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kottke.org posts about Farhad Manjoo

The Moral Calculus of COVID-19

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 20, 2020

deep-space.jpg

You may have heard that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has been quarantining at home following close contact with a person who had tested positive for COVID-19. You may have also heard that last night, Maddow returned to her show (still filming from home) to reveal that this person was her partner of 20+ years, artist/photographer Susan Mikula. Mikula is recovering, but at at least one point, the couple genuinely feared for her life. Maddow herself is still testing negative; with Mikula in much less danger and Maddow nearing the end of quarantine, they felt it was time to open the curtain on their experience.

If you haven’t seen it already, I’d like you to watch the video of Maddow describing her experience of living with a loved one who is suffering from COVID-19, whom you have to care for but cannot touch without grave risk to yourself, and then to others. (It is about Mikula’s own experience, but it’s really much more about Maddow’s experience, for good reason.)

Here’s a quick excerpt, if you want a textual preview (via Vulture):

“Just believe me: Whatever you have calculated into your life as acceptable risk, as inevitable risk, something that you’re willing to go through in terms of this virus because statistically, hey probably, it will be fine for you and your loved ones, I’m just here to tell you to recalibrate that,” [Maddow] warned. “Frankly, the country needs you to recalibrate that because broadly speaking, there’s no room for you in the hospital right now.”

She cites hospitals being overwhelmed with a “50 percent” increase in patients “in two weeks.” While it may be easy to risk your own life, the virus doesn’t let you make the choice. “What you need to know is whoever’s the most important person in your life, whoever you most love and most care for and most cherish in the world, that’s the person who you may lose and who you may spend weeks up all night freaking out about and calling doctors all over the place and over and over again all night long, trying to figure out how to keep that person breathing and out of the hospital,” she said. “Whatever you’re doing, however you’ve calibrated risk in your life, don’t get this thing.”

Another moment worth noting in the video is shortly after she begins. Maddow is interrupted by a recurring beeping noise in a room off-camera. She has to attend to it herself, in the middle of a live television show, because there’s no one else at home who can do it. She takes off her microphone and earpiece, then has to put it back on. After already revealing at the beginning of the show that she’s not wearing makeup—she doesn’t know how to apply it herself, and no one can help her—it’s a nice peek behind the scenes.

I don’t know if everyone always understands how much work it takes it is to perform for live television: how many accessories you need, how much support is required. People don’t see what you have to look like, sound like, or act like; they don’t see the almost cyborg contraption you have to become in order to make a successful television appearance. Being good at television is a specific skill. It’s as different from writing, reporting, or public speaking as football, baseball, and basketball are from playing polo. It doesn’t matter if you have your words on a teleprompter (although that does help): you still have to deliver them, in time, no backsies, and look and sound good while you’re doing it.

The disruption of the show also happens in the middle of a charming metaphor Maddow uses to describe her relationship:

The way that I think about it is not that she is the sun and I’m a planet that orbits her—that would give too much credit to the other planets. I think of it more as a pitiful thing: that she is the planet and I am a satellite, and I’m up there sort of beep-beep-beeping at her and blinking my lights and just trying to make her happy.

Compare this to Farhad Manjoo’s essay in The New York Times today, “I Traced My COVID-19 Bubble and It’s Enormous.” Manjoo starts with a classic dilemma: they know it’s unsafe in general to travel for Thanksgiving, but they wonder if it might be safer for their family, given the size of their social circle and the precautions they’ve taken. They’d like to find out more, to replace their general intuitions, which pull them in both directions, with something more concrete. This is a time-honored journalistic premise (a rhetorical trope, really) for answering a question many people might have.

In researching their close contacts, and their own exposure to other people, Manjoo quickly has cold water thrown on the notion that their bubble is in any way contained to the degree they’d imagined it to be. (This part of the story is well-illustrated: I’ll give you the text excerpts, but it’s worth clicking through and scrolling through yourself.)

I thought my bubble was pretty small, but it turned out to be far larger than I’d guessed.

My only close contacts each week are my wife and kids.

My kids, on the other hand, are in a learning pod with seven other children and my daughter attends a weekly gymnastics class.

I emailed the parents of my kids’ friends and classmates, as well as their teachers, and asked how large each family’s bubble was.

Already, my network was up to almost 40 people.

Turns out a few of the families in our learning pod have children in day care or preschool.

And one’s classmate’s mother is a doctor who comes into contact with about 10 patients each week.

