I was drafting a blog post about something completely unrelated, and I saw the post I had planned to write for the 10th anniversary of the blog. I realized I had missed the 20th anniverary, because I had just moved to the UK and probably didn't have it on my calendar. So I'll just post a little note here saying that a week ago was the 21st anniversary of the blog.
I do feel like hosting my blog myself, and creating the software to write it, was the right decision. The blog has outlived multiple blog companies, the rise and fall (and rise?) of blogs, and a host of other software that could have caused me to lose everything and start over. Of course, this also means my website is over 20 years old (it's 25, at least), which is wild.
:: David (16:21 in Arkansas, 23:21 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, February 1 2024 ::
I was listening to marketplace, the NPR show, and they were talking about the fact that owning a home is no longer something as many Americans aspire to. It was interesting because it reminded me of a story that happened here in Conway recently, where a major freeze resulted in pipes bursting in an apartment complex and the management basically left everyone out in the cold.
So you've got this scenario where people are managing risk and buying homes accordingly. In a place where there are strong renter protections, there's no need to purchase a home and subject yourself to the risks of home ownership. On the other hand, in a place like Arkansas where renters are completely unprotected, purchasing a home is effectively an insurance policy against all the terrible things that could happen to you in a rental.
But of course for lower income individuals actually financing a home is a challenge, even in a place like Arkansas where property is relatively cheap. And then homeownership comes with the added risk of sudden outlays of large amounts of money, like when our air conditioner failed this summer and we had an $8,000 bill. So what do you do? It's a complex ballet.
Two things in particular struck me from the show - one, the woman they spoke with was black, and things are so much more complicated when race enters the equation. I think telling people to move to the South to buy a home is a hard sell for minorities, for example. The other is how much the US has relied on home ownership to power growth and generate wealth (and maintain inequality). A change in that will change a lot. In this era where we're seeing solidarity rising, we may see the new, larger renter class realizing that the power inequality needs to be addressed in law.
:: David (22:24 in Arkansas, 5:24 in Paris) - Comment
:: Monday, September 11 2023 ::
I updated the page that tells my story from September 11th. which I wrote on the 5th anniversary. That led me to update a few other pages, including pulling down the plugin from Twitter that used to grace the left side of this page. It has been stunning to watch Twitter fall into utter disrepair - I had not known one person could so easily destroy so much so quickly. But whatever. I really like Mastodon as a replacement, although my install at social.mastardon.com is in limbo due to a failed upgrade.
:: David (21:09 in Arkansas, 4:09 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, August 1 2023 ::
Taking six months off from basically everything (and taking the year before that off from many things so I could run for office) means that there's a lot of cleanup to do. Our yard is overgrown. The car didn't start when we got home from Europe. The air conditioner upstairs (we have two - Arkansas is hot!) was dead as well. So lots of maintenance is happening everywhere. Online as well - I run a mastodon server that I set up before I left and it is getting put back into shape, as are my other web properties. I noticed the twitter plugin in the left menu area of this page is dead, which I presume has something to do with Elon's ill-fated purchase. I'm no longer using Twitter (apparently now called 'X' for some dumb reason that I don't care about) so I'll be pulling that down. I'm not sure how the social media wars are going to shake out, but I'm excited to see if Mastodon can stay in there, and if there's an embed made for it I'll be adding it here.
In general, getting life put back together is time-consuming, and there's lots still to be done, but slowly we're getting there.
:: David (15:21 in Arkansas, 22:21 in Paris) - Comment
An awful lot has happened in the six months since I last posted. I know it has been six months, because we took a six month sabbatical to Europe. Three months in the UK, two weeks in Switzerland, and the rest in France. Students came at the end and we took them to Paris and Troyes. I took on the order of 15,000 photos, which I'm sure I'll do something with someday (he says, suspecting that in fact he will not). It was a bit of a return to form after the pandemic, but was also revealing, letting me know that I had in fact been changed by spending basically three years semi-isolated. I'm not sure even a long trip like this one can totally fix that, or if 'fix' is the right word - I've changed, and like so, so many, I can't go back to before, and I'm not sure I should want to.
Regardless, it's now time to get back to work, literally and figuratively. I'm searching for a job (have my first interview next week) and I'm re-evaluating what other things I want to be involved with, community-wise. I worked hard, for a long time, during the 2022 election, and now I've had a long break. I came back to Arkansas just as a major push to get something on the 2024 ballot was wrapping up, so now I imagine a lot of energized people are looking for what to do next. I certainly hope they are! I have some thoughts but no firm plans for what comes next.
:: David (15:05 in Arkansas, 22:05 in Paris) - Comment
:: Monday, January 2 2023 ::
I asked OpenAI's Chat GPT "Tell me a story about a chair that wants to be burned for New Year's" - due to our annual tradition, which came about in an absurd story all its own, and this is what I got back:
"Once, there was a chair that lived in a cozy little cottage. It had spent many years providing comfort to the family that lived there, but as the years went by, it began to feel as though it had served its purpose. It started to dream of being burned in a grand bonfire on New Year's Eve, just like the one that the villagers held every year.
The chair knew that it would have to wait until the end of the year to make its wish come true, but as the days ticked by, it grew more and more excited. It couldn't wait to see the sparks fly and feel the heat of the flames.
Finally, the day of the bonfire arrived and the chair was placed in the center of the pile. It was surrounded by old logs and branches, and as the villagers lit the fire, the chair felt a sense of joy and excitement it had never known before.
As the flames licked at its legs and engulfed its body, the chair felt a sense of freedom and release that it had never experienced before. It closed its eyes and let out a sigh of contentment as it surrendered itself to the fire.
And when the flames finally died down and the ashes cooled, all that remained was a pile of charred wood and a sense of peace and satisfaction that the chair had finally found its true purpose in life."
It's absurdly trite, but also perfectly acceptable - if you told me an overworked dad told this story to his child I would 100% believe it.
