O Ye of Little Faith

You may have heard this story.

Once there was a devout man who was certain in his faith. All who knew him remarked on his righteousness, for he was constantly thanking God for His great wisdom in making all that was, good or bad.

One day on the evening news this man heard that a terrible storm was coming and that all should evacuate to high ground. “I’ll stay right here,” he said to himself. “The Lord will save me.”

It began to rain.

It rained so much that the creek rose out of its bed, and waves lapped at the foundation of his house. A neighbor paddled by in his canoe and offered to take the righteous man to high ground. “No, thank you. Don’t worry about me. God will save me.”

Still it rained, the waters rose, and the man took refuge on his roof. A helicopter hovered overhead, and a National Guardsman swinging from a rope ladder shouted for him to climb up. “No, thank you. Go; help someone else in need. God will save me.”

Still it rained. And the righteous man drowned.

The man came before God, and asked, “Lord, I’ve been a righteous man all my life. I’ve kept all your commandments. I know in my heart that you are a loving and kind god; I was so sure you would save me. Why did you let me drown?”

And God answered, “I sent the evening news. I sent your neighbor in his canoe. And I sent the National Guard with a helicopter. What more did you need?”

Tips for an Advanced Lifestyle; or, Coping with Working from Home

  • Wake up you sleepyhead
  • Put on some clothes
  • Shake up your bed
  • Oh, you pretty things, brush your teeth
  • Bathe
  • Make, eat, and clean up from breakfast
  • Lift weights
  • Go for a walk
  • Do some work
  • No! Don’t check e-mail yet! That’s almost as bad as reading the Internet. Wait until you get something done first.
  • Eat lunch
  • Post a picture on Sad Desk Lunch
  • Do more work
  • Turn off the computer at the end of the day

The author has been working from home since 2600 baud modems were a thing, but officially only since 2006. The biggest handicap is lack of routine. The second is lack of people. The greatest benefit is flexibility. The greatest hazard is also flexibility. Establish boundaries for yourself and keep them.

Yes, that means a schedule. And pants.

Working from home, often with indefinite externally-imposed demands, will reveal weaknesses in your time management skills. Until the option presents itself, we are not aware of how much someone else’s clock shapes our day. Consider the difference between children during the school year and vacation. Similarly, athletes, musicians, and others may be accustomed to working with a very limited time budget, but what happens when the infinity of 24 hours presents itself? Initially one may have grand plans for the hour(s) of reclaimed time, but those disappear in a haze. Find tricks to divide personal time from that devoted to your work, and work time from that devoted to care for everything else. Some people use pants, others a change of space, and still others a bell.

It will impose, forcefully, on time you once thought was yours: lunch. Meetings will be scheduled to interrupt breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Set limits early. If you are planning to eat with your family, do so. If you formerly took breaks to chat over coffee, continue. Get away from the desk.

It will remove any exercise you may have been getting during your commute. In my case before I began working from home my commute had changed from walking a mile to the train plus several miles to and from the office each day, to a few feet of walking to my car then to my desk. After I began working from home even that little bit of exercise was reduced to the distance from my bed to my couch. Get up and move.

It will beg you to keep going. Don’t.

Stop. Tomorrow is another day.

Update: Consider this a reminder that working away from the home is an invention of the modern, industrial era. Society changes over time.

A Tale of Two Cats

Two cats live with me. One, Lily, is 15; she has been with us since she was weaned, adopted with her brother when my daughters were four and two. Her brother passed away two Christmases ago. The other, Maple, is of indeterminate age, and came to live with us five years ago after she was abandoned. They don’t get along.

Lily used to be the queen, but she’s aged, and now Maple can push her around. As a result, she spends most days on edge, tip-toeing around the sleeping bully. She’ll ask politely for food, stand daintily in second position while she waits, and then not eat–because as soon as a rustle or a can is heard, Maple flops off her chair and gallumphs thunderously to the kitchen, elbows her way past Lily, and quickly consumes all there is, regardless of how much is set out.

Maple is moaning piteously outside right now. She claims to be starving to death. How could I be so cruel as to keep her away from all of her food.

The house has one too many cats.

A Thousand Points of Light

Many things have been cancelled because of the coronavirus. Love is not one of them.

Faith in the time of Coronavirus“,
James Martin, S. J., America, March 13, 2020

Our moment of crisis is decades in the making, the endgame of decades of embracing the idea that we are not interconnected, that it is each man and woman for themselves.

Coronavirus is an indictment of our way of life,”
Helaine Olen, The Washington Post, March 13, 2020

When this plague has passed, what will our neighbors remember of us? Will they remember that the Christians took immediate, decisive action to protect the vulnerable, even at great personal and organizational cost?