Once I had counted everyone, I realized that visiting my parents for Thanksgiving would be like asking them to sit down to dinner with more than 100 people.

They aren’t actually done counting yet: from themself, they’ve only gone to three degrees of separation. But presumably, the point in the headline is made. The author’s bubble is enormous, and presumably the reader’s is, too.

Then a curious thing happens. Manjoo decides that what they’ve learned doesn’t matter. They thinks their family and their contacts are special after all. “All of my indirect contacts are taking the virus seriously—none of them spun conspiracy theories about the pandemic, or suggested it was no big deal or told me to bug off and mind my own business.” (This is a very low threshold for “taking the virus seriously.”) And they would really like to take their wife and children to see their parents. An epidemiologist gives them some cover, saying their desire to see their parents is understandable, and it’s all a matter of assessing and evaluating risk.

So, they change their mind again. They make a few concessions (drive, not fly; an outdoor meal rather than an indoor one; staying off-site rather than sleeping over). And they’re going to travel five hours each way with their wife and children and their 100+ direct and indirect contacts to celebrate Thanksgiving with their parents.

This is contrarianism on a scale not usually seen in a newspaper article. (They’re usually too short to take this many turns.) It is one thing to counter received wisdom by posing a counterfactual. It is another to spend hours of reporting, gathering facts, calling in experts, putting everything on the record, and then deciding that none of that matters.

On Twitter, I called it “the full Gladwell”; only Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker can consistently pull this hairpin twist off and stick the landing, even if he frequently violates good sense and plain facts to do it.

It’s important, though, that this is not just a rhetorical trick. These are the real lives of real people, both in the story itself, and radiating out to its readers and their contacts in a global newspaper, the United States’ paper of record. And the reasoning and evidence that are considered but discarded gives the illusion that this is a choice motivated not by setting reason aside, but considering all options and maximizing one’s expected utility.

Not to “both sides” this, but I’m gonna “both sides” this: in some sense, both Maddow and Manjoo are putting their thumb on the scales, in opposite directions. For Maddow, the experience of almost losing the love of her life makes it so that she would take no willing risk that might endanger her or anyone else. (She acknowledges that a certain amount of unavoidable, unwilling risk remains.)

Manjoo is different. They acknowledge that they have no such experience. They are less concerned with the possible loss of their parents’ lives than the loss of their presence in his life and in their childrens’ lives. They see the willing assumption of risk as an open moral question, and something that can be calculated and appropriately mitigated.

Maddow has constructed a universe where she is a tiny satellite orbiting a much larger planet, whose continued health and existence is the central focus of her concern. Manjoo has drawn a map with themself at its center, where anyone beyond the reach of their telephone falls off the edges.

Maddow is also explicitly pleading with her viewers to learn what they can from her experience, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Manjoo is performing their calculus only for themself; they implicitly present themself as a representative example (while also claiming they and their circle are extraordinarily conscientious and effective), but each reader can draw their own conclusions and make their own decision.

At this point the balancing dominoes tip over. Maddow’s position, her argument, and her example are clearly more moral and more persuasive than Manjoo’s. Manjoo’s essay is worth reading, but the conclusion is untenable. It doesn’t do the work needed to arrive there or persuade anyone else to do the same. And at a time when many people are spinning conspiracies about the pandemic, or claiming that it’s no big deal, and in turn influencing others—when we haven’t even yet considered the virus’s impact on the uncounted number of people, from medical staff and many other essential workers to prisoners and the impoverished, who do not simply get to choose how to spend their holiday—it’s irresponsible.

The larger moral tragedy is that because our leaders have failed, and too often actually worked to damage the infrastructure, expertise, and goodwill accumulated over generations, we have no consistent, authoritative guidance on what we should and should not do. We do not know who to trust. We have no money, no help, and no plan but to wait. We have no sense of what rules our friends and neighbors, colleagues and workers, are following when they’re not in our sight; we don’t even know what practices they would even admit to embracing. We have no money; we have no help. We are left on our own, adrift in deep space, scribbling maps and adding sums on the back of a napkin. We are all in this together, yet we are completely alone.

Update: An earlier version of this post used incorrect pronouns for Farhad Manjoo. Manjoo uses they/them pronouns. I regret the error, which, compunded, led to many errors. —TC

Second Update: Actually, Farhad uses both they/them and he/him pronouns. I am relieved I didn’t inadvertently offend the subject of my post with the first version, and since this one is still correct, I am not changing it back.