:: David (4:34 in Arkansas, 11:34 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, December 1 2022 ::
I started down this path with my last post, but unsurprisingly missed some of the nuances of open source social media like mastodon requiring technical expertise to establish, and the time to waste doing that. This interview does a good job of touching on that, in a piece titled 'The Whiteness of Mastodon'
Mastodon is a very white space. It draws upon some of the values and some of the interests of indie web producers, of the DIY tech community, wherein there’s this sense of rugged individualism. The open source nature means that you can make your own stuff, and this motivates some of the kinds of responses that Mastodonians will make to users who say that there are certain features that aren’t available, that there are certain content guidelines and moderation policies that tend to act as social norms on Mastodon itself. The argument would be, make your own instance. Now, as I have said on Mastodon, and less so on Twitter, the argument that you can make your own instance ignores particular resource costs of doing so.
Putting aside the monetary cost of starting up and maintaining one’s own instance– which again, if you’re a marginalized subject and you are living in a white supremacist society, this is an additional financial burden on yourself. We need to think about the moderation and personal costs of running your own instance. So an instance of color, for example, would have to have a robust moderation team to merely catch the racists. So this moderation team, be it members of color or other folks, would have to subject themselves to racist violence over and over and over again to filter out the racists and protect their community. You would essentially need, and I’m going to put this in scare quotes, “a warrior caste” to police the boundaries of your instance so that your community is not subject to the worst kinds of racist abuse.
:: David (16:29 in Arkansas, 23:29 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, November 24 2022 ::
In my copious spare time now that the election is over, I've been playing with technology that I really haven't had time to futz with in the past year or so. Since Twitter is in a spiral of doom, it seemed like a good time to spin up a Mastodon server (if you don't know, here's an explainer on what Mastodon is). I was reminded how insane the entire internet is, at least on the free software side.
The basics are honestly pretty basic - set up a server, install mastodon, profit. Or, you know, be social. So to set up a server, I go to a place that lets me set up servers, create an account, and *boom* I have a server. Easy!
Then it's time to install mastodon. And we are down a rabbit hole of dependencies, conflicting information, and general chaos. Scripts that half work, file ownership issues, daemons that don't start for no reason, etc. As I type this, the whole thing is down, for reasons that I can't decipher despite wading through log files and random internet posts for hours.
The idea that things are 'free and open source' often ignores the fact that the people capable of making them go are paid outrageous sums. Skills also have value, and thus things requiring a lot of skill can't really be called 'free'. The idea of a confederation of social media servers is nice, but not anywhere near ready for prime time.
:: David (0:37 in Arkansas, 7:37 in Paris) - Comment
:: Wednesday, November 9 2022 ::
I've been quiet this year. It was intentional. In February of 2022 I decided to run for State Senate here in Arkansas. My opponent was a well-funded individual of less than stellar repute, so I didn't want to put anything out there that could lead to bad outcomes. I considered pulling the website down, but decided that was a bridge too far in allowing fear to drive my behavior.
It was a long campaign, and in the end we didn't win. I have the dubious experience of having run and lost a political campaign before, so I was ready for the inevitable sadness that comes, even when you expect it (our internal numbers as early voting started told me things were not looking super).
I've got a ton of stories, met so many amazing people, heard so many incredible stories. It was totally worth it.
I'm ready to pivot to the next thing - there's so much work to do to build out the infrastructure needed to bring real, positive change to Arkansas. It's easy to write this place off. When you see a state elect someone as ridiculous as Sarah Huckabee Sanders to be governor, over someone as amazing as Chris Jones, it's easy to say 'that place is lost forever, a wasteland of uneducated hicks'. But the numbers say something different. Don't get me wrong - 568,304 people voting for a Trump mouthpiece is grim. But the population of the state is over three million. Besides the over 332,000 that voted for someone else, there's 1.4 million silent adults who didn't vote, or weren't allowed to vote.
There's a debate to be made about taking on the Sisyphean task of changing minds, or just leaving. I get it, and individuals have to make decisions that are right for them - we can't expect everyone to give everything to the task. But we have to remember in those debates how many people we're working for who aren't represented, either in elections or in our minds - we see winner-take-all elections and say 'everyone voted for the bad person'. They didn't. And a lot of good people will suffer if we just write them off.
I hadn't expected this post to become a manifesto for action in red states, but here we are.
I'm going to take a break, and then I'm going to get back to it. It's good work. Important work. Sometimes thankless work. But it's work that needs to get done, and many of the people who most need it done aren't able to do it themselves. So those of us with the resources to act need to step up, in whatever way we can. Even if that means pouring our heart and soul into a 9 month effort that doesn't seem to yield much success.
:: David (15:53 in Arkansas, 22:53 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, January 6 2022 ::
I've been planning to write something about the question of democracy in America, which in my own mind has been in question basically since Trump was elected. It's been bouncing around in my head to address why people don't seem to care - people who acknowledge the problem don't seem to be doing much, and much more problematically, so many don't recognize there's a problem.
What I should have realized is that today, on the first anniversary of the insurrection, everyone would briefly talk about it. So today Biden gave a speech, and many other events are planned.
Several other publications also did stories around the topic, including the Economist asking how we should think about the threat to American democracy.
I've been thinking about this a bit more systematically. We've known for some time that people feel that democracy isn't working for them - since 2008 things have gotten messier, although politicians have always been suspect.
The difference has been the escalation, where we're not at a point where a large percentage of people think violence is OK.
By and large, people don’t care about candidates. They care about their pocketbook, and they care about their quality of life. They like free money when it comes, but complain about wasteful spending when it’s voted on, and they really don't like it when governments at any level raise taxes (or fees, or anything) in order to pay for things.
So where does the fault lie? It's complicated. In general people are unhappy, and that's on the politicians. But we actually do vote on people, so why aren't people voting differently? And that's down to things like media, and education. The Atlantic recently did a story about how higher education has a responsibility to our nation to ensure people actually know how our democracy works. I'm very sympathetic to the idea that education is a key part of a functioning democracy. That said, how you go from riots at the school board over basic science to actually supporting democracy through civics classes, I don't know.
