos? Or if they were to give them to a governmenty give them to someone sane and competent. Like Singapore or Estonia or Switzerland or Norway.

        • fibio says:

          Sounds about right for immunizing the front-line healthcare system of every country in the world. If nothing else that would do wonders for treatment capacity and reducing transmission. Doesn’t look like there’d be any left for people in vulnerable categories but if they did contract the disease they’d have a far better chance of recovering.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Maybe 50 tons of vaccine and 50 tons of vaccine-making-machines?

        Split depends on how much and how fast you can get vaccine out of a machine.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Please give us 100 tons of antimatter.

      Then we fling it at you aliens. Ha, bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? And yet you call us savage primitives.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I noticed you didn’t ask for anything that could contain 100 tons of antimatter…

  6. Clutzy says:

    Major problem I have with C19 stats is that people are always doing these exponential (and more sophisticated) graphs based on confirmed cases, but of course, that stat is more driven by testing for the disease than it is driven by actual incidence. Since there were cases in Wuhan at least by mid November (and likely much earlier as there is a high chance the first 100-1000 went undiagnosed and unsuspected) its really not plausible that the first actual case in most first world countries post-dates early December. However the “data” suggests a massive time lag likely caused by the “first” case diagnosed in any country likely being case no 100+

    First Known Cases being:
    S. Korea Jan 8
    Thailand Jan 13
    Japan Jan 16
    Singapore Jan 20
    USA Jan 21
    France Jan 24
    Australia & Canada Jan 25

    This all suggests a 30-45 day lag, from the actual first case to the first diagnosed case given the huge travel between these countries. However, we don’t really see the kind of “exponential” growth in diagnosed cases until 02/27 (In the US which is all I’m talking about going forward) a whole month +6 after case 1, where its still only case #15. This indicates to me that testing is driving case increases more that purely exponential growth. If we extrapolate the 30%ish per day increases back to Day 1, and assume there were 100 cases on “day 1” for the US we would have actually had:

    Day 37: 1,644,008 Cases (actual diagnosed 15)
    Day 40 (Aka March 1): 3,611,886 (42)
    Day 53 (aka today march 24) 109,395,050 (51,825)

    And certainly people have done more sophisticated analyses than mere exponential projections, but I think the point of what I’m saying is that relying on confirmed cases is a dubious endeavor because the trendline is somewhat exponential everywhere as testing ramps up. This doesn’t mean the danger isn’t real, its just that I don’t really trust any computer models right because they are projecting based on data we know must be inaccurate.

    • eric23 says:

      For small numbers of cases, the reported cases are indeed a bad reflection of the overall number of cases.

      However, experience with countries that have controlled the pandemic (particularly South Korea) contradicts the idea that there are masses of undetected cases out there just waiting to be tested. In the last few weeks, South Korea has been testing as many people as at the peak, but the tests are nearly all coming out negative.

      • Clutzy says:

        That is a positive sign though, isnt it? It means that testing ramps up faster than spreading. My thought isn’t that C19 is weak or anything, just that we can’t trust models.

        Its not that I dont think this disease is a threat, it is that I think all of the extrapolations are clearly based on bad data.

        • Matthias says:

          The Diamond Princess is a good testing for for those theories. It’s a small, but well connected population, and they tested everyone repeatedly.

          • Norman says:

            Michael Levitt, not an epidemiologist, but a smart guy (2013 Nobel prize in chemistry), argues that the Asian slowdown and Diamond Princess are explained because a substantial part of the population is naturally immune so exponential growth doesn’t persist. Interesting idea, but I haven’t seen more discussion and I don’t know enough stats to comment. Anyone have any thoughts? Here’s the article.

    • 10240 says:

      Since there were cases in Wuhan at least by mid November (and likely much earlier as there is a high chance the first 100-1000 went undiagnosed and unsuspected) its really not plausible that the first actual case in most first world countries post-dates early December.

      The disease was identified in late December. The early December or mid November cases were only diagnosed in the retrospect. The first few dozen or hundred cases were undetected or at least not diagnosed as COVID-19, but taking an early December or mid November date already adjusts for that.

      There may have been a few dozen cases in early December. Chinese people don’t fly to Western countries every day. It’s entirely plausible that none of them left China in the span of a few weeks.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’ve been checking this page every day and looking at deaths, because it’s much harder to fail to diagnose deaths than “person has cold.” Deaths were doubling every two days, and for the past week they’ve been…one and a halfing? So the spread does appear to be slowing.

      • albatross11 says:

        I think in normal flu years, they estimate flu mortality by looking at pneumonia deaths and subtracting off the normal expected number of pneumonia deaths for the year. Anyplace where COVID-19 is spreading very widely, we should see excess pneumonia deaths–even if it’s just half a percent of people who end up hospitalized with pneumonia, that will quickly become noticeable–doctors and hospitals will notice a big ramp up in pneumonia cases.

    • Jon S says:

      I don’t think it’s plausible that the spread is a 30% increase per day. Rates appear that high due to the testing ramp-up that you’re discussing. The more reasonable estimate is a doubling of infections every 6 days (11.5% increase per day).

      • Del Cotter says:

        There are places the deaths, not tested cases, are doubling every two days, like Madrid and Paris, and London nearly. New York deaths are doubling daily. The chart I saw from the Financial Times started the clock at tenth death in city.

        • gleamingecho says:

          There are places the deaths, not tested cases, are doubling every two days, like Madrid and Paris, and London nearly. New York deaths are doubling daily.

          If you restrict the polity/area you’re looking at enough, the death rate could quintuple daily. How useful is that?

          • Del Cotter says:

            The numbers don’t change if you say New York State instead of New York City, because all those people were in New York State already. Doubling times aren’t susceptible to enlarging the polity alone, unless the rest of the state had a large death toll of its own.

            You would have a good point if you said I was picking out NY specifically for its high doubling time compared to another polity like Washington, making my quoted numbers subject to regression to the mean. Washington deaths are less than doubling in three days: lump the two cities together and call them the BosWash corridor, and they regress to a mean more like London.

            But my main point was an existence theorem: it doesn’t matter that I was cherry picking, because I just wanted to show that two-day doubling times aren’t implausible, to counter the argument from implausibility.

          • Del Cotter says:

            And after all, “internationally-major metropolitan area with mass transit” isn’t a particularly dishonest polity level to pick, and that data set does force me to agree that quintupling daily would be a zombie-apocalypse level of implausible. So I’m reassured that I haven’t given myself freedom to argue any number at all.

          • gleamingecho says:

            @Del Cotter:

            Thanks for pointing out the flaw in my argument. Your points are well-taken.

          • Del Cotter says:

            Thanks. I was sure I’d seen the country-level version too, and here it is:


            Same deal, days on the abscissa, log deaths on the ordinate, clock starts at tenth death. No whole country matches NYC’s daily doublng, vindicating your intuition, but doubling every two days is not unknown, as in Spain, UK, and early Wuhan. Days and deaths to lockdown marked with stars. UK took more days and deaths than most to lock down, but not as long as Italy. US started slow but is ramping up and in danger of surpassing Iran.

            These nations are a range of sizes, but I don’t think that would matter until, god forbid, the deaths should approach large fractions of each country’s population. For now, each outbreak can be treated mathematically as a small number of infected in an infinite plain of uninfected.

          • Del Cotter says:

            Ah crap. I just noticed I misread the regional graph. The New York numbers are New York State and the “Washington” numbers are Washington State, not Washington DC. I take it those are basically the city numbers for NYC and Seattle.

        • Clutzy says:

          Deaths are better, but also a flawed metric. You need to compare total topline deaths and total topline deaths where lungs are diagnosed as a failure point. If you dont do that, its entirely plausible we are calling November C19 deaths as something else, while calling March non-C19 deaths C19 deaths.

    • bean says:

      There’s one key problem with your last number for the US, which is that we’re testing way too many people for it to be true. 109 million people is approximately one-third of the population. Last I saw, the positive test rate was around 10%. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the people deciding who to test are going to do no worse than chance, so the incidence rate in the general population can’t be higher than whatever the daily positive rate is. Testing is going to ramp up faster than the disease, and we saw a fall in new cases for the first time yesterday.

      • Cliff says:

        New cases did not fall yesterday, they increased at about 1.1 over the day prior. And in fact, there have been days previously where new cases were less than the day before.

        • EchoChaos says:

          I don’t think this is accurate. We had 9806 new cases yesterday per

          The day before, we had 10,276. That’s probably not wildly statistically significant, but it is a good sign. If we get 3-4 days in a row where the increase is falling, then we can start talking about what to maintain.

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s a very good sign given that we’re massively ramping up testing. I’d expect % positive to fall quickly as we go from “we have enough tests to swab the throat of the guy who flew back from Wuhan last week and now is hospitalized for pneumonia” to “we have enough tests to swab the throats of everyone on the plane with that guy, all his coworkers, his family, his bridge club, and his Uber driver.”

          • EchoChaos says:


            That’s a great point. We did ~65k tests on each day, which means fewer positive tests.

      • Clutzy says:

        My point is that the numbers are clearly implausible. 1/3 of the US is not infected (likely with high confidence). My point is that IF we take the recent trends in increasing cases seriously, we shouldexpect 1/3 of the US is infected, and 100% will be by Friday, so there is nothing to be done.

  7. Radu Floricica says:

    I think this is a good moment to steelman antivaxxers.

    Some countries have mandatory vaccinations, some don’t. Let’s assume many countries either have, or will bully this particular vaccine through (with or without calculating the percentage needed for herd immunisation). Either way, you personally get the vaccine with a nice policeman at the door looking bored but kinda hoping you’ll be a runner.

    But on the other hand, it’s 12th of Seprember 2020. The is the fastest developed vaccine yet, with many early trials done directly in the field where drop rates and confounders abund. Not to mention there’s a standard time of watching subjects carefully for about 18 months – thee times longer than they did now, and the “carefully” part is also down the drain. Doctors working 16 hour days for months develop a bunch of conditions which can’t really be separated from one vaccine, so they end up being ignored. They’re saying it’s safe, and you can ignore the rumours that [doctors suffering from condition X got if from…. just fill in a believable but hard to prove rumor]

    My question is: are you a runner?

    • chrisminor0008 says:

      I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but given the urgency of the development of this vaccine, I’m not gonna be rush to get it.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        I guess the question is: given that you may end up getting a rushed through vaccine (because everybody will be more than eager to end this and restart the economy), do you still vote for mandatory vaccinations? Either hard (policeman at the door) or soft (can’t work or go to school otherwise).

        • danridge says:

          This feels like it matches a pattern and there may be a name for it, I guess it’s that feeling when despite normally fighting it, you are briefly on the same side as the broken clock twice each day. If you think that a particular vaccine has inadequate testing to be sure of its efficacy, I think you’re essentially on a different planet from an “anti-vaxxer”. This kind of feels like pointing out that you don’t have to stop breathing because Hitler needed oxygen to live. I agree that because the fight against anti-vaccination rhetoric seems so prevalent, there is a danger that a legitimate concern with a specific vaccine might pattern-match to the same and be laughed down. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s been much democratic input into lockdown measures, so I wouldn’t worry that you’re going to have to try to worry about getting anyone to vote with you on this!

          Also, I feel like this weirdly skews away from a recent trend in the discourse here towards broad hostility and contempt for regulating agencies and caution towards novel/untested medical interventions. I guess it’s always about freedom though: to take the untested medicine as a personal risk, or to refuse the suspect but certified vaccine; which is understandable amongst those who take an active interest in evaluating these things.

          • Radu Floricica says:

            It is an interesting conversation indeed, because it’s one where commons are in direct conflict with personal freedom. Some people can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, and some vaccines don’t protect 100%, so the only way to stop the disease from spreading is to reach the minimum percentage of inoculations for that disease (which from what I remember varies from 80% to 98% depending on disease)

            briefly on the same side as the broken clock twice each day

            I’ll be slightly less charitable and say that this is just a nice psychological trick to avoid the issue. The argument of personal freedom being the most important is mostly ideological, yes. But the main assumption (that was always obvious to me, at least) is that there may come a time when the individual knows best and the government does a Big fuckup. So this is not the clock being right twice a day, it’s that argument about to be put to test.

            Personally I still vote for mandatory vaccination, but I’m pretty surprised people tend to ignore that argument. I always found it valid and worrying.

          • Garrett says:

            > inadequate testing to be sure of its efficacy

            I would assume that the concern isn’t unsure efficacy but unsure safety. Getting a comparable volume of sterile saline injected has a theoretical risk of permanent injury (I’m ignoring the annoying-but temporary issues such as injection-site pain, redness, whatever), but it’s really, really small. In that case we’ve incurred some cost in terms of time and materials, but no lasting human harm has occurred.

            The problem arises in the event that it’s less safe than comparable flu vaccines. Sure, for Covid19 we might accept a slightly higher risk rate. But if the permanent injury rate is a *lot* higher there’s going to be a lot of upset people.

          • albatross11 says:

            There are two overlapping things happening:

            a. A factual assessment of the safety of this vaccine, which will be pushed through the regulatory process as quickly as possible and so is more likely than usual to have some subtle problem that doesn’t get noticed early on.

            b. The desire to stay on-message or on the right team w.r.t. the antivaxxers, who are broadly wrong and mostly spreading nonsense and making the world a worse place, even though they are definitely 100% correct that it’s possible to screw up vaccine design and approval in ways that leave unsafe vaccines being given to the public.

            I think it’s useful to notice that tension, and address those concerns separately. I also think it’s useful to recognize that this tension leads to a lot of otherwise well-intentioned and smart people saying dumb things in public.

    • eric23 says:

      I don’t think this is a productive prompt without a lot more details (specifically numbers!) and context, both about the hypothetical vaccine, and about the disease situation at the time, which are necessary to determine the answer.

      Also this is not steelmanning “antivaxxers”. As the term is generally understood, an antivaxxer is not anyone who opposes any proposed vaccine ever. It’s someone who opposes the set of vaccines that are supported by pretty much every doctor everywhere and which have a long track record of safety.

      • Radu Floricica says:

        Well, that’s kindof the point. Do you leave _all that_ to the government to decide? Because if you do, you do it in advance of knowing details specific to the situation or the vaccine. And once you do, there’s no going back. There Will be a nice policeman at the door.

        (like I said in an earlier comment, I still vote “yes”. But I’m shocked the debate is so… absent).

    • Matt M says:

      My question is: are you a runner?

      No. If I was willing to die for my principles, I’d already be dead.

    • Matt M says:


      All of the institutions that will be loudly insisting the vaccine is completely safe and completely effective and we all must line-up and take it are the same institutions that have spent the last 2-6 months seemingly doing everything they possibly could to absolutely destroy their own credibility in the minds of the average person.

  8. Well... says:

    I think I just realized I’ve been in a bad mood a lot, and I should not be writing things on this website, or probably anywhere on the internet, when I’m in that state. I apologize, and will continue to work on my self-control.

  9. Matt M says:

    Current statistics from the state of Texas.

    The thing that immediately jumps out to me is the “tested : cases” ratio. Unless I’m misunderstanding this somehow, it means that among those tested (and as far as I’ve heard, Texas is only testing people with severe symptoms and/or who have a direct personal connection to a confirmed case), only about 5% actually have the disease. The testing group is specifically and deliberately selected for “people most likely to have the disease.” So the prevalence among the population at large should, by all rights, be even less than that, right?

    Am I being overly optimistic here? Me and basically everyone I know and come into contact with have been social distancing (with the exception of grocery stores and takeout) for nearly two weeks now. If we’re all still not showing any signs, we’re all probably safe, right?

    • EchoChaos says:

      So the prevalence among the population at large should, by all rights, be even less than that, right?

      Almost certainly, of course. Texas has ~30 million people. Obviously less than 5% of them are infected.

      If we’re all still not showing any signs, we’re all probably safe, right?

      Yes, you are probably safe. Which is why after the 15 day isolation Trump is hoping we can return to normal in most of the States.

      • Trump seems to think the main priority of swing voters in Iowa and Ohio is making sure the Dow goes back up.

        • EchoChaos says:

          He’s using the Dow as a proxy for “have jobs and wage growth” because it’s got better realtime feedback than Federal job and wage growth numbers.

          Whether or not this is a wise proxy is a different issue.

          • Loriot says:

            Trumps reliance on the stock market seems to risk Goodhart’s law issues if nothing else.

            It was almost comical how back during the trade war how he’d go full speed ahead as long as the stock market was rising, and then as soon as it dived, he’s announce delays and reductions in the threatened tariffs, and then the cycle would repeat.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Trumps reliance on the stock market seems to risk Goodhart’s law issues if nothing else.

            Using _any_ measure risks Goodhart’s law issues. The stock market is better than many, as gaming the metric requires overcoming massive co-ordination issues; you’re pitting Goodhart against Moloch.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @The Nybbler

            Goodhart v. Moloch in the headline cage match of the night!

            Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!

          • The IRS withholds money from my paycheck every two weeks, so it knows whether I have a job and how much I’m making. It might be different for self-employed people but they aren’t a very large proportion of the country. If Trump were competent, he could use this data to make a better measure.

            Swing voters in Iowa and Ohio would not have minded staying inside if they believed they were doing it to save lives and if they received checks in the mail. I think Trump really believes that the Dow Jones is “the economy,” and that when voters say their number one priority is “the economy,” that’s what they are referring to.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            The IRS withholds money from my paycheck every two weeks, so it knows whether I have a job and how much I’m making.

            Well, no, your employer withholds the money. Employers mostly remit this money within a week or so, so the Treasury does know how much money is coming in, but not the number of jobs. I see employment numbers updated every month, but I am not sure how good these numbers are. I suspect the data have been getting worse recently just because everyone who creates these numbers is in an uproar, working from home, or not working at all. The Dow is certainly more up-to-date than that, but IMO not a real good proxy for the economy as a whole, at least not day-to-day.

      • Anteros says:


        I think Trump is concerned primarily with politics, not epidemiology. As of tomorrow, there will be more Corona cases in America than any other country. It is spreading faster in America than anywhere else. I would guess that healthcare facilities will be overwhelmed in New York in ten days to two weeks. Many other states will follow. I’m not sure about Texas, but I don’t know of any reason why it would be profoundly different.

        Have you read the ‘Hammer and the Dance’? I’d like to hear Scott’s take on it ( and John Schilling’s) but i found it pretty convincing, except for the scepticism about herd immunity.

        • EchoChaos says:


          I think Trump is concerned primarily with politics, not epidemiology.

          Obviously. But his concern is not unwarranted. There are tradeoffs to keeping places shut down for a long time. Should Columbus and Des Moines stay shut down because New York is struggling?

          In fact, it probably helps New York if they are still able to produce while NY are locked down, because that means they have a source for all the important things NY still needs to function.

          I would guess that healthcare facilities will be overwhelmed in New York in ten days to two weeks.

          I can find links of people saying the healthcare system will be overwhelmed in ten days for months. Seattle was the first major outbreak and it’s now mostly under control. New York is next, and we’ll get it under control. Keeping Dallas shut down while we do makes no sense.

          I’m not sure about Texas, but I don’t know of any reason why it would be profoundly different.

          I can think of a dozen, from demography to climate to density.

          Have you read the ‘Hammer and the Dance’?

          That’s basically what we’re doing, except our Federal government has been wise enough to realize that the folks on the ground are the ones who can make the right call as to how aggressively to shut down. Some governors will make mistakes, of course, just as some countries did. But the governor of Montana is in a better place to figure out if they need to shut down (probably not) than is Trump. Likewise with Cuomo in New York.

          And note that at the governor level, most governors have been really happy with the Federal response. The Feds have given them everything they need while letting them retain autonomy. That’s America’s unique strength and it works well.

          I think there should be some changes in how we function at a Federal level. Florida is quarantining New Yorkers who come into the state for two weeks to not introduce new clusters to Florida. That’s probably the right thing to do, and we should empower states to restrict internal movement a bit more than usual for this period.

          • Anteros says:

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply – I really hope you’re right.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Thank you for the news about Florida quarantining New Yorkers. This greatly reassures me that we’re not completely in a race-to-the-bottom – and I agree this’s a significant strength of the US.

            However, as a Seattlite, what makes you say we’ve got our outbreak under control? Given the very low number of tests here in Washington State, I think it’s still too early to say. My friend the nurse says her hospital isn’t overwhelmed yet, which’s good… but I’d like some finer signal.

        • Matt M says:

          I think Trump is concerned primarily with politics, not epidemiology.

          To steelman this, politics is exactly what Trump is supposed to be concerned about. He is a political leader. He was elected to balance the various tradeoffs among numerous different things that affect the overall best interest of the citizens of the nation. He was not elected to be surgeon general, nor is the mandate of the President to “minimize deaths due to infectious disease, regardless of cost.”

          And overall, the best (although admittedly imperfect) way to judge whether the political leader is managing overall tradeoffs well is probably via political measurements: opinion polls, electoral results, etc.

          The complaint of “Trump is behaving like a politician – not an epidemiologist!” strikes me as a fancy way of saying “Trump is doing the job he was elected to do – not a completely different one!”

          • Chalid says:

            No come on, politics is also about things like making sure you get all the credit for anything good and your opponents receive the blame for anything bad (regardless of the truth of the matter), and that sort of thing is what people are referring to.

          • Loriot says:

            Also, even if presidents can’t be expected to have specific subject matter expertise, they’re still expected to put competent experts in place to actually run things.

            CEOs aren’t in the trenches making widgets, but that wouldn’t mean that you would say the CEO of Widget Co is “doing the job he was hired to do” if he spends all day golfing while the company goes under.

          • EchoChaos says:


            Sure, but Trump hasn’t been doing that. He’s been holding daily briefings and listening to the experts.

            It’s the experts who cocked up here, not the politicians.

          • albatross11 says:


            I think that’s mostly right, but the politicians should have been making sure someone was minding the store w.r.t. preparation for this kind of disaster ahead of time. I think this is something democratic governments often do pretty badly at, since the costs come now and the benefits, if any, are probabilistic and probably far in the future.

            Also, when there aren’t comparison cases, good disaster prep just looks like the disaster wasn’t so bad after all, and good prevention just looks like there’s no problem. If there’s no dengue outbreak in Florida because of constant efforts to beat back the mosquito population and prevent it getting a foothold, that just looks to most voters like God smiling on Floridians and not letting them get sick. If the earthquake kills 10 instead of 10,000 because of good building codes and prompt disaster response, that just looks like the natural order of things. Boring unsexy technical competence and prevention that seldom shows up in public isn’t very good at getting votes, even though it’s far more important than like 99% of what gets time in political debates.

            To be clear, this isn’t a complaint about Trump, it’s a complaint about basically every country that didn’t have a bad SARS outbreak a few years back–basically if you had a SARS outbreak, you were likely to be prepared for Son of SARS, otherwise the people who should have done that planning and stockpiling and prep work were never allocated or were reorged into another office during a periodic attempt to save money and streamline operations.

          • Matt M says:

            No come on, politics is also about things like making sure you get all the credit for anything good and your opponents receive the blame for anything bad

            Sure. I assume all politicians are doing some amount of that all the time. In any case, I’m less interested in defining the word “politics” and more interested in addressing the criticism that Trump is somehow wrong to balance a lot of competing interests rather than focus solely on one single dimension of national success.

            Also, even if presidents can’t be expected to have specific subject matter expertise, they’re still expected to put competent experts in place to actually run things.

            Are the epidemiologists Trump is listening to in regards to how bad the virus may be incompetent? That doesn’t seem to be the common complaint. Rather, the complaint seems to be that he’s listening to certain experts over others, or prioritizing certain interests (i.e. the economy) over others (i.e. minimizing COVID deaths).

          • John Schilling says:

            It’s the experts who cocked up here, not the politicians.

            Be fair; there’s plenty of cocking up to go around. Listening to experts whine about how their test kits are behind schedule, when you should be commanding those experts to use other people’s test kits, is a politician’s cock-up. Listening to experts giving you bad to mediocre but accurate news and going before the public saying “Great news, folks” in a way that e.g. leads to people drinking pool cleaner and dying, is a politician’s cock-up. And, if you’re going to do a big economic stimulus package, sitting around arguing about how to best make sure your tribe gets beaucoup stimulus and the other tribe gets as little stimulation as possible, is cocked up across a broad range of politicians.

            And, of course, far too much “Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done” going around, and that’s a politician’s cock-up even if they did let an expert tell them what to do.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @John Schilling

            Listening to experts whine about how their test kits are behind schedule, when you should be commanding those experts to use other people’s test kits, is a politician’s cock-up.

            There were no other people’s test kits. They didn’t exist. That’s a myth that’s been thoroughly debunked at this point.

            Even Snopes agrees on that.


            The initial test kits that the CDC produced were bad, but there wasn’t anyone else to get them from.

            And getting test kits from someone else is bad practice anyway for this reason:


            Listening to experts giving you bad to mediocre but accurate news and going before the public saying “Great news, folks” in a way that e.g. leads to people drinking pool cleaner and dying, is a politician’s cock-up.

            This is… irrational at best to blame Trump for.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I wonder if anyone has tried to balance QALY calculations for “disease kills a million 82 year olds who would have died at 83” vs. “economic shutdown drives tens of millions of 30 year olds into years of poverty.”

          • gleamingecho says:


            I wonder if anyone has tried to balance QALY calculations for “disease kills a million 82 year olds who would have died at 83” vs. “economic shutdown drives tens of millions of 30 year olds into years of poverty.”

            I’ve been wondering this same thing. I intuit–without any real knowledge or expertise–that some substantial number of the deaths you mention would have happened due to the seasonal flu anyway.

            I think someone in an earlier thread referred to the shutdown as essentially “generational theft.”

          • 205guy says:

            I think someone in an earlier thread referred to the shutdown as essentially “generational theft.”

            The problem with not shutting down is that eventually you run out of other people’s grandmas.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Keep in mind that Trump’s base is the working class, the kind of people who can’t actually work from home. I imagine the economy looks a lot more important to them than to those who are able to telecommute and continue to get paid for the next few months.

            That working class was already aggrieved about their jobs being sent over to China, whether or not that was actually happening. Now, their jobs are being very directly shut down due to our trade with China. And the people most responsible for it and least likely to be affected by it are arguing that they need to be kept out of work even longer.

    • broblawsky says:

      You’re safe right now. If you don’t have immunity, you can always get reinfected when the disease comes back from a couple of isolated cases.

      • EchoChaos says:

        If we ever get to where any appreciable part of the population is no longer naive to this without vaccination, we’ve already had millions die, so we’re in a far worse way.

        We need to halt the spread to where contact tracking is a viable way to prevent it, like tuberculosis is in first world countries now.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Is that ever going to happen, though? Because of the long incubation period. If a person has 7-10 days to spread the illness before they know they’re sick, he could infect someone three hops away before showing symptoms.

          • EchoChaos says:

            Is that ever going to happen, though?

            Beats me. Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.

            But South Korea has done it, and we’re more widely dispersed, which means that we at least have a chance.

          • John Schilling says:

            If a person has 7-10 days to spread the illness before they know they’re sick, he could infect someone three hops away before showing symptoms.

            But most people don’t have 7-10 days to spread the illness before they’re sick. And even the ones that do, are unlikely to get more than two “hops” in that time. You’re daisy-chaining a worst-case assumption for the latent but infectious period with three steps of worst-case infection time, and treating it as if it were normal.

            Since it’s not normal, it mostly doesn’t matter. Sure, somewhere, someone will do that and there will be three generations of doubling before we know there’s a problem, but the eight third-generation cases will revert to the mean of infecting zero or one person before they show symptoms.

            If we’re testing and contact-tracing people when they show symptoms, and particularly when they show symptoms in clusters, then those people are a tractable problem even if they do trace back to a worst-case superspreader.

      • broblawsky says:

        I think you might have misunderstood my “reinfected” comment to be in regards to individuals, rather than the entire state. Until herd immunity kicks in, the state is never going to be safe from infection. There will always be a disease reservoir somewhere that will reinfect the state.

        • EchoChaos says:

          Sure, but the hope is that the reinfection would be traceable with contact tracing and testing now that we have the capability to test tens of thousands daily.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          We don’t need zero cases in order to lift shelter-in-place. We need few enough cases that we can contract-trace them. You monitor entrances to your community where you can (boats, airplanes) but unless there is a major hot-spot very close to you spewing people into your area, you probably don’t need to set up roadside checks.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The NYC metropolitan area is spewing out people into other states and we’re not taking any measures against that except “pretty please quarantine yourself for 14 days if you did that, but nobody will check.”

          • gleamingecho says:

            but nobody will check.

            We could always hire a Gestapo….

    • I’m wondering if the heavily suburban nature of Texas(and most of the US outside of New York) is playing a role.

      • Garrett says:

        I suspect (hypothesis) that public transport is a major way for causing spread. So areas which rely on a lot of public transport will be more likely to have faster spread. The Pittsburgh Port Authority (which runs the city buses) announced that as a way to contain Covid19 they would up the cleaning of the buses … to every 72 hours. Most people responded with: “wait – they weren’t cleaning them that often to begin with?”

    • albatross11 says:

      An obvious guess is that they’re testing mainly people who have had contact with a known case, and most of them were (since coronavirus is a thing and everyone knows about it) all doing the hand sanitizer and six-feet-apart bit and so didn’t get infected. (The last day I went to work in person, there was a guy with a cough, and everyone was standing far away from him and using hand sanitizer every time they came close to him.) Other possibilities include:

      a. Screening healthcare workers who mostly haven’t been exposed yet.
      b. False negatives due to too-early testing.
      c. False negatives due to not doing the swabbing right.
      d. False negatives due to low test quality.
      e. Screening mostly rich/connected hypochondriacs instead of actually sick people. (But with those numbers, I don’t buy that as an explanation.).

    • Kaitian says:

      If 5% of your population currently had it you’d be in a worse situation than Italy, of course it’s lower than that. There is probably never going to be a time when e.g. 50% are currently infectious and you need to avoid them. You just need to act like they all are, because you can’t know who actually is.
      But I’m not 100% sure that “person hospitalized with pneumonia who tests negative for flu” is actually more likely to be infected than the average person. Vulnerable people get pneumonia for all kinds of reasons, and at least 80% of covid cases are never hospitalized. We don’t know how many people are walking around with mild symptoms.

    • eric23 says:

      Yes, the prevalence in the population right now is definitely well under 5%.

      However, Texas reported 304 cases on March 21 and 715 cases on March 25. If the trend of doubling every 3-4 days continues, 5% can’t be too far away…

      • Matt M says:

        That was 304 cases on ~6K tests.

        700 cases on ~13K tests would suggest there is no major trend of the disease becoming more prevalent in the population, right?

        The increase in cases is just an artifact of the increase in testing.

        But so long as we believe the “testing prioritization” scheme is even remotely effective, that effect should continually decrease, right?

        Using just the numbers “tests” and “cases”, the only evidence that the disease is spreading and becoming more prevalent across the population would be that as the “tests” number rises, the “cases” number rises even more, on a relative basis, right?

        • Jon S says:

          If the disease is not spreading, then (as long as you’re selecting individuals to test better than random guessing) increasing the number of tests should decrease the rate of positive tests. If the rate of positive tests is staying constant, then we’re not very good at picking people to test, and/or the number of cases is increasing as quickly as the number of tests.

          • Matt M says:

            I don’t disagree with any of that. Let’s look at some hypothetical scenarios:

            Scenario 1: We increase testing capacity by 10x, known cases also increases by 10x.

            Conclusion: We were really bad at picking who to test, but the virus isn’t spreading rapidly via exponential growth.

            Scenario 2: We increase testing capacity by 10x, known cases increase by 20x.

            Conclusion: Regardless of how good we were at picking who to test, the disease is still spreading/growing significantly.

            Scenario 3: We increase testing capacity by 10x, known cases increase by 5x.

            Conclusion: Either we were really good at picking who to test, or the disease is not spreading/growing significantly.

            Is this fair? Can we all agree to these eventualities? Because in another week or two we’ll hopefully have the data on this…

          • March says:

            Or the false positive rate overwhelms the actual positives.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Matt M, I’m afraid your scenarios are overwhelmed by the question of how we determine who to test.

            Scenario 1: Maybe beforehand we were only testing people who live in the same house as known cases. They’re really likely to get infected. If we start also testing people who live down the street from known cases, and the positive rate stays constant… oops, looks like the disease has started rapidly spreading!

            Scenario 2: Maybe beforehand we were primarily testing healthcare providers because we need to be really sure they’re healthy. (That’s what we’re doing in Washington State at the moment.) If we expand capacity so we actually start testing sick people… of course we’re going to start getting a higher positive rate.

            Scenario 3: Maybe beforehand our test capacity was limited to testing sick people. Then Bill Gates blackmails the FDA into finally approving the do-it-yourself in-home coronavirus test. Everyone in the country starts taking it twice a week just in case. The positive rate had really better decrease!

      • The Nybbler says:

        This isn’t real data on the doubling rate at all. It’s confounded by the testing rate. If testing is ramping up faster than the epidemic is growing, the change in cases will eventually slow down to the actual spread rate, but for now it’s meaningless.

        That testing is still non-random is another confounder.

        @Jon S

        If the disease is not spreading, then (as long as you’re selecting individuals to test better than random guessing) increasing the number of tests should decrease the rate of positive tests.

        Only if your selection criteria get laxer as you increase the number of tests. If you have some broad category (that you believe is high-risk) that you’re testing, and all the increased testing does is get more from within that broad category, you wouldn’t expect rate of positive tests.