Love in the Time of Coronavirus,”
Andy Crouch, Praxis Journal, March 12, 2020

The challenge ahead is not to rebuild—it’s to build. We can’t restore something that never quite was. We don’t even know what a caring society—the beloved community—might really look like. We’ll have to imagine. So—if your classes are cancelled or your big game is kaput or the office is half-empty, if you don’t know how to wonk or organize, if you’re not a nurse or a public health expert or a social worker, if you’re feeling isolated—well, then, get busy. More time to start the work ahead: imagining the caring society that must come next. This is no thought exercise, this is action, and we can get going now if we haven’t—by determination or due to more visible necessity—started already.

All In,”
Jeff Sharlet, Bookforum, March 13, 2020

fuck coronavirus

who has a bill coming up that they’re not sure they’re gonna be able to pay

send me your bill and your Venmo

Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano), March 13, 2020

What I Hope–and Fear

I hope there will be a great coming together of society, as people from all walks of life realize that we are all in this together. We leave the world a better place than we found it.

I fear a few, seeing the opportunity to never let a crisis go to waste, ensure that they profit at the expense of others, that they consolidate their power, turning neighbor against neighbor as the many fight for table scraps dropped by the few.

One might say I’m a pessimist, but I’m afraid that my fears are more likely to come to pass.

Garbage-In, Garbage-Out

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If testing for COVID-19 only if another test for COVID-19 is positive, when do you ever test?

Answer: you don’t.

Luckily, humans aren’t computers, though rules can make them behave, sometimes, like they are.

The question above was prompted by personal concern. It’s that time of the year when folks, including me, tend to get sick. I’ve had symptoms of the common cold or allergies for a week or so: a dry cough, runny nose. Number One Son presented symptoms of a viral infection on Monday evening: A fever, a dry cough, aches and pains. He did not have trouble breathing. Could be an influenza.

We can test for the flu. The test results came back negative. It’s not the flu. Given the current situation, it could be SARS-CoV-2. We could test for that, if test kits were available. But test kits are unavailable, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to a fragile supply chain. Therefore the Centers for Disease Control has certain recommendations on when to test, in order that the available tests not be used up in a panic.

Decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19, as well as the clinical course of illness. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever1 and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing). Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.

Epidemiologic factors that may help guide decisions on whether to test include: any persons, including healthcare workers2, who have had close contact3 with a laboratory-confirmed4 COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset, or a history of travel from affected geographic areas5 (see below) within 14 days of symptom onset.

Evaluating and Reporting Persons Under Investigation, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(updated March 4, 2020; retrieved March 11)

Practically speaking, however, there’s no testing because we can’t. This limits our knowledge of the spread of the illness and whether or not we should test.

And that’s not even getting to sins of omission. The cases reported to the World Health Organization are an approximation due to input error. We can somewhat extrapolate the scope of this problem with math–The Economist mapped typical tourism flows to elucidate where COVID-19 is being under-reported, for example–but small errors in variables cause very different results. How many people have been exposed? How many people have been infected? How long is the incubation period? When does an infected person start spreading the disease? How long does an infected person spread the disease? How much can you trust people who habitually lie?

All of which means that the very nice map from Johns Hopkins is a picture of the past, and not a clear guide to what’s happening now, in your neighborhood. The same goes for any news reporting. Still, decisions have to be made with incomplete or inaccurate data. And they can be, from knowledge of how diseases spread in general, and boil down to two things: reduce contact and reduce travel. The decisions by many colleges to hold classes online and to send students home is then, in this light, only half right.

We know that we don’t know if we’re infected.

We know that it spreads before symptoms appear.

We know that the symptoms are deceiving.

We know that we aren’t testing.

We know that the virus cannot spread without hosts.

Waiting until we have a confirmed case before acting seems the height of silliness, closing the barn doors after the horse has bolted.

But how easy is it to ask people to stay home for a fortnight? Martial law shouldn’t be necessary: ask folks to stay home and make it possible for them to do so. That’s the difficult part.

One thing that can be done, relatively easily, is projecting the result of doing nothing. [edit to add link that starts from a different assumption]

First, assume everyone is infected. 80% will be fine. 20% will develop complications. 1% will die. In the United States, that’s ≈3,500,000 people dead. Luckily, we aren’t doing nothing. People do wash their hands and stay apart from each other. We’re just doing practically nothing.

When this is all over, we shall see.

Personal Hygiene is Public Hygiene

Isn’t it remarkable how the recommendations for what to do if you get sick are basically the same regardless of the cause? Wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Cover your mouth (not with your hand) when you cough or sneeze. Clean surfaces. No double dipping. Wash your hands. Stay home. Rest.

The difference with something like SARS-CoV-2 is that, because of its virulence, the population as a whole cannot depend on individuals to wash their hands–or to stay home.