At the end of the day, so long as we aren't making peoples' lives better, we're going to have angry people. We somehow have to normalize voting and civic participation as the solution, and de-normalize violence. And that means the solutions we offer have to actually work - people who vote should see that their vote matters, both in terms of who gets elected, and the outcomes. And maybe that's the scariest bit of all this - by electing Trump, people did see a change. They saw someone in power who reflected their fear and anger (and hatred, in some cases). And then we elected a normal politician, and things went back to normal. But normal isn't nearly good enough.
:: David (15:16 in Arkansas, 22:16 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, December 21 2021 ::
One morning a few days ago I woke up with a scratchy throat. We were travelling, the air was dry, etc. There were many reasons to not be concerned. As the day wore on, I realized my nose was still stuffy, my throat seemed to be getting scratchier, and in general it looked like I was getting sick.
It’s instructive to think about how we reacted in the before-times when we started to feel sick, versus now. In many ways, we haven’t changed. I powered on, out in public and seeing people, which isn’t really new. What is new is that in the back of my mind was the concern that I had Covid, and serious steps were going to need to be taken, and that I was endangering everyone I interacted with, and anyone I had interacted with over the past couple days.
I casually started looking for a place to get a test. New York state, or at least the City, is in the midst of a pretty big outbreak, so I wasn’t surprised to see test sites were busy. Two things did stand out, though. To get an appointment at one of the drive through places like CVS or Walgreens I would have to wait a full week. And the urgent care facilities, the only other option I could find, were routinely charging large sums of money for a test. Reviewer after reviewer commented on the cost. Even though I could afford it, getting stuck with a big bill for what we know should be free didn’t sit well with me. So I started weighing whether I needed a test.
In the middle of the largest outbreak in the country, I was trying to decide if I really needed a test, because it was either complicated or expensive to get one.
The Washington Post covered the difficulty stores are having at keeping at-home tests in stock: ““As the nation experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases coinciding with the holidays, we are seeing unprecedented demand for testing services,” Alexandra Brown, a Walgreens spokeswoman, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Due to the incredible demand for at-home rapid testing, we put in effect a four item purchase limit on at-home COVID-19 testing products in our stores and digital properties in an effort to help improve inventory while we continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands.”” We saw this when we went to CVS to get a rapid test the next day - the store was packed, and everyone was buying Covid tests - most of them buying the maximum 4 allowed (I stayed in the car, on the chance I was positive). Most of the other stores had been sold out, according to their online info, and I wondered if everyone in the absolutely packed parking lot had been searching like we had trying to find a store with tests in stock.
In the middle of the night, that first night, my symptoms worsened. My head was full and I just felt off. But now there was a layer of panic - if I’m having trouble breathing, am I dying of Covid, or is it just a cold? I won’t say I had a panic attack, but I definitely had an elevated heart rate. The one thing that reassured me was that I had also read that trouble staying awake was a sign of real difficulty, and with all my mental drama I was having NO trouble staying awake.
I wondered if perhaps I wouldn’t have been happier being someone who thought it was just like the flu. Like that guy in the Atlantic who was embarrassed for people who wore masks, because nobody where he lived was wearing them and they were all fine.
I knew, of course, that I was triple-vaccinated, that the odds of a bad outcome even if I were infected were infintessimally small. But in the middle of the night, sometimes your brain won’t quit, and the thought of drowning in, effectively, my own runny nose was… not pleasant.
It’s a hard line to walk, balancing between over- and under-reacting to the pandemic. Especially as it goes on, and it changes, and we change. If omicron is less bad for the vaccinated, and many people are vaccinated, we are not living in the same situation as in March of 2020. But we had to learn a whole new set of reactions to a pandemic (even if the learned reaction was ‘it’s all a hoax’) and it’s hard to adjust that as the flow of information just keeps coming.
There was a meme going around about how we should have a class for adults to update them on all the new scientific discoveries that have come out since they were in school. I hadn’t realized, for example, that tamiflu eased symptoms and made you less contagious. So I just took the flu as I took the common cold - something not worth going to the doctor for, because they couldn’t do anything. Well, times have changed, and we all need to keep up. But that’s something that has changed over decades, and I haven’t caught up, and now I’m saying we need to catch up on something that is changing on a weekly basis? That's a tall order.
This doesn't even address things like the impact of shutdowns on mental health, or education, or all the other things we're still working through the effect of. It's a lot of information to ask people to process, and make a quick decision about. So if people are falling back on the one thing they're certain of, I get it, even if that one thing is 'Trump told me it was a media hoax'. I think we have a long, long way to go in learning how to help people process information and separate fact from fiction. And when it's your life we're talking about, sometimes, late at night, when you're wondering if you're actually going to die from some stupid little bug you worked quite hard to avoid, it's hard to be logical about the process.
:: David (19:43 in Arkansas, 2:43 in Paris) - Comment
:: Saturday, September 11 2021 ::
I've been thinking about the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 for some time now.
It's been hard not to - the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has led to a lot of talk about the war, the history, the causes, the mistakes made.
I wrote my story of September 11th down back in 2006, on the 5th anniversary. Call that the first, or maybe second, draft of history. Because the facts are easy, but putting them in context is harder. The Washington Post has a retrospective which does a good job of laying out the context over the next 20 years, full of righteous fury and wild missteps. As the article notes, "By 2004, when the 9/11 Commission urged America to 'engage the struggle of ideas,' it was already too late; the Justice Department’s initial torture memos were already signed, the Abu Ghraib images had already eviscerated U.S. claims to moral authority." Others assert we lost earlier, like former FBI intelligence office Ali Soufan, who said "We lost the war in Afghanistan, in my opinion, in the fall of 2002. That's when the administration of George W. Bush started shifting a lot of important resources to prepare for the Iraq war at a time when al-Qaida and the Taliban were regrouping in Afghanistan."
Regardless of when the United States lost the war, it definitely did. We went out exactly on-brand - our last drone strike in Afghanistan killed an innocent aid worker and nine members of his family. Ironically (or not), he was working for an American company.