  10. Sankt Gallus says:

    For an existing throat issue, a doctor recommended that I use a Mometasone nasal spray. Looking at the side effects, it apparently can cause viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. I’m just looking for a sanity check here that it would make sense on me holding off from using this until there are less global viral-infection-in-the-upper-respiratory-tract issues?

  11. joshuatfox says:

    The online meetup was very successful. 60 attendees; the talks flowed smoothly; great feedback! If someone wants to organize another one, I have a page of tips that I composed as I figured out how to make this work well. Feel free to ask me for it.

    • SamChevre says:

      Thank you for organizing it. I had planned to attend, but didn’t realize I needed to register in advance (click the link next time, Sam!)

  12. Canyon Fern says:

    The online LW/SSC meetup was a great success. My favorites were a discussion of someone’s PhD research on soft & squishy robots, and another person who got loads of folks off their butts to learn a dance. It was enough to make me wish I had feet!

    Everyone there earned a share in one Elephant of Gratitude, and Joshua Fox, the organizer, deserves a reward of his own: an Otter of Gratitude.

  13. Matt M says:

    If I am experiencing headaches and fatigue, but no other flu-like symptoms, is it still safe for me to take Ibuprofen? Acetaminophen? Nothing?

    • EchoChaos says:

      I am not a doctor, but I have switched off of Ibuprofen entirely during this pandemic and am using only Acetaminophen and reducing my alcohol consumption to a single drink a day on days I need pain relief.

      • broblawsky says:

        Do you use alcohol for pain relief regularly?

        • acymetric says:

          Pretty sure he’s saying that he limits alcohol intake on days he takes Acetaminophen because drinking while taking Acetaminophen isn’t good for you/your liver.

          • EchoChaos says:

            This is exactly what I meant, which I thought was clear from sentence structure.

            I reduce alcohol consumption when I need pain relief, not increase it.

      • chrisminor0008 says:

        Yikes! Are you an alcoholic?

        • EchoChaos says:

          Are you an alcoholic?

          No. I usually have a beer with dinner and a drink in the evening.

          On days I take Acetaminophen, I don’t have a second drink.

          • chrisminor0008 says:

            I’m not a doctor either, but you may want to look into the risks of acetaminophen with even moderate drinking. Who knows, you might be better off with the ibuprofen. Alcohol isn’t so great for your immune response anyways, if that was your original motivation …

          • EchoChaos says:


            I appreciate your concern. I take pain relief rarely enough (< per week) that I am not terribly concerned, and I have asked my GP about it and am following her advice.

            I will consider dropping the beer as well.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Last I heard the “ibu is bad” was based on a WHO statement that was misinterpreted, and they have since walked it back (about a week ago).

      Here’s a BBC story I found on it.

  14. Purplehermann says:

    Elon Musk has apparently brought in 1,000 ventilators to California (from China)

  15. Edward Scizorhands says:

    I had a bit of an epiphany last night.

    I was thinking that “significant social distancing, but not orders to shelter-in-place, were getting us most of the bang for the buck.” Like 90% of the gain for 40% of the cost.

    What I realized was that “shelter-in-place” has, in practice, all the exceptions that “significant social distancing” does. It means the things that I’ve been doing I can keep on doing. I can go to the grocery store once or twice a week. I can go to the dentist. I can go on a bike ride.

    But it gives the cops the ability to say “stop it you assholes” to people congregating around beaches and parties and all that. And in practice* that’s all the cops need to do: the people break up and stop, no need for jail time or fines. It gets the message across. It stops the free-loaders.

    So I wasn’t understanding things right, and have changed away from opposing a shelter-in-place order to wanting one to come in.

    * Maybe the cops are doing worse to black people.

    • Statismagician says:

      Yeah, pretty much. We got a shelter-in-place order this week and I was surprised to see that it did not, in fact, impact my planned activities in any way over what was already in place. Depending on specifics, I think it also helps with the problem of the regional manager who won’t close down the branch, or the stubborn guy who insists on going to work with a cough and a mild fever, or whatever- an extra layer of officialdom to justify/make people take reasonable precautions.

    • Evan Þ says:

      My only real problem with shelter-in-place (or stay-at-home as it’s called here in Washington; I like that name more) is that I live by myself. So far, I’ve been occasionally visiting two of my friends to have some level of in-person social contact.

      Left to myself, I might dial that down to one. Occasionally visiting one other household is, as I understand it, no more risky than living together with them. But that’s allowed, while under my reading of the current order, visiting them isn’t. Therefore, the governor’s order has uniquely singled out the class of “people living by themselves” to be denied all in-person social contact.

      He said it would last two weeks. If I believed him, I’d just deal with it. But if it’s longer, I expect problems.

      • JayT says:

        It makes sense though, if they say you can visit one other house, then people are going to go visit a bunch of houses and say that it’s the one house they are allowed to visit, and those houses are going to visit a bunch, and then it will have all been for naught. If they tell you that you have to stay home, even if there are five or six people at home, then at most those five or six people will get infected.

      • AG says:

        Eh, my social activities with friends have always been about going out to do things, rather than visiting their homes. So while I can’t got to concerts or conventions with them anymore, we still went hiking together this past weekend, including a picnic lunch.

        Hiking is a great way to socialize at a 6-foot distance without it feeling awkward.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      And on that note, on Thursday we have a “stay at home” order starting for 3 weeks.

      • Guy in TN says:

        Is this different from the “shelter in place” order? What does this mean? Surely you can still go get groceries and such, right?

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          It’s pretty much the same as other places “shelter in place.” We can go to the grocery store, pharmacy, all that. So basically what we’ve been doing on our own for the past 2 or 3 weeks is the same thing they will now be demanding.

          “Non-essential” businesses must close. I have an HVAC appointment tomorrow (just routine maintenance), and they haven’t canceled that yet. My dentist appointment next month got pushed out a month, but that happened earlier this week (I didn’t ask the reason since I’m trying to make things easy on them). Swim classes and scout meetings were cut off the same time they closed the schools, and the library closed about a week ago.

          • Radu Floricica says:

            Closing dentists were literally the first article in the quarantine order here. I have to admit, it’s a pretty high risk job. I can’t imagine how you can do it safely – half of what you do is aerosolizing saliva. Even if doctors wear respirators, the next patient will breath the same air.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Yet it seems such an essential service. I don’t mind, at all, it being put off a month. But what if it’s put off for 4 months?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Edward Scizorhands, I’m thinking the same thing about my dental checkup that was supposed to happen today.

    • salvorhardin says:

      As others have said, closing schools and not letting people hang out with their friends privately/informally are big burdens. If you “just” closed “nonessential” businesses, cancelled conventions, and closed off places where big crowds typically gathered, but people could still take their kids to school and playdates and have a few folks over for dinner and board games, it’d feel a lot less onerous for a big chunk of the population (though there would still be severe economic consequences). But nobody seems to have any idea whether that would be enough to achieve R0 < 1, so the "abundance of caution" strategy gets pushed to the absolute maximum that they think people will tolerate for weeks-to-months.

  16. Anatoly says:

    Did you notice that some people say “coronavirus”, others “the coronavirus”? For example, do you say “The latest news about coronavirus” or “the latest news about the coronavirus”? I think for now it’s in flux, any hard preferences?

    My theory is that some people parse “coronavirus” as a proper name, e.g. like H1N1 or Ebola. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know about coronaviruses as a generic thing, a family of viruses, merely that the recent events have turned it into a proper name in their linguistic consciousness. While others still think of it as THE coronavirus, the salient one at this time, and use the definite article.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      What I think is more interesting is how pointless these articles are in general. I’ve been studying Japanese (only for a few months, and I’ve spent 90% of my efforts on learning the kanji, so my grammar is still super basic, no bully if I’m wrong) and they don’t have these articles. You don’t go to A store or THE store, you just “go to store”. Everybody knows what you mean. The articles don’t really convey much in the way of useful information, and I get why some other languages don’t bother with them now.

      • chrisminor0008 says:

        Languages don’t differ in what you can express because all languages can express basically all of the same ideas (though some much more succinctly than others). Languages differ in what you must express. In English, it’s definiteness and pluralization of nouns. Japanese speakers have to specify level of formality.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Japanese speakers have to specify level of formality.

          Eh, I think it’s just more insulting when you get the formality wrong in Japanese. But in English you still say “yeah” to your friend and “yes, sir” to your boss. You’re still coding formality in your speech.

        • Spookykou says:

          The succinctity issue is something I am curious about. In my current situation I regularly observe bilingual Chinese people translating for an English speaker and I would say on average it takes twice as long to say whatever they are translating in Chinese than it did in English. Does anyone else have experience with this or understand why this might be? My theory is that they are just adding in their own additional content, but I am not sure.

          • albatross11 says:

            One guess is that the way it’s said in English is awkwardly phrased/stated in Chinese, even if Chinese has an equally-compact way of phrasing the same idea.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I don’t know anything about Chinese, except that now that I know all the common Japanese kanji I can work out some written Chinese since the character set was taken from the Chinese, so that’s kind of fun. As for Japanese, again, I’m a Japanese newb and am barely into conjugation, but I find it to be more compact than English so far. For instance, I find the conjugation structure easier, because for just about everything you want to express about an action you just change the ending the of the verb. You don’t have to do weird constructs like “am able to run.” You just use the conditional conjugation of the verb and that changes the meaning of the sentence from “I run” to “I am able to run.” I guess you could just say “can run.” But there’s various other conjugations like that which eliminate a lot of English helper words.

            Perhaps as I get more advanced I’ll find that this apparent simplicity is an illusion, but as is I like that I don’t have to worry about articles, plurals, or lots of helper word constructs for conjugation. You get the gist and a lot of the detail is filled in by context. Why do I need to put an “s” at the end of “hamburger” to say I ate two of them? “I ate two hamburger.” You know what I mean.

          • Spookykou says:

            My knowledge of Japanese is pretty limited, and primarily from cartoons, but I always felt it was far too compact. I am probably heavily biased in this though, when I only know a handful of words maybe it will feel like everyone is saying those words a lot, or maybe my English language conversations differ significantly from average English language conversations, same again with my choice of media, that I have a misguided impression of the depth of the average English interaction in contrast with the average Japanese interaction.

            I love the complexity and nuance of the English language, and perhaps obviously, at a novice level Japanese felt like it would never approach it, like it was designed not to.

    • James says:

      People who know about the family of coronaviruses seem to sometimes refer to it as ‘the novel coronavirus’; it’s easy to see how this could lead to ‘the coronavirus’.

      • Evan Þ says:

        By this point it feels like it’s been around too long to be called “novel.” So, I propose calling it “the nonfiction coronavirus.”

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I’m still hoping “cerveza influenza” becomes a thing.

        • Silverlock says:

          Yeah, “the novella coronavirus” sounds too much like the plumber Mario. (Or would that just be plumber Mario?)

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          By this point it feels like it’s been around too long to be called “novel.” So, I propose calling it “the nonfiction coronavirus.”

          That’s what I’ve been saying IRL: “I wish it was a novel.”

        • albatross11 says:

          My vote is SARS2–Son of SARS.

          • Nornagest says:

            All hypothetical sequel names have to include “Electric Boogaloo”. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

          • gleamingecho says:

            My vote is SARS2–Son of SARS.

            I’m hoping we end up calling it the Peanut Butter Virus, in that we ultimately find out that it was about as widespread–and as deadly–as peanut butter.

    • eric23 says:

      Ebola is a single disease, while there are many coronaviruses and only one of them is at issue right now. “The coronavirus” means “the one we are referring to right now”.

    • 205guy says:

      I thought it was only the people in LA who said “the 101,” “the 405,” and “the conronavirus.”

      But seriously, it’s just a way of speaking and hardly related to proper names or virus families. Local idioms, what they hear on fb, and personal preference will cause people to use one or the other or switch between them.

  17. rahien.din says:

    Hi Nick!

    It seems like our discussion in the other thread has gotten cold. So, I am bumping it here.

    Having reread Feser’s papers, it seems that they are straightforward defenses of materialism.

    Ross’s argument is summarized “Some thinking (judgment) is determinate in a way no physical process can be. Consequently, such thinking cannot be (wholly) a physical process.”

    But which thinking constitutes his “some thinking”? Ross’s argument partitions thought (or aspects of thought) between two domains : that which is syntactically indeterminate because it is entirely a physical process, and that which is determinate and therefore not entirely a physical process. All we have to ask, then, is how to fill the second partition.

    For that, we have Kripke’s calculator :

    Kripke’s skeptic concludes, there is nothing that can possibly determine that it was indeed addition rather than quaddition that you had in mind when you used “plus” in the past. And in that case there really is no fact of the matter at all about what you meant.

    If there is no fact of the matter at all about what one means, then one’s thoughts are entirely indeterminate. We could consider that there may be no determinate functions, but that would be insufficient – it is impossible even to establish what is meant by “determinate” and “indeterminate.”

    Or, because it is immaterial and therefore not materially verifiable, semantic meaning is entirely localized to “the fact of the matter about what I meant.” If there is no such fact-of-the-matter, then semantic meaning is inaccessible, even to the consciousness from which it originates.

    Therefore, the second partition is empty. With an empty second partition, all that remains is the material. Therefore, materialism is de facto true.

    Stated :
    1. Arguendo, the world is divided into the mental and the physical
    1a. Physical objects are only ever material
    1b. Arguendo, mental objects may be either material or immaterial
    2. The material is indeterminate, but the immaterial is determinate
    2a. If some thing or some aspect of a thing is determinate, that thing or aspect is immaterial
    2b. If some thing or some aspect of a thing is indeterminate, that thing or aspect is material
    3. For any thought originating from any person (including one’s own self,) the true content and intent of the thought are unknowable (EG, even if you believe you meant “plus,” you could have meant “quus”)
    3b. Thoughts are indeterminate
    4. Because of 2b and 3b, thoughts are material
    5. Because of 1b and 4, both the physical and the mental are material
    5b. Materialism is true

    I have an answer to the waterfall argument, if anyone requires it.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Therefore, the second partition is empty.

      Then you totally reject epistemic induction. Is that a bullet you’re willing to bite?

      • rahien.din says:

        you totally reject epistemic induction

        Tell me about that.

      • rahien.din says:

        My prior reply wasn’t clear. I don’t agree that I must reject epistemic induction – in fact, my beliefs necessitate epistemic induction.

        But hopefully you will elaborate.

    • Nick says:

      Sorry about that, I stop looking at old threads after a time!

      If there is no fact of the matter at all about what one means, then one’s thoughts are entirely indeterminate. We could consider that there may be no determinate functions, but that would be insufficient – it is impossible even to establish what is meant by “determinate” and “indeterminate.”

      Hold on. Kripke’s skeptic doesn’t consider the possibility of formal causation like Ross or Feser would; that’s why he concludes there’s no fact of the matter whatsoever. But if we suppose there is some aspect of thought that is determinate, then the second partition isn’t empty, and 3b is false, and your argument doesn’t work. That’s why when I responded to you in the prior thread I said “no material difference” and “no number of facts about matter.” I wasn’t trying to pun or anything; expressions like “fact of the matter” here are actually super confusing.

      I think your 2b is a misunderstanding, too. Ross actually uses what we could call 2b’, “If some thing or aspect is material, it is indeterminate.” That’s what he defends in section II of his paper, starting on p. 140. And notice that 2a follows from 2b’. We can make a short argument using these:
      6. If we do a certain kind of thinking (judgment), we need some determinate thing or aspect.
      2b’. If some thing or aspect is material, it is indeterminate.
      2a. Therefore (by 2b’), if some thing or aspect is determinate, it is immaterial.
      7. Therefore, if we do a certain kind of thinking (judgment), we need some immaterial thing or aspect.

      6 is what I take Ross to be arguing for in section I of the paper. 2b’, as I said, is defended in section II, and 7 follows validly from those two. That’s half of Ross’s argument, anyway; section III attacks the suggestion that 6 is false, viz., we don’t need ‘judgment’ to be determinate; while IV defends 2b’ too by arguing that functions among physical states cannot be determinate, either. V concludes by arguing that all thinking is ‘judgment’, and therefore all thinking needs a determinate, therefore an immaterial, aspect.

      • rahien.din says:

        Kripke’s skptic doesn’t consider the possibility of formal causation

        Kripke’s calculator argues strongly that there is no aspect of thought that is purely determinate. If I cannot conclusively know the intent or content even of my own thoughts, then formal causation cannot take effect even as a purely mental phenomenon.

        Let me demonstrate:

        But neither will it help to appeal to your memories of what was going on in your mind when you said things like “determinate.” Even if the words “I mean determinate by ‘determinate,’ and not indeterminate!” had passed through your mind, that would only raise the question of what you meant by that.

        • Nick says:

          Kripke’s calculator argues strongly that there is no aspect of thought that is purely determinate.

          If Kripke’s calculator argued successfully that there is no purely determinate aspect of thought, then it follows that he did not argue at all. Putting forward that argument is a performative self contradiction.

          But taken on its own the argument is also incoherent. Feser, p. 18:

          Fourth, the claim that we never really add, square, apply modus ponens, etc., is self-defeating in an even more direct and fatal way. For coherently to deny that we ever really do these things presupposes that we have a grasp of what it would be to do them. And that means having thoughts of a form as determinate as those the critic says we do not have. In particular, to deny that we ever really add requires that we determinately grasp what it is to add and then go on to deny that we really ever do it; to deny that we ever really apply modus ponens requires that we determinately grasp what it is to reason via modus ponens and then go on to deny that we ever really do that; and so forth. Yet the whole point of denying that we ever really add, apply modus ponens, etc., was to avoid having to admit that we at least sometimes have determinate thought processes. So, to deny that we have them presupposes that we have them. It cannot coherently be done.

          • rahien.din says:

            Kripke’s calculator is more important than that.

            We can believe one of three things :
            1. Thought is entirely indeterminate
            2. Thought is somewhat indeterminate, somewhat determinate
            3. Thought is determinate

            The calculator shows us how #1 is incoherent.

            It further shows us how #2 is incoherent. If aspects of thought are indeterminate (meaning, if we have even skepticism about the determinacy of thought), then we cannot tell which aspects those are. A priori, any component mental activity could be the indeterminate one. An indeterminate process cannot have a determinate output – and this includes the mental activities by which we would assess the determinacy of mental activities. Therefore, we cannot localize the indeterminacy, and without that localization we cannot claim that any particular aspect of thought is determinate. This reduces down to #1, which is still incoherent.

            The only way our thoughts (and meta-thoughts) can be coherent is if they are determinate.

            Therefore, if a conception of formal causation requires some degree of thought-indeterminacy, then we must find that conception to be incoherent.

            If we do not require thought-indeterminacy, that means we do not require indeterminacy of the physical processes of mentation.

            This is materialism.

            BTW, the passage you quote is an objection only to a specific claim that I am not making.

          • Nick says:

            A priori, any component mental activity could be the indeterminate one.

            No it couldn’t. Ross and Feser provide many arguments for why matter is indeterminate. Immaterial things are not susceptible to such arguments.

          • rahien.din says:

            No it couldn’t. Ross and Feser…

            Ross and Feser provide many arguments for many things. But are they even allowed to make such moves? If they aren’t, then I am under no obligation to believe them, and it’s no use quoting them.

            In defining mental activities, Ross and Feser rely on a certain kind of mental activity and mental output : the comprehension of determinate functions, EG, “via thinking about it, we know that squaring is a thing.” They go on to say that determinate functions may only reside in or originate from determinate processes. Therefore, the mental syntax from which determinate functions arise must itself be determinate. And then, if matter is indeterminate, this means that there is some non-matter aspect to mental activities, and this non-material aspect is essential to the determinacy of thought.

            But central to Feser’s and Ross’s claims (and qua Kripke, Searle, and Chalmers) is the idea that the combination of input and output cannot, in and of itself, demonstrate syntax. A semantically-resonant output permits a semantically-deafmute syntax. A syntax cannot syntactically purify itself of syntactic error. Therefore, even if the overall mental syntax produces the seemingly-correct output that thoughts are determinate, this does not even demonstrate that the mental syntax’s component thoughts are themselves determinate.

            This creates a curious loop, a la Kripke’s calculator.

            Once we permit that some mental activities could be indeterminate, we must permit the application of this uncertainty to all subsequent mental activities. In particular, the unobservability of syntax demands we permit that any subsequent mental syntax could have indeterminate components. An evolving mental state must pass through all components of a mental syntax (else they would not be present in the syntax). Therefore, the evolving mental state may be passing through indeterminate processes. Determinate functions can only reside in or originate from determinate processes. Therefore, if the mental state could be passing through indeterminate component mental activities, the output of the mental syntax has the quality of being possibly indeterminate. If the output of the syntax is “Thoughts are determinate” and we combine this with the quality of “possibly indeterminate,” this means that the output of the syntax is “It is possibly indeterminate that thoughts are determinate.” Which just means thoughts are indeterminate

            Thus, as soon as Ross and Feser consider whether some thought is indeterminate, they invalidate any move toward determinacy of thought.

            …and I am under no obligation to believe anything they say.

          • Nick says:

            An evolving mental state must pass through all components of a mental syntax (else they would not be present in the syntax). Therefore, the evolving mental state may be passing through indeterminate processes. Determinate functions can only reside in or originate from determinate processes. Therefore, if the mental state could be passing through indeterminate component mental activities, the output of the mental syntax has the quality of being possibly indeterminate.

            What is this “passing through” stuff? You seem to be thinking of it as if the determinate stuff is one step and the indeterminate stuff is another step in a process, but where are you getting that? Didn’t I say when we discussed this last year that that was a bad way to think about it?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Once we permit that some mental activities could be indeterminate, we must permit the application of this uncertainty to all subsequent mental activities. In particular, the unobservability of syntax demands we permit that any subsequent mental syntax could have indeterminate components. An evolving mental state must pass through all components of a mental syntax (else they would not be present in the syntax). Therefore, the evolving mental state may be passing through indeterminate processes. Determinate functions can only reside in or originate from determinate processes. Therefore, if the mental state could be passing through indeterminate component mental activities, the output of the mental syntax has the quality of being possibly indeterminate.

            This argument undermines all our confidence in math and formal logic.
            “Does 2 plus 2 equal 4?” “Indeterminate.”
            “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Is Socrates mortal?” “Indeterminate. Must empirically test with hemlock.”

          • Nick says:

            @Le Maistre Chat
            “What’s 0 divided by 0?”
            “Indeterminate. And this time we mean it!”

          • rahien.din says:


            What is this “passing through” stuff? Where are you getting that?

            In large part, directly from Feser.

            Didn’t I say…


            Gently : this doesn’t seem fun for you. Most of your responses are “Go read Feser,” which is unhelpful and dismissive. Now you are saying “I said so!” which is the same sentiment with some added frustration.

            If you are frustrated with the disagreement we are having, recognize that our discussion is not simply epistemic or metaphysical but is also performative. We are enacting the principles within Feser’s work:

            There are two competing thought-patterns arising from the same inputs, as evidenced by our material communications – how should we choose between them? If you say that you know how to tell which one is right, then this is to precisely determine semantic meaning from material syntax, in which case you are doing what Feser says is impossible. If you say that there isn’t a way to tell between them (a la Kripke’s calculator) you must accept the annihilation of meaning.

            (Or maybe you’re just begging the question a la Searle’s waterfall.)

            Nick, Le Maistre Chat,

            This argument undermines all our confidence in math and formal logic.

            Yes and no. If we take Ross and Feser purely at their word, then yes, their arguments are annihilative. But we don’t have to. Make the analogy to Goedel’s incompleteness theorems – math cannot prove math, and yet Goedel did not disprove math, and we perform math with confidence. Thought cannot prove thought, and yet, prima facie we think. That is all that is necessary.

            Ultimately, if the consequence of this argument is “discard formal logic,” that indicates that Feser’s argument is syntactically flawed.

          • Nick says:

            Gently : this doesn’t seem fun for you. Most of your responses are “Go read Feser,” which is unhelpful and dismissive. Now you are saying “I said so!” which is the same sentiment with some added frustration.

            I’m not trying to be dismissive here, and I’m sorry if it comes across that way; I don’t want to drive you off, crucifix in hand or anything. (You’re Catholic, so it wouldn’t work, anyway.) If I’m frustrated (and I am a bit), it’s because you said you read the text, but then you say things that, to my eyes, aren’t in it, and so I keep quoting it or referring back to it over and over. I don’t see where you’re getting what you’re getting, your interpretation of Kripke’s argument especially. I’m loath to try to respond to everything you say, because in my experience (with written discussion generally, not you specifically) this multiplies and obscures difficulties instead of focusing or resolving them. But I’ll give it a shot.

            There are two competing thought-patterns arising from the same inputs, as evidenced by our material communications – how should we choose between them? If you say that you know how to tell which one is right, then this is to precisely determine semantic meaning from material syntax, in which case you are doing what Feser says is impossible. If you say that there isn’t a way to tell between them (a la Kripke’s calculator) you must accept the annihilation of meaning.

            Your and my words don’t have meaning on their own, any more than some chance legible text in the Library of Babel does. But I’m not stuck with just the text; you and I share a language, so we share conventions about what signs mean. And I have presumed that you, like I, can understand things and communicate them. Likewise my own words. It’s precisely by appealing to the determinacy of your thoughts that I can take your words as meaningful.

            The analogy doesn’t hold when I ask what I myself mean, though. After all, what the skeptic asks us to question is whether I understand things, so there’s no outside intentionality to appeal to. And If I’m stuck only with facts like “what answer did I give when I was asked to add 5+4 last Tuesday?” or “what do I remember saying or thinking when I added 3+3?” then I am in real trouble. That’s how I end up in the bind that you and I agree is self-defeating and incoherent. But those facts I started by appealing to are all about matter. That’s how I got into this mess. And we can pin down why matter introduces all this indeterminacy, too. So there’s a way out on the horizon: my thoughts can be determinate after all, as they must be, if I stop appealing to material facts alone. So I appeal to an immaterial one: “I have an intellect.” Forms are determinate, and the intellect can take on forms such as addition or modus ponens. And so my thinking, which is always matter together with form, becomes determinate by virtue of that form. It doesn’t matter that the form alone wouldn’t be determinate, because in my head it’s never without its form.

  18. eric23 says:

    It appears that the number of newly detected coronavirus cases per day in Italy peaked three days ago and is now declining. This is two weeks after lockdown started, exactly as predicted. South Korea followed a similar trajectory a month earlier.

    So we can predict that when this is all over, there will have been something like 150k diagnosed coronavirus cases in Italy, and 15k deaths.

    Meanwhile in many other countries without lockdown, cases are still rising exponentially as we speak…

  19. DarkTigger says:

    I have another Corona question.
    The John Hopkins University, which numbers anyone seems to cite reports 0 recovered Covid-19 cases for the U.S. thus far. Why? Do recovered cases not get reported in the US, or du USamericans for some reason take considerable longer to recover?

    • eric23 says:

      Definitions of “recovered” vary widely. For a long time Korea had almost no “recovered” cases while by all other definitions they were taking care of things nicely. Seems they just waited longer to officially certify patients as “recovered”. I guess the US is doing the same.

    • rahien.din says:

      The self-quarantine period is two weeks. Likely the recovery statistics will lag by two weeks.

    • zzzzort says:

      My guess is 100% reporting. They say most of the recovered data is from local media sources, so I would take all of those numbers with a huge grain of salt.

  20. david stone says:

    There was a funny thread in the comments on the Infowars post, but it looks like that post is closed to new comments, so I’m commenting here instead.

    For context, the thread was people talking about how commenters would react to the very post they were commenting on, mentioning hypothetical future posts with titles like “Against Against Panic”. This was originally going to be a quick throwaway comment about historical examples of panic, with my intended joke being that the people of this site are the kind of people that would take a joke and end up researching something much more than warranted. I’m sure some of you see where this is going…

    First, we start with this surprising list: — in particular, the first item on the list, which states:

    “The dancing plague of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and, over a period of about one month, some of them died of heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion.[9]”

    And then things get normal. Or at least, less weird. All of the sources agree that a woman started dancing, a group of mostly young women joined in, and the dancing did not seem to die down. It lasted for such a long time that it attracted the attention of the Strasbourg magistrate and bishop, and some number of doctors ultimately intervened, putting the afflicted in a hospital.

    First off, that one bullet links to this full article:, which claims that 400 people died in the dancing plague of 1518, and which agrees with several “popular” sources, including the CBS paranormal drama “Evil”. The existence of this entire phenomenon is then immediately disputed by the line “However, the sources of the city of Strasbourg at the time of the events did not mention the number of deaths, or even if there were fatalities.[3]” People dying from dancing seems like the kind of thing that would have been remarked on at the time, and also the kind of embellishment that could easily be added on in retellings of the story. The citation for the skepticism goes to an article in French (, which states (translated): “All three evoke, without giving her name, a woman who started dancing, imitated by about fifty people. No contemporary author mentions deaths linked to this epidemic of dancing mania.” and “According to Waller, columnist Johannes Wencker had access to the memories of dozens of survivors (p. 132). Is it credible when we know that Wencker was born in 1590, 72 years after the fact? It is according to the same Wencker, and according to D. Specklin (v. 1580), that the author affirms that the dancing epidemic has caused deaths, without noticing that the contemporary texts of the facts say nothing of the kind.”

    Who is this “Waller” mentioned in the previous quotations? He is the author of “A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518” and the ultimate source of all claims of deaths from this event for all of Wikipedia’s sources, and presumably the source for all of the claims on the Internet about there being deaths at all from this event. It seems that there were, in fact, no fatalities from dancing.

    Going to the talk page for that article, there was a proposal to merge it with, but it was ultimately decided against, because the Dancing Plague of 1518 is just one example of the broader phenomena of dancing mania, and thus it makes sense for the articles to remain separate.

    At this point I think we need to pause. There are several historical events where a single person would start dancing, and this act was sufficient to induce a large group of people to dance, leading to a chain reaction of “dance till you drop” mania, and at some point in history someone decided that that story isn’t interesting enough and they needed to not just get exhausted, but literally dance themselves to dance. That being said, reading through the article on dancing mania with a skeptical eye makes many of the claims seem almost certainly exaggerated.

    • Robin says:

      I like the one about the trembling children in Basel 1891-92 and Meißen 1905-06. Apart from the trembling, the children were fine and happy. In Basel they were put in a special school class together to prevent further spreading, quite a jolly bunch, and they called themselves “Zitterclub [trembling club] Concordia”. (source)

  21. johan_larson says:

    The current shortages of face-masks, rubber gloves, hand sanitizer, and medical ventilators make me wonder whether it would be possible to run a manufacturing company flexible enough to make any number of things, and which could therefore switch to making whatever the regular supply chains can’t produce in enough quantity whenever once-in-ten-years emergencies hit.

    I guess one problem with the idea is that the company would need to charge prices that are well above those of producers that are optimized for non-emergency levels of demand, and that would look like blatant profiteering.

    • WashedOut says:

      The things you listed are manufactured to fairly rigorous standards, which entails onerous QA/QC and compliance audits etc. These involve a lot of cost and bureaucratic friction that make it hard to immediately pivot to changing products.

      • johan_larson says:

        Yes, the company would need to have some idea of what it might produce, and understand what the regulatory requirements for such things are. It should also understand how one obtains expedited approval, so one well-intentioned bureaucrat intent on enforcing the standards as written doesn’t bring the whole thing to a crashing halt.

    • Garrett says:

      I’ve long been mildly* interested in starting a drug manufacturing company that could do just that. Given the ongoing list of drug shortages there’d have to be a way to set up a small production line. From what I can tell, though, the FDA requires an expensive fee every year (something in the million-dollar range) for every product you want to be *certified* to produce, not necessarily *do* produce. So in addition to having a bunch of capital in manufacturing capacity plus inventory which can be used to manufacture what’s needed, you need to maintain authorization to produce a large number of medications, most of which won’t go into shortage. Indeed, maintaining that authorization list might be the single biggest expense for such a company.

      * This started after reading an article some years ago (which I can no longer locate) about babies in NICU being at risk because of a lack of injectable zinc. The stuff that every high school chemistry student makes as a result of throwing zinc metal into an acid because it’s cool to watch it bubble. Yes, yes, you need higher-purity stuff. But the point is that the core elements of synthesis are trivial. This isn’t trying to make insulin from scratch or anything.

    • broblawsky says:

      Fast, good or cheap: pick two out of three. Most companies that manufacture the kind of materials you’re talking about pick good and cheap; setting up the manufacturing process takes time.

      The exception to that list might be masks, which are basically just paper and elastic.

    • AG says:

      Isn’t the bottleneck here more about the procurement process of retail stores? The only stores I know that can pivot to stocking new brands (and dropping other brands) of stuff all of the time are dollar/outlet stores. Franchises like Walmart go through significant negotiating processes with manufacturers before ordering their products to stock, and that negotiation process likely involves guarantees of future product for the long run. There’s not just QC for the manufacturing, but quality processes for approving vendors, as well.
      And that’s not even getting into the tradeoffs of arranging third-party shipping and distribution. Manufacturers that have the capital (from selling in bulk) have the advantage during any time but emergencies.

    • LesHapablap says:

      Some of the distilleries around here have switched to making disinfectant.

    • Del Cotter says:

      I think it’s happening. James Dyson of the vacuum cleaners is awaiting confirmation from the UK government that they will buy ventilators from him if he commits to pivoting to making them, and a consortium called Ventilator Challenge UK, led by Airbus, is doing the same thing.

      Sadly the story I read didn’t say what the timescale would be, but maybe some examples of arms manufacture from WWII would help, if anyone’s got them. My impression is that companies can work fast if they know they have a customer, but if they’re not 100% sure, they’ll sit on their hands. A company such as you imagine, that specialises in International Rescue levels of emergency go anywhere do anything response, would I think be redundant in the presence of a guaranteed buyer, and commercially inviable in the absence of one.

