COVID-19: Freedom Means That We Can Do Stupid Things, Not That We Have To

NBC News reports that US president Donald Trump is “furious” over “underwhelming” attendance at his June 20 campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 6,200 of 19,000 seats ended up cradling Trump supporters’ butts. An optimistically pre-arranged overflow area went unused.

Explanations abound: Trump’s campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, blames “radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media.” Others note the 95-degree heat combined with thunderstorms — not the weather combination most conducive to standing in lines. Still others credit a social media campaign to request but not use tickets to the event.

The most obvious and likely explanations are simpler.

First, Trump isn’t as popular, nor is his base as enthusiastic and energized, at the moment as was the case four years ago.

Second, despite what you may have heard, an individual’s support for Trump does not necessarily indicate more general idiocy.

Believe it or not, COVID-19 really is a thing, people really are worried about it, and it really is sensible to take precautions.

Has COVID-19 been abused by opportunistic bureaucrats and authoritarian politicians as an excuse to violate our rights? Yes.

Have we found ourselves bombarded by dubious claims about everything from how COVID-19 is transmitted to what must be done for humanity to survive it? Absolutely.

Have mask-wearing and other measures transcended their practical containment value and become more like public testimonials to belief in junk “science” as a state-sponsored religion? Yep.

The “lockdowns” should never have happened, it’s a good thing they’re ending, and the sooner life gets back to something resembling normal the better.

On the other hand, it’s a real disease that’s really killing people, and taking reasonable precautions is, well, reasonable.

Yes, as freedom returns, some people will throw caution entirely to the winds. They should be free to act like idiots, right up to the point they actually — not prospectively, not hypothetically, ACTUALLY — cause harm to non-consenting others.

They should also be free to refrain from acting like idiots.

Packing tens of thousands of people from hundreds or thousands of miles around into an arena for a rally in Tulsa was an idiotic idea that might as well have been designed specifically to maximize the spread of COVID-19. But hey, it turned out that most of Trump’s supporters from that area weren’t idiots after all.

Packing thousands of Republicans from all over the country into an arena in Jacksonville, Florida in August, or hundreds of Libertarians from 50 states into a hotel ballroom in Orlando, Florida in July, for gratuitous “national convention events” are idiotic ideas too.

No, those events shouldn’t be prohibited. Freedom demands that they not be interfered with. But freedom also allows us non-idiots to avoid the events and scorn their organizers.

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Complexity Simplistic, Induction, Standards, & Information (21m) – Episode 008

Episode 008 looks at the Complexity Simplistic logical fallacy, Inductive thinking, setting and using proper standards, and taking care when obtaining information from popular and social media.

Listen to Episode 008 (21m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Stories Open Doors

Learning to tell stories is an incredible skill. But learning to think in stories is even more fundamental.

A narrative arc is more memorable and impactful than factual bullets. The ability to create narratives is what allows attracting friends, collaborators, investors, customers, and fans.

Storytellers are interesting people who get interesting opportunities. Not just those who tell anecdotal tales, but those who weave all of life into layers of narrative. The price of wheat is not merely an economic fact, it’s part of a story that started somewhere and will end somewhere. And it’s probably nested in other stories.

But telling stories starts with thinking in narrative arcs instead of dots.

I’ve seen this illustration several times (I’m not sure the origin):

Data To Wisdom Via Information, Knowledge & Insight ...

These are all different ways to see facts. But none of them weave a story. There’s no narrative in the dots or the colors or the lines or the connections or paths. They are facts with relationships, but they stop short of a narrative arc. Yes, there is wisdom in seeing that point A follows a path to point B. But why? How? For what purpose? What happened when the path was completed? What was going on before?

A narrative thinker will see these facts and be able to construct a story – a beginning, middle, and end – with motivations and purpose involved. Stories have teleology, facts do not.

The ability to see a meaningful story in any person, event, or series of facts leads to the ability to communicate in narratives. You can connect dots for reasons, and show the future if the dots continue to connect.

Thinking in story helps you be more interesting because it helps you be more interested.

When someone tells you, “I’m an engineer”, instead of filing this as a fact in your mental Rolodex, you immediately want to know the story. How did they end up an engineer? Is this the end of a long journey, the beginning of a new story, or the middle? Curiosity drives you to ask good questions, good questions make connections, and connections lead to opportunities.