Our misadventures spanned Democratic and Republican presidencies, and today, 20 years on, many of the same people are in power. CNN published a story today of Joe Biden's memories of September 11th. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time.
I remember a speaker at LSE making the point that American foreign policy had remained basically the same since 9/11 - this was during the Trump administration, and it blew my mind. But if the people all remain the same, how can we expect different outcomes?
It would be nice if we could, as former President Bush tried to do in his speech today, only remember the wonderful humanity Americans and people around the world showed in the aftermath. Stories like that of Gander, Newfoundland, where an entire town turned out to help people stranded by the grounding of all flights. And all the individual stories of people helping people.
But of course we also have to remember the racism that started on day one, like that experienced by Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel who related on twitter that "The morning of 9/11, my political science professor made me leave class so the other students could 'grieve and process safely'." She wore a hijab, and was thus, instantly, the enemy.
A few years ago, my wife and I started watching NCIS, starting with the first season. We were horrified to be reminded of how racist, sexist, etc. we all had been such a short time ago.
And now, of course, we have a pandemic. We're on our way to 700K deaths in the United States (as a reminder, there were 2,996 killed on September 11th). A friend asked on twitter which date we will choose to commemorate the pandemic. And just like September 11th, the pandemic has revealed things good and bad about our country, and about humanity in general.
September 11th changed the world, and it didn't - we remain profoundly changed, and yet, in some underlying ways both good and terrible, exactly the same as we always were. 20 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the good and the bad more clearly, and yet present day events demonstrate in perfect detail that we have not yet learned all the lessons we needed to.
:: David (21:59 in Arkansas, 4:59 in Paris) - Comment
:: Monday, August 16 2021 ::
I was trying to find comments in my blog about Afghanistan, since I've been keeping the blog since the war began, more or less. If Google is to be believed, I actually didn't talk about it much. There's a post back in 2003 about how hardliners in the US wanted to invade Iran as well as Iraq. One in 2004 about how building capacity is hard, and failed states are dangerous. Another in 2006 talks about the war crimes in Iraq. Very little on Afghanistan alone. Which is probably indicative - in the beginning it was all one big mess of 'let's invade everywhere' and somehow Afghanistan slid under the radar for the next decade plus, except when people would say 'we're still there?'
There's a lot to say, but what I really get from all this is that we knew going in this would be a mess. There was never a real plan for 'winning the peace'. And now we haven't.
:: David (20:22 in Arkansas, 3:22 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, August 3 2021 ::
After an interminable spring, we were finally able to take a summer holiday. We headed to Belize, and as always I took a ton of pictures.
Naturally the pandemic was in the forefront of our mind - we hadn't flown, and weren't sure what to expect. We also needed a test to get back the US, and of course rules for international travel were changing constantly, so we weren't sure if there would be any other problems.
In the end, our time in Belize was quite smooth. Masking was required in public, and on the mainland seemed to be adhered to quite closely. At the resorts it was not really done, and I couldn't decide if that was because they were confident of their safety measures, or they didn't really care, or they didn't think the guests would follow the rules. Any of those options is possible.
We had a lot of time to chat with our hosts, because tourism hadn't fully returned (in fact, many of them had only recently come back to working in the industry). There were a lot of questions raised by facts like everyone working seemed to come from the western rural area, and worked multi-week shifts. We learned that the closed border with their larger neighbor to the west (Guatemala) had meant many smaller farmers hadn't had a buyer for their crops. There were a ton of unexpected (to us) consequences of the pandemic for a small country.
And the whole time we were there, Covid cases in Arkansas were skyrocketing. The Delta variant had landed in the South and was spreading basically uncontrolled due to low vaccination rates and a lack of safety measures.
We are currently at near-record levels of new infections and hospitalizations (yesterday was the single biggest one-day growth of hospitalizations since the pandemic began). There is a law, passed this spring when the legislature, completely controlled by Republicans who were apparently competing to write the worst law, was feeling much more confident that the pandemic was under control, which forbids any public entity from requiring a mask. This has obviously aged like milk, and now there is pressure from some quarters to roll the law back. With school starting soon and the Delta variant seeming to spread more easily in the young, school districts are hearing from concerned parents (though not as many as you might expect). Our hospital is full here in town, and across the state beds are quite scarce. This means any visit to a hospital for any reason is now hitting a roadblock.
It's not clear at this stage how it will all play out - rural states have not had the massive explosions that we expected (relatively speaking), perhaps because they are rural. But it's summer, people are outdoors, etc. So how this plays out into the fall is anyone's guess.
:: David (15:59 in Arkansas, 22:59 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, June 29 2021 ::
I've been following international economics, in some form, for the last 25 years - my time studying abroad and then living abroad repeatedly has made me aware of the way several modern economies work, and frankly The Economist has kept me aware of how many fascinating things I don't know. Headlines like (this week's) "Investors cannot get enough of Chinese e-grocers" make me think 'I guess I should know more about Chinese groceries!'
In that time period, I've learned on very important thing: I can't time the market. I remember spending much of my time in France (2003-2005) expecting the dollar to crash. Really, really expecting it on a daily basis. 'This madness can't continue!' I said, every day, before confirming that it was continuing.
I was right. The market did crash. Two years later, for a reason I hadn't seen coming. It crashed, in fact, in a very big way. But by then I'd given up, decided Greenspan knew something I didn't, and moved on.
So here we are. Coming out of a massive global event. And we see headlines like today's "S&P 500, Nasdaq rise to record highs to start the week led by Facebook". Now, either economics doesn't work the way I think it does, or a lot of people started saving all their money and investing it in the stock market (and don't tell me the stock market isn't treated as savings by many people, specifically those at the higher end of the income ladder). Those who aren't putting their money in the stock market seem to be taking advantage of record-low interest rates to borrow money to buy houses, driving home prices through the roof (no pun).
(On the subject of record low interest rates, there's another area where I thought I knew something, and was proved wrong. When I refinanced my house back in 2010 or thereabouts, I said 'interest rates will never be this low again in our lifetime' to anyone who would listen. I refinanced again half a dozen years later, because interest rates were even lower. I could do it again today and come out ahead again because, you guessed it, interest rates are even lower.)