  22. Nornagest says:

    Perhaps you’d be better off indulging your weird hate-on somewhere else. At the very least, a fractional thread.

  23. You often hear people complain about why we’re so “obsessed” with economic growth. Why not just have a steady-state economy? One thing to keep in mind is that the steady-state is fragile. China can shut down their economy for months to deal with a pandemic because they know they can snap back. Who knows how long the west can sustain the same? It’s still recovering from the last recession. You need extra breathing space or you’re vulnerable. You need to run to stay in place. You grow or you die.

    • Beans says:

      I’ve wondered this myself, and I still don’t understand it. You’ve just sort of stated that not-growing causes fragility, but it’s not obvious why, to me.

      I also fundamentally fail to understand how “constant growth” is meant to play out in the long term. Maybe it can work now when our population is constantly growing, but what if that stops? And what if we run out of resources from which to generate growth? It seems like a strategy that’s destined to eventually fail, and therefore one that we should be considering alternatives to.

      I am economically rather naive and maybe this is all abstract to a degree that my worries aren’t relevant, but taken at face value, I don’t get what the plan here really is.

      • toastengineer says:

        I don’t know what I’m talking about either, but my understanding is:

        No economic growth = factories make things exactly as fast as they’re being used up/discarded, nothing that exists is improved, no art is created, no new uses for existing resources are discovered, no-one has a job or does anything productive at all.

        “Economic growth” is a fancy way of saying “someone, somewhere, is accomplishing something that isn’t destructive or completely worthless.”

        • Mr Potamus says:

          That’s not right; economic growth means the total value of goods and services produced in an economy goes up over time. It doesn’t mean that nothing productive is accomplished, or nothing new happens; lots of production still happens to maintain existing levels. But there is no increase in total output. Increased productivity in one sector is exactly offset by a decrease in working hours, or a decrease in productivity in another sector, or productive assets being destroyed elsewhere.

          • Well, as long as population is increasing, we should expect some economic growth. The big question is productivity.

          • Del Cotter says:

            You say as long as population grows, we must have economic growth. But when I ask why the population must grow, they tell me it’s necessary, or the economy won’t grow!

            On the subject of whether a low-growth or a high-growth economy would be more subject to periodic loss of production, both the mathematics of chaos theory and experience with the booms and busts of high-growth economies, suggests that it’s the high-growth economies where production suddenly falls off a cliff every now and again. They’re being driven so strongly they start pogo-ing like an ambitious rocket design.

            I put to you that the extra breathing space the economy needs is the breathing space of excess demand that can protect against sudden drops in demand, not a “breathing space” of excess supply.

      • If you don’t have a dynamic economy and an exogenous shock hits, you aren’t going to recover quickly, maybe ever. The US had four recessions in the fifties, but you don’t hear about those. We are still recovering from the last one. If we had a more dynamic economy, then unpredictable events wouldn’t send us in to a tailspin. A no growth economy doesn’t mean stability, it means decay punctuated with destruction.

        • Beans says:

          Your comment takes for granted that a dynamic economy equals a growing one. It is not obvious to me that this is the case. I don’t know why, for instance, an economy could not be internally fluid in terms of the domains that it is active in at any given time, but more or less static in sum.

      • Controls Freak says:

        what if we run out of resources from which to generate growth?

        I recently listened to a fascinating EconTalk where the interview guest argued that technology was helping produce higher levels of output using fewer resources. Not just, “The marginal increase in output uses marginally fewer resources, but still uses more overall;” instead, “We’re literally using fewer molecules of stuff.” That’s in part because “value” is more complicated than just counting up molecules.

        • Beans says:

          I haven’t listened to this, but the concept sounds like kicking-the-can-down-the-road. Such advances at least buy us time to find a new way of doing things, but it seems like it doesn’t solve the underlying problem presented by constant growth in an effectively closed system.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I think part of the point of my comment was to point out that there is ambiguity in what we mean by “growth”. Judging by your unqualified (undefined, rather) use of “growth” in this most recent comment, I didn’t get that message across very effectively. Mea culpa.

          • Beans says:

            Fair enough: I’m actually unsure what exactly “growth” means myself, and part of the point of asking questions like this is to understand what exactly is meant. If “value” in the relevant sense can be abstract enough as to not directly correspond to the depleting of usable atoms on the planet, then I understand that some of the intuitive problems posed by never-ending growth may not matter. But as long as at least some of the growth relies on the use of exploitable atoms (I’m betting a lot of it always will, in one way or another) the closed-system problem posed by being stuck on one planet strikes me as unsolved.

          • SamChevre says:

            I’d put it this way: the system is closed materially, but not conceptually. Here’s a specific example: my 15-year-old minivan is by almost any measure a superior car to a 1965 Buick station wagon; it’s more durable, safer, holds more people comfortably. It’s also lighter and gets much better fuel mileage–it takes less “stuff” because the technology is better. Similarly with cell phones vs the telegraph.

          • If “value” in the relevant sense can be abstract enough as to not directly correspond to the depleting of usable atoms on the planet

            How do you deplete an atom? After you use it for something, it’s still there. You can’t even “deplete” energy, since it’s conserved. Ultimately all you can “use up” is entropy, changing energy from more useful to less useful forms.

            We are sitting a mere 92 million miles from a very large thermonuclear reactor, not expected to run out of fuel for a very long time.

    • Adrian says:

      Piggybacking on your question, can we grow wealthier without growing economically? By “wealth”, I mean (material) things which improve our lives, like vaccines, convenient transport, or machines which automate household chores.

      In other words: Does an increase in wealth automatically result in an increase in GDP or other economic metrics?

      • Ketil says:

        Piggybacking on your question, can we grow wealthier without growing economically?

        You define wealth as material objects and services, I think a reasonable definition of economy is the aggregate value of those. In other words, what are the objects and services worth in a market.

        So I guess you could manufacture larger amounts of less valuable things? Manufacture wooden blocks instead of computers, say. (Somehow, I don’t think this is what you were after.

        • Adrian says:

          You define wealth as material objects and services, I think a reasonable definition of economy is the aggregate value of those.

          (emphasis mine)

          You snuck a word in there which is doing a lot of work 😉 If I build a better computer and sell it for the same price, I’m not increasing GDP (or related measures typically understood to indicate “economic growth”), except maybe – maybe – through second-order effects. If I sell it for for a lower price, I might even reduce economic growth, even though I increased the material wealth of those that buy my computer instead of a legacy model.

          How do you want to directly capture the cumulative effect of these improvements in a single number which represents the growth or shrinking of the economy?

          • Juanita del Valle says:

            You would be increasing GDP.

            Measures of GDP are at least nominally adjusted to account for the improved quality of the computer. This adjustment is of course very hard to do, but it is still attempted.

            In any case, the textbook economist position will tell you that statistical measures of GDP do not capture precisely what is meant by economic value, which roughly aligns to Ketil’s description; the type of flaw in GDP that you are suggesting is a failure of the map, not the territory.

          • Ketil says:

            You snuck a word in there which is doing a lot of work 😉 If I build a better computer and sell it for the same price, I’m not increasing GDP

            But I am talking about the economy, not GDP. Customers who buy your improved computer (even at the same price as I sell my obsolete one) get something that is more valuable to them (again I sneak in the assumption that this is what better means). That you choose not to charge a premium (which you could), just means that the benefit goes entirely to your customers, and none to you. The actual value is still increasing.

            This benefit to the end user is often ignored (and lost in calculations of GDP), but it probably reflects a large part of the economy. Being free to choose how to spend my money, I can buy a computer I want at a fraction of what it is worth to me. Internet, running water, electricity, pain killers, zip-lock bags – these things are immensely valuable, yet very cheap.

      • AG says:

        At the most macro level, probably no, but at the practical level, I think a lot of people miss the forest for the trees, with the most obvious example being Mr. Potamus’s suggestion above about a decrease in working hours. Whole sectors of luxury consumption cannot exist if people do not have the time to enjoy them, so decreasing working hours and offering vacation time and sick time and such actually enable certain industries to exist, despite the appearance of losing economic growth in the industry that the workers were in. (And that’s before getting into the more abstract realms of how much, e.g. boredom enables creativity/innovation, and thus necessitates relatively less productive time to make the next jumps in technology.)

      • SolipsisticUtilitarian says:

        Of course we can, if we create wealth faster than it decays. If you buy a new household appliance of the same worth every year, you are growing your wealth, even though spending the same amount of equivalent money.

        However, once you have a certain number of appliances, you will need to use all of your income available for appliances to replace the ones that broke down. In that case, we would reach an equilibrium, at which our wealth would stay constant.

    • Juanita del Valle says:

      One answer is that there has never been a point in human-history where freezing as a steady-state would have been sustainable, up to and including now. All human societies consume resources; the concept of economic progress can be framed as the story of continuously replacing one resource with another. If you enter steady-state, you are by definition no long advancing technologically, meaning you can no longer replace old types of resources with new types, meaning you will eventually contract.

      This is true even – or even most obviously! – if you go back to hunter-gatherer days, where there were constant boom-and-bust population cycles. In short growth is necessary to avoid starvation.

      • Del Cotter says:

        “If you enter steady-state, you are by definition no long advancing technologically”

        That doesn’t follow.

      • Del Cotter says:

        The argument from it’s-always-been-this-way-everywhere is too powerful. It implies murder is good because there’s always been murder.

        Admittedly you didn’t just say that all societies have grown, but that all societies had to grow for the good. The former is true, but is the too-powerful argument. The latter, though, is just something you asserted, not something you proved was true.

    • eric23 says:

      Economic growth (per capita) means that people are wealthier than before, and can afford more goods. Isn’t it better to be able to afford things than not to afford things?

      • HowardHolmes says:


      • Guy in TN says:


        Economic growth (per capita) means that people are wealthier than before, and can afford more goods. Isn’t it better to be able to afford things than not to afford things?

        Serious answer: It depends on how the gains in wealth are distributed. Making an already very powerful person even more powerful could indeed be a bad thing, under many moral frameworks.

        • Del Cotter says:

          Another serious answer: it depends on whether every desideratum can be supplied in greater quantities in order for the affordability to follow from the growth. If there are even a few goods whose supply cannot keep up with the growth of every other good, then that good must become unaffordable in time. Say, beach front property, or even simply “a house”.

          There is a species of economist that says “unaffordable” is just another word for you didn’t want it that bad. I say that turns a real issue into a meaningless tautology. We all know what it is to want or demand; the economist’s answer that if it was truly demanded it would have been supplied is unhelpful word play.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Who knows how long the west can sustain the same? It’s still recovering from the last recession.

      Only in the sense that we’re always recovering from the last shock, until the next one.

      But I agree about growth. I know of only two situations where human populations exist in equilibrium; one is after they’re not only dead but fully decayed. The other is Malthusian equilibrium. Neither are states to shoot for.

    • mendax says:

      “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

      “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

      Imagine a world with one economy. It is not growing, it is at a steady state. Everything it produces, it consumes, all of its needs are met. That is probably fine.

      Now, imagine a world with two economies. Economy A is as above. Economy B, on the other hand, is growing. Well, too bad for Economy A.

      This is clearer for individual businesses within an economy. Where would you rather invest your money, in a company that is growing, or one that is not?

      I guess this is Moloch’s fault, in part…

    • sidereal says:

      Who’s we? Anyone is free to go live a minimal and modest life, but most people tend to want to improve their lot in life, their children’s lot. Better education, higher status, nicer stuff. New science and technology, and growing population means there is a reason to continually grow, spaces to grow into. And smart capital will seek growth if it’s at all possible, thereby outcompeting dumb capital. We aren’t “obsessed” with growth. We just grow.

  24. Cliff says:

    In what way is the current situation accurately described as “Overproduction of shit nobody wants nor needs”?

    In any case, asset purchases (of treasury bills) are a well accepted method for the Fed to inject additional money into the system and prevent deflation, which is desirable to avoid widespread debt defaults.

  25. 205guy says:

    Hello SlateStarCodex! I’ve been lurking for a few months and wanted to participate in the coronavirus discussions.

    I have an anecdote from a semi-rural area of the US where there aren’t very many confirmed cases yet. We don’t have official shelter-in-place yet, but everyone is encouraged to do so, and it might be decreed soon. The farmers markets in our area were closed but most of the vendors have continued selling either from a road-side stand or from their homes/farms. This seems reasonable and appropriate.

    When I went to get eggs from a guy I’ve gotten to know, he was sick when I got there (and didn’t tell me ahead of time). He said and thought it was a normal flu, and I didn’t ask enough questions or know what to ask to confirm one way or the other. I grabbed the eggs, commiserated briefly from a distance, then drove home, washed the eggs in bleach-water, wiped the car interior with disinfecting wipes, put my clothes in the laundry, and took a shower. A bit of unneeded stress in my day.

    One of the things he told me is he uninsured and couldn’t get tested for coronavirus. In my area, they require a doctor’s referral for testing, and he can’t afford that without insurance. I called up the health services in my area, and they confirmed that. It would be about $300 for same-day urgent care doctor’s visit (with 25% discount for no-insurance cash payment, ain’t America Great?), then over $200 for the flu and coronavirus testing (at the hospital parking-lot drive-in test center–again, ain’t America Great?). He’s not going to spend almost $500 since he can’t afford it and doesn’t think he has the coronavirus symptoms. Given the low infection rate in our community he could be right, but there could still be undiagnosed cases, and as a market seller, he’s been around lots of people.

    On the one hand, I don’t want to ruin his precarious business (I’ve supported him since he started egg-farming because we didn’t have humane-raised eggs before), on the other hand he is not quarantining himself and could be a vector to it spreading (though to be honest, I don’t think he has that many customers, and I will just get eggs from the store). I asked the health services when I called, and there is no program to help uninsured people get tested. Nor did they seem interested in getting more details about this person–and I’m not sure I’d want to “turn him in” anyways.

    It seems that this situation wouldn’t be that rare, especially in rural areas, but the system as set up doesn’t seem to take it into account.

    • AlexOfUrals says:

      Was wondering about a similar question – what is done, if anything, about the fact that uninsured people won’t be able to afford testing or hospital stay? From your story, the answer seems to be depressing but predictable.

    • It would be about $300 for same-day urgent care doctor’s visit (with 25% discount for no-insurance cash payment, ain’t America Great?), then over $200 for the flu and coronavirus testing (at the hospital parking-lot drive-in test center–again, ain’t America Great?)

      I don’t see what’s so not-great about people who use a service having to pay for that service, though with corona it could be considered a special case. Perhaps what you’re getting at is that the marginal cost of these two procedures is much less than $500, so you believe the cost to the customer should be much less than $500. Like in Europe, where costs to the consumer are often much lower, and which coincidentally have much higher taxes, including on the middle class.

      • danridge says:

        I think if we were in a totally anarcho-libertarian state, and you assume that people will vote with their wallets to avoid doing business with you if you can’t give them assurance that you won’t get them sick, then it can make sense to just see the testing as a service to be paid for. I think in reality, it’s less like the price of a pack of cigarettes, and more like needing to pay a fee to not lean in and blow smoke in other people’s faces; there are obvious externalities and treating testing strictly as a service to the person being tested will, at the very least, not incentivise the kind of behavior we think will best get us through this situation.

      • fibio says:

        I don’t see what’s so not-great about people who use a service having to pay for that service,

        The issue is that, by not using the service a strong negative externality is imposed on everyone else. So if he infects a dozen people, at minimum that’s another $6,000 worth of tests that need to be performed along with lost wages from illness and the chance of a death occurring. And that’s using the rosy assumption that none of the people infected spread the disease further, in which case you start going from thousands lost to potentially millions.

        For viral conditions specifically, the government stepping in and paying for diagnosis and treatment is almost always in the best interest of the country, bother morally and financially.

      • 205guy says:

        Yes, pandemics are special cases as fibio explained. And for normal times, you answered your own objection with the realization of inflated costs.

        But it’s not just about cost, it’s about availability and accessibility of services. As you say, in Europe a resident can pretty much walk-in to any doctor’s office and pay 100 Euro, the doctor will squeeze you their schedule in under an hour, and get reimbursed 80 Euro (or however the system handles payment and co-payment). They even have your medical history and information on a smart card so you don’t need to fill out forms.

        In the US (in my area), family doctors are scarce and overloaded, and you need 2-3 months to be seen as a new patient, and nobody will just look at you off the street. Since the ER costs $5K-10K per visit, we now have this thing called Urgent Care, which is a walk-in clinic staffed by regular doctors, no appointment required. It’s just like in Europe, except they charge $300 for this arrangement. The cash-in-hand price just make the whole price-gouging and insurance-overhead more transparent–while still not being good value for the money.

        As for middle-class taxation, the US has less but provides less service. That might be OK if the healthcare system were sane, but it’s not. For example, the idea of picking my insurance coverage every year when I cannot know the price of potential services is not rational. So the middle class ends up paying a lot for it’s own health care, and then the lower-classes don’t get the benefit of being subsidized.

        • I guess I didn’t make myself clear, if the marginal cost is much less than 500$, that doesn’t mean it’s price gouging to charge 500$ because of the fixed costs. One could indeed make it seem cheaper by lowering the price to 100$ and then charging the government 400$.

          That might be OK if the healthcare system were sane, but it’s not. For example, the idea of picking my insurance coverage every year when I cannot know the price of potential services is not rational.

          The healthcare system is indeed insane. This particular problem could be easily fixed, just make medical debts unenforceable unless there is transparent pricing. It doesn’t require all that subsidization you want to do. These are separate issues.

    • david stone says:

      I would recommend against washing eggs in bleach water, especially in the US, although it might be less bad if he is a small-time egg producer. The US requires farmers that produce more than 3000 eggs to wash their eggs before sale ( This leads to the shells being thinner and more porous, which means that attempting to wash your eggs again can instead lead to your cleaning product getting into the egg itself. Even if this producer falls under the legal limit and thus is giving you unwashed eggs (thus eggs with thicker shells), I personally wouldn’t risk it. I would just crack open the eggs when I was ready to eat them, cook them, and wash my hands — in other words, exactly what I would do with any eggs.

      • pochti says:

        If you do wash your eggs, make sure the water is warmer than the eggs by about 20°F (but not warmer than about 130°F so as not to cook them). Current egg washing guidance is based on an old USDA study that found that washing in solution warmer than the egg prevented infiltration of the solution into the egg while using a colder solution tended to draw the solution in (I believe because thermal expansion/contraction of the egg contents created outward/inward pressure through the pores of the shell).

      • 205guy says:

        This is a very small-time producer, and his eggs definitely aren’t washed. Avoiding the bleach-washing and needing to refrigerate eggs is one reason I buy from him. But knowing that’s what the industry does, I just went ahead and did it in this one case.

        That good info, pochti, I will try that next time. The infiltration of the bleach is why I usually avoid commercial eggs to begin with, so it’s good to know they try to minimize it–and I can too at home.

    • Purplehermann says:

      In cities doctors are purposely not testing people.
      I know someone who probably has it, went to the doctor, doctor told him they weren’t going to test him.

      • 205guy says:

        In a way that might be what’s going on in our area too. I would’ve thought we have few cases and they want to track any community spread since it should be easier, not exponential yet (well, technically still at the low end of exponential). Maybe since we’re mostly rural/edge of suburbs, and it takes several days to send off the tests and get results, it just doesn’t pay off to test every flu-like case.

        But maybe like Garrett says, it doesn’t matter either way, they just hope the social distancing will keep cases low, most cases will be handled at home, and they will treat the acute cases when they show up at the (small) hospital.

    • Garrett says:

      It doesn’t matter either way. If he is sick with the “only” the flu he still shouldn’t be dealing with people.

  26. detroitdan says:

    Sumner v Common Sense re Great Depression

    COMMON SENSE: There were not enough people who could afford to or wanted to buy all the goods that were being produced. Therefore, prices fell, companies laid off workers, investment stagnated for a decade.

    SUMNER: Wages were too high so people got laid off. We put tariffs on imports. Hoover didn’t implement a dramatic monetary policy shift.

    Thanks to Briefling, below, we know what Sumner believes with regard to monetary policy:

    the Fed should use “whatever it takes” asset purchases, or at least the threat of such purchases, when interest rates are insufficient (which they usually are, these days)

    So I guess Sumner believes the central bank should have started buying all the unsold tractors and refrigerators. It’s Keynesian without the pesky common sense of having the federal government put people to work doing useful things.

    The Sumnerian indirection is bold. Instead of giving the unemployed useful jobs, he would buy the banks’ bad debts. This would in turn lead them to lend out money for new refrigerator factories which would hire the unemployed. The central bank could then buy the excess refrigerators, if necessary. Of course the Fed wouldn’t need to actually do anything so stupid. The key is threatening to do “whatever it takes”.

    Truly Scott Sumner is a genius for suckering people like Scott Alexander into believing he has something useful to say.

    • Therefore, prices fell, companies laid off workers

      Why does the latter follow from the former? It’s true that a company which sells its products for less will have less money. But what else will fall in price? All the companies inputs. But labor usually does not fall at the same rate. Thus, wages are too high.

      • detroitdan says:

        prices fell, companies laid off workers [Detroit Dan]

        Why does the latter follow from the former? [Alexander Turok]

        No need to overthink things. As I said:

        There were not enough people who could afford to or wanted to buy all the goods that were being produced. [Detroit Dan]

        When companies produce more than is being purchased, the common sense solution is to produce less. This is accomplished by laying off workers, not by paying workers less.

        Now it is possible that if the goods were cheaper, demand would increase to meet supply. So perhaps companies could try reducing wages and prices and sell more. But isn’t it also possible, that if reducing wages were widely practiced, that ability to buy products would be reduced?

        Layoffs v reduced wages — either will reduce aggregate demand and lead to the same result. Pretending otherwise is Sumneresque nonsense. The bottom line is that supply exceeded demand, which happens.

        • Cliff says:

          You might try commenting on Sumner’s blog He does respond to comments and as he is an expert in this area I have no doubt he could ably respond to all issues raised (most likely he would point you to some of his papers since you have such fundamental confusion). You might try reading his book.

          By the way since I see you have an MMT avatar, I assume you are a modern monetary theorist. This is a truly nonsensical theory and based on your comments to date I’m not sure it’s worth engaging with you. But perhaps for other readers.

          When companies produce more than is being purchased, the common sense solution is to produce less. This is accomplished by laying off workers, not by paying workers less.

          When your products are not being purchased, you have to reduce the price. If you want to survive as a business, you have to cut costs. One way might be to cut the number of employees, but it’s not obvious that is the best way to cut costs since it will also reduce your productivity. Far better would be if you could reduce the nominal wages of your employees to match the falling general price level- instead of giving them large wage increases in real terms.

          You seem to propose voluntarily reducing production in order to be able to sell all that you produce at the original price, but if you’re a price taker (and you are) and not a monopolist that’s not an option. You will have to sell at the reduced price regardless. So cutting employees and production doesn’t even help. That’s one reason why deflation causes such severe dislocations with sticky wages.

          Now of course you also have the problem where debtors can’t repay their debts when deflation hits because the real interest rate on their loans skyrockets. So lots of businesses will fail for that reason in a deflation and not due to any fundamental business reason- but the economy is devastated all the same.

          • detroitdan says:

            Yes, MMT describes how money works, as far as I can tell. Compare that to your post. You say:

            So cutting employees and production doesn’t even help. That’s why deflation causes such severe dislocations with sticky wages

            What are you recommending here?

          • Cliff says:

            MMT is not even coherent.

            What mainstream economists recommend is for the Fed to increase the money supply and prevent deflation.

          • detroitdan says:

            MMT is not even coherent. What mainstream economists recommend is for the Fed to increase the money supply and prevent deflation. [Cliff]

            Speaking of incoherence! MMT for the most part just describes how the monetary system works (as opposed to some gold standard system that no longer exists anywhere).

            Stepping back, what do you believe? It seems that you are an advocate for mainstream economists, and for increasing the money supply. What is the money supply, in your view?

          • m.alex.matt says:

            MMT for the most part just describes how the monetary system works

            No, it really doesn’t. At its very best, it describes how they think the monetary system would work if their policy preferences were enacted.

            Also, hilariously:

            (as opposed to some gold standard system that no longer exists anywhere).

            The stuff they get right applies to a gold standard environment, too (really, to any environment with fractional reserve banking and inside/bank money/outside money).

  27. WashedOut says:

    Any other SSC’ers into Warhammer / 40k / Necromunda? For those who don’t know what those words mean, they are tabletop sci-fi wargames.

    I played 40k as a kid, and I picked it up again as a 30 year old mainly as a painting hobby, but am pretty psyched to start playing games. It seems like there has been a massive wave of late-20’s and early 30’s people flooding back into the hobby after being out of it for most of their 20’s, presumably because it’s at odds with trying to get laid.

    Anyhow, the intricate painting is a really good mindfulness exercise, and I enjoy the army list building process of tweaking/optimising combat effectiveness vs. points costs.

    • Beans says:

      I’ve always admired it from a safe distance. I’m halfway afraid that it could draw me in too far, but also at the same time not super excited about the concept of tabletop games.

    • Nornagest says:

      I played Eldar in high school, but I haven’t looked at it in mumblemumble years besides reading a couple of the novels.

    • Machine Interface says:

      I have been trying to play it in the past, but the whole “building and painting the models” thing usually got in the way. Plus, for historical reasons, the rule of 40k are really not that great — these rules were designed for tabletop RPG skirmishes in mind, not for big battles between dozens or even hundreds of soldiers complete with vehicles. If you have experience with other systems, 40k comes out as rather bloated, because it’s too detailed for the scale of conflict it operates at — roll the dice to hit, then reroll to see if the hit actually injures, then reroll to see if the injury actually went through the armor [always seemed backward to me!] and then an entire distinct phase to see if injured enemies run away — Memoir’ 44 (and the Command & Color system in general) handles all these steps in a single dice roll! There’s no sense in doing all of this at a tactical scale.

      Now the only tabletop game I play is Star Wars: Armada, where the minis come assembled and painted out of the box, and with very elegant and simple rules.

    • Tarpitz says:

      I enjoyed the games as a kid (especially Blood Bowl and Necromunda) but always found the painting to be a chore. I haven’t played in more than 20 years – these days Magic scratches my nerdy fantasy gaming itch very satisfactorily.

    • andrewflicker says:

      I have a small T’au army, and a medium-size old Warhammer Fantasy Dwarfs army- pity they killed that game with Age of Sigmar.

      I’ve been working on painting up more of my T’au, but I’m not a great painter, and am dreadfully slow to boot. So far I’ve got 20 Kroot, 10 Fire Warriors, 3 Crisis Suits, a Hammerhead, a Devilfish, and a handful of random models (kroot hounds, drones, etc.) painted up. I really need to get off my ass and paint!

  28. 10240 says:

    Re: economic effects of the epidemic:

    During the epidemic, we don’t want to stimulate the economy. We want people to stay at home. We don’t want them to go to work except in essential industries, and we don’t want them to spend on eating out, going on vacations, and on other non-essential or deferrable things.

    After the epidemic is over, shouldn’t we except everything (demand, supply etc.) to basically snap back to normalcy, even without extensive government intervention? This is not a crisis where some economic structures are fundamentally misaligned, but just a temporary reduction of economic activity.

    Some companies may go bankrupt, because they lose their revenue for a few months, and they can’t get rid of their expenses due to existing contracts. However, a bankruptcy doesn’t have to mean that the company stops operating. It should simply mean that its ownership is transferred to its creditors. If the company is generally profitable, and only went bankrupt due to this one-time event, it’s in the interests of its new owners to resume operations once the epidemic is over.

    Under this model, some aid to private individuals during the epidemic is reasonable as many people lose their income entirely, but other forms of stimulus, and financial aid to companies, wouldn’t be necessary.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      If you are dealing with one business failing here and there, the banks can finance or find new owners.

      When all business across the country are failing at once, there isn’t going to be time. Think of it like a surge at the hospitals, but for businesses.

      • Loriot says:

        Likewise with unemployment. When one business goes down, you find work at another. When every business goes down, you have mass unemployment and a permanent reduction in the human capital stock of the country.

        • 10240 says:

          The caveat applies that a business going bankrupt shouldn’t be equated with the business ceasing operations and dismissing its employees.

          a permanent reduction in the human capital stock of the country

          I’m not sure what you mean here.

          • Loriot says:

            Empirically, businesses going bankrupt lay off a significant fraction of their workforce on average. Sometimes that fraction is even 100%.

          • 10240 says:

            @Loriot Much of the time, businesses go bankrupt because they are unprofitable in general; there is not enough demand for their products, so there is no point in keeping them operating. The case where an otherwise business goes bankrupt because of a big one-time loss is a different situation.

        • Squirrel of Doom says:

          The “human capital stock” doesn’t disappear when humans lose their jobs. They still have their skills, and can be rehired.

          Of course, those who die in the pandemic do lose their skills, but I don’t think that’s who we’re talking about.

          Or maybe I’ve completely misunderstood the intended argument here.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            * A guy who went to work assembling chairs yesterday is pretty good at building chairs today.

            * If he is unemployed for a week, he is still pretty good at building chairs. Might need an extra cup of coffee on Monday morning.

            * If he is out of work for 2 months and fails to make rent and is homeless, he is not very good at assembling chairs.

            We haven’t hit that third bullet point. But we are marching towards it with people thinking nothing is wrong.

            Just “getting up every day and going in to work” is a skill and people can lose it if they don’t use it. I doubt we can completely avoid that one (it’s the whole point of “stay home” after all) but it means we have room to spare on all the other things that keep people productive.

          • albatross11 says:


            I think there’s an even bigger effect w.r.t. networks of people. Shut down your car factory for a year, and most of your trained, skilled workers will have moved on to other jobs, some of your suppliers will have closed down or shifted into other businesses, you may not have managers or foremen who know how to keep all aspects of the factory running anymore, etc. Shut your {car, computer, airplane, filter, pharmaceutical} industry down for a decade, and you’ll have to build them up again almost from scratch, even if you still have a lot of the physical plant lying around.

          • John Schilling says:

            They still have their skills, and can be rehired.

            Individual skills are not enough. You need skills, teams, and motivation.

            A team is not just a room into which you’ve thrown a bunch of people who you think have the right skills; it can take six months to a year for that room to turn into a useful team. When enough of the individual people have scattered that you can no longer hire back the exact ones you’ve laid off, human capital has been lost.

            And motivation matters. Some of the people you imagine can be rehired, won’t actually come back. They’ll have decided that they actually can afford to retire at 62, rather than at 67 like they had planned. Or that they really like being at home with the kids, and the family can survive on one income. The ones who do come back, a lot of them will have seen their employer as not having their back in a crunch, and where they were Dilbert or even Alice before they’re now pretty much full Wally.

            Human capital can be destroyed even if no skilled individual dies, and we’re starting to do exactly that. We should at least be aware of this, and try to figure out how much of it we can afford to do.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            but it means we have room to spare on all the other things

            I left out a key negation here: we have a LOT LESS room to spare on all the other things.

          • Spookykou says:

            Just “getting up every day and going in to work” is a skill and people can lose it if they don’t use it.

            Indeed, I have been locked in a room for two months now doing my job remote, and returning to normal work is going to be, difficult.

      • the banks can finance or find new owners.

        No need, the banks themselves will be the new owners.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Do banks generally want to run (say) restaurants?

          • John Schilling says:

            Restaurants are a bad example in this case. They are obviously one of the most visible hardship cases of the current crisis, but there are always people who want to run restaurants. If a bank has title to an idle restaurant, they’ll find someone willing to borrow the money to get it up and running under their management (and possibly name). If the first three people who line up for this opportunity crash and burn, there’ll be a fourth and a fifth.

            The bank may wind up losing some money on the net, but they won’t eat the whole cost of a wholly defunct restaurant.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @John Schilling:
            I really don’t think that is how “restaurants” (or really any businesses) work.

            For one thing, the bank holding the business loan and the property owner holding the lease aren’t necessarily, and I don’t think usually, the same people/org. Nor do the menus/recipes and employees convey.

            The case of failed franchise might be more likely to resemble the scenario you describe, but generally a failed restaurant is just commercial space already fitted out for a restaurant. Finding the next tenant isn’t simply replacing like with like.

            Of course, if you have some relevant data or anecdata, please elucidate.

          • Spookykou says:

            Anecdote. A large portion of the people I know and my family members dream of running a small business, but not just any small business, a restaurant or a cafe, as evidence to,

            there are always people who want to run restaurants

          • JayT says:

            But those people probably don’t want to run somebody else’s failed restaurant, they want to make their own (probably failed) restaurant.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I don’t think I’ve seen a restaurant fail, and then the exact same restaurant open in its place. Usually it fails, and then someone opens up a completely different restaurant (that fails) in its place.

            But I don’t think it matters to the landlord whether the current failing restaurant is Bob’s Sushi Palace or Jane’s Taco Extravaganza.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I don’t think I’ve seen a restaurant fail, and then the exact same restaurant open in its place.

            You probably have; the sign said “under new management”.

          • Our favorite local Chinese restaurant went out of business some time back. It was replaced by another Chinese restaurant we liked less well.

          • John Schilling says:

            You probably have; the sign said “under new management”.

            This. And even the people who want to run their own restaurant under their own name with their own special menu and theme decor and whatnot, generally do not want to start by managing a specialty construction project. They’re usually going to look for an idle building or storefront that’s already fitted out as a restaurant, and do some remodeling.