We here in America have a habit of not staying home when we’re sick, for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious: if I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid; if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat. Some people do have paid sick days, though not everybody does, nor does everybody have enough paid sick (or personal or vacation) days to cover being sick more than once. They have no option.

But we’ve also been taught not to take our sick days on Mondays or Fridays because the boss will think that we’re not actually sick. Obviously, we’re goofing off or we drank too much over the weekend. So we go to work. We were taught this in school: attendance is mandatory. Come to school every day unless you have an excuse. Our industrial training has been effective. Long story short, we do not rest: we go out and contaminate the world when we’re sick.

Perhaps after this epidemic runs its course, particularly if it kills enough people, that might change.

A Simple Rate Tweak Should Do It

Last week, the Federal Reserve and others lowered interest rates in an attempt to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Also last week, The Economist optimistically wrote that a recession is unlikely but not impossible:

Yet there is an uneasy feeling that a flurry of rate cuts may not be the solution to this downturn. In part that reflects the fact that they are already so low.

Lowering the prime rate has no effect because it’s not the banks who don’t have enough money: it’s the people. Maybe rate changes would have an effect if the banks changed the interest rate on consumer credit from 25% to -25%, but they won’t. It’s thoroughly irritating how some commentators say there’s too much money in the system when the problem is not how much there is but who has it. We’ve needed a helicopter drop of cash or a debt jubilee for a decade, and a basic income for a century.

In the United States, “full” employment is not having an effect on wages because it’s not full. The labor market is global, or was until yesterday, and global unemployment is roughly 50%, so real wages are still going down. Because employment only counts paid labor–and bears only a passing relation to what work needs to be done–employment is constrained by employers. And there aren’t enough employers, again because of the distribution of money, but also because of a tendency to monopoly: how many paperclip maximizers do we really need? Meanwhile, none of that matters because the system isn’t designed for the public good–or, if you prefer, it’s not designed to maximize marginal benefit for all market participants. Finance capitalism thrives on greed: the world can go to Hell; I’ve got mine.

Besides, it’s not just households who are over-leveraged. Everyone is.

One way the virus hurts the economy is by disrupting the supply of labour, goods and services. People fall ill. Schools close, forcing parents to stay at home. Quarantines might force workplaces to shut entirely. This is accompanied by sizeable demand effects. Some are unavoidable: sick people go out less and buy fewer goods. Public-health measures, too, restrict economic activity. Putting more money into consumers’ hands will do little to offset this drag, unlike your garden-variety downturn. Activity will resume only once the outbreak runs its course.

Then there are nasty spillovers. Both companies and households will face a cash crunch. Consider a sample of 2,000-odd listed American firms. Imagine that their revenues dried up for three months but that they had to continue to pay their fixed costs, because they expected a sharp recovery. A quarter would not have enough spare cash to tide them over, and would have to try to borrow or retrench. Some might go bust. Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements, a club of central banks, find that over 12% of firms in the rich world generate too little income to cover their interest payments.

Many workers do not have big safety buffers either. They risk losing their incomes and their jobs while still having to make mortgage repayments and buy essential goods. More than one in ten American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to about two days’ work at average earnings, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. Fearing a hit to their pockets, people could start to hoard cash rather than spend, further worsening firms’ positions.


The Economist longs for Bretton Woods while they chart some of the attempted remedies. It’s quite possible, however, as some commentators have noted since at least the turn of the century, that the global economy is now too complexly intertwined to be centrally managed, if it ever could have been, or ever could be.

May you live in interesting times.

You Can’t Eat Silicon

Even the New York Times is feeling apocalyptic, with a nice piece about folks learning primitive skills. There’s an air of novelty about the article, but shouldn’t be. The back-to-the-land counterculture didn’t all turn into Yuppies, and there have been intentional communities, some maintaining older traditions, for centuries. That diversity is good and useful; someone has to remember how to make things.

As Shane Hobel said when No. 1 Daughter and I took his survival course for Girl Scouts, we once were a sophisticated people in a primitive world; now we are a primitive people in a sophisticated world.

How to Prepare Now for the Complete End of the World, The New York Times, March 8, 2020

“One day I was like, ‘This is crap. We live month to month. We spend all our money on booze and coffee. We can’t save like this. We can’t live like this. We all talk about getting back to earth, but we didn’t know anything about it.’”

Don’t Panic

It may be this is the End of Days, or it may not. We shall see, though it has certainly looked like this century has been rhyming with the last since at least 2008. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to recall the wise words on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Or, as it was written in the days when Men were Men and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri were Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri,

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If—,” Rudyard Kipling (1910)

(Come to think of it, it’s no surprise that the Scout motto is Be Prepared. Baden-Powell and Kipling came out of the same mileau.)

Thou Preparest a Table Before Me

Last Sunday, the pastor of Freedom Plains Presbyterian Church asked for help cleaning the tiny cups used for Communion. They’d switched to glass, or back to glass, from disposable plastic. I was pleased: Glass cups were all I’d known when I was younger, last century.