At some point interest rates will rise. The Fed says they'll do this when we reach full employment, which might or might not be when they do it - the inflation numbers have banks sounding the alarm (though they have a financial incentive to want higher interest rates, something that doesn't get enough discussion when bank heads make statements that scare the markets). We can expect lots of shifts in stocks when rates go up. There will probably be a mini-crash (or even a big one). There's a lot of money to be made by timing your sales and purchases.
But I'm not going to try.
All of the above is correct. The market will correct. Lots of money could be made. But I have learned that timing the market is a fool's game. I'm sure, with a laser-like focus on minute-to-minute news, one could get a more accurate picture. Well, I'm fairly sure. Maybe? But either way, that person benefiting from their amazing timing won't be me. I'll ride it out, trusting the power of long-term growth to save me. Someday I'll retire, and when I sell my stocks will really matter to my daily life. But I'm not there yet, and frankly, I'm not sure I'll do it right even when it really matters.
:: David (15:15 in Arkansas, 22:15 in Paris) - Comment
:: Sunday, June 20 2021 ::
This evening I was walking in to the dining room, and I commented that we were probably going to have to get a new gas cylinder for our Soda Stream, and I was struck by how that had been one of the more terrifying bits of the pandemic for me - going to stand in a line at Kroger to get a replacement cylinder. It felt like I was risking my life to get some bubbly water. And now it doesn't. I'm sure there will be many more moments like this, where I am struck by how much life was changed.
I commented on this to Sasha, about how the pandemic was a globally unifying experience, and what a break there would be, as the years pass, between the people who lived through it and those who didn't. She reminded me of all our conservative neighbors who didn't stop socializing, and who weren't ever afraid, because the disease was a hoax perpetrated by (various people for various conspiracy reasons). I remember seeing them, out and about as I drove by, eating in restaurants as I stood outside, etc. What is the story they will tell about these years when so many died?
:: David (4:08 in Arkansas, 11:08 in Paris) - Comment
Today is Juneteenth. It's the first year Juneteenth is a national holiday, thanks to quick and somewhat surprising action by congress last week.
Many have pointed out that, as an NPR headline puts it, "Juneteenth As A National Holiday Is Symbolism Without Progress". My wife and I have often had the conversation about our local MLK Day march, where politicians who are awful human beings march as if they weren't actively working to harm African Americans. I can't think at the moment if there's a word equivalent to 'greenwashing' for this, but I can say that many people whose actions mark them as virulent racists march in MLK celebrations, and are thus in their own mind not racists. 'Some of my best friends are black' I'm sure their refrain goes.
It's hard to think about race, personally, because if I think too hard I realize how ignorant I've been for so long, and that's unpleasant. I'm not sure when I learned what Juneteenth was, but I'm quite certain it's more recently than it should be.
This is one of the interesting things about the neverending debate about history education, most recently made manifest by the politicization of ... I was going to say the politicization of Critical Race Theory, but of course that's not what has been politicized, that's just the term Republicans and right wing zealots (and their disciples) are using to talk about history education that includes anyone who isn't white. As I've gotten older, and learned more about all the things I wasn't taught, my reaction has been 'why wasn't I taught this? This should be taught in school!'. I guess other people have a different reaction? I don't know how one could learn something new, and important, which had been omitted from their education and not think 'we should teach this'.
I have mentioned that I am sympathetic to the idea that making Juneteenth a national holiday without taking any concrete action to make the situation of African Americans better is a hollow gesture. On the other hand, at the NAACP event we went to today in town, several speakers noted that it was now a national holiday, and that this was another step forward. Symbols do have power. So maybe this wasn't a completely empty move.
On the subject of symbols and Juneteenth, I recently listened to the excellent 99% Invisible episode on the red, black and green flag, created by Marcus Garvey to represent the Black nation. I was struck by the debate between Garvey and Du Bois about whether there was a path to equality for Black people in America. I wonder, if they saw the full picture of where America is today, 100 years later, would either of them change their position? Are we as far as Du Bois hoped? Are we further than Garvey thought we would get?
:: David (3:57 in Arkansas, 10:57 in Paris) - Comment
:: Sunday, April 18 2021 ::
As Friday was my 'two weeks after my second dose of the vaccine' day, We arranged to have a dinner party with some vaccinated friends Saturday evening. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly enjoyable evening so long as I didn't think about it. All of us, at one point or another, would sort of freeze up and go 'this is weird'. But overall it was surprisingly easy to go back to 'normal'. We also went out to lunch and ate indoors on Friday, also weirdly normal. Of course, the really strange thing here in Arkansas is the idea that people just never stopped. They did all the things the whole time, believing the whole 'global pandemic' thing was just a hoax, or overblown. It's frankly astonishing how much divergence there has been in the lives of people in the United States based mostly on their politics. And so many innocent paid the price (the official number today stands at 566,000 deaths, and over 5600 in Arkansas, though my reading of CDC data says the number should be over 7000).
:: David (21:59 in Arkansas, 4:59 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, March 11 2021 ::
It seems fitting that one year to the day since the WHO called COVID-19 a global pandemic, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was surprisingly emotional. 2021 has been a year of people looking forward to leaving the virus behind, sometimes getting out ahead of where we actually are (the removal of all restrictions in Texas being a great example). I still worry this pandemic has one more blow to deal us, but I'm also excited to be able to see the exit.
I am also aware that it is ten years to the day since the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan. In general, it has been a rough decade or so - the economic meltdown of 2007-8 is not so far back. I hope that the movement we're starting to see in the US to actually help people, rather than just cut taxes, will take hold, and we'll see a country less willing to let people starve, be homeless, and/or simply die. There are green shoots, but also worrying signs that those who hate will not go without a fight - the Arkansas legislature this year providing a terrible example of the latter.