            Barring a long-term demographic or economic collapse that substantially reduces the local eating-out population, any bank that is holding the physical assets of a defunct restaurant will probably be able to find a buyer or tenant who wants to use them to run a restaurant in fairly short order.

        • Cliff says:

          But they don’t want to be- hence finding new owners. Just like with houses.

        • LesHapablap says:

          Banks would much rather finance than take the business away from the owners. Trying to resell it in a terrible market, or run it themselves with zero expertise while it is in shambles, both are awful options.

          A business is not like a house.

    • theodidactus says:

      I am seeing a lot of predictions to the effect of “it will all snap back very quickly” and…I’m sorry. I can’t believe that is true.

      I’m not particularly educated in economics, but I don’t think pure economics is the best way to look at this. People aren’t rational. You can’t just fire people and then be like “Just kidding you’re rehired” and expect their purchasing behavior to return. I think this will linger.

      Fortunately its an easy enough prediction to test, and I’d be THRILLED if I were wrong.

      • You can’t just fire people and then be like “Just kidding you’re rehired” and expect their purchasing behavior to return.

        Not sure what you mean by “purchasing behavior.” I’ll just repeat what I keep saying, spending money does not create wealth. Production creates wealth.

        • theodidactus says:

          Production doesn’t just happen though

          EDIT: I guess to clarify, I’ll be personal. So I was getting all geared up to graduate into a second career, ready to take on the world…then about half my social support network got fired in the last week, and the possibility of immediate post-graduate employment got thrown into doubt for me personally.

          Now lets say tomorrow it turns out we can instantly fix Coronavirus. Just push a button and it goes away. even then I will be ultra-cautious, irrationally ultra-cautious about purchasing big-ticket items like a house, a car, etc…even if all my friends and family get their jobs back and job opportunities reappear for me. Why? Because for the first time since 2008 I have this instinct that’s like “save up! this could all evaporate! play it safe!”…and I’m pretty sure that attitude will be common.

          …and again, all that is even there if this gets fixed tomorrow, which it won’t. 2 months of this will scare the crap out of everyone.

          • irrationally ultra-cautious about purchasing big-ticket items like a house, a car, etc…even if all my friends and family get their jobs back and job opportunities reappear for me

            You say that like it’s a bad thing. Have you ever heard of East Asia? They’ve long had much higher personal savings rates than the West. And yet what’s happened to their growth? Focus on production. That’s what matters. That’s what makes some nations rich and others poor.

            …and again, all that is even there if this gets fixed tomorrow, which it won’t. 2 months of this will scare the crap out of everyone.

            They should be scared. Normies take out too much debt, act too irresponsibly, and don’t take responsibility when it doesn’t work out.

          • Loriot says:

            At a global level, saving is a zero sum game. Every transaction has a counterparty, and what makes sense for individuals is bad policy at the government level.

          • At a global level, saving is a zero sum game.

            I do not know what you mean by that.

            I have an income of a $1000, of which I spend $900 on consumption, save $100, which I use to plant apple trees. How is that a zero sum game? How is it more of a zero sum game if, instead of planting the trees myself, I lend it to a company that uses the money to plant apple trees?

    • Yosarian2 says:

      After the epidemic is over, shouldn’t we except everything (demand, supply etc.) to basically snap back to normalcy, even without extensive government intervention? This is not a crisis where some economic structures are fundamentally misaligned, but just a temporary reduction of economic activity.

      Why would you expect that?

      One of the big things that Keynes brought to our understanding of economics is that if you’re in a recession you often have a pattern where the whole economy is operating way under capacity and stays there for a while just because (No one has money means no one is spending money) and (No one is spending money means no business are hiring) and (no businesses are hiring means no one has money). A recession can be self-perpetuating, at least for the medium term, unless something happens to lift the economy out of it and reset it at a higher level (which is the idea behind large govenrment stimulus.)

      In fact, if nothing is misaligned and nothing has to be shifted fundamentally and you just want to restart the economy, it seems like a stimulus would be much MORE effective and have less negitive side effects than if you the economy has just overshot and needs to reduce stock or there’s a housing bubble that needs to burst or something.

      • Cliff says:

        Hasn’t the paradox of thrift been discredited?

      • 10240 says:

        No one has money means no one is spending money

        People still have money. Some people may have spent all their money, but that means other people have more money.

    • The truth is that no one really knows.

    • Konstantin says:

      I can see this popping the real estate bubble in some areas. People want to live in neighborhood X, because that’s where all the cool restaurants, bars, and performance spaces are. They close down due to the pandemic and can’t afford to pay their rent, so they don’t reopen. New residents don’t want to move there because there is a lot of vacant commercial space and nothing to do. Current residents also aren’t happy there is nothing to do, and certainly don’t want to pay the inflated rents or mortgages they signed up for. They walk away and property values drop further.

      • 10240 says:

        They close down due to the pandemic and can’t afford to pay their rent, so they don’t reopen.

        A restaurant fails to pay rent during the pandemic. What can the landlord do? It can’t find another tenant during the pandemic. After the pandemic, the best it can do is either let the current tenant resume renting it (perhaps on the condition of paying some of the missing rent later), or find another restaurateur to rent it.

        If there is a speculative bubble, then yes, the current crisis may pop it. Any downturn can, whether temporary or long-term.

    • aristides says:

      Another thing to consider, is how long you expect social distancing to last. 7 more weeks is probably the low end, but there is a potential for this to last 18 months. If that’s the case, you absolutely want people to keep working, but you want them to work in different positions. Sit down restaurants get replaced with more delivery places, waiters becomes drivers, and people that have the ability should work in Health Care. More and more people should work virtually. The wrong subsidies to business and individuals could prevent this shift from happening.

      • Matt M says:

        Is labor allowed to price gouge?

        In all seriousness, the absolute last sector I would want to be working in right now is health care? How might they attract new workers, outside of dramatically increasing salaries?

        • 10240 says:

          • Altruism. I suspect it drives a lot of health care work in the first place.
          • Unemployment and poverty. At least temporarily, many people lose their income, and are in a tough enough financial situation that they are willing to take a paying job, even if it’s risky.

        • Garrett says:

          > Is labor allowed to price gouge?

          Yes. It’s called unionization. Or professional licensing in the case of doctors and lawyers.

          • gleamingecho says:

            Yes. It’s called unionization. Or professional licensing in the case of doctors and lawyers.

            Hey, I resemble that remark!

            (Lawyer here.)

  29. detroitdan says:

    I remember Sumner from his theory that the Fed should target Nominal Gross Domestic Product (NGDP) and that would steer the economy. Apparently, Sumner thought that tinkering with the short term Federally guaranteed interest rate is all that is needed to manage the economy. That theory hasn’t held up well, as interest rates have gone negative throughout much of the world without stimulating inflation. Meanwhile, we have all sorts of obvious other problems such as over-investment as reflected in record valuations in stock markets.

    Sumner has an absolutely horrible track record. It’s like relying on Mueller to give the straight scoop on intelligence (Mueller. as FBI Director, told Congress in 2003 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction…)

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      I remember Sumner from his theory that the Fed should target Nominal Gross Domestic Product (NGDP) and that would steer the economy. Apparently, Sumner thought that tinkering with the short term Federally guaranteed interest rate is all that is needed to manage the economy.

      Narrator: Detroitdan does not remember Sumner.

    • Briefling says:

      Sumner definitely does not think that interest rates are all that’s needed. His entire schtick is that the Fed should use “whatever it takes” asset purchases, or at least the threat of such purchases, when interest rates are insufficient (which they usually are, these days).

      You can actually see this in his most recent blog post.

      I’m not sure I buy his position, but it’s not obvious nonsense.

      • detroitdan says:

        I could never figure out how the Fed was supposed to solve problems by targeting NGDP, although it was always connected to the magic of expectations. So the “threat of such purchases” makes perfect sense.

        • Loriot says:

          If it weren’t for the zero(ish) lower bound, monetary policy would be sufficient to control the economy in all but the most extreme cases.

          • detroitdan says:

            Loriot– Monetary policy generally just consists of tinkering with interest rates on short term government securities.

            Yes, the central bank does create money out of thin air, so monetary policy can include massive bailouts (“whatever it takes asset purchases” as Sumner says), but that’s a crazy way to manage the economy.

          • Cliff says:

            It’s not the Fed’s job to manage the economy and it doesn’t and shouldn’t try to. It’s only job is not to crush the economy by screwing with the money supply. When the demand for money increases, it needs to supply more money so that deflation doesn’t happen, and when the demand for money falls it needs to supply less money to avoid excessive inflation. Tinkering with interest rates (i.e., conducting open market transactions to buy and sell treasuries to achieve a target interest rate) and asset purchases are only means to this end.

            Thus, the Fed cannot prevent a supply-side recession such as is occurring now. What it can prevent is crushing deflation that leads to widespread debt defaults, which are totally unnecessary. That’s what the Fed is trying to do. Calling it a bailout is silly.

    • AlesZiegler says:

      Well, you do not remember that correctly. Sumner wanted Fed to take way more aggressive action than it did against the collapse of NGDP in the Great Recession, than it did, and certainly not limited to tinkering with short term interest rates.

      If his advice was heeded, recession would be considerably milder. Unfortunately it was not.

  30. Loriot says:

    My CEO just addressed the company to announce that we’re going to drop everything and pivot to working on telemedicine software. I guess things are finally starting to seriously affect me.

  31. Le Maistre Chat says:

    “I prefer he/her/theirs,” Tom pronounced.

  32. Acephalist says:

    Does anybody have any recommendations for an (online) programming bootcamp (or similar program)? I recently moved to a fairly small city for my wife’s job and I am having trouble finding a job in my field (Mechanical Engineering). Money is not a huge object but cheaper is better (obviously), and I would prefer one with a deferred payment plan. I’ve dabbled in python a little bit, but my knowledge is pretty basic.

    • souleater says:

      I’m a mechanical Engineer who has since pivoted to work in software
      (You dont happen to work in South Florida do you?)
      I wouldn’t do a bootcamp, you’re better off creating a github accout and building small projects.

      Start with somthing like hello world, or fizzbuzz, and then move into simple calculators, web scrapers or algorithms

      • WashedOut says:

        I’m a geotechnical engineer and i’ve got a wishlist of programs I want to write for myself that basically scrape tonnes of borehole data and generate summary statistics and visuals. I’ve heard that Python is a very natural language to learn for engineers in the physical sciences. Would you agree? Otherwise what would you recommend?

        • H. Stapel says:

          (I work at a hydrological/geotechnical research insitute.)

          I’d argue Python is the default choice for such appplications. Other obvious
          options are R or Julia. I started out in R, but I don’t nearly like it as much.
          I think the language is a messier, and it’s just not a first-grade general
          purpose programming language. Julia holds enormous promise, but it’s still
          young and there isn’t a massive ecosystem like in Python or R.

          A big part of this kind of programming is using existing libraries, I’d
          Get your data into a dataframe and compute some summary statistics:

          Start plotting with matplotlib:

          At some point, maybe some cool 3D stuff?

          One of the recurring questions is: how do I install Python? I’d recommend
          conda, which is a widely used package manager + Python interpeter.
 You’ll likely run into dependency issues
          without conda.

          For a development environment (for beginners), the latest version of Spyder’s pretty okay.
 (Think it comes installed with an Anaconda python

          Google some examples:

          And a word of warning: you’ll likely run into the complexities of matplotlib.
          It’s generally easy to produce a plot that’s 80% there, but it often takes
          *hours* to get something just right. As a tip: try to grok the object oriented
          interface of matplotlib, rather than adjusting everything with global settings,
          which is what’s shown in many online examples. (This tip might not make a lot
          of sense right now, but maybe it saves some struggle later on…)

        • CatCube says:

          That’s where I’d recommend starting; Python is stupidly easy to learn for basic stuff, and it’s got native support for CSV files. I imagine just about everything you’re doing you’ve got a short path to get it into that format, so you can probably slurp in in easily.

          The downside is Python is heavily object-oriented. I’ve been playing with it for a few years at this point (I started when learning how to deal with huge CSVs from strain gage data I was working with), and I’m only just now feeling like I start to understand object-oriented programming. Before, I’d just create “reader” and “writer” objects because that’s the incantation you need to get it to work, without understanding the logic behind it.

          The other downside is tied in with the object-oriented one: Python relies heavily on iterable objects, where you basically use for loops to call for your next data point, with no indexes. When you’re using a csv object, you can’t call for, say, line 38 in your data file, you’re just running a for loop until you get to 38. The for loop also doesn’t natively keep track of where it is, so you need to do some extra stuff to make it count to 38.

          This means it’s not like working in Excel, where the entire table of data is available, both forward and backward. The csv module pulls in data one line at a time, in increasing order and it’s *really* inconvenient to go back even one line; this means that if you need a table of data, you need to build it yourself. If you’re on line 74 and need that data from 38, if you didn’t save it you’re basically starting over from zero to read in the file again. Not hard with these examples, but if you’re talking about the 3,457,827th line in your file it’s a thing. I’m sure the programmers in the audience are snickering, but for us engineers used to doing operations on a simple table of data exposed all the time like in a spreadsheet, it’s a big change in thinking.

          The upside to the heavy use of iterables is that you can write some really compact code to work with stuff like CSVs, once you wrap your head around “no, you really *can* iterate over everything.”

          • H. Stapel says:

            Impertinent question: did you give pandas a try yet?

            The built in CSV-module is basically just for parsing, and getting the data into Python objects. It provides no structure or tools to make your life easier in terms of working with the data. Pandas is likely significantly faster at reading the data as well, since it’s calling compiled C rather than interpreted Python.

            Conceptually, a pandas dataframe is essentially the same things as a single worksheet in Excel. The dataframe object you’re dealing with is an actual table. You can operate on entire columns at once, and index at will. There’s no need to deal with iterators and generators for most operations.

            Python is great for engineering because it’s got a clean syntax, comes with batteries included, etc… but especially because it’s got a huge ecosystem with high quality packages to tap into!

        • John Schilling says:

          I’ve heard that Python is a very natural language to learn for engineers in the physical sciences.

          I never learned Python because I did learn C/C++ well enough to avoid its pitfalls in the kind of coding I do. But Python is what I recommend to new engineers, and one of my guys now teaches the company-wide Python coding class on the side. It is becoming the new standard for engineering code in all but the most performance-intensive applications, well suited to engineering tasks and with a much friendlier learning curve than C++.

          • albatross11 says:

            I find that I can go from an idea to working code much faster with Python than I ever could with C. But the C would run much faster, so there are interesting tradeoffs.

    • Ted Pudlik says:

      I can recommend a couple resources from personal/family experience, but they’re not exactly what you’re looking for.

      1. Georgia Tech offers a famous online MS in CS degree. I know a couple people who did it; it’s rigorous and looks very good on a resume, but is somewhat academic, expensive, and takes a long time.
      2. At the opposite end of the spectrum (free, practical, but much less than a bootcamp, nevermind a full MS degree), Peter Norvig put together the Design of Computer Programs Udacity course. He’s the author of a big AI textbook, a great lecturer, and a masterful Python stylist. The course is a sequence of very entertaining but challenging Python programming exercises. At the high level it offers good guidance on how to approach problems through software; at a lower level, it shows you the code Norvig wrote to solve these problems himself. I cannot recommend this enough, it taught me more about practical programming than any other experience I’ve had before starting to write software for a living.

    • Loriot says:

      IMO, you can get most of the important stuff through self study and practice for free. The only reason to pay for a degree is to prove to resume filters that you are at least somewhat competent.

    • toastengineer says:

      I’m pretty good and I’m hurtin’ for cash, though I’ve never taught anyone anything before. Can contact me at my username here at gmail. Can also try to get you a job with my current employer if you get good, though I’m not sure how hire-happy they’ll be in the near future with the economic slump.

      Might try playing through this game, I’ve seen people learn a little Python through it.

      Best way to learn is just to write programs to do things you want done for their own sake. I learned by writing games and cheating on my math homework.

      Don’t make the same mistake I made – make sure you get experience with web stuff, not just native client (that is, actual programs you run on your computer, as opposed to interactive websites.) Most companies want you to do web stuff nowadays and they don’t like if all your resume has is native.

  33. salvorhardin says:

    I am thinking of signing up for the next local Red Cross blood drive, because I should be able to trade off childcare for long enough to do it and they really do seem to be urgently/severely short and calling loudly for volunteers. The blood drive appears to be at a non-clinical site, and I would assume/hope nobody with symptoms is going to go there, but the medical setting and group gathering still make it feel risky. I am not a medical professional so I have no idea how rational my feeling is.

    1. How should I think about the (calculated) risk of this vs say a trip to the grocery store?

    2. Is it feasible for a person to wear a mask and gloves for the duration of a blood donation?

    3. Besides the mask and gloves; other clothes worn for the occasion that I’ll throw in the wash upon getting home and showering; and bringing my own snacks for the post donation sugar supply, what other mitigation measures should I be thinking about?

  34. eyeballfrog says:

    In posts critical of corporations, I often see complaints about corporations engaging in stock buyback schemes rather than doing whatever it is the author thinks they should do with their money. However, the articles never go into why a corporation would want to buy back its own stock, or why this is apparently a bad thing for them to be doing. Can anyone here fill me in?

    • Matt M says:

      Corporations buy back stock when they:

      1. Have a lot of cash (or access to a lot of cash via low-interest debt financing)
      2. Don’t have much of anything worth spending said cash on
      3. Believe their stock is “undervalued” by the market

      What they actually do is buy back the stock, and then retire it. This effectively makes each individual share in the market worth more, because the total company is now spread out among fewer shares. Imagine a small-businessman buying out his partner to receive full control of a joint venture, it’s the same general idea. Why they would want to do that should be relatively obvious. There are also probably some weird tax benefits (there are always weird tax benefits).

      As far as why it is apparently a bad thing – I’m not too sure myself. Best I can tell the most coherent answer is “Because they could have used that cash to give all of their employees a raise instead,” which seems to imply a very poor understanding of economics, but I’ll leave this to someone less libertarian to explain the steelman here…

      • baconbits9 says:

        Conceptually intelligent stock buy backs work something like this

        1. Company sees itself as undervalued
        2. Company buys back its own stock
        3. Market catches up to proper valuation
        4. Company issues more stock to raise capital at the higher valuation.

        What happened the past few years was
        1. Company borrows money
        2. Company spends that on stock buybacks
        3. Company announces it will continue to do so and lays out schedule
        4. Market front runs companies and buys their shares ahead of the buyback schedule
        5. Company buys back at higher levels
        6. Market eventually falls, company is stuck with debt + lower equity valuation.
        7. Company is majorly screwed.

        • eyeballfrog says:

          But why do that second thing at all? There must be at least a perceived benefit.

          • baconbits9 says:

            In which case?

            In the first case if your stock is $10 a share, and you buy back 100,000 shares for $1 million, and then your stock goes to $12 a share (not because of the buyback, but because the market changed its valuation of your company) then you can raise $1.2 million buy issuing the same 100,000 in shares.

          • eyeballfrog says:

            Sorry, I meant the second case in its entirety, where the company takes out debt to buy back stock and then does a bunch of other things that sound like bad ideas. The first case is fairly intuitive.

          • Clutzy says:

            Increasing existing shareholder value is the benefit. The reason companies do it is because there aren’t great investments out there for them to engage in that will drive more shareholder value. That is why you see the weird VC culture in California. There is a financing glut where all this money is chasing relatively few actual opportunities. IIRC Microsoft and Apple have had lots of cash for a while and just kind of sat on it for a while before being pressured into issuing dividends by strong investors.

          • Chalid says:

            In normal times, having some debt is desirable, so it’s optimal for a profitable firm to carry some debt while getting rid of its excess cash through dividends and buybacks.

            The optimal capital structure of a firm is the best mix of debt and equity financing that maximizes a company’s market value while minimizing its cost of capital. In theory, debt financing offers the lowest cost of capital due to its tax deductibility. However, too much debt increases the financial risk to shareholders and the return on equity that they require. Thus, companies have to find the optimal point at which the marginal benefit of debt equals the marginal cost.

        • Loriot says:

          The goal of share buybacks is to return cash to shareholders. Spending $X on stocks on the open market and destroying them is roughly equivalent to paying $X in dividends. It doesn’t matter whether the company is “undervalued” or “overvalued” because spending money is a terminal value here. The actual number of shares received don’t matter as long as they were acquired at market rate.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            The goal of share buybacks is to return cash to shareholders.

            Yes and here is where the “weird tax benefits” that Matt M refers to come in. If you give dividends to shareholders they need to pay tax on these dividends (only 15% tax, but it is still greater then 0%). When you buy back stock, each remaining share outstanding becomes more valuable, but the shareholders don’t pay tax on this increased value until they sell their shares.

            I refer to US tax law, but I think it works the same way in all countries.

          • Loriot says:

            Which is why the individual investor would generally prefer a buyback. But I wasn’t talking about minutiae about that. I was trying to address the big question “how do buybacks even work at all” question.

      • DarkTigger says:

        As far as why it is apparently a bad thing – I’m not too sure myself. Best I can tell the most coherent answer is “Because they could have used that cash to give all of their employees a raise instead,” which seems to imply a very poor understanding of economics, but I’ll leave this to someone less libertarian to explain the steelman here…

        Firstly, sorry but I have a hard time to take the “libertarian” in this paragraph seriously, while the companies we talking about clamouring for a bail out.
        Secondly, because it’s not about “raising wages” but about said companies obviously not having an rainy day fund, and needing an cash influx about the size of of their rebuy programms two years ago.

        • Matt M says:

          Secondly, because it’s not about “raising wages” but about said companies obviously not having an rainy day fund

          How big of a “rainy day fund” do you propose to require companies to have?

          Prior to this, there has never really been any event in the history of the world whose logical result was “the government will forbid you to operate, entirely, almost immediately and without warning, indefinitely”

          You expect United Airlines to be sitting on a big pile of cash, in low-risk liquid investments, that represents what? Six months worth of revenues? That’s insane. Nobody has that. At least not on purpose.

          • DarkTigger says:

            All good points, why didn’t you make them in your first post?
            Also, maybe not 6 months, but also not < 3 weeks, while you lost most of the costs for operation and maintenance of your hardware.

          • Garrett says:

            Prohibition. WWI. WWII. 9/11 (especially for airlines).

    • broblawsky says:

      It increases value to existing shareholders by increasing the cost of the stock. That’s the most generous argument for it.

      Less generous commenters might point out that it also benefits C-suite executives who get paid in stock without necessarily counting as compensation for tax purposes, and that it (usually) hurts the company’s free cash flow and indebtedness.

      • eyeballfrog says:

        What does it mean to be paid in stock? Does that mean they are issued new shares as a form of payment?

        (I seem to know very little about how corporate finance works.)

        • Matt M says:

          Yes. Technically options usually (which then convert into stock in many cases).

          Buybacks are often used as a way to simply offset the new stock that companies routinely issue as a form of executive compensation.

          If you kept paying employees in stock and never bought any back, existing shareholders would continually see their own shares diluted and worth less as a result.

          • The Nybbler says:

            “Not just executives”, he says, fanning himself with his various worthless company stock certificates.

            (OK, actually they didn’t issue physical certificates)

        • broblawsky says:

          Yes, they are issued either stock or options on stock (e.g. the right to buy shares of stock at a certain value, lower than the market value). This is still taxed compensation, but if the value of the stock goes up after the stock is issued to the executives, the increase isn’t necessarily taxed.

          • EchoChaos says:

            It’s taxed as a capital gain at that point, correct? Which is a lower rate than income, especially at the income levels that executive are at.

          • broblawsky says:

            You got it.

          • It’s only taxed as a capital gain when you sell it.

          • Don P. says:

            (All of the following is “in my experience at my company”.)

            The tax advantage to the employee is not overwhelming vs just being paid more. I’ve received both outright stock grants and options. Outright grants are taxed, at the moment the employee actually get the stock, as regular income — if I get $10k of stock I am taxed on $10K. In fact, in my case the plan then sells withholds some percentage of the stock grant as witholding, and both the $10K and the withholding appear on next year’s W2 and regular income. (And somehow this isn’t necessary reported correctly on your 1099B so if you just blindly enter the numbers from that form into your taxes, you will VASTLY overpay tax.)

            Similarly, in the case where you get options with a $10 strike price when the stock is at $20, you can exercise that and take the $10 right away — and that $10 (time number of shares) in regular W2 income, and some is withheld.

            Now in either case, if you end of holding stock, you’ll pay capital gains on the difference when you sell. But then it’s just like you bought stock and sold it later, anyway.

            My understanding is that the tax advantage is to the company, vs. paying ordinary salary/bonus, but I don’t know any details about that.

          • nkurz says:

            > It’s only taxed as a capital gain when you sell it.

            You probably understand this correctly, but your comment needs to be read in the correct context. Normally, if you are given stock or options as part of your employment, the value of what you receive is counted as regular income at the time of the grant. If the value of the stock goes up before you sell (or if you exercise the option and then sell the stock) you pay capital gains on the increase. So it’s true that you only pay capital gains when you sell (which you said), but not true that the only tax you pay is capital gains (which a reader might incorrectly infer).

            There is a big exception to this rule in the form of Incentive Stock Options: If the company structures the grant in a particular way, and places sufficient time restrictions on the exercise of the options and sale of the stock, it’s possible to pay only capital gains tax at the time of sale. My impression (someone correct me?) is that most of the options given by public companies to rank-and-file employees are “non-qualified stock options” and do not meet this standard.

            There are also “games” played by non-public companies such that the non-incentive ISO grant is valued at a very small value on the (correct) basis that it’s hard to establish the valuation for a non-tradeable stock. In this case, you’d still be paying regular income tax on the value at the time of receipt, but that value might be artificially low. Further, there are Restricted Stock Units offered by public companies that are taxed as income only when the restrictions are removed. Generally, though, one would end up paying both regular income tax on the value of the grant, and additional capital gains at the time of sale if the value has gone up.

          • david stone says:

            @nkurz: The situation David Friedman was referring to is specifically the stock buyback case. In that situation, it benefits existing owners of stock by increasing the price per share while holding their number of shares constant, thereby transferring wealth to them. There is no tax consequence to the stock owner because you are taxed on the change in value of your stock only when it is sold, at which point you pay short-term capital gains (this is equal to your regular income tax rate of somewhere between 10% and 37%) on the increase if you have owned it for less than a year, and long-term capital gains (this is equal to 0% to 20%) on the increase otherwise.

    • gudamor says:

      Most of the concepts here I picked up at Zerohedge, so apologies if I’ve picked up whatever brain thing is wrong with them.
      1) Moral hazard in the decision to make a stock buyback is often in the hands of those who benefit.
      2) Moral hazard in that the debt taken on to finance the stock buyback weakens the company’s ability to withstand a shock, safe in the assumption that they’ll be bailed out in any downturn.
      3) Investing has been hollowed out by automation, just as with other industries, filling it with momentum-chasing algorithms/idiots who interpret a stock price going up as a good reason to buy a stock. Stock buybacks grow the resulting bubble much more quickly.
      Finally, I think there’s a bit of insult to it. Stock buybacks indicate that a company cannot think of anything better to do with their revenue than make their number go up: Not capital investments, not hiring, not raises, not training, not Research and Development.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        But doesn’t having fewer shares in circulation mean dividends paid increase per share? That seems like something the other shareholders would like.

        • baconbits9 says:

          And less money to pay out in dividends.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Immediately, yes. But over the long term…

            Alice and Bob start a company. They need capital, so they sell a third of the company to Carol, Alice and Bob each keeping 1/3rd for themselves. The business succeeds and they start making a lot of money, but a third of the profits go to Carol. Alice and Bob would prefer to have full ownership of the company for just the two of them and to keep all the profits, so they buy the shares they sold to Carol back from her (or the company does and then retires Carol’s shares). Now all the profits go just to Alice and Bob.

            What’s wrong with this?

          • baconbits9 says:

            You haven’t described how much they pay for Carol’s shares.

          • Matt M says:

            Is that anyones business other than theirs and Carol’s?

          • Loriot says:

            The main reason it’s relevant is that under perfect markets, the share price they pay Carol would be equal to the expected discounted earnings anyway, so the only reason they would want to buy them back to “keep all the profits” is if they think the market price is undervalued.

            That of course is talking about Alice and Bob’s interests as personal investors. The purpose of company share buybacks is explicitly not to make money for the company, it’s to redistribute that money to shareholders.

          • pjs says:

            Carol will usually want a price that reflects the expected value the current and future profits. If she gets it, A+B end up owning all of a substantially less valuable company, and the reduction in value (e.g. by the debt they might have taken on to pay Carol) makes it all a wash.

            So generally speaking (though there are other possible reasons) A+B will only do this when their insider knowledge makes them believe that the company is more valuable long term than does Carol. And Carol isn’t an idiot; she has access to the company accounts, industry news, broader and more objective investment experience, and maybe (say Carol is a VC) even better insight as to where the competition and market is headed.

            So A+B may be wrong. And being insiders, they might be biased towards excessive optimism.

            With public companies, Carol gets ‘the public market price’ and you should be really suspicious of managers who think they can beat that unless and only unless they have private knowledge. There are also compensation incentives which can encourage managers to do things to cause a short term share price jump, even if they are not economically rational for actual shareholders (whose interests should be reflected in the market price.)

            So IMO you should be very suspicious of management doing buybacks – unless you think they have non-public knowledge compelling enough to outweigh their inbuilt bias towards optimism and their mis-aligned incentives (misaligned compared to you, a hypothetical investor)

          • Chalid says:

            Empirically, on average, stock buybacks are predictive of positive future stock returns, and stock issuance negative returns. (Though of course markets are pretty efficient and therefore this effect is small.)

        • Matt M says:

          It could, but it doesn’t have to.

          I think most companies announce “dividends per share,” and you could easily hold that constant even after buybacks, and I don’t think the market would treat that as a dividend cut solely because you are spending less total money on dividends than you did before…

    • The stock which is bought back is retired, increasing the value of the remaining shares.

      It’s really no different than paying out dividends, I’ve never heard an intelligent opinion about why it’s worse than the latter, so long as dividend and capital gains income are equally taxed. It’s a practice that corporations do that isn’t easily understood, so people who want to signal anti-corporate attitudes without sounding like they’re demanding abolition of private business itself can do so by expressing their opposition to it.

      • baconbits9 says:

        It carries a fair amount more risk/reward than paying out dividends.

      • baconbits9 says:

        The stock which is bought back is retired, increasing the value of the remaining shares.

        Well it shouldn’t since the decline in stock is exactly matched by the decline in capital the company has. In practice….

        • Well it shouldn’t since the decline in stock is exactly matched by the decline in capital the company has

          Yes, and in the same way, being paid a dividend does not increase your wealth since if you own 10% of a company which pays out 10$ in a dividend, you have 1$ more in your bank account and the corporation you own 10% of has 10$ less in its bank account.

          The real increase in wealth comes at the moment the money in earned.

          • pjs says:

            Sort of quibbling, but you originally said:

            > The stock which is bought back is retired, increasing the value of the remaining shares.

            and restricting attention to that, and assuming you meant it as a matter of economics or logic (did you?) this seems false. Of course it could turn out to be true to some uncertain extent (and maybe usually is) if market takes the buyback as a positive signal, but otherwise why?

            Shouldn’t the baseline assumption be instead: after a buyback, each remaining one share has exactly the same economic value (and so, fair price) as that one share did before?

          • Loriot says:

            Decreasing the supply increases the price in all but the most pathological cases.

            Suppose there are 100 widgets out there, and one person is willing to sell it for $7. I go out and buy that widget and destroy it. Now there are 99 widgets out there, and it is no longer possible to buy them for $7, because the only person willing to sell at that price already did. So instead, the price might be $7.50 now.

            after a buyback, each remaining one share has exactly the same economic value (and so, fair price) as that one share did before?

            The trick is that different market participants have different ideas about the fair value of the asset. That’s why the supply and demand curves aren’t just vertical.

          • pjs says:

            > Decreasing the supply increases the price in all but the most pathological cases.

            Decreasing the supply of some definite asset, sure.

            That’s entirely too glib, since you are decreasing the supply (fewer shares) of a diminished asset (company has less cash or more debt). There’s no economics 101 argument to suggest the per-share value must increase. Maybe there’s an economics 202 argument,
            though I doubt it, but there’s no way it is as simple as the above.

            > The trick is that different market participants have different ideas about the fair value of the asset. That’s why the supply and demand curves aren’t just vertical.

            Can you spell this out further? Or to be more constructive, are you claiming that just because of these differing views exist, shares after a buyback should have a higher price? I’m skeptical but hesitantly so; if you are claiming this can please you go into a bit more detail?

          • Loriot says:

            If you don’t think that open market purchases can cause the price to increase, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s barely even Econ 101.

        • Aanon Smith-Teller says:

          That’s the complaint as I understand it. They’re taking stimulus money that they were given to invest in the company’s infrastructure to improve it, and instead gifting it to their owners.

          • The solution to that is to not give them stimulus money.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Yes that’s the complaint, but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not like the money disappears; it goes to the people who sold the stock. Those sellers then can invest the money in some other venture that will make more money. It is perfectly valid that some companies may not have a better way to increase value to their shareholders than buying back stock. What this does is put the money back into the market so it can be invested in another company that does have a better way to invest their money. This re-distribution of capital to its highest investment value is a feature of the capital market, not a bug.

      • mfm32 says:

        The tax treatment is the main theoretical reason to prefer buybacks to dividends. Buybacks allow the remaining shareholders to defer taxation on the returned capital. Dividends force everyone to pay taxes when the dividend is paid. It would be hard practically to equalize that tax treatment difference.