I’ve helped prepare for Communion and clean up afterward. I’ve filled quarter-ounce glasses with Welch’s grape juice. I’ve collected the empties and not-so-empties from the backs of the pews after the service. I’ve washed the cups. It’s one of the things you do as the preacher’s kid.

Perhaps because I grew up a preacher’s kid in the Presbyterian Church, I’m curious about worship practices among Christians and across cultures. I am not anthropologist enough, or daring enough, to visit other ceremonies uninvited, but I have attended within my comfort zone: mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.

The service of the Eucharist differs in the details. Some traditions break freshly baked bread; some, wafers. Some use wine; some, grape juice. Some go to the altar rail. Some form lines. Some pass a plate hand to hand. Some sip wine from a chalice; some, from little cups. Some plastic. Some glass. The way the liturgy is structured emphasizes or elides different aspects of the practice of life.

I love the ritual of the Catholic mass: The washing of the hands, the presentation of the gifts, the setting of the table, and then… the cleaning up. No crumbs are dropped. Dishes and utensils are cleaned–and put away–every time. The congregation silently, patiently, waits.

It’s part of the ceremony to set the table. It’s part of the ceremony to wash the dishes. This menial labor is not insignificant.

At some of the services I’ve attended, there’s a rush to leave, immediately, before “the Mass has ended; go in peace.” Parishioners receive communion and walk out the door rather than return to their pew. They jostle in the parking lot, impatient to get on with their day. Did they receive anything other than a stale cracker? I’ve seen this less recently, perhaps because of where or when I’ve attended, or perhaps because I’m older. Or perhaps because attendance has dwindled: those who are there want to be there. Church is not an irritant.

At Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian meetings, where the plate is passed, there’s no easy escape. In the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Lutheran traditions, where the congregants rise and move forward to receive, the return is easily abbreviated.

But if you stay, see how the meal ends with the washing and the putting away.

Last week, a couple about my age collected the soiled dishes on a hand cart and wheeled them off to the commercial washer in the social hall’s kitchen.

Who prepares your meals? Who cleans?

Living on Margin

Instant gratification is made possible by just-in-time delivery. What if just-in-time never arrives?

I have four eggs left in the refrigerator and half a gallon of milk, so if I want to make waffles over the weekend, I will need to purchase more. Assuming that I have money to buy more. Assuming that there are more to buy.

I know someone with chickens, so eggs might not be a problem if, for some reason, I have to beg favors, or the local grocery store closes, or a delivery can’t be made because all the drivers are ill or fuel is scare, or the farmers or their robots can’t milk the cattle or gather eggs from the chickens. But do I know anyone with a milk cow? It’s still Winter; do I know anyone with greenhouse? (Actually, I know several, but they’re in Virginia and Connecticut; I’m in New York.)

What will you eat when the world ends?

What is your margin of error?

Echoes of Holy Wisdom

What we can do with physics and math–and curiosity–is awe-inspiring.

Natural light moving across the surfaces of marble and gold causes glitter that in turn simulates the perceptual memory of the quivering sea. The iterative marmar offers the linguistic basis of this experience: in Greek marmaron is marble; Marmara is the name of the sea washing at the southern harbors of Constantinople and surrounding the marble quarries on the island of Proconnesus; marmairein and marmaryssein is “to flash,” “to sparkle;” and marmarygma is shimmer. Marmarygma arises in Hagia Sophia at sunrise and sunset at the time when originally the morning and evening liturgies unfolded.


Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel’s Icons of Sound project at Stanford resurrected the soundscape of Hagia Sophia in concert with Capella Romana. Listen:

Like all good things, there’s also a book, Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium (2017) and accompanying website(s).

The film contains more details, or just listen.

(via NPR’s Weekend Edition and The World According to Sound)

What Practice?

Doesn’t this miss the point?

Tenzin Priyadarshi, a Buddhist monk and the CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. To automate the elaborate process of creating and destroying [mandalas], an important tradition in Buddhism, Priyadarshi teamed up with Carlo Ratti, an MIT architect and designer of Scribit, a $500 “write and erase robot” that uses special markers to draw and erase art on a wall. [emphasis mine]

“The robot does the hard work. Can you still attain enlightenment?” Tanya Basu, Technology Review (February 21, 2020)

Pride Goeth Before

Most of us find it hard to admit mistakes.

Was the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak worsened because admitting the scope of the problem, or that a problem even exists, could be embarrassing? Is that any different from a Church that claims to speak infallibly and act in-errantly, yet shelters and enables abuse?

Are we bound to ignore the probability of error? Why do we assert absolute truth, yet fester with lies; claim omniscience, yet remain ignorant?

What a sin is this pride, this hubris!