:: David (18:54 in Arkansas, 1:54 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, December 17 2020 ::
Every now and again I'm reminded that I've been on the internet a very long time. Today it was realizing the phone number on my PayPal account is so old, the area code for the house it belongs to has changed - maybe twice. I've got addresses for houses on three continents in my Amazon account, and sometimes it's the only way I remember where I used to live. It's weird that my shopping account could bring me nostalgia. Of course, the email addresses also tell a story - that's actually a thing for a lot of us - aol to hotmail to yahoo to gmail to etc. I've heard it's sometimes used to determine the age of job applicants, and they urge people to be sure their address is up to date.
:: David (0:26 in Arkansas, 7:26 in Paris) - Comment
:: Monday, December 14 2020 ::
Over the past few days there's been a furor over an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which I think tried to say 'only MDs should call themselves Doctor'. Actually I'm fairly sure it didn't try to say that, because everything in the WSJ opinion section is partisan hackery. But that was one of the bits people were arguing about. Also worth noting was the sexism, racism, and overall yuckiness of the piece. People got mad, because the piece was utter shite, and today the WSJ doubled down, blaming so-called 'cancel culture'. I hadn't caught the first time I saw their doubling down that it was their own colleagues who had complained - "280 of our Wall Street Journal colleagues signed (and someone leaked) a letter to our publisher criticizing the opinion pages". There is a theoretical wall (actually a literal wall too) between opinion and news stories, but nobody can make me believe that a paper that partisan doesn't make decisions based on their political beliefs. In fact, the only reason I would buy any amount of neutrality in WSJ management was because their opinion section benefits from the credibility the news team brings them (one can debate whether this makes the news team complicit).
None of this is new. The WSJ has been on my shit list for decades, and I figure if you give them money you either support their shite views, or have not been paying nearly enough attention.
One argument I have seen put forward recently, which I have been thinking a lot about, is the idea that what I am saying, that the WSJ is trash, always has been, and always will be, so we should ignore their crappy op-eds - is part of the problem. I'm much more sympathetic to this idea post-Trump than I would have been before. I'm not sure where I'm landing on the whole 'call out every single thing every single time no matter what', but I'm pretty sure I've moved closer to it now that I've seen what happens if we just ignore shitty people, assuming that if we don't give them any oxygen they'll just go away. They become president, and take every other position of power, and make the place I live a nightmarescape.
So I've linked the articles. If all publicity is good publicity that's a mistake, but like I said - I'm beginning to think we have to look every single instance in the face and, to that face, say 'this is crap, you're wrong'.
And as for 'cancel culture', it turns out that's also called 'the free market'. The WSJ can continue to publish their tripe. But unless and until they actually manage to install a dictator, rather than just supporting a failed coup d'état, they can't make us buy their crappy little paper.
:: David (23:15 in Arkansas, 6:15 in Paris) - Comment
:: Monday, November 23 2020 ::
I've started writing a response to the presidential election, but it's long, and it's not done. So I thought I would instead write about something that should have been a key issue of the election, but as with all expectations about what we should have been talking about with 45, was overwhelmed with all the other, louder, issues.
This morning it was announced that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was 70% effective, with the possibility of being up to 90% effective. This follows on announcements by Pfizer and Moderna that their vaccines are 90% or more effective. As The Economist cover this week noted, "Suddenly, hope".
There are some caveats - these trials are not yet complete, for one. The 'interim data' means that less than half of 1% (170 of 43,661 volunteers) of the people have caught the virus. While we should be careful to note that this is statistically a strong showing, it's still not even a complete stage three trial. And, of course, these are the announcements the companies themselves are making. Again, I can't think of a reason they would fudge, knowing the scrutiny their data will be under, nevertheless a touch of caution is worth holding on to.
So as the country and the world watch COVID-19 explode (the local, state, national, and global numbers are surprisingly similar in terms of the shape of growth), and as everyone who isn't a Republican death-cultist tries to convince Americans not to have huge indoor family gatherings for Thanksgiving, we can see hope.
There are challenges. And here, it's worth taking a step back for a moment to note how we have all become, to some degree or another, public health experts, who can talk not only about mRNA vs traditional vaccines but also about the challenges of vaccine distribution. And, of course, about uptake, and the anti-vax movement.
Distribution is actually quite a challenge for one of the vaccines, which requires temps of -94 degrees F (-70 C). The others only require standard freezer temperatures. So even assuming we can make enough doses for everyone, in and of itself a challenge, we still have to get them out to people.
One bright spot I had not considered until this morning was something The Economist pointed out - so long as we don't have enough vaccines to go around, the anti-vax movement doesn't matter. That may seem grim, but it does give us some breathing room in addressing problems one at a time. Obviously, I hope someone, somewhere, is working on a marketing campaign like nothing we've seen to convince people to get inoculated once it is possible to do so. But even if we can't get everyone on board, it's not actually an issue until we have the vaccines to give them. So in terms of overall logistics it's nice to know we can address one issue at a time.
Once we do have to address the anti-vaxxers, we may have some headwinds. Some of the vaccines' side effects have been pretty brutal. The concerns are both obvious - people claiming the side effects are part of some tin-foil-hat plot to mind control us (and weirdly, I do think that's the obvious one) - and less obvious, like the idea that young people who don't see themselves as particularly at risk anyway might see the vaccine as not worth the pain it could inflict.
So that's where we are today. More than a quarter million Americans dead, a pandemic spinning out of control, and continued reticence by some Republican leaders to take action to stop the spread of the disease (here in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson said he wouldn't do anything "that would harm Arkansas businesses or create more hardship", since obviously the continued march of death is great for business and creates no hardship). But at this point we can also see a future without an ongoing, all-consuming pandemic.
:: David (16:36 in Arkansas, 23:36 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, September 10 2020 ::
Schools have started back up, locally and nationally. Hendrix is virtual, which is a relief. They tried so hard not to be, because people think virtual college isn't as good (they might be right, although I'm not sure we've seen this much pedagogical know-how applied to the problem before, so maybe the naysayers are wrong). UCA is a weird mix of remote and on campus, but I think it's primarily on campus. And the K12 schools are in.