        Of course, the tax benefit to investors implies a corresponding cost to society, which could be a reason to criticize buybacks from a policy perspective. But I’ve never heard an anti-buyback argument sophisticated enough to mention that.

        • nkurz says:

          > I’ve never heard an anti-buyback argument sophisticated enough to mention that.

          There was an HBR article arguing against buybacks that got a lot of attention last week, and if I’m reading correctly I think this is one of the arguments they were making:

          “we can (again hypothetically) think of $92 billion of this additional government debt as taxpaying households’ gift to business corporations to enable them to do even more buybacks debt-free, shifting the debt burden of stock buybacks from corporations to taxpayers.”

          Their main argument, though, is that buybacks should be banned because they allow company insiders to temporarily manipulate the stock prices for their own benefit, at a cost to other stock holders:

          “Why have U.S. companies done these massive buybacks? With the majority of their compensation coming from stock options and stock awards, senior corporate executives have used open-market repurchases to manipulate their companies’ stock prices to their own benefit and that of others who are in the business of timing the buying and selling of publicly listed shares. Buybacks enrich these opportunistic share sellers — investment bankers and hedge-fund managers as well as senior corporate executives — at the expense of employees, as well as continuing shareholders.”

        • mfm32 says:

          Do you have a link to the HBR article? I’m not sure I follow the argument from the excerpt you’ve quoted. It sounds like it might be directed at the tax shielding effect of debt, which is related to buybacks insofar as they change the capital structure of the company (which dividends can do as well).

    • AG says:

      It’s an elegant demonstration of how “trickle down” is a lie.

      • eyeballfrog says:

        I have no idea what this means. Care to explain?

        • beleester says:

          The idea of trickle-down economics is that increased wealth at the top of the economy is good for everyone. Big businesses with a lot of money will spend it, which means giving money to other people, who also spend it, etc. etc. until it “trickles down” to the poorest people. Republicans are generally fans of this theory because it justifies stuff they want to do, like big tax breaks.

          Stock buybacks call this theory into question, because they show that when a company has lots of extra money to spend, they’re likely to spend it on raising their stock prices, rather than spending it on goods and services which would circulate the money through the wider economy.

          • The idea of trickle-down economics is that increased wealth at the top of the economy is good for everyone. Big businesses with a lot of money will spend it, which means giving money to other people, who also spend it, etc. etc. until it “trickles down” to the poorest people. Republicans are generally fans of this theory because it justifies stuff they want to do, like big tax breaks.

            This straw-argument bears only a passing resemblance to actual supply-side theory. Buybacks, thus, demonstrate the falsity of a position no one actually holds.

          • JayT says:

            In addition to what Alexander Turok says, this hypothetical doesn’t even call anything into question because you’re ignoring that in the process of buying back stock that money is, in fact, trickling down to people that will then reinvest or consume it. Doing a stock buyback doesn’t make the money magically disappear.

          • AG says:

            @JayT: from the perspective of the people who oppose buybacks, that money is not trickling “down,” it’s just recirculating amongst the same tier of rich people in perpetuity.

            The supposed “reinvest or consume” model breaks down when it’s shown that companies aren’t investing when they have the cash.
            Company A gets a chunk of cash from, say, a tax cut. Some of this money goes to a buyback. This raises the share price. Unless the shareholders sell those shares to convert back to cash for consumption, nothing is happening in the physical world. Some of this money goes to paying out dividends. Unless the shareholder uses some of this dividend for consumption, nothing is happening in the physical world. However, the majority of shareholders are reinvesting this dividend into other stocks. This means that the share price for those companies that are invested in is going up. However, unless the company converts that into actions in the physical world (training, wage raise, profit sharing, R&D, capital purchases), nothing is happening in the physical world. But, as established above, what do the companies do when they come into a chunk of cash?

            So the money just keeps circulating in an abstract form from stock to stock, never touching a wider company, until some 401K finally pays out for a teeny bit of consumption.

            The bigger grudge people have against buybacks now, though, is that the Republicans specifically pitched the tax break as giving companies the cash to raise wages. Now, maybe the Republicans don’t understand “reinvest or consume,” either, but the fact remains that that is what they pitched the tax break on that, and then…oh look, companies who received the tax break did not, in fact, raise wages with that money, who could have possibly predicted this????

          • JayT says:

            When a company buys back stock there is someone selling their stock for it to be bought back. That someone is selling stock usually means that they want to convert that stock into something they will find more productive for them. It could be that they want to buy a new vacation home, it could be that a a retiree needs some cash, it could be reinvested into another company, it could just be stuck in the bank. In every one of these examples, there is still going to be money moving around. There are still people being paid to make the movement of money happen, there are taxes being paid. Just because it isn’t used for a pay raise for employees doesn’t mean that it isn’t leading to economic activity.

            I don’t have a strong opinion on buybacks, but to say that it somehow disproves trickle down is basically saying that money literally trickling down disproves the idea of trickle down!

          • AG says:

            I’m not saying that there is no economic activity, nor that there is no money movement, but that the movement is largely lateral, remaining with the same upper-to-upper-middle classes, for whom all that money movement has little to no impact on their or the wider economy’s consumption levels or standard of living.

            Also, most descriptions of trickle-down by its proponents talk about money movements in terms of direct payments (consumption), rather than in terms of investment. So if they actually mean “let’s dump more money into investment,” then it’s a bait-and-switch from the actual benefits-in-the-physical-world that they pitch trickle-down on.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Also, most descriptions of trickle-down by its proponents talk about

            I’d very much like to see a link for this. I have not heard of a “proponent of of trickle down theory” for decades. It is a term the the left uses whenever they want to disparage the right. I don’t think anyone actually uses the term in a positive way.

          • Matt M says:

            Republicans specifically pitched the tax break as giving companies the cash to raise wages.

            I don’t really recall this. The standard conservative argument for reducing the corporate tax is that it will give companies increased opportunity to “re-invest in their business.”

            Which is absolutely true. And raising wages is one potential way a company might do that (and some did!). But there are a ton of other potential ways. Share buybacks might be the most literal way of doing it (you’re quite literally buying shares of your own business.)

          • Loriot says:

            I recall that the Republicans argued that their tax cuts would cause companies to pass on the money to workers in the form of increased wages. It’s trickle down in all but name, since that’s a pejorative term that obviously won’t be used by proponents.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Corporate taxes are paid by three parties: labor (in the form of lower wages), consumers (in the form of higher prices), and shareholders (in the form of reduced dividends/share values). The relative mix across these categories is determined by the groups’ relative elasticities. Further, corporate taxation is a simple barrier to investment. As such, it reduces real output across the economy. As is tradition, Republicans focus on the part of tax cuts which go to labor and the increase in real output, while Democrats focus on the part of tax cuts which go to shareholders and call it “trickle down”. Nobody seems to care to pander to the consumers, focusing on the lower prices.

            With the (mostly noncontroversial) basics out of the way, the method by which tax cuts increase real output is that it lowers the cost of investment into additional ventures (i.e., it makes ventures which would be relatively unprofitable, compared to alternative investments, cross the threshold into profitability).

            On the other hand, the choice between a stock buyback and a dividend is always discussed when thinking about a relatively fixed cost of investment. At some particular cost of new investment, a company decides whether to re-invest or return the profits to shareholders. Thrown into this whole mess is the idea of an optimal debt level. There are increasing costs to increasing levels of debt, so if the (relatively fixed) cost of investment is above the initial cost of debt, there’s going to be a positive optimal debt level.

            I’m not an economist and am mostly shooting from the hip here with the tools I’ve acquired from listening to economists for years, but the conclusion seems to be that when we cut corporate taxes, we’re lowering the cost of investment which in turn lowers the optimal debt level. What do I have wrong? If this story is right, I think the folks peeved by corporate debt existing alongside any form of shareholder profit should be proponents of corporate tax cuts, as they will reduce the optimal debt level.

    • Chalid says:

      A profitable company generates cash. It can either reinvest it in factories, research and development, employee training, or similar, or it can give the cash to its owners (the shareholders). If a company can’t think of any great internal projects or investments, then giving the cash back to the shareholders is the right thing to do.

      There are two primary ways to give the owners the company’s cash – dividends and stock buybacks. In dividends, each shareholder directly gets some money. In stock buybacks, the company buys and retires some shares of the stock. That makes each remaining share more valuable. In principle, in the zero-taxes perfectly-efficient-markets world, these are economically equivalent for the shareholders.

      In practice, they are taxed differently, and they have different signalling properties, which leads to some companies leaning toward using buybacks and others using dividends. A regular dividend is a signal that you are committed to continually returning cash to investors and won’t let it accumulate and/or waste it on vanity projects. Buybacks are more flexible. Announcing buybacks can be a signal about management’s beliefs about stock price. Dividends are taxed as ordinary income, while stock buybacks are going to be taxed at the capital gains tax rate. etc. etc.

      Someone really needs to write “Finance 101 for Rationalists” and just lay out the standard well-accepted facts without tying it to niche theories about bitcoin or the Federal Reserve or polemics about capitalism or what have you.

      • Loriot says:

        Technically, dividends are sometimes taxed at capital gains rates (if they’re “qualified dividends”). However, even with qualified dividends, capital games are often preferable since they give you more flexibility over when to recognize or not recognize your income from year to year.

        Taxation is complicated.

      • eremetic says:

        Didn’t Zvi Mowshowitz already do this (referring to writing finance 101)? If not, he probably could. I could too, but I wouldn’t be sure what exactly to put in it.

      • BillyZoom says:

        Chalid’s comment is correct with two caveats; these are kind of subtleties/semantics. The first is that the stock buyback does not make each remaining share more valuable ceteris paribus; it makes it a larger percentage of ownership in the company. If the company does well, this is a good thing; if not, you’d have preferred the dividend. The second is that tax treatment for buybacks is both better (capital gains vs. ordinary income in the US) and simpler than for dividends, so institutional stock holders would prefer stock buybacks (especially institutions holding non-local securities, cross border tax treatment of dividends is a mess).

        Another point is in reply to baconbits’ second process above where a company borrows money to do a stock buyback. Baconbits’ description is not really correct. First, all companies doing a buyback must announce and lay out a schedule. Borrowing the money vs. spending cash has no effect. It’s all Rule 10b-18 and material impact stuff. Second, markets don’t typically front-run stock buybacks as such because the buyback is usually a small fraction of the daily volume, and not enough to move the stock significantly.

        Finally, borrowing money to buy back stock is a method of monetizing low interest rates. Say you are CEO of a company with a $1 million market cap, and you make $50,000 a year, for a ROE (return on equity) of 5%. Let’s also say you can borrow money for 2%.

        One thing you could do is borrow money to grow your business, and maybe at low interest rates, some projects would be worthwhile. But let’s say you’re drawing a blank on these types of things.

        One other thing you can do is borrow (let’s say) 500k, and buy back half the stock (or whatever). That is, you are buying an asset that pays 5%, while financing it with one which cost 2%. Now the equity portion of the company has claim to 50k (the same profit) – 10k (interest on borrowing) = 40k (for an ROE of 12.5%) .

        This is a toy example; in reality you’d need a larger difference between ROE and interest rates to justify doing this: the coupon on the debt must continuously be paid, while your profit stream should be discounted and, of course, the debt will need to be repaid.

        It’s certainly a riskier situation to be in, and that’s where the negative connotation comes from I think.

        • Chalid says:

          the stock buyback does not make each remaining share more valuable ceteris paribus; it makes it a larger percentage of ownership in the company. If the company does well, this is a good thing; if not, you’d have preferred the dividend

          In the zero-taxes perfectly-efficient-markets world (which I posited) the investors instantaneously rebalance after the buyback/dividend and then end up with the same portfolio either way, right?

          Agreed on taxes.

        • Loriot says:

          Assuming perfect markets, the short term effect of stock buybacks and dividends are identical.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        “Finance 101 for Rationalists”

        Please. Would definitely read.

    • PhaedrusV says:

      Ben Hunt of has been doing a great job of building the argument against stock buybacks. This is the most recent piece; previous ones are linked within.

      • BillyZoom says:

        It is a really good article, although the thrust is not an argument against buybacks in general.

        Specifically, the issue is that stock-based compensation, or incentive options, are awarded to executives, and buybacks are used rather than diluting the stock. This is a way of funneling free cash flow to executives while keeps EPS relatively constant, or slightly rising. This is all disclosed though; I guess the concern is that companies will need to be bailed out on the public nickel when it would have been safer to hold cash.

        Meh… I suppose. Picking just the right level of risk is tough.

        • Loriot says:

          The same is also true of paying dividends though. The real question is “how much spare cash should companies hold?” and the generally accepted answer is “not enough to weather force majeur disasters like this”, since 99% of the time, that is needlessly inefficient and hurts the economy. It wasn’t that long ago that politicians railed against big companies for hoarding cash.

    • Loriot says:

      Stocks are a share of future earnings of the company, so in order for stocks to be worth something, the company has to return cash to shareholders or at least seem like it might in the future. There are two ways to do this: dividends and share buybacks. They’re roughly equivalent in terms of impact, ignoring minor tax issues.

      Note that whether the company is “undervalued” or “overvalued” doesn’t matter. The company’s goal is to spend $X on share buybacks, regardless of how many shares they get for it. The impact is roughly equivalent to paying out $X in dividends.

      The main argument against returning cash to shareholders is “if you can afford to pay a dividend why do you need this bailout again?”. Anyone who argues specifically against share buybacks and not dividends is probably not financially literate.

      • Matt M says:

        Note that whether the company is “undervalued” or “overvalued” doesn’t matter. The company’s goal is to spend $X on share buybacks, regardless of how many shares they get for it.

        I’m not sure this is right. Or at least, that I’m not sure I agree about the timing.

        Yes – once a company announces buybacks they are basically committed to spending $X on buying back shares, regardless of the price.

        But I would suggest that the approximate current value of the stock (and how it relates to what they believe the proper value is) is a big factor in the decision as to whether to proceed with the announcement or not.

        • Loriot says:

          Assuming perfect markets, it literally doesn’t matter what the current stock price is. The purpose of share buybacks is to redistribute money, not to engage in stock market speculation for the benefit of the company.

    • Another Throw says:

      A stock buyback is nothing but a cheaper, more convenient dividend.

      1. With a dividend, you’re(*) getting a check today whether you actually want one right now or not. This is actually pretty inconvenient. Being able to defer money until some future time is the whole freaking point of investing.

      2. When the vast majority of shareholders(*) get their dividend check, they(*) just go ahead and buy more shares. It is wildly inefficient to have every broker in the world going out and making individual purchases at the same time for $0.50 here, and $500.50 there, and $273.49 over there, incurring transaction costs for every single one. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if you could do one block buy on behalf of every shareholder simultaneously. Hmm.

      3. Since the vast majority of shareholders are just going to buy more stock with their dividend anyway, mailing out millions of checks or wiring money is wildly inefficient. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if instead of paying all those transaction costs you could do one block transaction on behalf of every shareholder simultaneously. Hmm.

      4. For the overwhelming majority of shareholders, the dividend that they are trying to use to buy more shares doesn’t divide evenly into the share price. Since getting a check for the $2.73 left over after buy $73,479.50 worth of stock is just stupid… basically every broker in the world has set up a system to keep track of fraction share ownership. This is wildly inefficient. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if you could find a better way of apportioning value that doesn’t leave that inconvenient remainder that drives up costs. Maybe by nudging the share price. Hmm.

      5. Ah, taxes. The the vast majority of shareholders get a dividend so they can buy more shares in order to get a dividend so they can buy more shares in order to get a dividend… but every “get a dividend” step involves paying taxes. Every quarter. For forty years while you save for retirement. I don’t feel like solving the infinite series, but your effective tax rate is going to be higher than the published rate. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if you could do a single “get a dividend” step and pay the taxes once at the published rate. Maybe by calling it a “realize capital gains” step instead. Hmm.

      6. And this is before we even get into the millions of hours wasted filling out fucking tax returns.

      It is way, way, way more efficient to do stock buybacks than to pay dividends. Like, seriously, the SEC needs to just make dividends fucking illegal.

      (*) Or really the relevant broker.

    • John Schilling says:

      In posts critical of corporations, I often see complaints about corporations engaging in stock buyback schemes rather than doing whatever it is the author thinks they should do with their money.

      Important to note, the author probably knows very little about what the company even could do with their money. The people who do know that, are the company’s managers and owners.

      A stock buyback is the company’s managers saying, “we can’t think of anything really worth doing with our money right now, so we’re giving it back to the owners so they can see if they can find something better. In the meantime, we’ll be lean and focused on what we can do and when the right opportunity comes, we’ll be ready to move on it”.

      Which is what we want, yes, even if the buyback is financed with taxpayer bailout dollars in mid-crisis. Because the owners in question, are mostly people who want to invest that chunk of money in something profitable, not to spend it on hookers and blow. If they weren’t, they’d have bought a dividend stock that promised regular hookers-and-blow money, or sold out last week for the cash for one big bender.

      Also, they’re mostly people who are pretty good at figuring out what’s profitable, because check it out, they own lots of stock in a profitable company.

      So, Solar Spice and Liquor specializes in luxury consumables that aren’t very profitable in the plague year when the rich are hunkered down and not trying to impress each other with fancy parties. General Products makes, well, everything, and they can quickly retool to make ventilators and other ICU gear. They both get the same amount of taxpayer bailout money because the government is going to suck at optimal allocation and shouldn’t even try. SS&L’s managers realize that there’s nothing useful they can do with the cash so they give it to the stockholders. Who, looking for what’s going to be reliably profitable this year, put it in GP bonds. Everybody wins, including the taxpayer, and especially the people in line for an ICU bed.

      You can imagine that it’s possible to cut the stockholders out of the equation and give all the bailout money to GP in the first place. But it probably isn’t going to work that way. The decision will be made by a clique of government bureaucrats prone to groupthink, with poorly aligned incentives and working from noisy signals. They’ll miss things, important things, and they won’t even know it until it’s too late. The stockholders, are a diverse assortment of people clever enough to have found the profitable opportunities in the past, competing to find the things the other guy missed, and with a direct financial incentive to get it right.

      Yes, they’ll siphon off a bit of the money for hookers and blow, or spice and liquor. It’s still going to be more efficient than trying to have the government pick the winners. Also simpler and thus faster to implement.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        If Poul Anderson had it all to do over again, he would totes have named the company “Solar Hookers and Blow”.

        • John Schilling says:

          I think Harcourt Fenton Mudd has the trademark on that one now; part of his new business venture with the Orions. But I’m glad someone caught the reference.

      • NostalgiaForInfinity says:

        A stock buyback is the company’s managers saying, “we can’t think of anything really worth doing with our money right now, so we’re giving it back to the owners so they can see if they can find something better. In the meantime, we’ll be lean and focused on what we can do and when the right opportunity comes, we’ll be ready to move on it”.

        This strikes me as a remarkably naive explanation.

        • AG says:

          And I’m sure that the employees at their lower pay tiers are yelling “We can think of things very worth doing with that money! We can think of many things!”

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          This strikes me as a remarkably naive explanation

          And this response sounds pretty naive to me. Maybe if you could explain what you mean? I think how John explained it is pretty much how things work in real life. Not the actual words “see if the owners can find something better,” but certainly “the best investment we can make right now is our own stock.” The managers aren’t looking to benefit society, so they don’t use that language. Nevertheless that is the effect.

    • zzzzort says:

      I believe a big part of why they’ve become more unpopular recently is the debate over the recent tax reform (very mildly CW). One argument for lowering corporate tax rates was that it would spur investment spending, and subsequently growth. The existence of stock buybacks, and specifically the perceived increase in stock buybacks following the tax bill, was used as evidence against this theory, since corporations were choosing not to invest the money but return it to shareholders (of course the shareholders on average will invest their additional wealth in something, but selling a bill as tax relief for shareholders is politically less palatable). So, the steelman argument is not that buymacks are inherently bad, but that they are a symptom of a disfavored policy.

    • david stone says:

      Let me try to explain how a corporation pays its owners in a slightly different way from the other comments that might help you understand a little better.

      First, there are a few concepts around stock that most people don’t quite understand, but are essential to answer your question. First, the company has a particular valuation, which is approximated by the “market cap”. This is a number determined by investors and represents the total value of the company. To allow many different people to own the company and thus own a portion of the profits and (if the shares are voting shares) make decisions about the direction of the company, the company issues a certain number of shares. If you own 1% of the shares, it means you own 1% of the profits. The price per share, therefore, is simply the market cap divided by the number of shares. This is of course the reverse of how the terms are usually described and how most people think of it: usually the market cap is defined as the number of shares * price per share, and people think of the “price” of a stock in terms of its price per share. This focus on price per share is an unfortunate impediment to understanding what is really going on.

      Let’s pretend like I have 100% ownership in a company. At some point, the company starts to make a profit after paying the salaries of all of its employees, paying rent for any of its physical locations, and buying whatever physical things it needs to operate. As an owner of the company, I’d like to make some of that money. The most straightforward thing I could do is have the company pay me money. This is what a dividend is: the company has “extra” cash and gives that cash to the owners (because that is probably the reason people decided to own a business: to make money from the business’s profits). When this happens, the value of the company goes down by exactly the amount that it pays out. If a company is worth $1,000,000 and has $100,000 cash on hand, that tells you the company without that cash is worth about $900,000 (Think of how much you would estimate a business to be worth if someone offered “I’ll sell you this business and $100,000 in cash for $1,000,000”). If it pays out $100,000 in dividends, it stands to reason that the company is worth $100,000 less. So I used to own stock worth $1,000,000 and I had $0 in cash, then the company paid a dividend and I own $900,000 in stock and $100,000 in cash. My net worth is the same, it just allowed me to move value from stock to cash, or put another way, it allowed me to move money from the company to me personally. Because I made money at that point, I am taxed on this dividend. Depending on what type of business this is, your dividend will be taxed at either the ordinary income tax rate or the capital gains tax rate, but if you do not own the stock in a tax advantaged account, you will pay taxes at that point.

      What if I don’t want to pay taxes yet? Maybe I want to wait until some year where another one of my investments has gone way own in value so that I can sell shares of that business and this profitable business to take advantage of something called “tax loss harvesting”, offsetting a gain with a loss and paying nothing in taxes. Maybe I plan on donating to a tax-exempt charity, in which case I should donate them stock that I would owe a bunch of taxes on (since they would pay no taxes when they sell the stock), rather than donating money that I’ve already paid taxes on. Maybe I plan to leave my appreciated stock to my heirs and I want them to take advantage of a step-up in cost basis, so that when they finally sell the asset they are taxed based on the value when they inherited it rather than when I bought it. There are many reasons I don’t want to pay taxes on something now (most of them because I plan to never pay taxes on it), but if the company pays out a dividend I can no longer do most of those things.

      This is where stock buybacks come in. Let’s go back to the example of a $1,000,000 company with 1000 shares outstanding, each therefore valued at $1,000 / share, and assume the company has $100,000 cash on hand, and consider me as an owner of 10% of the company ($100,000 worth of stock). The owners decide that they want to get $100,000 in value out of the company, so the company goes to the stock market and purchases $100,000 worth of shares. The company has given out money and got shares of equal value in return, so nothing has changed in its valuation. Then, rather than selling those shares (of itself) to another buyer or holding onto them, the company basically just says “These shares no longer exist” and destroys them. The company is now worth $100,000 less than it was worth before (because it essentially gave out $100,000 and got nothing in return, exactly like what would have happened if it had paid out a dividend). The interesting thing that happens here is that I was a 10% owner in the company prior to this corporate action, but then the company bought out some of the other owners. I now own 11% of the company. If I wanted, I could sell the “excess” stock to get back to 10% ownership, in which case I would have $90,000 worth of stock and $10,000 in cash, which would give me the same effect as if the company had paid out a dividend. Instead, I have the option to hold on to that excess stock until some point in the future when it is more beneficial to me to sell it.

      Here is my opinion on all of this: companies need a way to pay their owners, otherwise there is no financial incentive to own companies. This ability to either pay dividends or buy back stock is *the* real thing that happens in the stock market. It represents an actual transfer of money from the corporation’s bank into an owner’s bank. All of the ups and downs in the price of a company, all of the work that investors do, is to try to estimate and purchase a claim on this future flow of money. Some people think of stock price as a thing completely divorced from reality, and think that the price of a stock is determined entirely by psychology (“It’s worth a lot because people think it’s worth a lot”). To some extent, sure, there is speculation that affects the price of a company. In the long run, however, the value of a company is determined by how much profit it will pay out to its owners with how much risk. Take away the ability of a company to pay its owners and there simply is literally no stock market because stock ceases to be a thing of value.

      We have situation in our tax code right now where the stock buyback usually makes more sense for the owners of the company than paying out a dividend because it helps the owners pay less in taxes. The alternative that companies have instead of paying out their owners is to reinvest that money back into the company. So, rather than paying the owners collectively a $100,000 dividend, they could use it as a down payment on a factory, or buy a new piece of equipment, or hire more workers. This is where I disagree with many of the other commenters. Some have suggested that corporations pay out their profits only if they don’t have any good ideas of what to do with the money, but I think that’s thinking about the issue backward. The only financial reason owners would reinvest in the company is because they believe that doing so will increase the future output of the company so that they can extract even more money later. Getting paid is the reason people invest in companies, for the most part, so any explanation that has it as an afterthought is suspect. There needs to be some way for owners of businesses to eventually get money out of the business or there is no such thing as a corporation.

      It’s strange that our tax code disadvantages dividends so much compared to stock buybacks (although there are still advantages to dividends, obviously, or no company would pay them out, that’s just a much more complicated part of corporate finance). A company that engages in stock buybacks is acting rationally under our current tax code, and failing to do so would disadvantage them. If the “real” objection relates to the amount of taxes that investors pay, the solution is to change the tax code, not to rail against stock buybacks. A problem is that many of the changes that people who want to change this would like to see would either have very little effect (because corporations would change their behavior to route around the changes) or would have a negative effect (on a Care vs. Harm foundation, uncertain what effect they would have on a Fairness vs. Cheating foundation).

    • NostalgiaForInfinity says:

      Stock buybacks used to be illegal in the US because they were thought to be a form of market manipulation.

    • DinoNerd says:

      [Posting without reading other responses; hopefully this isn’t redundant]

      Suppose a corporation has a large chunk of money it doesn’t feel able to invest profitably. It has several choices of what to do with it.
      – keep it, hoping a good way to invest it will appear soon.
      – give (some of) it to stock holders as dividends
      – use (some of) it to buy back stock, thereby increasing the assets per share, revenue per share etc. (which might cause more people to want the stock) as well as raising the price by increasing demand.

      Their decision on what to do is generally affected by taxes, which is unfortunate but reasonable, and by what will most benefit its executives, which might happen at the expense of the company, and anyone holding its stock for the long term.

      Also affected by similar factors: their decision on whether or not they have excess money they can’t invest profitably enough.

      Stock buybacks are great for two reasons:
      – Taxes. Dividends are likely to be taxed more in the shareholders’ hands than stock price increases.
      – Executive compensation. Many executives are paid in ways that leverage changes in the stock price – the more it increases, the more the executive gets. They may also hold some stock, and receive dividends on it, but from the CEOs point of view, they’ll almost always personally gain a lot more from a stock price increase than froma dividend payout.

      Now suppose they aren’t sure whether or not they can invest their spare cash more profitably than their stock holders can. Being human, their decision is likely to be affected by personal profit. CEO tenure at any particular public company is fairly short, so they do better to take profits whenever they can, even at the cost of adding risks to the company’s long term survival.

      So let’s cut investment in new products, milk the cash flow from those we have, and turn it into stock price increases via share buybacks. Executives aren’t usually this blatant about it, and they have a conflicting incentive – being the boss of a bigger company makes them more important, so they also want to spend the cash on acquisitions.

      But some companiess, confusingly called “activist share holders” use this as a business company – buy enough shares of some unfortunate company that they get a seat on the board etc.; push it to increase its stock price at all costs; reap the profits from the stock price while quietly selling their stake; move on to another victim leaving the previous one with too much debt, too few new products in their pipeline, and inadequate emergency reserves – it will often go bankrupt in the next economic downturn.

      And those two things give stock buybacks a bad name:
      1) executives using them to increase their own income substantially – looks really bad to people who aren’t on the executive side of income inequality
      2) corporate raiders, aka “activist share holders”, using them as part of their toolbox for looting companies into eventual failure.

    • Another Throw says:

      I typed out this reply yesterday, and then accidentally deleted it while editing a typo. I’ll give it another go tonight:

      A stock buyback is just a more convenient, cheaper, and all around just better dividend.

      1. When a company pays a dividend, the shareholders get a check today whether they actually want it today or not. It is actually kind of inconvenient to get a check when you don’t want it; moreover, deferring money to the future is the whole freaking point of investing.

      2. When the vast majority of shareholders receive their dividend, the thing they do with the money is to turn around and automatically buy more stock. It is wildly inefficient to have every broker in the world simultaneously making purchases for 23 shares here and 5000 shares there. Each of those transactions incurs costs. It is would really great (and cheaper!) if you could make one block buy on behalf of all shareholders. The minority of shareholders that actually wanted the cash now can incur the significantly smaller in aggregate transaction costs involved in getting the cash now.

      3. While I doubt very many shareholders still get literal checks in the mail (though someone did tell me they recently got a literal check for a couple cents), the fact of the matter is that the company needs to send money somehow to every shareholder. Sending that money incurs costs. It would be really great (and cheaper!) to completely skip over the sending-people-checks step. And since the vast majority of shareholders are just going to buy more stock if you did send them the check, buying them more stock instead is a effective way of doing that.

      4. Since the amount of dividend that any particular shareholder receives is practically guaranteed to not be evenly divisible by the share price, when they try to buy more shares with their dividend they are going to be left with an awkward remainder. Brokers, having had to listen to their customers bitch about that awkward remainder forever, have basically all implemented some system that allows their customers to own fractional shares. But only in this one circumstance! Because keeping track of fractional shares is such a freaking pain in the ass (and expensive!), your broker is going to throw you out on your ear if you try buying 1/10000th of a share. But because listening the their customers bitch about the awkward remainder is an even bigger pain in the ass, in only the case where you are buying more shares with a dividend, they’ll let you do it. This is… less than ideal. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if there was some other way of apportioning value to shareholders that didn’t result in them having to deal with an awkward remainder. Like, I don’t know, nudging the share price by doing the thing your investors wanted to do anyway: buying more shares.

      5. Ah, taxes. The vast majority of shareholders own shares so they can receive a dividend so they can buy more shares so they can receive a dividend so they can buy more shares so can receive a dividend so they can buy more shares…. Every quarter. For forty years. But every “receive a dividend” step requires paying taxes. I don’t feel like figuring out the infinite series, but it should converge on an effective tax rate rather higher then the published value. It would be really great (and cheaper!) if you could only have one “receive a dividend step” at the end, when you actually want the money, and only pay the published rate. Maybe by calling it a “realize capital gains” step instead.

      6. And don’t even get me started on the millions of hours wasted filling out fucking tax returns for every single one of those “receive a dividend” steps.

      Unless you are in a position to know that the majority of your shareholders actually want the money now, which isn’t that hard in a privately traded company with only a few investors but in a large publicly traded company there is just no way, a share buyback is probably going to be a much more convenient, cheaper, and all around just better way of returning value to your shareholders than a dividend.

  35. Concavenator says:

    For your reading pleasure, and with no relation whatsoever to the current events here in Lombardy and elsewhere, I submit the account of the Plague of Milan of 1630 as given in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1842; translation found on Internet Archive, I’ve corrected some scanning errors). The plague reached Milan and nearby cities following the German mercenary army on its way to besiege Mantua during the Thirty Years’ War. Although The Betrothed is a work of fiction, the account of the plague was scrupulously put together by the author from primary sources of the time, and is essentially a historical work by itself (in fact, the story’s characters are not even mentioned for two whole chapters).

    From Chapter XXXI:

    Throughout the whole track, then, of the territory traversed by the army, corpses might be found either in the houses, or lying upon the highway. Very shortly, single individuals, or whole families, began to sicken and die of violent and strange complaints, with symptoms unknown to the greater part of those who were then alive. There were only a few who had ever seen them before: the few, that is, who could remember the plague which, fifty-three years previously, had desolated a great part of Italy indeed, but especially the Milanese, where it was then, and is still, called the plague of San Carlo. So powerful is Charity! Among the various and awful recollections of a general calamity, she could cause that of one individual to predominate ; because she had inspired him with feelings and actions more memorable even than the evils themselves […] and name it after him as though it had been a conquest or discovery.
    The oldest physician of his time, Lodovico Settala, who had not only seen that plague, but had been one of its most active and intrepid, and, though then very young, most celebrated opponents; and who now, in strong suspicion of this, was on the alert, and busily collecting information, reported, on the 20th of October, in the Council of the Board of Health, that the contagion had undoubtedly broken out […]

    The Board then decided upon, and contented themselves with, despatching a commissioner, who should take a physician from Como by the way […] Both of them […] suffered themselves to be persuaded by an old ignorant barber of Bellano that this sort of disease was not the pestilence; but in some places the ordinary effect of the autumnal exhalations from the marshes, and elsewhere, of the privations and sufferings undergone during the passage of the German troops. […] But additional reports of the mortality in every quarter pouring in without intermission, two deputies were despatched to see […] When these arrived, the evil had spread so widely, that proofs offered themselves to their view without being sought for. They passed through the territory of Lecco, the Valsassina, the shores of the Lake of Como, and the districts denominated II Monte di Brianza and La Gera d’Adda; and everywhere found the towns barricaded, others almost deserted, and the inhabitants escaped and encamped in the fields, or scattered throughout the country; “who seemed,” says [deputy Alessandro] Tadino, “like so many wild savages, carrying in their hands, one a sprig of mint, another of rue, another of rosemary, another, a bottle of vinegar.”

