April 2020 Articles

An epidemic is different. It falsifies your predictions rapidly and unequivocally.

..Now that we’ve seen the results, let’s remember what we saw, because this is the most accurate test of credibility we’re ever likely to have. I hope.

What’s essential and where can we make changes? Where are we forced to experiment and try new things? What will the world look like after we’ve been forced to rethink how we do things (work, shop, exercise, educate, collaborate, etc.)?

Most obviously, people have been talking about remote work and video calls for decades, but now a huge number of ‘quick coffees’ and ‘team stand-ups’ have been displaced onto video almost overnight. Zoom has gone from 10m to 200m daily users, and Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams combined probably now have more call volume than the entire US mobile network*. How much of that will go back to cafés and meeting rooms? And are you really ‘just as productive’ at home?

Well, it depends what you’re trying to do. if the job is ‘forming a human connection’ or ‘empathy’, then a video call might not be the right approach, and we may go back to coffee. If the job is to exchange information or update a project status, then video might be fine. But you could also ask whether it needs to be a call either - is that really the job you’re trying to do? Sometimes an in-person meeting is a human connection and video might or might not convey that well, but sometimes video is skeuomorphism and both calls and meetings are a way to use unstructured data to transmit structure. So, should the meeting go to a call, or should it go from synchronous to asynchronous (i.e. Slack, Teams, or even email), or should it go to some more structured data form? How many processes in how many industries convert from in-person meetings and phone calls to Zoom, and how many convert to something like Rigup or Honor, or Figma or Frame.io - to tools, structure and workflow? How much clerical work gets automated into structure, and how much time does that create for those in-person meetings where the actual in-person meeting is the point?

…Again, we’re having a massive forced experiment and we ask what will stick, and again, some of the answer lies in what ‘job’ you were really trying to do. Instead of asking ‘ did that have to be a physical meeting?’ we ask ‘did you have to go to a physical shop?’

Contrary to what you may think, naming an element involves neither a birth certificate nor the HTML name attribute. The name attribute is never directly exposed to the user, and is used only when submitting forms. Birth certificates have thus far been ignored by spec authors as a potential method for naming controls, but perhaps when web UI becomes sentient and self-propagating, we’ll need to revisit that.

It started with a Tweet from Paul Graham:

Something I explained to my 11 yo: When your brain tricks you, it’s often because it’s following a rule that made sense for most of our evolution. (The examples we were talking about were target fixation and the Monte Carlo fallacy.)

Target fixation is straightforward in that it means more or less what it sounds like it means. From Wikipedia: “Target fixation is an attentional phenomenon observed in humans in which an individual becomes so focused on an observed object (be it a target or hazard) that they inadvertently increase their risk of colliding with the object.”

Okay, so how does that play into the Monte Carlo fallacy and what is the Monte Carlo fallacy?

The gambler’s fallacy, also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy or the fallacy of the maturity of chances, is the erroneous belief that if a particular event occurs more frequently than normal during the past it is less likely to happen in the future (or vice versa), when it has otherwise been established that the probability of such events does not depend on what has happened in the past.

Again, thank you Wikipedia authors for that definition of the Monte Carlo fallacy.

Sounds like Paul had a great conversation with his 11 year old.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.

The census is an essential part of American democracy. The United States counts its population every ten years to determine how many seats each state should have in Congress. Census data have also been used to levy taxes and distribute funds, estimate the country’s military strength, assess needs for social programs, measure population density, conduct statistical analysis of longitudinal trends, and make business planning decisions.

We looked at every question on every census from 1790 to 2020. The questions—over 600 in total—tell us a lot about the country’s priorities, norms, and biases in each decade. They depict an evolving country: a modernizing economy, a diversifying population, an imperfect but expanding set of civil and human rights, and a growing list of armed conflicts in its memory.

A very good argument can be made that Apple has become the poster child of responsible share repurchases. The company has relied on its stellar free cash flow to fund share repurchases over the years. Prior to U.S. tax reform and Apple keeping cash generated outside the U.S. in foreign subsidiaries, Apple issued debt at roughly the same pace as foreign cash generation. This resulted in Apple having $285 billion of cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities on the balance sheet at the end of 1Q18. After two years of aggressive share repurchases, Apple’s cash total is now closer to $200 billion.

By funding buyback with free cash flow, share repurchases have had zero impact on the amount of cash Apple wants to spend on organic growth initiatives including R&D, M&A, and capital expenditures. Apple is using truly excess cash that it has no use for to repurchase its shares.

Partly to provide a buffer against adverse market conditions and to retain M&A flexibility, Apple is following a net cash neutral strategy which means that the amount of cash held on the balance sheet will eventually equal the amount of outstanding debt. Given Apple’s current debt holdings, this amounts to holding approximately a $100 billion cash cushion in the event of a rainy day. On top of that, given Apple’s unique capex-light business model, the company is able to generate tens of billions of dollars of free cash flow each year even with lower sales due to a global recession.

There is a lot of “expert chatter” about opening the economy instead of waiting for adequate testing and readiness. The logic is that time is destroying the economy and potential for a comeback. They make reasonable points…

One strange and consistent thing about everyone who argues we need to open is that we can’t count on a vaccine. They make that argument by pointing to “evidence” that we can’t create a vaccine for many other infectious diseases (like HIV). Thus we might as well open sooner. Let me digress about a vaccine. You can find evidence to find whatever fits your narrative:

  • “It’s easy — we are very close”
  • “It is 18 months away”
  • “It will take years”

I don’t know which is right, but one thing I do know is what some people believe depends on the narrative they want to convey.