I'd you need verification of how much people don't understand, or don't want to understand the disease, you need go no further than the city's Facebook chat page. There you see some people asking how many cases there are, others reporting what they've heard, others commenting that the disease isn't real and why do you care if your kids gets it.
I keep waiting. With fatality rates what they are you would think we would be losing more beloved figures (or maybe we are, and people are too entrenched to connect the dots). This disease his the perfect sweet spot of killing just enough of us to swallow the naysayers to cause paralysis.
Our tiny state has one of the highest infection rates in the country, and our country, of course, has one of the highest rated in the world. We're ground zero. So if people here aren't working out out, imagine how hard it is for a state or region that has it under control to convince people to do the right thing.
I actually called a friend today to ask if I was crazy to still be in quarantine. I'd seen another friend out at a restaurant for dinner, and I just didn't understand why anyone would do that.
So I'm here, waiting for exponential case growth (between the start of school and the Labor Day weekend we should start seeing explosive numbers). I've told anyone who'll listen the schools will be closed by October. But I'm not sure, because I'm beginning to think no amount of infection, and maybe no amount of death, will convince people.
:: David (3:18 in Arkansas, 10:18 in Paris) - Comment
:: Saturday, July 4 2020 ::
Since I last posted, things got weird. Personally, I spent a good month just not doing anything at all. Not just not seeing anyone and not socializing, but like spending days just faffing about, planting things in the garden (my yard will probably never again have this much attention lavished on it) and generally not engaging with the world. I went full introvert. And the world went weird, too - the disease was politicized. Masks became a way to indicate your political alignment.
Arkansas, in particular, was interesting, because we had good reason to be skeptical. The disease was a thing on the coasts, not the heartland. And we're Republican, so reality and political intent aligned. And we started to reopen.
And then there was George Floyd.
Now the liberals are out in the streets, protesting. There were protests here in Conway. In Conway! Tear gas and everything! And it seems like, as I write this, maybe finally we're thinking about maybe coming to terms with some of our racist past. There's a large Facebook group agitating to get rid of the Confederate monument in town. It's kind of incredible how things shifted, and I can't help wonder if maybe the disease didn't help make people aware, because they couldn't distract themselves with the usual.
So summer arrived. People were no longer on lockdown. All sorts of ways for the disease to spread. Which it has. Explosive growth. And one side of the political aisle seemingly trying to wish it out of existence. It seems like we might just now be at another inflection point - suddenly the conservative machine, media and politicians, are talking about masks again. It's not clear if they'll shift to fully taking it seriously, but signs seem to point that way.
Meanwhile, Europe has opened up for travel and tourism from some counties. The US is not on the approved list. Heck - even travel between states is no longer completely open - we're going to see my wife's family, and it looks like we'll be expected to quarantine for two weeks.
So that's the background to what I came to write about. We just finished watching Hamilton, which was released on streaming today, and I think maybe everyone in the country watched it. It made me think about how we'll write this but of history. Is this a big deal, or a blip? I mean, we shut down the planet for a month or so, it probably gets a mention. But what do we say? Many underlying faults were revealed. That's a safe one. But I think it will only matter if real change happens. I don't think we mention this, except as a cause of what follows. And boy I wish I knew what was to follow!
There is one narrative I'm wondering about, and that's whether the crash of 2007-2008 will be grouped with this. An entire generation has lost any hope that the economy will work for them. I think about people graduating say 2007-2010. Nobody is hiring, fear is everywhere. Maybe they get their foot in the door, start working their way up the ladder. The economy grows for a decade, things are good, and then the economy crashes even harder. I don't know - I'm not young enough, and my financial situation is such that I don't have the same worries (for the most part - I'm very aware that a single bad hospital stay could put me in the poor house, like every American). But I imagine the US, to an awful lot of younger people, feels like a house of cards.
On a related note, one thing I've done a lot more of since the disease struck is day trading. I bought a lot of socks when the market melted down, expecting I would hold them for a year until things recovered. Instead, the market recovered in days or weeks. Which is stupid and insane and totally divorced from reality. And yet. So I'm making money on stocks. As the disease continues to ravage my country.
To quote Hamilton, "the world turned upside down".
:: David (4:17 in Arkansas, 11:17 in Paris) - Comment
:: Saturday, April 11 2020 ::
I made my first foray to the store since things blew up. I found an old N95 mask I had bought for sanding at some point, and put it under my buff from Iceland, and went to buy milk (required for coffee) and whatever else I could find.
The store was a weird experience - a mix of people wearing masks and avoiding others, people not wearing masks and avoiding others, and people who seemed not to know there was a pandemic going on. Flour and rice were mostly sold out, but there were endless snack chips. I bought what I could, checked myself out, and raced back to my car.
I'm sure part of how weird the experience felt was my own state of mind - being in a space that is totally normal but now feels alien, and not trusting anything I touch to be safe. I said to myself after 'if you assume everything is hostile you won't be wrong'. Which is where we are now.
Later in the evening I was getting coffee and I joked to Sasha that I could use all the milk I wanted because I had risked my life to get more. Then I sobered and realized that, maybe, I had actually risked my life.
:: David (2:42 in Arkansas, 9:42 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, March 24 2020 ::
A friend recently sent me something he had seen about the stimulus that was sure to come to support the economy as the US, and the world, tries to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. It went, as these things often do, something like ‘a sustainable debt-to-GDP ratio is X, and we are Y, which is much larger than X, so we’re headed for a collapse’.
This debate is OLD. It was old before Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff made their spectacular Excel error, and we certainly had enough words spent on it after that. Borrowing money scares some people. A lot. In my Intro to Business class nothing made the students as uncomfortable as the part where we discussed opportunity cost, and how sometimes borrowing is good, if there is a net positive return.
Which brings us to the question of stimulus in the face of a looming economic disaster brought on by pandemic. Assume we don’t have buckets of money lying about to spend, because we don’t – every year the US spends more than it takes in. That’s the budget deficit, which you may have heard of, which each year adds to the national debt mentioned above in the context of ‘debt-to-GDP’. This probably means we’ll have to borrow to spend – stick it on the nation’s credit card, as it were. And we know for sure that carrying a balance on a credit card is bad.