    On the 14th of November [1629], having made their report […] to the Board, they received from this committee a commission to present themselves to the governor […] he was exceedingly sorry to hear such news, and had shown a great deal of feeling about it; but the thoughts of war were more pressing […] the 18th of November, the governor issued a proclamation, in which he prescribed public rejoicings for the birth of the Prince Charles, the first-bom son of the king, Philip IV, without thinking of, or without caring for, the danger of suffering a large concourse of people […]

    The scarcity of the antecedent year, the violence of the soldiery, and their sufferings of mind, seemed to them more than enough to account for the mortality : and if any one had attempted, in the streets, shops, and houses, to throw out a hint of danger, and mention the plague, it would have been received with incredulous scofhs, or angry contempt. […] I find that Cardinal Federigo [Borromeo] […] enjoined his priests, in a pastoral letter, among other things, to impress upon the people the importance and obligation of making known every similar case, and delivering up any infected or suspected goods […] The Board of Health solicited precautions and cooperation : it was all but in vain. […] That proclamation in the form of warrants, resolved upon on the 30th of October, was not completed till the 23rd of the following month, nor published till the 29th. The plague had already entered Milan.

    Tadino and [historian Giuseppe] Ripamonti would record the name of the individual who first brought it thither […] and, in truth, in observing the beginnings of a wide-spreading destruction, in which the victims not only cannot be distinguished by name, but their numbers can scarcely be expressed with any degree of exactness, even by the thousand, one feels a certain kind of interest in ascertaining those first and few names which could be noted and preserved: it seems as if this sort of distinction, a precedence in extermination, invests them […] with something fatal and memorable. Both one and the other historian say that it was an Italian soldier in the Spanish service; but in nothing else do they agree, not even in the name.

    […] this soldier […] entered the city with a large bundle of clothes purchased or stolen from the German troops ; he went to stay at the house of one of his relatives in the suburbs of the Porta Orientale […] Scarcely had he arrived there, when he was taken ill; he was conveyed to the hospital ; here, a spot, discovered under one of the armpits, excited some suspicion in the mind of the person who tended him, of what was in truth the fact; and on the fourth day he died. The Board of Health immediately ordered his family to be kept separate, and confined within their own house; and his clothes, and the bed on which he had laid at the hospital, were burned. Two attendants, who had there nursed him, and a good friar […] were […] seized with the plague. The suspicions which had here been felt, from the beginning, of the nature of the disease, and the precautions taken in consequence, prevented the further spread of the contagion from this source. But the soldier had left seed outside, which delayed not to spring up, and shoot forth.

    From time to time, now in this, now in that quarter, some one was seized with the contagion, some one was carried off with it: and the very infrequency of the cases contributed to lull all suspicions of pestilence, and confirmed the generality more and more in the senseless and murderous assurance that plague it was not, and never had been, for a moment. Many physicians, too, echoing the voice of the people, (was it, in this instance also, the voice of Heaven?) […] always had at hand the names of common diseases to qualify every case of pestilence […]

    Dread of sequestration and the Lazzeretto [quarantine colony] sharpened every one’s wits; they concealed the sick, they corrupted the grave-diggers and elders, and obtained false certificates, by means of bribes, from subalterns of the Board itself […] As, however, on every discovery they succeeded in making, the Board ordered the wearing apparel to be committed to the flames, put the houses under sequestration, and sent the inmates to the Lazzeretto, it is easy to imagine what must have heen the anger and dissatisfaction of the generality “of the nobility, merchants, and lower orders,” persuaded, as they all were, that they were mere causeless vexations […] The principal odium fell upon the two doctors, our frequently-mentioned Tadino and Senatore Settala, son of the senior physician, and reached such a height, that thenceforward they could not publicly appear without being assailed with opprobrious language, if not with stones.

    The aged physician, Lodovico Settala […] was certainly one of the most influential men of his time. To his reputation for learning was added that of his life ; and to admiration of his character, a feeling of good-will for his great kindness in curing and benefiting the poor. Yet […] One day, as he was going in a litter to visit his patients, crowds began to assemble round him, crying out […] that it was he who put the city in alarm, with his gloomy brow, and shaggy beard; and all to give employment to the doctors! The multitude and their fury went on increasing; so that the bearers, seeing their danger, took refuge with their master in the house of a friend […] All this occurred to him for having foreseen clearly, stated what was really the fact, and wished to save thousands of his fellow-creatures from the pestilence: when having, by his deplorable advice, co-operated in causing a poor unhappy wretch to be put to the torture, racked, and burnt as a witch, because one of her masters had suffered extraordinary pains in his stomach […] he had received from the popular voice additional reputation for wisdom, and, what is intolerable to think of, the additional title of the well-deserving. [benemerito]

    Towards the latter end of March, however, sicknesses and deaths began rapidly to multiply, first in the suburbs of the Porta Orientale, and then in all the other quarters of the city, with the unusual accompaniments of spasms, palpitation, lethargy, delirium, and those fatal symptoms, livid spots and sores […] Those physicians who were opposed to the belief of contagion, unwilling now to admit what they had hitherto derided, yet obliged to give a generical name to the new malady […] adopted that of malignant or pestilential fevers […] The magistrates, like one awaking from a deep sleep, began to lend a little more ear to the appeals and proposals of the Board of Health […]

    In the Lazzeretto […] there was another arduous undertaking […] to maintain, in short, or rather to establish, the government prescribed by the Board of Health […] The Board and the Decurioni, not knowing which way to turn, bethought themselves of applying to the Capuchins […] Father Felice, ever diligent, ever watchful, went about day and night, through the porticoes, chambers, and open spaces […] he animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears. At the very outset he took the plague ; recovered, and with fresh alacrity resumed his first duties. […] Such a dictatorship was certainly a strange expedient; strange as was the calamity, strange as were the times […] ” For had not ye Fathers repayred hither,” says Tadino, ” assuredly ye whole Citie would have been annihilated ; for it was a miraculous Thing that ye Fathers effected so much for ye publick Benefit in so short a space of Time, and, receiving no Assistance, or at least, very little, from ye Citie, contrived, by their Industrie and Prudence, to maintain so many thousands of Poore in ye Lazzeretto.”

    Among the public also, this obstinacy in denying the pestilence gave way naturally, and gradually disappeared, in proportion as the contagion extended itself […] People must at least have said: The poor old man [Settala] was right! But who knows? He, his wife, two sons, and seven persons in his service, all took the plague. One of these sons and himself recovered; the rest died. […] They who had so resolutely and perseveringly impugned the existence of a germ of evil near them, or among them, which might propagate itself by natural means […] were so much the more inclined to find some other cause for it […] Unhappily, there was one in readiness in the ideas and traditions common at that time […] of magical arts, diabolical practices, people sworn to disseminate the plague by means of contagious poisons and witchcraft.

    Some persons, who fancied they had seen people, on the evening of the 17th of May [1630], in the cathedral, anointing a partition which was used to separate the spaces assigned to the two sexes, had this partition, and a number of benches enclosed within it, brought out during the night […] This mass of piled-up furniture produced a strong impression of consternation among the multitude, to whom any object so readily became an argument. It was said, and generally believed, that all the benches, walls, and even the bell-ropes in the cathedral, had been rubbed over with unctuous matter. […] Ripamonti, who frequently on this subject of the anointing, ridicules, and still more frequently deplores, the popular credulity, here affirms that he had seen this plastering […] The city, already tumultuously inclined, was now turned upside down: the owners of the houses, with lighted straw, burned the besmeared parts […] Strangers, suspected of this alone, and at that time easily recognised by their dress, were arrested by the people in the streets, and consigned to prison. […] no one was found guilty: men’s minds were still capable of doubting, weighing, understanding. […] Among those who believed this to be a poisonous ointment, some were sure it was an act of revenge of Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova, for the insults received at his departure; some, that it was an idea of Cardinal Richelieu’s to desolate Milan, and make himself master of it without trouble […]

    There was, after all, a certain number of persons not yet convinced that it was indeed the plague ; and because, both in the Lazzeretto, and in the city, some were restored to health, “it was affirmed,” (the final arguments for an opinion contradicted by evidence are always curious enough,) “it was affirmed by the common people, and even yet by many partial physicians, that it was not really the plague, or all would have died.” To remove every doubt, the Board of Health employed an expedient […] On one of the festal days of Whitsuntide, the citizens were in the habit of flocking to the cemetery of San Gregorio, outside the Porta Orientale, to pray for the souls of those who had died in the former contagion […] One whole family, amongst others, had this day died of the plague. At the hour of the thickest concourse, in the midst of carriages, riders on horseback, and foot-passengers, the corpses of this family were, by order of the Board, drawn naked on a car to the above-named burying-ground; in order that the crowd might behold in them the manifest token, the revolting seal and symptom, of the pestilence.

    First, then, it was not the plague, absolutely not— by no means: the very utterance of the term was prohibited. Then, it was pestilential fevers: the idea was indirectly admitted in an adjective. Then, it was not the true nor real plague; that is to say, it was the plague, but only in a certain sense; not positively and undoubtedly the plague, but something to which no other name could be affixed. Lastly, it was the plague without doubt, without dispute: but even then another idea was appended to it, the idea of poison and witchcraft […]
    There is no necessity, I imagine, to be well versed in the history of words and ideas, to perceive that many others have followed a similar course. Heaven be praised that there have not been many of such a nature, and of so vast importance, which contradict their evidence at such a price, and to which accessories of such a character may be annexed! It is possible, however, both in great and trifling concerns, to avoid, in great measure, so lengthened and crooked a path, by following the method which has been so long laid down, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking, before speaking.
    But speaking — this one thing by itself — is so much easier than all the others put together, that even we, I say, we men in general, are somewhat to be pitied.

    (I’ll follow with excerpts of chapter XXXII, if you’d like to see it.)

    • Mercurial says:

      I would like to see more of this. This was very interesting.

    • After I read that novel, I described the situation to my then-coworker, who asked whether everyone was blaming the Jews (he’s Jewish). I proudly informed him that this plague was the Protestants’ fault.

    • Concavenator says:

      Chapter XXXII follows; plague overwhelms the city, disbelief is replaced by terror; superstition and scapegoating make things worse (a public procession does very little to stop the disease, and very much to spread it further), and the two combine in what appears the 17th-century equivalent of an alien abduction (scroll to “The imaginary vastness” for that one).

      It was resolved, on the 4th of May [1630], in the Council of the Decurioni, to have recourse for aid and favour to the governor; and accordingly, on the 22nd, two members of that body were despatched to the camp, who represented to him the sufferings and poverty of the city; […] they demanded four things: — that, as once before already [in the plague of 1576], the taxes should not be exacted; that the Chamber should grant some supplies of money; that the governor should acquaint the king with the misery of the city and the territory; and that the duchy should be exempted from again quartering the military, as it had been already wasted and destroyed by the former troops. [Governor Ambrogio] Spinola gave in reply condolences and fresh exhortations: he said he was sorry he did not happen to be in the city, that he might use all his endeavours for its relief; but he hoped that all would be compensated for by the zeal of these gentlemen: that this was the time to expend without parsimony, and to do all they could by every means: and as to the express demands, he would provide for them in the best way the times and existing necessities would allow. Nor was there any further result […] Some time later, when the plague was at its greatest height, the governor thought fit to transfer his authority, by letters patent, to the High Chancellor Ferrer, he having, as he said, to attend to the war.

      Together with this resolution, the Decurioni had also taken another, to request the Cardinal Archbishop [Federigo Borromeo] to appoint a solemn procession, bearing through the city the body of San Carlo.
      The good prelate refused, for many reasons. This confidence in an arbitrary measure displeased him; and he feared that if the effect should not correspond to it, which he had also reason to fear, confidence would be converted into offence. He feared further, that, if indeed there were poisoners about, the procession would afford too convenient opportunities for crime; if there were not, such a concourse of itself could not fail to disseminate the contagion more widely […]

      People had again seen, or this time they fancied they had seen, anointed walls, entrances to public buildings, doors of private houses, and knockers. […] The minds of the populace, ever more and more embittered by the actual presence of suffering, and irritated by the pertinacity of the danger, embraced this belief the more willingly; for anger burns to execute its revenge, and, as a very worthy man acutely observes on this same subject, would rather attribute evils to human wickedness, upon which it might vent its tormenting energies, than acknowledge them from a source which leaves no other remedy than resignation. […] It was said that this venom was composed of toads, of serpents, of saliva and matter from infected persons, of worse still, of everything […] To these was added witchcraft, by which any effect became possible, every objection lost its force, every difficulty was resolved.

      Now, had any one still maintained that it had been a mere trick, had any one still denied the existence of a conspiracy, he would have passed for a deluded or obstinate person; if, indeed, he would not have fallen under the suspicion of being interested in diverting public scrutiny from the truth, of being an accomplice, a Poisoner [untore, literally “anointer”]. The term very soon became common, solemn, tremendous. With such a persuasion, that poisoners there were, some must almost infallibly be discovered […]
      In the church of Sant’Antonio, on the day of I know not what solemnity, an old man, more than eighty years of age, was observed, after kneeling in prayer, to sit down, first, however, dusting the bench with his cloak. “That old man is anointing the benches!” exclaimed with one voice some women, who witnessed the act. The people who happened to be in church, (in church!) fell upon the old man; they tore his grey locks, heaped upon him blows and kicks, and dragged him out half dead, to convey him to prison, to the judges, to torture.

      Nor did such things happen only in the city; the frenzy had spread like the contagion. The traveller, who […] was seen loitering and amusing himself, or stretched upon the ground to rest; the stranger, in whom they fancied they saw something singular and suspicious in countenance or dress — these were Poisoners; at the first report […] the alarm was given, and the people flocked together; the unhappy victims were pelted with stones, or, if taken, were violently dragged to prison. And the prison, up to a certain period, became a haven of safety. […]

      But the Decurioni, not discouraged by the refusal of the judicious prelate, continued to repeat their entreaties [about the procession], which were noisily seconded by the popular vote. […] [The cardinal] yielded, gave his consent to the procession, and further, to the desire, the general eagerness, that the urn which contained the relics of San Carlo should afterwards remain exposed for eight days to the public concourse, on the high altar of the cathedral. I do not find that the Board of Health, or the other authorities, made any opposition or remonstrance of any kind. […] in order to exclude from the concourse, as far as possible, the infected and suspected, they caused the doors of the condemned houses to be nailed up […]

      Three days were spent in preparations; and on the 11th of June, which was the day fixed, the procession started by early dawn from the cathedral. A long file of people led the way, chiefly women, their faces covered with ample silken veils, and many of them barefoot, and clothed in sackcloth. Then followed bands of artificers, preceded by their several banners, […] then came the brotherhoods of monks, then the secular clergy, each with the insignia of his rank, and bearing a lighted wax taper. In the centre, amidst the brilliancy of still more numerous torches, and the louder tones of the chanting, came the coffin, under a rich canopy, supported alternately by four canons, most pompously attired. Through the crystal sides appeared the venerated corpse, the limbs enveloped in splendid pontifical robes, and the skull covered with a mitre; and under the mutilated and decomposed features, some traces might still be distinguished of his former countenance […] and near him in person, as well as in merit, blood, and dignity, came the Archbishop Federigo. Then followed the rest of the clergy, and close behind them the magistrates, in their best robes of office; after them the nobility, some sumptuously apparelled, as for a solemn celebration of worship, others in token of humiliation, clothed in mourning, or walking barefoot, covered with sackcloth, and the hoods drawn over their faces, all bearing large torches. A mingled crowd of people brought up the rear. […] the rich had brought but their most showy decorations; the fronts of the poorer houses were ornamented by their wealthier neighbours, or at the public expense […] At many of these windows the sick, who were put under sequestration, beheld the pomp, and mingled their prayers with those of the passengers. […] The procession passed through all quarters of the city; at each of the crossways […] they made a halt, depositing the coffin near the cross which had been erected in every one by San Carlo, during the preceding pestilence, some of which are still standing; so that they returned not to the cathedral till considerably past midday.

      But lo! the day following, just while the presumptuous confidence, nay, in many, the fanatical assurance prevailed, that the procession must have cut short the progress of the plague, the mortality increased in every class, in every part of the city, to such a degree, and with so sudden a leap, that there was scarcely any one who did not behold in the very procession itself the cause and occasion of this fearful increase. But, oh wonderful and melancholy force of popular prejudices! the greater number did not attribute this effect to so great and so prolonged a crowding together of persons, nor to the infinite multiplication of fortuitous contact, but rather to the facilities afforded to the Poisoners of executing their iniquitous designs on a large scale. […] as, apparently, it had not been possible […] to detect any unctuous matter, or spots of any kind, during the march, recourse was had for the explanation of the fact to that other fabrication, already ancient, and received at that time into the common scientific learning of Europe, of magical and venemous powders […] That very day, therefore, of – the procession,” says a contemporary writer [Agostino Lampugnano], “saw piety contending with iniquity, perfidy with sincerity, and loss with acquisition.” It was, on the contrary, poor human sense contending with the phantoms it had itself created.

      From that day, the contagion continued to rage with increasing violence; in a little while, there was scarcely a house left untouched; and the population of the Lazzeretto […] reached sixteen thousand. On the fourth of July, as I find in another letter from the conservators of health to the Governor, the daily mortality exceeded five hundred. Still later, when the plague was at its height, it reached, and for some time remained at, twelve or fifteen hundred […] and if we may credit Tadino, it sometimes even exceeded three thousand five hundred.

      It may be imagined what must now have been the difficulties of the Decurioni […] They were obliged every day to replace, every day to augment, public officers of numerous kinds: Monatti, by which denomination […] were designated those who were devoted to the most painful and dangerous services of a pestilence, viz. taking corpses from the houses, out of the streets, and from the Lazzeretto, transporting them on carts to the graves, and burying them; carrying or conducting the sick to the Lazzeretto, overlooking them there, and burning and cleansing infected or suspected goods: Apparitori whose special office it was to precede the carts, warning passengers, by the sound of a little bell, to retire: and Commissarii, who superintended both the other classes

      […] another Lazzeretto was erected, also of thatched cabins, with an enclosure of boards, capable of containing four thousand persons. These not being sufficient, two others were decreed; they even began to build them, but, from the deficiency of means of every kind, they remained uncompleted. […] A great number of infants […] died of absolute neglect, their mothers having been carried off by the pestilence. […] “The Decurioni of the Citie,” says Tadino, “were no less to be pityed, who found themselves harassed and oppressed by the Soldierie without any Bounds or Regarde whatsoever […] because it happened to be a Tyme of War, and they must needs treat the Soldierie well”. So important was the taking of Casale! so glorious appeared the fame of victory, independent of the cause, of the object, for which they contended!
      So also, an ample but solitary grave which had been dug near the Lazzeretto being completely filled with corpses; and fresh bodies, which became day by day more numerous, remaining therefore in every direction unburied […] [Capuchine friar] Father Michele pledged himself to clear the city of dead bodies in the course of four days […] and on the day appointed his promise was fulfilled. On one occasion, the Lazzeretto was left destitute of physicians; and it was only by offers of large salaries and honours, with much labour, and considerable delay, that they could procure them […] Federigo, as was to be expected from him, gave to all encouragement and example. […] he wrote to his clergy: “Be ready to abandon this mortal life, rather than the family, the children, committed to us; go forward into the plague, as to life, as to a reward, when there is one soul to be won to Christ.”

      Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror. […] They entered the houses like masters, like enemies; and, not to mention their plunder, and how they treated the unhappy creatures reduced by the plague to pass through such hands, they laid them, — these infected and guilty hands, — on the healthy […] threatening to drag them to the Lazzeretto, unless they redeemed themselves, or were redeemed, with money. […] Other wretches, feigning to be monatti, and carrying little bells tied to their feet, as these officers were required to do, to distinguish themselves and to give warning of their approach, introduced themselves into houses, and there exercised all kinds of tyranny. Some of these, open and void of inhabitants, or inhabited only by a feeble or dying creature, were entered by thieves in search of booty, with impunity […]

      The imaginary vastness and strangeness of the plot distracted people’s understandings […] The ravings of the sick, who accused themselves of what they had apprehended from others, were considered as revelations, and rendered anything, so to say, credible of any one. […] it is difficult for all, or very many, to believe for a length of time that something extraordinary is being done, without some one coming forward who believes that he has done it. […] It was related […] that such a person, on such a day, had seen a carriage and six [horses] standing in the Square of the Cathedral, containing some great personage with a large suite, of lordly aspect, but dark and sunburnt, with fiery eyes, hair standing on end, and a threatening expression about the mouth. The spectator, invited to enter the equipage, complied; and after taking a turn or two, stopped and dismounted at the gate of a palace, where, entering with the rest, he beheld horrors and delights, deserts and gardens, caverns and halls; and in these were phantoms seated in council. Lastly, huge chests of money were shown to him, and he was told that he might take as much as he liked, if, at the same time, he would accept a little vessel of unctuous matter, and go about, anointing with it, through the city. Having revised to agree to the terms, he instantly found himself in the place whence he had been taken.

      Of equal value, if not exactly of the same nature, were the dreams of the learned; and equally disastrous were they in their effects. Most of them saw the announcement at once and cause of their troubles, in a comet which appeared in the year 1628, and in a conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter […] They ransacked books, and found only in too great abundance examples of pestilence produced, as they said, by human efforts; they quoted Livy, Tacitus, Dionysius, Homer, and Ovid […] They cited a hundred other authors, who have treated theoretically, or incidentally spoken, of poisons, sorceries, unctions, and powders; Cesalpino was quoted, Cardano, Grevin, Salio, Paré, Schenck, Zacchia, and finally […] that Delrio, whose Disquisitions on Magic […] was, for more than a century, the rule and powerful impulse of legal, horrible, and uninterrupted murders. […] two witnesses deposed to having heard one of their friends […] relate how some persons came one night into his room, to proffer him health and riches, if he would anoint the houses in the vicinity, and how, on his repeated refusal, they had taken their departure, and left in their stead a wolf under the bed, and three great cats upon it, “which remained there till break of day.”

      “I have met with sensible and well-informed people in Milan,” says the good [historian Ludovico] Muratori […], “who had received trustworthy accounts from their ancestors, and who were by no means persuaded of the truth of the facts concerning these poisonous ointments.” It seems there was a secret outlet for truth, some remaining domestic confidence; good sense still existed; but it was kept concealed, for fear of the popular sense.
      The magistrates, reduced in number daily, and disheartened and perplexed in everything, turned all their little vigilance […] in search of these Poisoners. And too easily did they think they had found them. […] here one, there many unhappy creatures were tried, and condemned to punishments the most atrocious, as guilty of having propagated the plague by means of powders, ointments, witchcraft, or all these together.

      This closes the two purely historical chapters to return to the fictional narrative, but other episodes of the plague will reappear in the following ones.

    • Concavenator says:

      For example, from chapter XXXIV, an image of Milan at the height of the plague:

      Such had been the virulence of the contagion, and the infection of the scattered corpses in this neighbourhood, that the few survivors had been obliged to remove […] what a city, and what living ! All the doorways into the streets kept shut from either suspicion or alarm, except those which were left open because deserted or invaded ; others nailed up and sealed outside, on account of the sick, or dead, who lay within; others marked with a cross drawn with coal, as an intimation to the monatti that there were dead to be carried away: all more a matter of chance than otherwise […] Everywhere were rags and corrupted bandages, infected straw, or clothes, or sheets, thrown from the windows; sometimes bodies, which had suddenly fallen dead in the streets, and were left there till a cart happened to pass by and pick them up, or shaken from off the carts themselves, or even thrown from the windows. To such a degree had the obstinacy and virulence of the contagion brutalized men’s minds, and divested them of all compassionate care, of every feeling of social respect! The stir of business, the clatter of carriages, the cries of sellers, the talking of passengers, all were everywhere hushed; and seldom was the death-like stillness broken but by the rumbling of funeral cars, the lamentations of beggars, the groans of the sick, the shouts of the frantic, or the vociferations of the monatti At daybreak, midday, and evening, one of the bells of the cathedral gave the signal for reciting certain prayers proposed by the Archbishop; its tones were responded to by the bells of the other churches; and then persons might be seen repairing to the windows to pray in common; and a murmur of sighs and voices might be heard which inspired sadness, mingled at the same time with some feeling of comfort.
      Two thirds, perhaps, of the inhabitants being by this time carried off, a great part of the remainder having departed, or lying languishing at home, and the concourse from without being reduced almost to nothing […] Men of the highest rank might be seen without cape or cloak […] priests without cassocks, friars without cowls; in short, all kinds of dress were dispensed with which could contract anything in fluttering about, or give (which was more feared than all the rest) facilities to the Poisoners. […] the beards of such as were accustomed to wear them grown much longer, and suffered to grow by those who had formerly kept them shaven; their hair, too, long and undressed, not only from the neglect which usually attends prolonged depression, but because suspicion had been attached to barbers ever since one of them, Giangiacomo Mora, had been taken and condemned as a famous Poisoner […] The greater number carried in one hand a stick, some even a pistol, as a threatening warning to any one who should attempt to approach them stealthily; and in the other, perfumed pastils, or little balls of metal or wood, perforated and filled with sponges steeped in aromatic vinegar, which they applied from time to time, as they went along, to their noses, or held there continually. Some carried a small vial hung round their neck, containing a little quicksilver, persuaded that this possessed the virtue of absorbing and arresting every pestilential effluvia […] Even friends, when they met in the streets alive, saluted each other at a distance, with silent and hasty signs. Every one, as he walked along, had enough to do to avoid the filthy and deadly stumblingblocks with which the ground was strewn, and in some places even encumbered. Every one tried to keep the middle of the road, for fear of some other obstacle, some other more fatal weight, which might fall from the windows ; for fear of venemous powders […] for fear, too, of the walls, which might, perchance, be anointed. Thus ignorance […] now added trouble to trouble, and incited false terrors in compensation for the reasonable and salutary ones which it had withstood at the beginning.

      And on a… let’s say, lighter note, from chapter XXXVII, the final days of Don Ferrante, a learned man who proves with Aristotelian metaphysics that the plague does not, in fact, exist:

      In rerum natura” he used to say, “there are but two species of things, substances and accidents; and if I prove that the contagion cannot be either one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist — that it is a mere chimera. Here I am, then. Substances are either spiritual or material. That the contagion is a spiritual substance, is an absurdity no one would venture to maintain; it is needless, therefore, to speak of it.
      Material substances are either simple or compound. Now, the contagion is not a simple substance; and this may be shown in a few words. It is not an ethereal substance; because, if it were, instead of passing from one body to another, it would fly off as quickly as possible to its own sphere. It is not aqueous; because it would wet things, and be dried up by the wind. It is not igneous; because it would burn. It is not earthy; because it would be visible. Neither is it a compound substance; because it must by all means be sensible to the sight and the touch; and who has seen this contagion? who has touched it? It remains to be seen whether it can be an accident. Worse and worse.
      These gentlemen, the doctors, say that it is communicated from one body to another; for this is their Achilles, this the pretext for issuing so many useless orders. Now, supposing it an accident, it comes to this, that it must be a transitive accident, two words quite at variance with each other; there being no plainer and more established fact in the whole of philosophy than this, that an accident cannot pass from one subject to another. For if, to avoid this Scylla, we shelter ourselves under the assertion that it is an accident produced, we fly from Scylla and run upon Charybdis: because, if it be produced, then it is not communicated, it is not propagated, as people go about affirming. These principles being laid down, what use is it to come talking to us so about weals, pustules, and carbuncles?”
      “All absurdities,” once escaped from somebody or other. ” No, no,” resumed Don Ferrante, “I don’t say so: science is science; only we must know bow to employ it. Weals, pustules, carbuncles, parotides, violaceous tumours, black swellings, are all respectable words, which have their true and legitimate signification; but I say that they don’t affect the question at all. Who denies that there may be such things, nay, that there actually are such ? All depends upon seeing where they come from.”
      Here began the woes even of Don Ferrante. So long as he confined himself to declaiming against the opinion of a pestilence, he found everywhere willing, obliging, and respectful listeners; for it cannot be expressed how much authority the opinion of a learned man by profession carries with it, while he is attempting to prove to others things of which they are already convinced. But when he came to distinguish, and to try and demonstrate that the error of these physicians did not consist in affirming that there was a terrible and prevalent malady, but in assigning its rules and causes; then […] he found rebellious and intractable opponents […]
      “There’s the true reason only too plainly, after all,” said he; “[…] Let them deny, if they can, that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter. And when was it ever heard say that influences may be propagated… And would these gentiemen deny the existence of influences? Will they deny that there are stars, or tell me that they are placed up there for no purpose, like so many pin-heads stuck into a pincushion?… But what I cannot understand about these doctors is this ; to confess that we are under so malignant a conjunction, and then to come and tell us, with an eager face, ‘Don’t touch this, and don’t touch that, and you’ll be safe!’ As if this avoiding of material contact with terrestrial bodies could hinder the virtual effect of celestial ones! And such anxiety about burning old clothes! Poor people! will you bum Jupiter, will you burn Saturn?”
      His fretus, that is to say, on these grounds, he used no precautions against the pestilence; took it, went to bed, and went to die, like one of Metastasio’s heroes, quarrelling with the stars. And that famous library of his? Perhaps it is still there, distributed around the walls. [i.e., on the stands of used book sellers]

      As you might have noticed, Alessandro Manzoni, the author — almost literal child of the Enlightenment that he was (he was probably related to Pietro Verri, the philosopher quoted in yesterday’s passage) — had very little patience with both popular superstition and vacuous sophistry.

  36. mehtaknight says:

    Just wanted to point out the interesting reversal of political views regarding quarantine from Scott’s last post on the subject, back when Ebola was the worry of the day:

    Maybe it is just random. Who knows?

    Scott, if you see this, I’d love to see your reflections on how things are different now compared to back when you wrote the linked post.

    • Clutzy says:

      Where’s the reversal. RW was calling for travel bans and quarantines for people from Africa then, as now.

      The only difference is now we have a higher leftwing response of domestic authoritarianism. This does not surprise anyone I think. The left has always had a proactive government bent on domestic issues.

      There are few remaining regulars from that comment section, but here’s @cassander

      my quick and dirty answer to why red tribe is pro quarantine? the core belief of red tribe is that america is the shining city upon a hill, and their duty is to defend it. the core belief of team blue is that america isn’t the shining city yet, but it can be, and their duty is to build it. keeping something bad out is the natural inclination of defenders, but is too simple a task to interest builders.

      • mehtaknight says:

        Thanks for the comment.
        That’s interesting. I guess my perspective is anecdotal, but I was under the impression this time around the left pushed for stronger, more proactive measures, including quarantine. Lots of “the government had months to act, but didn’t, and millions will die”, “Trump gutted all the organizations that could have best responded to the pandemic”, etc.

        I won’t be good at steelmanning the right-wing view, but I guess it’s something more… opposite of what I just said. “People are overreacting”, “shutting down the economy is a horrible idea” and so on.

        • tg56 says:

          Left or Right are probably way to broad of categories for this sort of thing. Both are composed of a bunch of different groups and those groups supported and opposed different measures at different times. And I think a fair bit of that goes with how measures align with underlying philosophies and beliefs and that people have been relatively consistent in those respects.

          iirc the major politicization around the ebola outbreak was around travel bans / quarantining of international travelers. With segments of the left considering it ineffective and stigmatizing and segments of the right considering it essential to preserve American lives.

          That feels pretty similar (anecdotally to at least me) to the experience with Coronavirus. I have e-mails and forwards for mid and late Jan. from my (right leaning, mountain west, libertarian adjacent) extended family calling for travel bans with China (and later East Asia), quarantining international travel and on a personal level stocking up on food, medicine and toliet paper (and ammo). Whereas my recollection of the general left consensus (at least at that time) was that travel bans were ineffective and stigmatizing (though more muted in the later then in the Ebola case; maybe Black undeveloped Africa vs. moderately developed Asian China effects the stigmatization concerns?). And indeed my more left leaning wife’s extended family was still doing a fair bit of traveling through early/mid Feb.

          We didn’t get that far with Ebola (thankfully!) but I suspect that government imposed lock-downs etc. would have also seen similar reactions to what we see currently (emphasis on government imposed, I have family that’s been voluntarily completely self-isolating since early March and plan to be able to do that for months if needed), with most of the resistance seeming to come from the right.

          But this all aligns to stereo-typed philosophy. Tighter borders, individual action (take care of your self, your family, your community [e.g. church members and friends], etc. on outward), extreme distrust in government imposed actions as opposed to individually decided ones on the right side. Inclusive (we’re all in this together), collectivist, top down solutions on the left side. Also, small business owners / landlords generally code right to me and an extended lock down is an existential question for them.

          When the proposed policy was tighter borders etc. (certain parts of) the right was pushing higher concern, the left less; when it was collectivist action, the state controlling the economy, etc. the reverse.

          With respect to the “the government had months to act, but didn’t, and millions will die” I think the telling thing is the use of past tense there. There’s a lot more of this coming out in March than there were calls for specific actions in say Jan. so it’s really hard to say how much of that reflects differences in beliefs / priorities vs. politicizing.

        • EchoChaos says:


          Lots of “the government had months to act, but didn’t, and millions will die”, “Trump gutted all the organizations that could have best responded to the pandemic”, etc.

          This is getting into some CW territory, but that’s mostly hindsight. At the time Trump was doing those things, the left was banging on him for his racist views.