Discovering, telling, and re-telling your own story is a great place to start. Why are you sitting there reading this right now? What led you here? Why? What does it mean for the future?

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Rowdy Kids, Historical Moral Judgments, & Legacy Media Sensationalism (26m) – Episode 299

Episode 299 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following entries to r/unpopularopinions: Larrysbirds writes, “If you can’t control your kid at a public place, then go home”; SatoshiSounds writes, “Criticising historical figures by today’s moral standards is like criticising 70s computers for being slow”; and pathemar writes, “US mass media should carry some of the blame for contributing to this culture of fear.”

Listen to Episode 299 (26m, mp3, 64kbps)

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What I’m Doing

1. The U.S. political system is deeply dysfunctional, especially during this crisis.  Power-hunger reigns in the name of Social Desirability Bias.  Fear of punishment aside, I don’t care what authorities say.  They should heed my words, not the other way around.

2. Few private individuals are using quantitative risk analysis to guide their personal behavior.  Fear of personally antagonizing such people aside, I don’t care what they say either.

3. I am extremely interested in listening to the rare individuals who do use quantitative risk analysis to guide personal behavior.  Keep up the good work, life-coach quants – with a special shout-out to Rob Wiblin.

4. After listening, though, I shall keep my own counsel.  As long as I maintain my normal intellectual hygiene, my betting record shows that my own counsel is highly reliable.

5. What does my own counsel say?  While I wish better information were available, I now know enough to justify my return to 90%-normal life.  The rest of my immediate family agrees.  What does this entail?  Above all, I am now happy to socialize in-person with friends.  I am happy to let my children play with other kids.  I am also willing to not only eat take-out food, but dine in restaurants.  I am pleased to accommodate nervous friends by socializing outdoors and otherwise putting them at ease.  Yet personally, I am at ease either way.

6. I will still take precautions comparable to wearing a seat belt.  I will wear a mask and gloves to shop in high-traffic places, such as grocery stores.  I will continue to keep my distance from nervous and/or high-risk strangers.  Capla-Con 2020 will be delayed until winter at the earliest.  Alas.

7. Tyler suggests that people like me “are worse at intertemporal substitution than I had thought.”  In particular:

It either will continue at that pace or it won’t.  Let’s say that pace continues (unlikely in my view, but this is simply a scenario, at least until the second wave).  That is an ongoing risk higher than other causes of death, unless you are young.  You don’t have to be 77 for it to be your major risk worry.

Death from coronavirus is plausibly my single-highest risk worry.  But it is still only a tiny share of my total risk, and the cost of strict risk reduction is high for me.  Avoiding everyone except my immediate family makes my every day much worse.  And intertemporal substitution is barely helpful.  Doubling my level of socializing in 2022 to compensate for severe isolation in 2020 won’t make me feel better.

Alternatively, let’s say the pace of those deaths will fall soon, and furthermore let’s say it will fall by a lot.  The near future will be a lot safer!  Which is all the more reason to play it very safe right now, because your per week risk currently is fairly high (in many not all parts of America).  Stay at home and wear a mask when you do go out.  If need be, make up for that behavior in the near future by indulging in excess.

Suppose Tyler found out that an accident-free car were coming in 2022.  Would he “intertemporally substitute” by ceasing driving until then?  I doubt it.  In any case, what I really expect is at least six more months of moderately elevated disease risk.  My risk is far from awful now – my best guess is that I’m choosing a 1-in-12,000 marginal increase in the risk of death from coronavirus.  But this risk won’t fall below 1-in-50,000 during the next six months, and moderate second waves are likely.  Bottom line: The risk is mild enough for me to comfortably face, and too durable for me to comfortably avoid.

8. The risk analysis is radically different for people with underlying health conditions.  Many of them are my friends.  To such friends: I fully support your decision to avoid me, but I am happy to flexibly accommodate you if you too detest the isolation.  I also urge you to take advantage of any opportunities you have to reduce your personal risk.   But it’s not my place to nag you to your face.

9. What about high-risk strangers?  I’m happy to take reasonable measures to reduce their risk.  If you’re wearing a mask, I treat that as a request for extra distance, and I honor it.  But I’m not going to isolate myself out of fear of infecting high-risk people who won’t isolate themselves.