I’m not discounting this argument that we can’t count on a vaccine, or the huge frustration with the state of the economy and unemployment. It’s rough. I’d love to change it. But here’s the thing — the Federal Government doesn’t get to decide.

Trump thinks he “shut down the economy.” He didn’t. We did. For our own safety. Americans and their state and local leaders acted to save lives. Likewise “we” are the only people that can “open” the economy. How fast we spend money, how quickly employers hire, how eager people are to restart small businesses — or even whether we send our kids to school — depends on how safe we feel.

…First: being in the incubator denies you your life for a time but can give back a different perspective. Cliché, but all the same, true. It can be a time to reevaluate satisfaction, and I am so, so curious to see how the world will step back into itself once it is safe out there. Spending 60 consecutive days at home inspires a productive kind of modesty and shuffles around your ideas of indulgence and austerity. Nearly everything I own? Unnecessary. Take it away. But baking that single chocolate chip cookie every night in the toaster oven? I’d rather die than stop. How will I know the day happened without the cookie? Could tomorrow even arrive without it? Sacraments get invented during lean times like this.

Second: that the marrow of life lives beyond novelty in the unexceptional. I say this a lot: “the simple things are worth doing well, because they happen every day.” It is my mantra because I am the king of forgetting it. Any goodness that comes to me during the time of Covid will be by attending to what happens each day. The dishes pile up and the dishes get washed. They pile up and get washed. Isn’t that remarkable? It’s today and then today, then today, and today and today.

And third: hooooly shit have I let my life get filled with convoluted and inessential things, thoughts, and methods since those six astronaut months. Now that I’m back in the incubator and feeling the austerity of isolation with the rest of the world, I realize: leanness agrees with me. I can do this, I know this, I am good at this. But I am forgetful, and sheltering at home shouldn’t be necessary to recognize and address the ways I have been inattentive, complacent, sloven, slack, withholding, feeding the trap, and using complexity and distractedness as an armor for fearful ego. Beyond this, there is a life that is smaller, tighter, looser, and more giving.

I haven’t really worn shoes in almost two months. I am watching my feet relax into a new shape. I hope the same is happening to my mind. Time for dishes. Time for a cookie. It was a today! Today today today today today.

From their series on Voices from the Pandemic, Eli Saslow shares a story from Michael Fowler, Dougherty County coroner, on the reopening of Georgia.

I’m always driving, going back-and-forth between nursing homes, the hospital, and the morgue. All these roads should be empty if you ask me. But now I see people out running errands, rushing back into their lives, and it’s like: “Why? What reason could possibly be good enough?” Sometimes, I think about stopping and showing them one of the empty body bags I have in the trunk. “You might end up here. Is that worth it for a haircut or a hamburger?”

You start to think that way as a coroner, especially now. I get fed up. I know the governor told us we could go ahead and reopen in Georgia. I understand businesses are hurting and people need to work. But I see these folks out and about and I wonder: “Is this another death I’ll have to pronounce?”

“…government bodies…must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way to allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry…

“In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals - chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”


  1. Public Health orders — Tyson needs coordination and effective guidance at the local, state, and national levels.
  2. Our business is in trouble, and as a result, so is the American meat supply chain.

Via Ana Swanson

President Trump insisted he was being sarcastic about injecting disinfectant, so maybe he’s just ribbing us about keeping meat processing plants open. The administration has heard the calls of Where’s the beef? after being notably hesitant in its use of the Defense of Production act, but now it’s adding some meat to that bone by using it to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open. It’s a risky place to put a steak in the ground; playing a game of chicken with workers’ lives—one that could turn meat processing plants into slaughterhouses.

No one has any beef with the need to address the breaking food supply chain, but in this case, the move could pit an essential service against the the essentiality of staying alive. 20 meat processing plants have closed, 17 workers have died of covid-19, and at least 5,000 have been directly affected by the scourge. Safely reopening would require a level of political chops not evidenced by this president, who has split his time between talking tripe, hot dogging it on Twitter, and roasting himself during press conferences. Can Trump, a man lean on accomplishments who has slathered us with a smorgasbord of hogwash, take a cold cut at actual leadership and beat the meat risk? Don’t count your chickens. It’s a long shot any way you slice it. His circle jerky butchering of the pandemic response thus far, which has put American exceptionalism through a meat grinder, hardly inspires confidence.

Having a president who’s full of baloney doesn’t mean your grocery store will be. Boasting about playing hide the salami is not applicable to making sure it appears. While he brags about all that sweet-bread he’s made, this is a person who has turned businesses from airlines to casinos into mincemeat; and whose most applicable experience is his failed Trump Steaks business—how do you fail at selling red meat to Americans? Talk about killing the golden goose. I’m reminded of the classic Brady Bunch episode where Greg and Bobby locked themselves in Sam the Butcher’s meat freezer. That episode was well-done. I worry that this one will end with rabid Trump rally attendees chanting, Meat Locker Up, Meat Locker Up.

The drive to keep a chicken in every pot is understandable. Doing so safely is a whole different animal. After bungling every program they’ve sunk their meat hooks into, one hopes administration meatheads will bone up on the facts, and beef up on expertise, so they don’t end up choking the chicken with one hand and waving off responsibility for more American food chain dead meat with the other. For this ham-fisted team to bring home the bacon would be rare indeed (even medium rare). After more than three years of mismanagement, we’ve seen how the sausage is made (and occasionally where it’s hidden). Maybe this time things will be different (either in a pig’s eye or when pigs fly). In the best of all worlds, we could keep the food supply chain going and still protect workers. But sometimes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. And with this administration in charge, one wonders if, instead of risking more lives, we might be better off going cold turkey on meat.