          For example, when Trump shut down travel to China, New York’s chair of their health committee promoted going to Chinatown for a dense packed parade in a community with connections to Wuhan.

          The short answer is that the hard righties wanted VERY harsh measures against China, largely because it fit their pre-existing biases. Trump did moderate measures, which weren’t enough, and the left, which opposed even those moderate measures, is now using hindsight to attack.

        • albatross11 says:

          IMO, making these factual questions about tradeoffs into tribal questions seems like a terrible idea. In terms of both the epidemiology and macroeconomics, we’re in uncharted territory, there are painful tradeoffs in all directions, and we need to be thinking with our brains instead of our glands here.

        • Clutzy says:

          Echoing Echochaos,

          That’s interesting. I guess my perspective is anecdotal, but I was under the impression this time around the left pushed for stronger, more proactive measures, including quarantine. Lots of “the government had months to act, but didn’t, and millions will die”, “Trump gutted all the organizations that could have best responded to the pandemic”, etc.

          I won’t be good at steelmanning the right-wing view, but I guess it’s something more… opposite of what I just said. “People are overreacting”, “shutting down the economy is a horrible idea” and so on.

          This POV is only true in the month of March. AKA, when it was already generally too late to avoid disaster. In December & Jan, it was the extreme far right agitating on Corona which made its way to the Tucker-verse in late January, thus resulting in the first set of travel restrictions. At that time the left was still basically ignoring the developing pandemic.

          Now that we are in the March lockdown-verse its true that a lot on the right are saying we are overreacting. Part of it is because most of the worst outbreaks are not near them. Also I think a large part of it is not believing in the lockdown strategy, which is a reflection of the RW’s general skepticism of governmental competence in the domestic sphere.

          • LesHapablap says:

            At some point in Jan/Feb I saw a meme shared on facebook:

            How to Stop the Coronavirus:
            1. Wash your hands
            2. Don’t be Racist
            That’s it

            The implication being that calling for anything other than washing of hands was racist. A good example of wokeness or tribalness generally being dangerous.

          • albatross11 says:

            Tribalism makes you dumber, no matter which tribe you follow.

    • John Schilling says:

      Scott, if you see this, I’d love to see your reflections on how things are different now compared to back when you wrote the linked post.

      One thing that is different is that Ebola was not a new disease. We had a very good understanding of how it was transmitted, and since that didn’t include airborne or aerosol transmission we knew how to treat and quarantine possible cases with very little chance of spreading – and essentially no chance of spreading beyond their immediate health-care workers, who we could regularly and reliably test to make sure they weren’t going to become carriers.

      Another thing that is different is that Ebola outbreaks occur in countries that first-world tourists and businessmen rarely visit, so we didn’t have hordes of well-off, well-connected travelers coming home and saying “I feel fine, so up yours with this self-isolation nonsense”. Mostly just actual Ebola patients and returning health-care and disaster-relief workers, who knew the stakes and were on-board with the appropriate containment measures.

  37. ana53294 says:

    Which measures against the coronavirus are useless security theatre (i.e., they don’t help stop the coronavirus at all)?

    Things that are not helpful at all:

    Tanks in the streets. I can’t find a news source, but it’s been passed on social media, and the videos I’ve seen are not fake. Seriously, why? Why are they trying to scare civilians like that? And in a country with the history of Spain.

    Reducing the number of trains without reducing the number of passengers. How is having everybody packed like a can of sardines supposed to help the spread of disease?

    Demanding that people who are in a car, travelling, stop, open the window, hand documents to policemen, get them back. Like, wouldn’t that also help spread disease?

    Stopping people in the middle of the countryside with nobody around who are walking their dog/minding their business, forcing them to interact with a policeman to hand documents and get a fine. Like, they weren’t interacting with anybody before, now they are interacting with police?

    Things that are counter-productive, but could be reasonable if not applied in all cases:

    Closing all hotels. Like, I get it, you don’t want new tourists coming, and hotels are places where people congregate. But if you’re banning all travel, there will be some people stuck in your city before they can leave, who can’t find an apartment in lockdown conditions. There are also people who may not have a home. Kicking them to the streets won’t help stop the pandemic. Also, hotels are efficient ways to house people who are travelling for work. What if you suddenly need to send hundreds of medical stuff from one city to another? You need to house them somewhere, and that place should not be a hospital.

    Taking over local authorities and centralizing everything. It could make sense to make coordination easier, but suspending due process and taking over when the relevant authorities were willing to cooperate is due to create social distrust, and not worth it in the long term. Besides, it won’t save any lives.

    Stopping people who live in the same household from travelling in the same car. Like, why? Why would it be better if they go together in a bus?

    • Garrett says:

      Issue my full-time employer is facing: We have a local office with a small datacenter. If we send in professional cleaners to deep-clean All The Things, is it reasonable to have exactly 1 person on-site during business hours? No shipping/receiving, no interactions with the public. Just there to manage whatever occasional hardware issues in the datacenter which require physical buttons to be pushed or cabled to be moved? My current government’s order seems to say that’s banned, but at the same time it’s certainly not against the goals of the order.

      • ana53294 says:

        Not allowing one person to work alone does seem kind of pointless, I agree. Security theater more than real security.

        • albatross11 says:

          Is this about preventing some kind of security breach by maintaining two-person control of a system?

        • Kaitian says:

          The person still has to get to work and home again, which will involve more exposures than staying at home would. But most of the lockdown orders I’ve heard certainly allow a company to make workers come in if it’s necessary and they can guarantee social distancing. So unless you live in an exceptionally draconian state, it’s probably allowed.

          • ana53294 says:

            Well, Spain is an especially draconian state. This things are scary.

            And while it’s been established that what’s in the streets are not tanks, but tank destroyers, frankly, I don’t see a practical in civilian scaring. They’re jailing people and they are doing it for no reason.

          • while it’s been established that what’s in the streets are not tanks, but tank destroyers

            That makes even less sense. Is your government afraid of the French or Portuguese invading? Maybe the mighty Andorran Army?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            That makes even less sense. Is your government afraid of the French or Portuguese invading? Maybe the mighty Andorran Army?

            I mean I think we pretty well established that the tank destroyers are just showing off to intimidate unarmed Spanish civilians.

          • Matt M says:

            Might the Spanish military be on slightly “higher alert” than most, given the possibility of Catalan secession?

    • Creutzer says:

      Tanks in the streets. I can’t find a news source, but it’s been passed on social media, and the videos I’ve seen are not fake. Seriously, why? Why are they trying to scare civilians like that? And in a country with the history of Spain.

      Here’s a different take on it: compliance with measures in Western countries is absolutely abysmal. The tanks are there to scare people into staying the fuck at home. If that’s what it takes for them to do that, then let them have those tanks.

      • ana53294 says:

        Or, if the so-called life-saving measures you are taking are so restricting of liberty you literally need tanks in the streets to scare people, maybe the lives said are not worth the cost to liberty.

        • Creutzer says:

          Your liberty to get infected is also your liberty to infect other people. The former isn’t very worthy of protection, and the latter should absolutely be taken away from you. Since they happen to be the same liberty, I find the choice very easy.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Indeed, as Evangeline Lilly said, “Give me liberty or give me death by COVID-19”.

        • ana53294 says:

          Why shouldn’t my right to die of coronavirus while hugging my grandpa who’s in hospital and attending his funeral and getting married and going to the park with my kids rather than being in the jail of my own home be defended? That’s the life I want for me, dammit.

          If a 90 year old man would rather take a chance and hug his grankids and go to the park with them, rather than spending months of whatever little time he’s got left in this world in the prison of his own home, why shouldn’t he be allowed to do so?

          • Purplehermann says:

            The right for people to risk themselves is one question, risking others is another…

          • ana53294 says:

            So whose life are they risking by going alone to walk their dog?

            And shouldn’t the right to risk your life also be a collective right? i.e., if I agree to risk my life, and my friend agrees to risk his life, and our group of friends who also agrees to risk their lives go to risk our lives together by having a barbeque, to where they came by car without interacting with anybody who didn’t agree to risk their life? Why shouldn’t we be able to sign forms by which we agree to risk our lifes, please let us have our orgy/picnic/book club/other group activity in peace?

          • noyann says:

            And shouldn’t the right to risk your life also be a collective right?

            Not if the claimants of this right can’t guarantee that they will not be infecting anyone who is not actively claiming the same right. Else they are a spreading vector.
            Your liberty stops at the liberty of the other.

          • albatross11 says:

            Personally, I think risking your own life is 100% your right as a competent adult. Go climb Mt Everest, take up wingsuit jumps, ride your motorcycle without a helmet–feel free, no skin off my nose.

            The problem is when you’re also making risk/reward tradeoffs for me, and especially when you’re getting most of the rewards (say, you’re a healthy 25 year old who’d rather party than stay home, and I’m a 70 year old with emphysema who’d like to live to see Christmas). This is a bit like the calculation w.r.t speeding–if you want to drive 180 kph on a private track, that’s nobody’s business but your own. If you want to drive that fast on shared city streets, you’re not just making your own risk decisions, you’re making decisions about what risks you’ll impose on everyone else.

            Further, this is a collective-action problem. We try to arrange our society to minimize how often we have to get these to work right, because we’re bad at them when we can’t use markets or social norms or relatively simple and legible laws to align everyone to the right behavior. But in some cases, like war and epidemic, there’s some kind of extraordinary collective action which is needed to respond effectively, like quarantining known sick people, or rationing a critical supply of something during a short-term emergency, or imposing a curfew. This is a problem, since the people empowered to impose these rules are often inept or corrupt, and always have their own agenda. (For example, a lot of what was done post-9/11 in the US was stuff that the NSA and FBI had on their wishlist for a couple decades before the attacks.) But the cost of not being able to do some kinds of collective actions in a crisis seems so high that it’s better to let the inept, corrupt, self-seeking powerful people do what we hope is their best, knowing that the voters will hopefully remember and respond.

          • Purplehermann says:

            1. You are right in theory. In practice shutting everything down works better. The more exceptions tere are, the more people make allowances.

            2. The other issue is medical system overload.
            If you and your friends all agree to be last priority for all medical help (ie you will have your life support pulled to save someone else if it comes to it, if you get it). Otherwise you are risking others indirectly.

      • Matt M says:

        I can’t speak for Spain, but many of those viral “tanks in the streets” videos in the US are very old and/or are capturing typical movement of tanks or national guard drills/exercises.

        • ana53294 says:

          Nah, they are recent. The streets are deserted, even in places with circulation of people. There really are tanks in the streets.

          In the Basque country, for example, the central government took over the airport. OK, fair enough, they have the authority. The local government said, don’t send cleaning crews, we’ve got it handled, we’re cleaning the airport. The central government sent the tanks and the army to disinfect the airport.

          In Spain, the coronavirus crisis is the opportunity the central government is using to take a power trip and to quash all those pesky autonomies. To show who’s boss. They have the authority, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t to inform local authorities about what they are going to do.

          They are stepping on toes that don’t need to be stepped on. Tanks on the streets are not necessary, removing federalism is not necessary, this is a power trip to show who’s boss.

        • ana53294 says:

          I couldn’t find any videos or photos in verified media of the tanks, although I could find videos of armoured artillery vehicles in the streets, the Spanish Legion in the streets, and the occupation of public squares.

          But I have been told by trusted first-eye accounts that they’ve seen tanks* in the streets. I have also been told by that same trusted person that social media stories criticizing the panic/the government have dissappeared.

          *Tanks with wheels. Are they still called tanks in English?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            *Tanks with wheels. Are they still called tanks in English?

            In English, tanks have tracks and a turreted gun big enough to kill other tanks. The broader term is “Armored Fighting Vehicle”. “Armored car” would be shorter and to the point, but not used post-WW2.

          • ana53294 says:

            Well, there are big armored vehicles with turreted guns. It doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether the big armored vehicles with turreted guns big enough to kill a tank have tracks or no, they still shouldn’t be in public streets to police civilians. In Russian, these vehicles are called “tankettes”.

            I guess tanks with tracks would destroy the roads, and are unnecessary in a city environment anyway.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Well, there are big armored vehicles with turreted guns. It doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether the big armored vehicles with turreted guns big enough to kill a tank have tracks or no, they still shouldn’t be in public streets to police civilians.

            Well, yeah. Anything tank-like patrolling a city is just a symbolic flex by the de jure or de facto central government (think Hungary 1956, despite it not being part of the Soviet Union).
            The more pragmatic use for rolling armored vehicles among civilians is protecting infantry-like gendarmes from machine guns and mortar shrapnel, if you know you have separatists with such weapons.

          • Nornagest says:

            In Russian, these vehicles are called “tankettes”.

            Interesting. “Tankette” is a perfectly good English word, but it describes a class of small, tracked armored vehicle that’s been obsolete since sometime around WWII.

            That being said, people who aren’t military geeks like me generally won’t raise their eyebrows too much if you call a Bradley (an IFV) or an M113 (APC) or a Stryker (a whole mess of classes) a tank. Strictly speaking it’s not one, but it’s got armor, it’s got guns on it, that’s good enough for most.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:


            Interesting. “Tankette” is a perfectly good English word, but it describes a class of small, tracked armored vehicle that’s been obsolete since sometime around WWII.

            IIRC, the”tankette” function was like an armored car on tracks, a scout vehicle with a turreted gun of any size. By not being stretched to carry an infantry squad (armored van?), I suppose they were obsoleted by air recon and then satellites?

          • Nornagest says:

            Armored scout cars are still around, though these days they’re usually MRAP variants or up-armored light trucks rather than purpose-built designs — I gather the heydey of the latter was the Sixties and Seventies. I’m not an armor expert, but my guess would be that the weight penalty for tracks didn’t turn out to be worth the advantage on rough or broken terrain in the scout role.

          • John Schilling says:

            The least obnoxious “tank” to have on the streets would be a mechanized infantry combat vehicle (MICV) or armored infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV). That’s basically the vehicle, wheeled or tracked, that a squad of infantry soldiers use to get where they are going, with a modest gun turret on top because often they need fire support when they get there. If, this time, they’re going to be glorified traffic cops or disaster-relief workers, they don’t need the gun turret but it’s kind of permanently attached and the MICV was parked right outside their barracks ready to go.

            Still, it’s a bad public relations move and it’s usually not that hard to find them a less threatening truck or utility vehicle. And the tracked ones are hard on the pavement.

          • ana53294 says:

            it’s usually not that hard to find them a less threatening truck or utility vehicle

            It’s not that hard, and in most cases, they’ve found other vehicles.

            The fact that they selectively use armored fighting vehicles in some specific cases in politically sensitive regions means they’re doing it on purpose as a scare tactic.

          • Perico says:

            The fact that they selectively use armored fighting vehicles in some specific cases in politically sensitive regions means they’re doing it on purpose as a scare tactic.

            As far as I can tell, it looks like it’s not such a common occurrence, so the use of tank-ish vehicles may be the exception, rather than the norm. The example video you linked showed an armored car with no mounted guns that I could see, on the streets of Albacete (hardly a politically sensitive region). I did a bit of googling on my own, and I couldn’t find any worse offences. If the army was deploying tanks as a deliberate scare tactic, my expectation is that they’d to a better job at publicizing it.

            On the other hand, “tanks on the street” does not need to be literal to be worrying. I understand that seeing the army on the streets of Bilbao or Barcelona is unprecedented and scary (even moreso than seen them in Madrid). I honestly think that the purpose of their deployment is to help with the current crisis, but that’s probably not very reassuring if you think otherwise.

          • Tarpitz says:

            Based on your description, the vehicles in question could be either Centauro tank destroyers (8 wheels, big gun) or Pegaso reconnaissance vehicles (6 wheels, smaller gun). As far as I can tell, the Spanish army does not operate any kind of infantry transport with a turret, so John’s hypothetical excuse won’t fly in this case.

          • ana53294 says:

            It’s the Centauro. That’s what the witness told me. They also told me they were too afraid to photograph/video that. And social media photos get deleted.

          • Deiseach says:

            Tanks with wheels. Are they still called tanks in English?

            That sounds less like tanks and more like armoured personnel carriers, if that is what is on the streets. In Northern Ireland the British Army used Saracens and, in conjunction with the police force, Pigs (yeah, nominative determinism strikes again). And then, for the police alone, the armoured Land Rovers.

            So if it’s happening, I’d say more “personnel carriers” and not “tanks”. Although! Searching online for the kinds of armoured vehicles used during the Troubles, I saw this – a Fox armoured reconnaissance vehicle. Given that it has a turret, it does look like “a tank with wheels” so maybe the Spanish Army has similar vehicles?

            By the way, I’ve seen reports of the Army in Spain finding dead bodies in nursing homes – what is going on, is this true?

          • bean says:

            I’m not an armor expert, but my guess would be that the weight penalty for tracks didn’t turn out to be worth the advantage on rough or broken terrain in the scout role.

            I think a lot of it was probably improvements in the cross-country performance of heavier wheeled vehicles. Back in WWII, we couldn’t build really good all-wheel drive systems so we had light tanks and such. Over time, we’ve been able to give heavier and heavier wheeled vehicles good mobility, so tracks remain only on the really heavy stuff that’s going to have ground pressure problems if it isn’t tracked.
            (Of course, I’m also not an expert in that kind of armor.)

          • John Schilling says:

            Bean’s got it. During World War 2, some of the major powers fielded actual tanks as heavy as anything on today’s battlefields, but nobody could make an armored car bigger than twelve metric tons. Now, we’ve got armored cars of up to twenty-eight tons with excellent cross-country performance, and wheeled self-propelled artillery at a whopping forty-six tons.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @John: The Centauro in particular is 24 metric tonnes with the firepower of a last-generation tank (Leopard I). Especially given the language barrier, ana wasn’t overreacting to say Madrid is putting tanks in the streets some places (well I guess the roads would care a lot about the technical difference).

          • John Schilling says:

            Agreed; if they’re using Centauros for this, that signals “I want to intimidate the crap out of people without tearing up the pavement”.

          • The Nybbler says:

            So the countermove would to be leaving pie plates out in the road?

          • John Schilling says:

            The pie plates work better if you have a few actual anti-tank mines to keep them guessing.

          • CatCube says:

            So the countermove would to be leaving pie plates out in the road?

            That’s called a “phony minefield” in mine warfare parlance, and as pointed out:

            Phony minefields are of no value until the enemy has become sensitive to mine warfare.

            Pie plates will work but only after you’ve killed some dudes.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Are the Basque separatists known to have anti-tank mines? If so, the phony minefield might be enough to get across the message of “You don’t scare us”.

          • ana53294 says:

            Considering even ISIS has ordered its fighters to avoid Europe (unless they are infected), there is nobody that could do that anymore.

            The Basque separatists were known for car bombs, but they’ve given up the armed fight. The only thing that remains for ETA to end is solving the prisoner issue, which Madrid doesn’t want to do.

      • albatross11 says:


        In no case I know of would tanks be helpful there. Policemen giving out tickets, maybe; tanks and soldiers, almost certainly not.

      • Garrett says:

        I can see a value of using those vehicles to eg. block off freeway entrances if there’s a desire to limit where people can drive easily. They’re big and heavy, so the guy with a pickup truck with push bars or the occasional drunk driver won’t push them out of the way. And they’re otherwise kind of useless. So probably a better use than having several cops and cop cars blocking the road. But that’s pretty limited.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Interesting list of situations. I’ve been mostly impressed by the actions taken against the virus; it is much less theater than all the crazy things we to supposedly prevent terrorism. But you had a pretty good list.

      Tanks in the streets. I’ve not heard of this before. I don’t think we have that in the US. Yes, I think that is theater.

      Reducing the number of trains. Yes that is dumb. I haven’t heard this, but I have heard stores limiting their hours. That is completely counter productive to stopping the virus. If the store is getting fewer customers it might make sense to do this to cut costs. But it is a very dumb as an anti-virus move.

      I have been kind of wondering what happens when the government declares a “shelter at home” decree. We don’t have that yet where I live. It sounds to me that the government is telling people to not go outside at all except when necessary to get supplies? I take walks and runs outside now and I create absolutely no risk for spreading the virus. It is not difficult at all to maintain a safe social distance. Of course this isn’t the case in very crowded areas, but those are the minority. Also, driving in a car is totally safe, if alone or with the same people you live with. Are police actually stopping lone pedestrians or drivers? Yes, that is nuts. Not even theater, it is counter productive.

      Hotels, I am not sure of. I suppose the government doesn’t want people traveling about to spread the disease, but I think staying in a hotel should be pretty safe, as long as the hotel cleans the room carefully between residents. I have heard of French police stopping people that are heading to their vacation home in the country. I don’t understand that.

      Is Spain requiring “shelter at home?” Do you now literally spend all your time at home?

      • Loriot says:

        Different countries have implemented different levels of restrictions under the term “shelter in place”. At least in California, “shelter in place” means you can still go out for walks and exercise, just don’t be stupid about it (i.e. stay six feet away from other people). The police aren’t stopping anyone – I think that part was referring to Italy.

        • beleester says:

          Same in Ohio – stay at home, nonessential businesses closed, but common sense exceptions exist for getting groceries, walking in the park, etc.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Same in Washington State, as of a few hours ago when it got imposed.

      • ana53294 says:

        It seems like my English is not good enough, they are not tanks, they are “Armored Fighthing Vehicles”. Still bad.

        Well, I don’t know how it is in other countries, but I know how it is in Spain. In Spain, you are not allowed to go out of home, except for work or to buy food.

        If you have a job you are supposed to go to, they give you a document, saying, you live in point A, you work in point B, you are supposed to follow route X to go to work. Police can stop you and check whether you follow the route. If you are visiting ill family members in the hospital, you need a justifying document.

        It has gone to the extreme where people rent a dog so they can go outside.

        Only one person per car, even if the people are spouses who sleep in the same bed and have sex with each other (what would be more high risk than that?).

        Stores, in my town, don’t allow people to go in. You text/call them, tell them the items you want, they prepare the order, you pick it outside the store, leave the money.

        People who live in cities, in homes without gardens/lawns/backyards, are going bonkers. It’s worse than prison, in some ways, because in prison you get to walk in the courtyard, and some people don’t even get that.

        You get a fine between 600-600k for not staying home, so yes, it’s required.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I don’t know anything about the Spanish government’s true motivations. Nor do I know about what measures Spain had heretofore been taking.

      But if you look at the track Spain is on compared to other countries in terms of the number of deaths per capita, it is even more scary. So, it’s possible they are in “throw everything and the kitchen sink against the wall to see if something will stick” mode. This might be especially true if people previously had been ignoring the various public health mandates.

      Or, I suppose they could be worried about the Basque region and the are signaling their willingness to go to “Prince Assad” mode if anyone has any ideas amidst the coming dissatisfaction.

      Just complete guesses though.

      • ana53294 says:

        Yes, it’s bad in Spain. Mostly because the virus got into elderly care homes, and then it was like a fox in a coop. The way to avoid that is to deploy massive testing on elderly care homes, not to put healthy young people in home jails without judge or jury.

        And then, you have to look at where the deaths are. They are mostly in Madrid. Yes, Spain is not that big, but by population, it’s more populated than California, the most populated US state.

        If a lot of people start dying in LA, it probably makes sense to impose draconian measures in LA. If the powers that be decide to use this opportunity to deal with all those gun owners, banning all gun use for now, that wouldn’t be necessary or make people trust that you’re doing it because of the coronavirus. And it would be unconstitutional, too.

        If anything, they need to be more delicate of local sensibilities to show that yes, it’s really about the coronavirus, and not about the million other things that you can’t do because the Constitution and the rule of law won’t allow in ordinary times. Because if many people start thinking it’s not about the coronavirus, then it could be counterproductive.

        *I don’t think it’s bad enough that they would start doing that, but in Spain, there’s good reason to thin that what they say they’re doing is not the only thing they’re doing.

        EDIT: changed example from water rights to gun use, because that shows the level of disagreements in Spain better.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        The fact that there’s absolutely no reason to expect a kitchen sink to stick to a wall only makes it an even better metaphor for what’s going on there.

    • ana53294 says:

      In contrast, a country that reacted quickly, preemptively, and reasonably, without using tank-like vehicles to scare its own citizens and maintaining a functional democracy while (so far) avoiding a pandemic: Taiwan.

      They did extend school holidays for two weeks, but they didn’t close them. Restaurants continue open, but taking precautions like checking everybody’s temperature, and disinfecting hands. These measures, although strict, are workable medium-term solutions. While we probably can’t afford to place every traveller on a two-week quarantine for years, it is workable within the next couple of years, if the pandemic continues.

      When I see what they’re doing in Taiwan, I think I could live with that for a couple of years. It is workable. Extreme, but workable.

  38. Orion says:

    Michael Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner is set in a futuristic earth during an Ice Age. I don’t really remember where it takes place geographically but an adventure story with ice and schooners.

  39. albatross11 says:

    Question (More-or-less from upthread):

    Is there a set of best-practices for running a workplace while minimizing COVID-19 spread risk? This would be good to get worked out, debugged, tested, and written down widely, for when we start going back to work/school. This is also important because some stuff needs to continue to be done, and it would be smart to work out what to do to minimize spread.

    My sense is that a basic part of this is going to be getting people to wear masks and having hand sanitizer everywhere. Maybe a ritual where every class period, all the kids use the hand sanitizer before going to their next class.

    The other thing that seems useful here is setting things aside for >72 hours, since from what I’ve read, the virus seems not to persist on surfaces longer than that (at room temperature–probably it survives longer in a refrigerator or freezer.) All by itself, that means that (for example), imposing a 4-day work/school week breaks surface transmission once a week even without using bleach solution or something on all the doorknobs and such.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      I think the rules are going to vary based on the work environment.

      Is it tolerable to skin to use sanitizer frequently? I’ve been conserving the stuff and using soap and water, but that started to irritate my skin so I backed off.

      Other rules include keeping groups together. One company I contract for has a “Red Team” and “Blue Team” working on-site in alternate weeks. Schools and daycares should isolate groups from each other. This is a lot easier in elementary schools when the class stays together than in secondary/high school where they all mix all over the place.

      Portable hand-washing stations (with soap and water) need to Become A Thing. They would have been useful at airports.

    • AlesZiegler says:

      I am not sure about wearing masks, since WHO recommends that single use mask should be replaced as soon “as it is damp”, which is probably not a long time, judging by my experience with my primitive homemade reusable mask (which should be, according to instructions from medical professionals I received, boiled over or washed on 60 degrees Celsius after two hours of wearing).

      Employees should obviously hold to distances of 2 metres from each other and should not share kitchen appliances, pens, computers or any other stuff. I found out that it is, um, difficult to persuade my colleagues in an office environment to strictly adhere to this. Basically only workable solution is that everyone who can work from home should do that.

      Hand sanitizer is nowadays a scarce commodity that tends to be stolen when put to communal use.

    • Jon S says:

      Minimize door handles/knobs that need to be touched with your hand. Stuff like this is an alternative:

      If there are some you can’t get rid of, keep hand sanitizer on the wall next to those doors.

      Offer generous sick leave (and encourage taking it). Maximize working from home. Maximize space between workers where possible.

  40. Le Maistre Chat says:

    With 16 confirmed cases, the fewest in the United States, Governor Justice of West Virginia is issuing a stay-at-home order.
    Now my question is… can we find someone surnamed Governor to put on the judiciary?

    • BBA says:

      Britain used to have a Chief Justice named Judge.

      • AlphaGamma says:

        There was also a senior judge named Laws.

        For several years, Lord Justice Judge and Lord Justice Laws were judges of the Court of Appeal- I wonder if they ever wrote opposing opinions.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          I keenly feel the lack of a Lord Justice Order there.
          “Order! Order in the court!”

    • bullseye says:

      We’ve got Governor Justice, and we had a Senator Gouverneur. We now need a Justice Senator.

    • Nornagest says:

      Governor Justice sounds like he’s all set to fight the Mad Gear gang.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Like a pandemic, an uprising by a street gang whose leaders include a crazed army veteran and a huge white katana master is something you want government to be all set for early.

  41. johan_larson says:

    Ontario and Quebec, the two most populous provinces in Canada, have announced more extensive shutdown measures starting end-of-day Tuesday. Everything except essential businesses (grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like) will be shut down for at least two weeks. Presumably businesses that can operate from home, like the software development lab where I work, will stay in operation.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      *shuts down in English/French*

    • johan_larson says:

      The list of “essential workplaces” that are allowed to keep operating in Ontario is now available. It’s long.

      Notably, restaurants are allowed to keep operating, but only for take-out and delivery. That seems like an obviously non-essential function.

      Maybe this will be enough. If not, there is easily room for another round of shutdowns.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Notably, restaurants are allowed to keep operating, but only for take-out and delivery. That seems like an obviously non-essential function.

        Lots of people don’t know how to cook or don’t have time to cook. I think it’s reasonable for a nurse who’s been putting in 14 hour shifts during the pandemic to be able to pick up a hot meal on their way home.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Agree. And we’re still figuring a lot of this shit out. I’ll expect the list to shrink and grow as we learn things.

          This is a lot more slack than I would normally give to governments who normally plow over people just to find out that, say, the latest version of communism doesn’t really work just because you slapped a new label on it. We’ll see if my faith ends up justified.

        • ana53294 says:

          I think the same argument applies to hotels, for example (if a nurse would rather stay in a hotel than go home to her parents, wouldn’t that be reasonable, for example?).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Or for people who don’t have homes or access to their homes right now. One of my coworkers had a water leak that flooded his house and he lived in a hotel for about a month while it was getting cleaned up.

          • albatross11 says:

            Giving people more powers doesn’t make them any smarter or wiser. This is IMO demonstrated again every time a government responds to some crisis in a dumb way–either security-theater style or respect-my-authoriteh style or just silly backwards counterproductive orders that get enforced because the counterproductive orders have the force of law behind them.

      • Kaitian says:

        In addition to people who just don’t want to cook, there are lots of people who don’t have a fully equipped kitchen, or who are physically not able to cook for one reason or another, and who rely on restaurants for getting any hot meals at all.
        I guess forcing everyone to move their food buying from restaurants to grocery stores would also put more strain on supply chains, and food is probably the most time sensitive thing people need to buy.

  42. Bobobob says:

    Anticipating an upcoming reduction in workplace massacres, will there be an accompanying increase in domestic massacres? I’m asking for a friend who just learned that public schools will be closed through May 15.

    • Matt M says:

      I haven’t checked/verified any of this, but I’ve heard anecdotal claims on social media that the police are seeing a pretty big increase in domestic violence.

      • Bobobob says:

        I mean, I’m joking, but an awful lot of families are going to be living in awfully close proximity to one another for the next couple of months. We might be looking at The Shining multiplied by a few orders of magnitude.

    • The former are rare compared to the latter.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      We’re not really hit hard down here, so keeping schools closed for another 7 weeks is rather shocking. I thought we should take it 1 or 2 weeks at a time, but at some point telling people they definitely aren’t coming back might give them better ability to prepare.

  43. EchoChaos says:

    A modest proposal for the mitigation of Coronavirus harm:

    Coronavirus has had a substantially less severe effect at lower/tropical latitudes. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand had early cases but have not seen the same disease curves that more northerly countries have. The same is true within China, where their tropical cities were hit much less hard. Note: I am not a doctor, this may be coincidence. Do not act irresponsibly because of your latitude.

    The United States is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this! We have a substantial amount of our industry positioned within a tropical lower latitude area connected with our other industries.

    However, we still want to prevent disease spread within the United States, obviously. Therefore, we should restrict internal travel between the tropical zones where we should have fewer restrictions and the less tropical zones where we should lockdown harshly in order to arrest spread.

    We should call these zones C for “Coastal” since our tropics lie on the Gulf Coast and “U” for “Upper”, since our other states are up states away from the coast.

    Travel from C to U and vice versa should be restricted by internal visas.

    Allowing the separation of C and U would definitely be good and would allow us to not have to take too much economic damage while still reducing our death toll.

    Nyy jvgu n jvax naq n fzvyr. Ubcr vg oevtugrarq lbhe qnl.

    • Bobobob says:

      I’d like to believe that tropical-zone stuff, residing as I do in the middle South, but isn’t Louisiana experiencing the worst COVID outbreak in the U.S. right now?

      • EchoChaos says:

        I feel like you might’ve missed the joke.

        Edit: But for the practical answer, the worst outbreak in the United States is New York by far, with the West Coast being hit hard too. Louisiana is the worst in the South, but relative to those, not awful.

        Again, do not ignore health directives because of your latitude or climate.

        • Bobobob says:

          Oh, crap. When I start missing jokes, that’s when I know I’m really stressed out. (I should’ve been tipped off by that “modest proposal” part.)

        • Matt M says:

          Is it possible that Louisiana in general or New Orleans specifically is the hardest hit area “per capita”?

          • EchoChaos says:

            No, although that’s much closer. Seattle is the worst per capita. The New Orleans metro has 1.2m people, compared to New York’s 8.3 million. New York is currently at ~10 times the deaths of NOLA.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I think I missed the joke, unless these measures are to start on March 31.

    • broblawsky says:

      A further modest proposal: given that Blood Type A is more likely to be infected by coronavirus and to experience more severe outcomes from infection, while Blood Type O is less likely to be infected and less likely to suffer severe effects, I feel that we should also implement differential quarantine requirements based on blood type. Unfortunately, there’s no unified database of citizen blood types, but there is a decent proxy we can use: race. Caucasians are the most likely to be Type A, while African Americans are the most likely to be Type O.