10. Most smart people aren’t doing what I’m doing.  Shouldn’t I be worried?  Only slightly.  Even smart people are prone to herding and hysteria.  I’ve now spent three months listening to smart defenders of the conventional view.  Their herding and hysteria are hard to miss.  Granted, non-smart contrarians sound even worse.  But smart contrarians make the most sense of all.

11. Even if I’m right, wouldn’t it be more prudent me to act on my beliefs without publicizing them?  That’s probably what Dale Carnegie would advise, but if Dale were here, I’d tell him, “Candor on touchy topics is my calling and my business.  It’s worked well for me so far, and I shall stay the course.”

12. I’ve long believed a strong version of (a) buy-and-hold is the best investment strategy, and (b) financial market performance is only vaguely related to objective economic conditions.  Conditions in March were so bleak that I set aside both of these beliefs and moved from 100% stocks to 90% bonds.  As a result of my excessive open-mindedness, my family has lost an enormous amount of money.  The situation is so weird that I’m going to wait until January to return to my normal investment strategy.  After that, I will never again deviate from buy-and-hold.  Never!

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Too Terrified to Talk About It

I recently compared the fear of contracting coronavirus to the fear of sexual harassment accusations:

Am I really comparing the risk of contracting coronavirus with the risk of being accused of sexual harassment?  Verily, because the parallels are loud and strong.

In both cases, people use social distancing for risk reduction.  In both cases, the risk of most specific interactions is low.  At the same time, however, people encounter an endless succession of risky situations – and the bad outcomes are very bad.  Many (most?) men would rather endure sickness than public accusation.

When I said “many,” I was picturing 10-20%, but I felt genuinely uncertain.  So I decided to run some Twitter polls to get a better handle on the situation.  The results suggest that I was much too cautious; almost 90% of all respondents (not just men) would rather endure sickness than public accusation.  About two-thirds of respondents “definitely” prefer coronavirus.

The results are only slightly milder if you specify a social media scandal rather than a work scandal:

The implied terror made me wonder: If coronavirus pales before sexual harassment accusations, what doesn’t?  So I tried something extreme: work accusation versus a lifetime of celibacy.

Even here, about 25% of respondents prefer celibacy.  While I’m tempted to disbelieve, I guess I can accept that 25% of people fall into at least one of the following categories: (a) highly risk-averse people; (b) people who are no longer very interested in sex; (c) people who think their mating options are very poor.  More strikingly, just over one-third of respondents definitely prefer to endure an accusation.  Notice, moreover, that accusation need not imply the harsh consequences of firing or ostracism.  Celibacy, in contrast, is a life sentence by construction.

At this point, I decided to flip the survey around.  Sure, being accused of sexual harassment is bad; but perhaps it’s comparable to the badness of being sexually harassed.  The result?  Only about a third of my respondents deem workplace sexual harassment worse than coronavirus:

Kahneman’s work on focusing illusion reminds us that, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you’re thinking about it.”  Inspired by this insight, I maintain that people are overly worried about coronavirus, sexual harassment, and sexual harassment accusations.  Why?  Because society keeps reminding us to think about these specific traumatic experiences.  Still, I see little reason to doubt the relative importance that people assign to these dangers.  In absolute terms, most people remain terrified of coronavirus, so it’s hardly surprising that sexual harassment worries them less.  The fact that sexual harassment accusations actually worry the average respondent even more than coronavirus, however, suggests that most workers really are living in fear during normal times.

Why then don’t we hear more about their terror?  Because people – especially men – are too terrified to talk about it!  At risk of hyperbole, the situation brings to mind the Twilight Zone classic, “It’s a Good Life,” where the whole world lives in mortal fear of omnipotent child-tyrant Anthony Fremont… including his father, Mr. Fremont.

Anthony Fremont No kids came over to play with me today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you remember the last time some kids came over to play. The little Fredricks boy and his sister.

Anthony Fremont I had a real good time.

Mr. Fremont Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it’s good that you had a good time, it’s real good. It’s, uh, just that…

Anthony Fremont Just that what?

Mr. Fremont Well, Anthony, you, uh, you wished them away into the cornfield.

Catching coronavirus is bad, but apparently not as bad as the cornfield.

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