What to Expect When Expecting the Displeasure of the Chinese Government

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

The partnership between China and Western governments & corporations has hit a rough patch recently, namely the Hong Kong protests and how the NBA, Apple, and gaming company Blizzard have handled various responses to them on their platforms. I don’t have a lot to add on the matter, but I have read some interesting takes in the past few days that you might also want to take a look at.

Ben Thompson, The Chinese Cultural Clash:

I am not particularly excited to write this article. My instinct is towards free trade, my affinity for Asia generally and Greater China specifically, my welfare enhanced by staying off China’s radar. And yet, for all that the idea of being a global citizen is an alluring concept and largely my lived experience, I find in situations like this that I am undoubtedly a child of the West. I do believe in the individual, in free speech, and in democracy, no matter how poorly practiced in the United States or elsewhere. And, in situations like this weekend, when values meet money, I worry just how many companies are capable of choosing the former?

John Gruber riffing on Thompson’s piece:

The gist of it is that 25 years ago, when the West opened trade relations with China, we expected our foundational values like freedom of speech, personal liberty, and democracy to spread to China.

Instead, the opposite is happening. China maintains strict control over what its people see on the Internet — the Great Firewall works. They ban our social networks where free speech reigns, but we accept and use their social networks, like TikTok, where content contrary to the Chinese Community Party line is suppressed.

Farhad Manjoo, Dealing With China Isn’t Worth the Moral Cost:

The People’s Republic of China is the largest, most powerful and arguably most brutal totalitarian state in the world. It denies basic human rights to all of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens. There is no freedom of speech, thought, assembly, religion, movement or any semblance of political liberty in China. Under Xi Jinping, “president for life,” the Communist Party of China has built the most technologically sophisticated repression machine the world has ever seen. In Xinjiang, in Western China, the government is using technology to mount a cultural genocide against the Muslim Uighur minority that is even more total than the one it carried out in Tibet. Human rights experts say that more than a million people are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang, two million more are in forced “re-education,” and everyone else is invasively surveilled via ubiquitous cameras, artificial intelligence and other high-tech means.

None of this is a secret.

Om Malik, Our Collective Chinese Conundrum:

We in the West should very well know what and who we are dealing with — China might be decked out in Louis Vuitton, but underneath, it is still a single-party, quasi-communist nation. Knowing the Western desperation for growth and the insatiable needs of the stock markets, China also knows it can yank anyone’s chain.

Huawei isn’t a recent problem. It was a problem a decade ago. The dynamic in this spat between the NBA and China isn’t new — China gets what China wants, not the other way around. Why are we being outraged now? The West signed up for this.

Malik quotes from Ian Bremmer’s newsletter:

in the west, the past decades have been marked by a view that china would eventually adapt to western norms, institutions, political and economic systems. but from an asian perspective, the opposite appears more likely. after all, of the last 2,000 years, china and india have led the global economy for the first 1800; europe and the united states only flipped the script for the last 200. now that’s about to change. and when it does, it’s going to happen quickly, powered by 1.4 billion increasingly urban, educated and technologically-connected chinese citizens. take the long view (and an asian perspective) and it’s a better bet that the west will adapt to the realities of chinese economic power, not the other way around.

“Made in the USA” is back, baby

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2012

Earlier this morning in a post about Apple manufacturing their products in the US, I wrote “look for this “made in the USA” thing to turn into a trend”. Well, Made in the USA is already emerging as a trend in the media. On Tuesday, Farhad Manjoo wrote about American Giant, a company who makes the world’s best hoodie entirely in the US for a decent price.

For one thing, Winthrop had figured out a way to do what most people in the apparel industry consider impossible: He’s making clothes entirely in the United States, and he’s doing so at costs that aren’t prohibitive. American Apparel does something similar, of course, but not especially profitably, and its clothes are very low quality. Winthrop, on the other hand, has found a way to make apparel that harks back to the industry’s heyday, when clothes used to be made to last. “I grew up with a sweatshirt that my father had given me from the U.S. Navy back in the ’50s, and it’s still in my closet,” he told me. “It was this fantastic, classic American-made garment — it looks better today than it did 35, 40 years ago, because like an old pair of denim, it has taken on a very personal quality over the years.”

The Atlantic has a pair of articles in their December issue, Charles Fishman’s The Insourcing Boom:

Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, [General Electric’s Appliance Park in Louisville, KY] opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2 — largely dormant for 14 years — to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years — and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.

On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.

Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.

and James Fallows’ Mr. China Comes to America:

What I saw at these Chinese sites was surprisingly different from what I’d seen on previous factory tours, reflecting the political, economic, technological, and especially social pressures that are roiling China now. In conjunction with significant changes in the American business and technological landscape that I recently saw in San Francisco, these changes portend better possibilities for American manufacturers and American job growth than at any other time since Rust Belt desolation and the hollowing-out of the American working class came to seem the grim inevitabilities of the globalized industrial age.

For the first time in memory, I’ve heard “product people” sound optimistic about hardware projects they want to launch and facilities they want to build not just in Asia but also in the United States. When I visited factories in the upper Midwest for magazine stories in the early 1980s, “manufacturing in America” was already becoming synonymous with “Rust Belt” and “sunset industry.” Ambitious, well-educated people who had a choice were already headed for cleaner, faster-growing possibilities — in consulting, finance, software, biotech, anything but things. At the start of the ’80s, about one American worker in five had a job in the manufacturing sector. Now it’s about one in 10.

Add to that all of the activity on Etsy and the many manufactured-goods projects on Kickstarter that are going “Made in the USA” (like Flint & Tinder underwear (buy now!)) and yeah, this is definitely a thing.

As noted by Fishman in his piece, one of the reasons US manufacturing is competitive again is the low price of natural gas. From a piece in SupplyChainDigest in October:

Several industries, noticeable chemicals and fertilizers, use lots of natural gas. Fracking and other unconventional techniques have already unlocked huge supplies of natural gas, which is why natural gas prices in the US are at historic lows and much lower than the rest of the world.

Right now, nat gas prices are under $3.00 per thousand cubic, down dramatically from about three times that in 2008 and even higher in 2006. Meanwhile, natural gas prices are about $10.00 right now in Europe and $15.00 in parts of Asia.

Much of the growing natural gas reserves come from the Marcellus shale formation that runs through Western New York and Pennsylvania, Southeast Ohio, and most of West Virginia. North Dakota in the upper Midwest also is developing into a major supplier of both oil and natural gas.

So basically, energy in the US is cheap right now and will likely remain cheap for years to come because hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking aka that thing that people say makes their water taste bad, among other issues) has unlocked vast and previously unavailable reserves of oil and natural gas that will take years to fully exploit. A recent report by the International Energy Agency suggests that the US is on track to become the world’s biggest oil producer by 2020 (passing both Saudi Arabia and Russia) and could be “all but self-sufficient” in energy by 2030.

By about 2020, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer and put North America as a whole on track to become a net exporter of oil as soon as 2030, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.

The change would dramatically alter the face of global oil markets, placing the U.S., which currently imports about 45 percent of the oil it uses and about 20 percent of its total energy needs, in a position of unexpected power. The nation likely will become “all but self-sufficient” in energy by 2030, representing “a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries,” the IEA survey says.

So yay for “Made in the USA” but all this cheap energy could wreak havoc on the environment, hinder development of greener alternatives to fossil fuels (the only way green will win is to compete on price), and “artificially” prop up a US economy that otherwise might be stagnating. (thx, @rfburton, @JordanRVance, @technorav)

Robottke = robot Kottke

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2011

As part of a series of articles about robots in the workplace, Farhad Manjoo has his colleague Chris Wilson build a robotic Jason Kottke to see if it could pick links as well as I can. Say hello to Robottke.

In computer science parlance, Kottke doesn’t scale. That’s a shame. While services that collect popular stuff online are useful, they lack any editorial sensibility. The links on Techmeme and Summify represent a horde’s view of the Web. The material on Kottke represents one guy’s indispensible take. The Web ought to have both kinds of aggregators, but I’d love to see more people starting link blogs that offer a clear editorial vision. But how do you get more of something so hard to do?

Enter Robottke. Over the last few weeks, Chris Wilson has been building a machine that aims to automatically generate links you might find on Kottke.org. Robottke isn’t meant to replace flesh-and-blood Kottke; we just want to come up with a list of items that Jason Kottke might link to each day.

You can check out Robbotke here. How does it work? We began by crawling all the sources that Jason Kottke is likely to look at every day — we look at all the sites he links to, and all the stuff that people he follows on Twitter are sharing. The hard part is choosing the best, most Kottke-like links from Robottke’s collection. It’s helpful that the human Kottke meticulously tags all of his posts with keywords. When Robottke finds a link, it searches for topics that it knows Kottke likes — the more it finds, the higher the article ranks.

Hey, that riderless bike link at the top of Robottke actually looks pretty interesting…