      Ergo, we should segregate all Caucasians to new quarantine zone camps where they can receive better medical care, while African Americans can manage the camps. Obviously, we’ll have to temporarily abrogate the civil liberties of the detained citizens, along with their franchise, to stop them from voting themselves out of the camps before this crisis has been passed. And, of course, we’ll have to implement some kind of labor conscription system for the quarantinees in order to keep costs for the camps down. All of this will be temporary, of course; we can trust the camp managers to relieve the quarantine once it’s no longer necessary.

      I think that this is the best approach for minimizing the death toll from COVID-19 while minimizing the economic damage from containment.

      • EchoChaos says:

        Caucasians are the most likely to be Type A, while African Americans are the most likely to be Type O.

        It’s actually Hispanics that are most likely to be Type O. Otherwise, excellent proposal! Top notch!

    • eric23 says:

      Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand had early cases but have not seen the same disease curves that more northerly countries have.

      Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are northerly countries that have not see the same disease curves that southerly countries like Ecuador and Brazil have. Clearly the virus spreads more in tropical latitudes, not less!

  44. Loriot says:

    The burger place I went to a week and a half ago (for takeout ordered online) has now closed temporarily due to the outbreak. That didn’t take long. I’m kind of surprised, since takeout is specifically exempted, but restaurants are hanging on by a hair in the best of times, so I suppose it isn’t unexpected.

  45. Deiseach says:

    The Riddle of the Sands, a spy/adventure story set in the Baltic Sea, though the plot probably is more about the spying than ‘nautical adventure in the North’.

  46. analytic_wheelbarrow says:

    Great NYTimes article.
    Money quote: “I believe we may be ineffectively fighting the contagion even as we are causing economic collapse.”

    • acymetric says:

      I’ve been saying this for weeks!

      I don’t know enough about the author, is he authoritative/legitimate enough for me to comfortably cite when I try to make this argument?

      • Anteros says:

        That makes a lot of sense to me too. And analytic_wheelbarrow is correct about the money quote.

      • Well... says:

        Dr. Katz is president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.

        More authoritative/legitimate than a journalist at least.

    • MrA says:

      Has anyone done an analysis of the economic impact of the infection going totally out of control, infecting a high percentage of the population, and requiring millions of hospitalizations/deaths?

      Answering my own question, here is a very rough attempt from the National Review:

    • diogenes says:

      As a quantitative modeler and data scientist, I consider my education and experience to prepare me at best to understand at a *very* basic level the intricacies of an epidemiological model for infectious diseases. I am being very generous in my favor. There are fields of epidemiology that focus on other areas and those epidemiologists have very little to contribute to this discussion. If you expand the field of experts to folks in public health, Ph.Ds and MDs notwithstanding, we are really going out on a limb. Economists should just commit harakiri with their keyboard before saying anything in this discussion 😉

      I know some folks who work in infectious disease transmission and modeling. In addition to stellar mathematical, statistical and network modeling chops there is a huge amount of domain-specific data about virology, biology, human behavior, past epidemics, etc. etc that they have to understand.

      Roughly, I find the confounding factors about models about the current epidemic seem to the following:

      1- 1% of the population severely affected etc. (see: Diamond Princess). What they fail to appreciate is that the Diamond Princess was an enclosed environment and the outbreak was controlled on board. In the general population, a virus with an R0 of 3 will infect 50,000+ people in 10 infection steps.

      2- What most people miss is the collision of the 1% severity with the capacity of the medical system. This second-order effect is something hard to understand. 1% of the US is 3.6 million. Even if 10% of those cases turn up at the ER in the same year and occupy the beds for 2 weeks each it will be a disaster.

      3- Then that interacts with life as usual demands on the health care system – accidents, heart attacks, etc. to create dire third order effects – more deaths as there are no beds and no personnel to deal with them.

      4- PPE running short and causing infections amongst medical personnel leading to their quarantine, hospitalization or death decimates their ranks and accentuates the stress on the health care system…….

      I am sure there are factors I have missed .

      None of these contrarian thinkers make any concrete suggestions (Ionnadis, Katz, Friedman, Gillespie) except making ominous predictions to how wrong we are. They provide no simulations of how saving the economy will lead to lesser deaths. Just hand waving and finger jabbing.

      I will take the word of the viral epidemiologists over your armchair speculations and continue to overreact.

      • albatross11 says:

        The trick is, you need to be willing to understand the arguments/reasons yourself. Otherwise, you listen just as carefully to the confident predictions of epidemiologists, macroeconomists, sociologists, and astrologers. Don’t get too caught up in the question of who has the right background to understand things–the truth is, in something like this, even the experts probably don’t have all the right background to understand everything. Further, it’s worth remembering that USG officials have done pretty badly w.r.t. COVID-19 so far. This doesn’t enhance their credibility.

        Now, I agree this is serious, for many of the reasons you covered. I was seeing this discussed weeks ago online, in forms I found quite intelligible despite not being an epidemiologist. (Are there viral epidemiologists specifically? That’s a new one on me.) Digging into the details of the computer models for how diseases spread, that might turn on knowing a lot more technical stuff than most people will be able to follow. But mostly the consequences and reasons can be (and should be) explained so an intelligent person can follow them.

        • diogenes says:

          Valid point. I listen and try to understand the models and ask intelligent questions for my edification. Another thing to stand up and say – you lack data and your models are bad and we could just do so much better.

          There absolutely are epidemiologists who focus on infectious diseases and viruses in general. The mechanics of transmission and the socio-economic factors that drive disease spreads are so specific to particular diseases and societies that researchers will actually specialize in one disease – e.g. influenza or ebola or even foot and mouth for livestock.

          The group at ICL is considered a giant in this field and their COVID-19 study which came out last week caused a shift in the UK government response. While I lack direct knowledge, you can be sure that it took them this long to release a study because they were working on the simulation.

          Also CIDRAP at UMN and others. You can find a whole bevy of them on twitter talking and giving analysis of the dynamics of the covid-19 epidemic and recommendations.

      • AlesZiegler says:

        +1. Robin Hanson should be added on the list.

        • diogenes says:

          Thanks for the link. Reading this paragraph is just stupefying:

          “Before we all jump off this cliff together, can we at least collect and publish some honest estimates of our chances of success? Such as perhaps via conditional betting markets? If you aren’t willing to exactly copy the whole China policy, or have them manage it, how serious could you really be about succeess?”

          Robin seem to think that this playbook (to deal with the epidemic) has been improvised. Or that this is something modelers are thinking up on the fly. These playbooks have existed for decades with very good understanding of the dynamics. What seems to be lacking was knowledge specific to Covid-19. Its R0, CFR, co-morbidities, etc.

          The reason Taiwan, Korea and Singapore were able to act so decisively and fast was that they just dusted of the SARs playbook and knew almost exactly what to do. Taiwan enforced the first measures in early Jan.

          • albatross11 says:

            Yeah, this is one of those things I think government should be doing ahead of time. Planning out for plausible bad things that might happen, and having some kind of basic playbook for how to respond, built by actually consulting experts and working out at least first-order costs and benefits, and ideally backed up by some sort of funding, stockpiling, org charts that determine who will be managing the response, infrastructure like offices/email systems/payroll/HR that can be quickly rolled out, etc. It’s been striking how badly-thought-out and haphazard our response has been, and I suspect we’re about at the median for countries that didn’t have a significant SARS outbreak.

      • LesHapablap says:

        Economists should just commit harakiri with their keyboard before saying anything in this discussion

        Do you or any other epidemiologists have enough of an economics background to estimate the economic effects of various strategies? Apparently not, because none of them seem to bother trying. Of course the health experts are going to push for the hardest possible response: they are the ones that have to deal with the fallout.

        • baconbits9 says:

          This. You need both perspectives here, you can’t assume a base rate of being able to combat the disease without an economic model that gives you confidence you will have the appropriate amount of resources.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Great NYTimes article.

      Ah he is just guessing like everyone else. Certainly a possible alternative to shutting down everything in our economy would have been making no changes at all except to carefully quarantine the most vulnerable. But that’s not what the world has done, and I don’t think it makes sense for one country to use one alternative, and another to do another. And it also seems that China’s and South Korea’s actions of shutting down everything has had positive results. He basically just states that the US can’t do the same as China and Korea. I don’t see why not? We probably can’t do it quite as well, since our population is as rule abiding, but it sure seems to me that in the US we have pretty good compliance. It is also true that it is very unlikely that China and Korea are knocking out the virus altogether, so there will be future outbreaks. But I think this is the best we can do right now.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        If we had reacted faster and had a good way of doing lots of tests, we may have been able to stick to testing and contact tracing.

  47. theodidactus says:

    I’ve been making a lot of film and book suggestions to people recently interested in works of fiction that mirror our present situation. The two I keep popping off over and over again are the 1995 film “12 Monkeys”, one of my favorite movies:

    and the early 1900s short story “The Machine Stops”, online here:

    Both portray futures where society endures in isolation, communicating by machine-mediated telepresence which is highly fallible and a poor substitute for “The Real Thing”.

    I thought it might be worth posting here on the offchance that the readership hasn’t heard of either, especially the latter,because it has a lot of important implications for things like AI risk and the like.

    • Well... says:

      We’ve discussed both at least once, within the last few months. But not too in-depth.

      • theodidactus says:

        I’d definitely like to hear what people have to say on 12 Monkeys.

        Imagination and failures of imagination are probably the #1 theme running through Gilliam’s work in general, and it’s the stealth theme present throughout 12 Monkeys. I’ve also been interested in how important it is to our present situation. Not really in the “failure to imagine this scenario” way, which is kinda trite because it applies to any paradigm shift. More in the sense that in the last month we’ve all realized how important entertainment and play are.

        • Loriot says:

          When I watched 12 Monkeys recently, I was just struck by how 90s it was. The main characters buy a plane ticket with cash under fake names the day of departure, and then another character brings a gun to the gate. It’s all just so unimaginable in a post 9/11 world.

          • Belisaurus Rex says:

            Good movie with boring characters. All the great acting and sets couldn’t save it from dull dialogue, which is why it’s a cult classic instead of a classic. It was the first time I realized Brad Pitt was a good actor though.Must’ve been this performance that got him his role in Fight Club.

            And just so I don’t sound too pessimistic, I consider it a good time travel movie, and a good plague movie. It’s hard to write a compelling story about a virus, but this movie does it well.

          • AG says:

            Have any of y’all watched the 12 Monkeys TV show? It has a bunch of Canada Genre Actors that I liked in other shows, and ran for 4 seasons. Is it any good?

    • proyas says:

      “It Comes at Night”

    • AG says:

      I’m more interested to see how close the coronavirus situation resembles the WoW Corrupted Blood Incident.

  48. acymetric says:

    In preparation for needing to waste even more time than usual while everything is shut down, looking for some PC game recommendations. Interested in MMORPGs especially, but also regular RPGs/JRPGs and maybe some good first person shooters.

    Ideally the MMORPGs would have a free trial period so that I don’t have to invest money into it until I see if I’m interested (free games also nice!). Previously I’ve played stuff like Ragnarok, City of Heroes, Guild Wars I, and Eve Online (which I am trying to get back into).

    For non-MMO games, I’m not so much looking for recent blockbusters (selling for $30-$50) but more for older or cheaper indy games that can be had somewhere like Steam for under $20 (I don’t expect you to check the current price, just use your gut feel for what it probably costs). Pretty much anything from the release of Windows XP on up.

    Thanks for any input!

    • EchoChaos says:

      Slay the Spire is an absolutely FANTASTIC non-MMO cheap indy game. It’s a roguelike deckbuilding combat game.

      • ManyCookies says:

        Seconding this. StS is simple to learn but absurdly deep, I’ve dumped a good 300 hours into the game and I’m still having fun and learning new concepts.

        • EchoChaos says:

          Finally got my Ascension 20 kill with the Watcher. Man that felt good.

          • ManyCookies says:

            Nice work! I just got to A19 on Watcher. A15+ is so goddamn brutal, you know it’s difficult when you switch to FTL* for breaks. It snapped me out of the “Eh close enough” mindset and sequence as if I was playing MtG; I’m actually paying attention to Pen Nibs and such!

            Though I dunno how I feel about the current ascensions. It feels like they’re cutting off a lot of interesting strategies (A19 heart especially) as they encourage tighter play, I’m doing a bunch of samey thick deck stuff. Then again Jorbs is successfully doing weird shit at A20 all the time, so I might just need to git gud.

            *FTL: Faster than Light is also an amazing roguelike.

          • EchoChaos says:


            My A20 kill was more standard, but my A19 kill was the most fun deck I’ve ever had. I had two wishes, four omniscience, a fasting and Ragnarok. Turn 1 kill of Donu and Decu. I just exploded EVERYTHING.

    • theodidactus says:

      I’ll humbly submit my totally free, totally text-based RPG, “Skybreak!”
      This is a dirt-simple, large-scale RPG in a unique science-fantasy setting, which is good to kill a few hours.

      You can play it online here:!%20(1.1).taf (though the map that automatically appears to the right is useless so you can minimize it)

      The IFwiki entry for it is here:

      There’s a manual here:

      Really, this might be a good time to explore the free, wide-open world of Text-based Interactive Fiction games. There’s a whole gigantic collection here:
      You can see the winners of last year’s IFComp here: including the above game (which placed 12th)

      • Canyon Fern says:

        A fellow IF aficionado! The link to @theodidactus’s game is broken: here is the correct link (you didn’t linkify the “.taf” portion.)

        Theodidactus, may I please have your email? My editor, Ludovico, has produced some Interactive Fiction, and he’d like to share it with you. If you don’t wish to share details here, please email me at the address on my username.

        • theodidactus says:

          You can have my email address, as can anyone else here. It’s Theodidactus at that really common email provider that starts with G Dot Com

          • Canyon Fern says:

            Perfect, good sir. I’ve sent you an electro-mail.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I’ve got to know, does he still keep up the fern bit in private email?

          • Canyon Fern says:

            @Conrad Honcho,

            You may ask me such questions directly, if you like. :~D

            [Randy M, Theodidactus, and others with unknown SSC handles (if any) can confirm that CF dictates his own emails, often in verse. He usually loses interest in everyday exchanges, though, and returns to writing and whipping. Thereafter, if needed, I keep up correspondence on his behalf.


    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’ll second Slay the Spire. Also strongly consider Thea: The Awakening. It’s a combo RPG/strategy/card game. One of my very favorites, usually about $18, frequently on sale for $8.

      Besides MMOs, what kind of games do you like?

      • theodidactus says:


      • acymetric says:

        All kinds of things…everything from Sim City or Civ to FPS like Haly/CoD/Half-Life to Pokemon/Elder Scolls/Final Fantasy etc.

        I’m mostly looking for story driven stuff right now though, so less simulator type games or games that are grindy without having much of a story (some, but not all dungeon crawlers and most First Person Shooters). That’s why I mentioned JRPGs, as they pretty much always have a story even if it isn’t one that everybody liked.

        Recommendations for old classic (or even newer) RPGs ported from a console to PC are great (as an example, I’m considering FF7 since I never got to play through the console version). I pretty much missed every good console game ever made because I didn’t get a console until I moved out of the house in 2006.

        Some other RPGs I’ve enjoyed: Grandia II, FF3/4, DQ4/5/9. And so on.

        Oh, any old-ish Star Wars game recommendations also welcome…I loved Dark Forces among others.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I think Octopath Traveller is 50% off right now, and yes it’s been ported to PC from Switch.

          Also consider, indie-wise:

          Salt & Sanctuary
          The Gardens Between
          Ori and the Blind Forest (sequel just came out, too, but it’s $30)

          Not indie, but I also highly recommend BattleTech.

          • acymetric says:

            I’ll be honest, I didn’t love BattleTech, although mostly just because I would rather play a new MechWarrior game (or MechCommander even).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I didn’t love BattleTech

            Okay, well, you’re pretty much dead to me.

            Anyway, what did you buy?

          • acymetric says:

            I was raised on MechWarrior…all I want to do is stomp around blowing **** up!


            I’ll probably pick something up this weekend, trying to decide between FFVII and Chrono Trigger, both of which I sat through parts of playthroughs at a friend’s house but neither of which I actually got to play much (to the point that I don’t really know anything about the story of either other than that one thing in FF7 that everyone talks about all the time).

          • EchoChaos says:


            that one thing in FF7 that everyone talks about all the time

            Cloud dressing up?

          • Matt M says:

            This guy are sick?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Which you can do in BattleTech! Do you have the DLCs? The game got even better with those. Although in some ways a little worse because it became way too easy to get assault mechs, and I had to shelve the Marauder because it was gamebreaking. Headshot, headshot, headshot…

            Also Chrono Trigger is better than FFVII.

          • Matt M says:

            But FFVI is better than both of those sooooooo…

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            Also Chrono Trigger is better than FFVII.

            This is true. But both are inferior to FFVI because Celes is best girl.

            Edit: Ninja’d

          • AG says:

            Chrono Trigger the most forgiving/easy of the three JRPGs. I believe FF6 probably has the longest playtime for 100% completion?

          • acymetric says:

            Oops, I was mixed up and got Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross confused…already played Chrono Trigger so cross that one off the list.

            Probably FF7 (only 12 bucks!) and then I’ll go from there.

            Thanks for the input!

      • Bugmaster says:

        Cultist Simulator. It’s [almost] literally poetry in motion. Not recommended if your English proficiency is low, admittedly.

        • Deiseach says:

          Cultist Simulator is a gorgeous poetic game and it killed me every time I tried playing it because I could never manage to keep myself alive no matter what I did, so it may be somewhat frustrating for a player until they get the hang of it.

          I would recommend it but only if you think you can manage to NOT DIE IN THE FIRST HALF AN HOUR.

          • Nornagest says:

            I have almost the opposite complaint. You’re gonna die a lot your first few runs, yeah, until you figure out how to manage Funds, and Health, and then Dread. But that’s par for the roguelike course.

            No, the thing that annoyed me was how grindy it gets in the next step, after you’ve figured out how not to die but before you’ve figured out how to be an effective cultist.

          • Bugmaster says:

            The first time you play the game, you’ll die. The second time, you’ll die in a totally different way. It took me maybe 5 tries to beat it, and that was on the easiest Legacy.

            Pro Tip: if you click on the Time Passes verb, it will give you a preview of the next Season. This is critical to winning the game.

      • Matt C says:

        Have you played Thea 2? I liked the first one, eventually the fun ran out, but I got my money’s worth. Have seen mixed reviews for Thea 2, interested in SSC opinions.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Same, I’ve heard mixed reviews. But I was under the impression it was still in early access? Once it’s out and polished…and probably on sale, I’d pick it up anyway just because I liked the first one so much.

    • C_B says:

      Have you played any ARPGs (the descendants of the Diablo genre)? They’re excellent time-sinks – a combination of mindless action, slot-machine rewards, and legitimately deep and interesting character customization. They vary in how MMO-focused they are: Some are always-online and designed with the expectation that you’ll interact with other players frequently, while others are basically single-player games with optional peer-to-peer coop modes.

      The good ones these days are:

      – Path of Exile: The modern gold standard for mechanically deep ARPGs. Heavily multiplayer and economy focused, for both good and bad. Incredibly deep character customization system with enormous numbers of moving parts, allowing a wide variety of character builds. It’s easy to look at all the options and come up with something wacky that nobody (including the game’s developers) has ever tried before, resulting in silly stuff like this. However, design decisions by the developers in recent years, along with the always-online nature of the game, have pushed it toward a frantic “gotta go fast” playstyle that isn’t for everyone. If the video linked above got your inner theorycrafter itching, you will like this game. If not, it might or might not be for you. Free-to-play, with a non-scammy F2P model (you can only pay to look fancy and to get minor QoL features like stash space, not to make yourself more powerful in-game).

      – Grim Dawn: Slower, less speedclear-focused than Path of Exile. Less moving parts in the character customization system, but still enough to sink your teeth into. Interesting setting (high fantasy post-apocalyptic!) and relatively good story (often a weak point in ARPGs). Minimal multiplayer focus; most people play it as a pure offline single-player game, though peer-to-peer multiplayer exists. Probably my favorite ARPG at the moment; an excellent option for people who find PoE’s pressure to constantly play at MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY too stressful. Buy-to-play. Try the base game first, if you like it get the expansions (Ashes of Malmouth and Forgotten Gods are great, Crucible is okay).

      – Last Epoch: Early access ARPG, in active development. Time travel gimmick that informs both the story and the mechanics. Fun character customization; more class-based and less roll-your-own than PoE, but with a lot of options within each class (every one of your character’s active skills has its own skill tree that lets you customize how that skill works). What there is of it is good and fun, but it’s very much not a finished game. Worth looking into if you enjoy the feeling of getting in on the ground floor of a new game. Currently single-player only, multiplayer planned. Buy-to-play.

      – Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor: A scifi ARPG set in the WH40K universe. I haven’t actually played this one, but have heard very positive things about it so throwing it on the list. Buy-to-play.

      • acymetric says:

        I’m open to ARPGs, but I have a vague preference for menu-based battles (and I don’t have any issues with random encounters, I even slightly prefer them for most RPGs that require grinding for levels).

        Of course Morrowind is one of my favorite games ever so turn based isn’t any kind of requirement.

      • EchoChaos says:

        I’m a huge Path of Exile fan. This is a moderate league for starting out. Last league was one of their best ever, this one is eh. Not bad, not great.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        This is a good place for me to ask for ARPG advice. I’ve tried a bunch of the big name modern ones and felt like they all had the same fundamental problem best described by an experience I had in Diablo 3. I came upon some kind of bonus challenge that spawned in a bunch of enemies and tasked me with killing them all within a time limit. My first thought was “Oh good, this game’s been pretty braindead until now, finally an attempt at difficulty.” My second thought was “I’m already holding down right mouse button as hard as I can, there’s nothing I can do to kill them faster.” In an RTS you can micromanage your fighting units, in an FPS you can focus harder on headshots, a fighting game tests your reflexes, but with ARPGs feel like I could stay awake for 36 hours and not get any worse at them because the default strategy is to simply hold down the attack button in order to receive feedback on whether or not your numbers are big enough.

        I’m sure the character designing parts of these games are deep and interesting, but even if you get really into the spreadsheets you’ll spend most of your time fighting rather than character building, and it feels like most ARPG developers are not trying to make the fighting interesting in the way that say, FPS developers are.

        Are there any ARPGs that focus on action gameplay in addition to the spreadsheets of numbers going up?

        • ksdale says:

          I started playing Grim Dawn based on the parent comment’s recommendation and I have been very pleased by exactly the aspects you’re looking for. I remember having the same issue as you with Diablo and then Titan Quest, where it felt like clicking with no thinking, but the fighting in Grim Dawn has kept me more engaged (maybe I’m just in the right mood). I’m only a couple hours in, so take this with a grain of salt, but I feel like there are a lot more opportunities to properly time attacks to do more damage as well as lead enemies into choke points, dodge ranged attacks, and target enemies strategically in a way that actually impacts the outcome of fights.

    • Garrett says:

      A bit off your list, but it’s low-cost and runs without an Internet connection:

      If you want a good way to waste invest a few hundred or thousand hours, I highly recommend Kerbal Space Program. Once you get the hang of everything you’ll have an intuitive grasp of orbital mechanics.

    • Loriot says:

      They aren’t quite your genre, but here are some free single player indie games I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past

      Cave Story (famous classic)
      Hydorah (brutally difficult sidescrolling shooter ala Gradius)
      Spelunky (Indiana Jones themed rougelike platformer)
      Iji (System Shock 2 inspired platform/combat game and optional exploration puzzles with an interesting moral twist before Undertale made it cool)

      The first three now have commercial HD remakes available as well if you like spending money/want to support the developers.

      • beleester says:

        Seconding all of these.

        And speaking of famous indie platformers with commercial remakes, I really enjoyed La-Mulana. It’s an Indiana Jones-esque Metroidvania with some clever puzzles – reading tablets and taking notes to solve puzzles is a big part of the game. Almost like you’re an archaeologist of some sort!

        The remake is well worth the money – not just making the graphics prettier, but removing a lot of the bullshit artificial difficulty from the original.

        • Loriot says:

          I’ve never played La Mulana, but I’ve heard that a lot of the puzzles in the game are needlessly obtuse and impossible to solve without a walkthrough.

    • psmith says:

      As a slightly different followup, any good no-internet-required games for Linux? Particularly interested in Risk and Axis and Allies; I found both Domination and TripleA but can’t get either one to work.

      • Garrett says:

        FWIW, the above-mentioned Kerbal Space Program runs on Linux (native x86_64 download)! It’s how I play.

      • beleester says:

        Battle for Wesnoth is a really good turn-based tactics game that runs on Linux. It’s basically freeware Fire Emblem with a hex grid.

      • Ketil says:

        Fellow Linux gamer here. Steam lets you sort the store on platform, so the games that exist are easy to find. I like the Paradox strategy games, but they are significantly more complex than A&A and Risk. The Total War series is also nice, with more interactivity in the battles.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      City of heroes is back and free!

    • Tarpitz says:

      I assume you’ve already played the major 90s classics like the Baldur’s Gate series (also NB the 2016 interquel Siege of Dragonspear is very good), Planescape Torment and the first two Fallouts, but if not, uh, play those. They’re classics for a reason.

      • C_B says:

        Enthusiastically seconded. OP mentioned loving Morrowind, but it being unusual for their tastes due to being first-person and real-time. That has “should play Baldur’s Gate” written all over it to me.

        • acymetric says:

          I should clarify that I’m not opposed to real time and/or first person games, it just isn’t what I’m in the mood for at this particular point in time, just looking for a more traditional turn based or quasi-turn based RPG (a la Grandia Xtreme).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Well, if you’ve got $30, you should go ahead and get Octopath Traveller while it’s 50% off.

      • Nornagest says:

        I adored Baldur’s Gate when I was in high school, but I’m not sure if it’d still stand up today. The sequel’s still got strong writing by modern standards and it files off a lot of the rough edges; but the original has a list of faults as long as my arm, starting with the clunky and bloated AD&D 2.0 ruleset and running through flat characters, uninspiring aesthetics even by its era’s standards, and combat that’s unforgiving enough to basically demand cheesing your way through every encounter.

  49. Tumblewood says:

    Recently, I have seen claims on the internet that the designers of Java made a costly mistake by introducing wrapper types for their primitives (Integer, Character, etc) and that the existence of null in most programming languages encourages bad program design and has probably also very costly. Does anyone have any recommendations for reviews of good and bad design decisions made in software engineering ventures? Alternatively, I would also be interested in analyses of impactful decisions made by governments or corporations, or any specific examples of such decisions that you happen to know yourselves.

    • Eric Rall says:

      One classic programming language retrospective is Dennis Ritchie’s 1993 essay on the development of the C Programming Language. The “Critique” section near the bottom of the page is probably the most germane to what you’re looking for, but the whole thing’s got stuff tangentially relevant in the nature of explaining in hindsight why he designed certain language features the way he did.

    • Dino says:

      Agree that Java’s wrapper types for their primitives (Integer, Character, etc) was a bad design. Another egregious software problem was the decision by MS to use CR+LF for line endings instead of the LF standard of Unix, compounded by Apple’s use of CR to be yet different. This problem alone cost me several man-months over the course of my career.

    • beleester says:

      Wrapper types never made a lot of sense to me, but with auto-boxing and unboxing I’m unclear how it really imposes a cost on development.

      I think null values are a reasonable thing to have, though. “This field is not always populated with meaningful data” is a reasonable use case to have. Yes, it leads to bugs when developers don’t account for that possibility, but I think that would be equally true for most hypothetical replacements. Exceptions can go unchecked. Sentinel values aren’t always possible. Defaults get mistaken for real data. Etc.

      A slightly nicer option is to make types that must be explicitly made nullable – e.g., in C#, you can write int? to create a nullable int value, but the int itself is not nullable. That means nulls should only appear when you actually planned for them and know what they would mean. But I’m not opposed to the existence of null in general.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I think that would be equally true for most hypothetical replacements

        There’s a really simple solution, which is to just not allow null values. This is a good example of “You should use weird languages, just to see what’s out there.”

        • beleester says:

          I know that you can do anything without nulls that you can do with them, but I’m saying that nulls are the most direct way to model a domain where sometimes you have meaningful data for a value and sometimes you don’t. Saying “just don’t allow null values” doesn’t change the nature of the problem domain, only how you represent it.

          Here’s an example: Suppose Birthday is an optional field in your program – the user may enter their birthday if they want special bonus offers or something, but they aren’t forced to. The normal solution would be to make Birthday a nullable value, and you check if it’s null before you use it for something.

          If you say “Just don’t allow Birthday to be null”, that doesn’t magically allow you to know the birthday for every user. It doesn’t change your boss’s requirement that the user shouldn’t be forced to enter their birthday. So you still need some way to store “This user has refused to enter a birthday” and then check that value before you try using the user’s Birthday for something. At that point, you’re representing a nullable type and checking for null, no matter what name you put on it.

          • Prokopton says:

            In Haskell, this use case i modeled using a sum type called “Maybe”
            sum types are kinda like enums on steroids, steroids here being that the labels can carry values, and that the compiler (when set up in a strict manner) forces you to handle all cases.

            The definition of a Maybe is like this:

            data Maybe a
            = Just a
            | Nothing

            So, a higher order type containing either a single value (the “Just” label) or “Nothing”

            This is helpful in practice because when you use the “Birthday” value, you need to handle both cases. This is enforced by the compiler.

            This makes sense to me for the same reason I avoid single-typed languages like javascript: being more expressive at the type level allows me to programatically enforce invariants instead of hoping that all team members will stay disciplined.

            It’s a great way to avoid crashing production systems for one, the amount of value that has been trashed by nullrefs should be a clear indicator something is off.

            I work at a fully functional/pure language company (Haskell/Elm/PureScript), and we haven’t had a crash in over 6 months.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            There are three cases:

            File Not Found

          • Garrett says:

            @ Edward Scizorhands

            I see that you, too, are a man of culture.

          • Prokopton says:

            data Either a b
            = Left a
            | Right b

            data IOError
            = FileNotFound
            | Unauthorized

            readFileContent : FilePath -> Either [IOError] Text


        • Loriot says:

          Where “weird” means “most languages designed in the last ten years”

          But yeah, having default nullability is basically indefensible at this point. It’s called the Billion Dollar Mistake for a reason.

    • eremetic says:

      I haven’t touched Java in a very long time so I couldn’t speak to the former, but complaining about null pointers is a very strong indicator to me that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        They’re not talking about null pointers, they’re talking about nullable types.

        I’m much more experienced with C# than with Java, but the way they handle it is as an option. You can have an int which cannot be null, or you can have int? which is a nullable int. Same for other primitive types.

    • My favorite is that since the Boolean type (as opposed to the boolean primitive) can be True, False, or null, it’s actually a ternary value. In some sense, this is pretty stupid, but it’s occasionally handy.

      • albatross11 says:

        There are problems that are just a lot nicer to solve when it’s possible to have None as an option for a variable. But I suspect it should always have to be set. (That is, “uninitialized” is a different state than None/Null/NIL/whatever, and that’s not the same as 0, False, [], (), etc.

        • acymetric says:

          That’s how it is in Javascript, at least. False, [empty string], and 0 are all loosely equivalent (== as opposed to ===) but undefined is its own thing.

  50. bean says:

    Naval Gazing has continued usual operations over the past two weeks:

    In 1949, the US Air Force threatened to reduce the Navy to a junior service, responsible only for hunting submarines. Thanks to the actions of several courageous admirals, the crisis was averted, and the aircraft carrier was saved.

    A more amusing story comes from the last days of WWII, when an American submarine’s crew decided they were going to send a team ashore to blow up a Japanese train. This was the only ground action by Americans on the Japanese home islands during the war.

    Lastly, my series on the Falklands War is back, with a look at the first days of June.

  51. baconbits9 says:

    For those following and who care in some way: I am now long gold (more). This might not be the very beginning of the rally but we are close enough if it is.

  52. salvorhardin says:

    I predict (75% confidence) that COVID will cause a shift in the distribution of births over the next year or two away from urban dwellers and wealthy people. This should be independently measurable from whatever change occurs in the total frequency of births.

    The idea behind the prediction is that urban dwellers and wealthy people are disproportionately likely to reduce the opportunity costs of child-raising through extensive outsourcing. Caplan’s _Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids_ explicitly advocates doing this and he knows his audience well. And pandemic restrictions take away a lot of the mechanisms of that outsourcing for an indeterminate time and make them seem less reliable for the longer term even after they come back; e.g. not only are the schools closed, but your house cleaners stop coming, you can’t get a sitter and go out for a kid-free date night, your spring break vacation to a resort with a kids club is cancelled, etc.

    How might we check whether this actually happens?

    [trying to keep this totally empirical and value-judgment-free; apologies if it seems too CWish anyway]

    • caryatis says:

      On the other hand, childcare will be a lot easier when people are working from home.

      • Well... says:

        Hah! Do you have kids?

        • Matt M says:

          Good point.

          I don’t myself, but we had a team conference call this morning where our boss asked us all how well we were setup for WFH and what our biggest issues/barriers to productivity might be.

          Half the team listed “I can’t get anything done because my kids are running around distracting me” as their #1 impediment!

          • Well... says:

            Yup. Or, distracting my wife (who is also WFH) who then angrily comes over and asks me to keep them busy. Or I see them distracting her first and preemptively do something to keep them busy. Or I have to dole out discipline. Or whatever. Point is, it’s hard to just focus on my work and do childcare at the same time.

            Maybe it’s different if your kids are older?

          • baconbits9 says:

            A bit of advice from a home-schooler: There are some activities that your kids will just get absorbed by for 30mins plus, with some planning you can have them in your back pocket for when you really need a window of direct focus.