The US borrows money by selling treasuries. We’ll give you this piece of paper and you give us cash. The interest rates on those pieces of paper are set when they are sold – and right now that interest rate is nearly zero. People want a safe investment, because stocks are clearly not that, so they give their money to the US government for next to nothing. The US, right now, can borrow virtually infinite amounts, for what is effectively free. In fact, if things keep up there’s a chance we’ll see negative interest rates, where people pay the government to hold on to their money, rather than needing to be paid.
This means all the government has to do is invest in something that brings any return at all and it will make money by borrowing. In fact, we could even roll over the debt we already have and save a bundle. But in addition, we could fix our infrastructure, educate our children, etc. etc. All the things that we know will pay a return on investment. And we can even do things that don’t have that much bang for buck, because the bucks are free. Early childhood education pays high dividends – there’s plenty of research showing it's a good investment. But fixing high schools and colleges has a much lower return, which might be part of the reason we haven’t. But right now we could.
So if this were just a normal everyday year, and interest rates were at zero, we’d have a chance to make some good investments. But that’s not what this is.
Right now the alternative isn’t status quo, it’s economic Armageddon. People have already lost jobs, and many more will. They have probably stopped buying unnecessary things, and soon they’ll stop buying necessary ones. They’ll stop paying their rent and their mortgage. The banks holding those mortgages will start to fail (stop me if you’ve heard this one about twelve years ago). Businesses will close, so people out of work won’t be able to find new jobs. The economy will seize for years. The negative effects are myriad, and well documented. And although we know things are going to be bad, nobody is really sure how bad it’s going to be.
The example I gave on my tests was a choice between paying down a loan at 5%, or investing in something that paid 10%. Easy. But this is even easier, because the loan interest rate is nearly zero percent – we don’t care at all when it gets paid. We could pay it today. We could pay it in a year. Or in a decade. There's even talk of 'century bonds' that don't get paid for 100 years. It all costs exactly the same. Zero (or near enough). And the return on investment looks to be much, much larger.
And here’s where things take a turn for the truly weird – because the US isn’t a household – a person eventually has to pay their debt. But with the US, so long as investors are willing to lend us money, we don’t. Even if that’s a century. Or a millennium. The argument, of course, is that if we borrow enough people will get scared and stop lending. But if we borrow, and then make money with it, we’re not debtors, we’re investing geniuses. We’re Warren Buffett, and not only will people lend us the same amount, they’ll lend us more. Forever - or long enough that the world will have changed enough that the question is no longer relevant.
So even if we pursue some stupid policy like a supply side stimulus that Marco Rubio wants us to do, we’ll probably come out ahead with a stimulus. Something a surprising number of people are acknowledging.
What that should look like, and what that will look like, I'll leave for another day.
:: David (0:48 in Arkansas, 7:48 in Paris) - Comment
:: Thursday, March 19 2020 ::
One interesting thing I've noticed since the disease took hold is a resurgence of excitement about video chat. Technology that we've had for two decades, not doing much with, now seems like a great way to have a social gathering. It will be interesting to see if this sticks.
In general, I'm assuming there will be some major social changes, though I can't guess what they will be, nor if it will register, afterward, how we've changed. So often things shift, and it's hard even to remember how things used to be. But these changes are happening pretty quickly, so it's hard to believe there won't be a clear before and after.
:: David (2:11 in Arkansas, 9:11 in Paris) - Comment
:: Tuesday, March 17 2020 ::
It's a strange time to be alive. Today the first case of COVID-19 was reported in my town. Things had already ground to a virtual halt, and it's not clear what next steps are. We don't know enough about the disease - we don't even know where it is, since the US medical system is so woefully unprepared for something like this. Testing is supposed to be ramping up, and we expect this means the number of cases will explode. I've been lucky, being surrounded by experts, but it's been clear that a lot of panic has occurred in the wider world. Stocks are off around 25%, and it's not clear that investors' panic is unjustified - an economic halt is a pretty big deal - estimates I've heard suggest that a dip similar to the 2008 crisis is a conservative estimate. The irony, of course, is that the more seriously we take it, the more we will mitigate the effects of the disease, and thus the more people will say (are already saying) we overreacted.
In the meantime, we're all practicing 'social distancing' and trying to work out how interactions should occur, if at all. There's been a lack of leadership from some of the traditional places (the presidency, but also the local churches are walking a fine line with their conservative members) and I'm going to try to see if the local group I run can step into that breach. I will say that so many people having time off has led to some interesting social effects - the walking trail I use to get home was packed today!
:: David (23:04 in Arkansas, 6:04 in Paris) - Comment
:: Wednesday, February 5 2020 ::
Our first family cat, Mina, passed away yesterday. We went out in the damp, dreary morning this morning to bury her. It's been a weird process, one minute trying to treat it rationally and the next being absolutely shattered by grief. We knew the end was coming - we had actually scheduled to go in yesterday afternoon to have the vet put her to sleep, but her downward trajectory was steeper than we expected.
A friend lost her husband not too long ago, and I can't imagine how much harder that must be.
:: David (0:24 in Arkansas, 7:24 in Paris) - Comment
:: Friday, January 17 2020 ::
Took a trip to Roatan Honduras for New Year's, after a visit to New York for Christmas. Good to get back in the water (we went diving). It has been quite a while, and we were definitely a bit rusty. I had a chance to practice my Spanish, which was lovely - I had hoped to do a longer language study trip but the death of our furnace put paid (pun intended) to that idea, so it was nice to feel like I had a bit of a chance to practice. Now it's tax season, and as I seem to find myself doing tax accounting these days (honestly so weird to say that) I'm busy through April.
I flew back and less than 14 hours later participated in a planning meeting for the city advisory board I'm on (covered in the local paper). It's been fairly nonstop ever since, like always.
:: David (4:30 in Arkansas, 11:30 in Paris) - Comment