4 April 2020 – Saturday – #20

I’m feeling better today for a number of reasons including sunny weather and a trip to the jug wine store yesterday. Also, I think Brad came up with the reason that all the stores are out toilet paper (see below). I’m so excited about that that I’m giving away my secret source of good, inexpensive wine.

The proprietor is kind enough to let me practice my bad Spanish. She’s giving me a head start on my Spanish wine adventures, too. Since I can’t go to the vineyards themselves to taste, she’s bringing the vineyards to me.

I also shopped at Gra de Gracia, a little Gracia store with lots of spices like cumin, paprika, and turmeric that are hard to find in this part of Barcelona. Now I can cook my favorite recipes that need these three spices. It’s the little things these days. The stores that have the ingredients I want for Indian cooking are over in the Raval barrio. It’s probably a €600 fine shopping that far away.

For those of you playing along in the US, here’s a cool map app on github that lets you slice and dice Covid-19 statistics by state and county.

US Covid-19 per catpita deaths by state at 3 April 2020

My San Francisco friend David turned me on to this app. The caveat for this app is that states collect health data differently and Covid-19 testing rates vary significantly between states. David, by the way, couldn’t find charts of San Francisco Covid-19 statistics, so he collects public health data on his own and posts charts on Facebook.

I’m discovering lots of maps and map apps for the US, but not many for the rest of the world. If you know of good sources for maps outside the US, please let me know. It may be that the I’m seeing more US maps because my sources are skewed to the US, but it could be a reflection of US narcissism, too.

Or, it could be that the US has a different culture around data collection and analysis. The US certainly invests a lot in AI and Machine Learning technology and startups that gobble up data and predict the future. And right now, who doesn’t want to know when we can go outside.

When things change rapidly, people often look for data to help them understand what’s going on. It gives us a sense of control even when we have little. It also helps people wiggle out of hard problems, problems like a Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s a discussion from yesterday with UC Berkeley faculty members Arthur Reingold and Jennifer Chayes about the deluge of Covid-19 data we’re seeing.

Arthur Reingold and Jennifer Chayes discuss Covid-19 data collection and analysis

Two takeaways for me from this video. One is that researchers are looking at how to use data and apps to help us unwind from the lockdowns. For instance, as the world increases Covid-19 testing, how can we use mobile location data to speed contact tracking so that when someone tests positive for Covid-19, all of his or her recent contacts can be tested quickly as well.

Second takeaway is the importance of connecting what public health officials and academics are discovering about Covid-19 to effective policy. Some countries are good at this, others lack the resources or the political systems to translate research and studies into effective governance. Ecuador is a tragic example of a country that understands Covid-19 public health, but lacks the hospital resources for new patients and the civic resources to bury its dead.

Unfortunately, the US is turning out to be a disastrous example of a country that lacks a political system that can translate research and studies into effective governance, especially at the federal level.

If you’re a US state governor expecting federal help, here’s a clue to set your expectations as low as possible. It’s confusing enough that Jared Kushner is running a shadow White House Covid-19 team while Mike Pence is nominally in charge of the administration’s response. It’s even more confusing when Kushner describes how the federal stockpile of medical supplies isn’t for the states.

Presidential Adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner says national medical supply stockpile “is ours,” not states’

The DHS web page describing the national stockpile was edited after Kushner’s remarks to conform to his statement. Meanwhile, 35 days after the first Covid-19 death in the US and as the daily US death toll surpasses 1,000, Trump still can’t decide if a nationwide lockdown is necessary.

Luckily, governors are, for the most part, picking up the slack. Even holdouts like Alabama, which has about the same per capita Covid-19 mortality rate as California, locked down yesterday. But the lack of effective federal governance will translate into hundreds of thousands of unnecessary US deaths.

On a lighter note, as I mentioned at the top, it looks like Brad found the explanation for the toilet paper shortage during the time of Covid-19, and it’s different from what most people think. I’m not going to give it away here. You’re all old enough to read the article on your own. But there is an important lesson for everyone in the unexpected answer to why so many stores are running out of toilet paper: most of us (me included) jumped to the wrong conclusion.

If you thought toilet paper shortages were because of hoarding, it might be because you have a bias about “other people’s” greed. If you thought it was because of panic, it might be because you have a bias about “other people’s” fear.

So, I have a simple request. The next time you’re sure that wearing masks helps in the fight against Covid-19, ask yourself what your bias might be about, say, “other people’s” cleanliness. And the next time your’re sure that hydroxychloroquine treats Covid-19, ask yourself what your bias might be about, say, “other people’s” need for control.

The great Covid-19 toilet paper shortage should teach everyone that people are really good at projecting their own shit on raw data and, if they pay attention where they’re projecting their shit, they can answer questions like why there’s not toilet paper on the shelves.

We have a lot of data about Covid-19, but it takes an honest effort to know which data are valid and then to make sense of them. The sooner we make sense of Covid-19 data and learn how to make effective policy, the sooner we can go outside.

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