Did American love of process doom Champlain Towers South?

Owners at Champlain Towers South were told in 2018 that their building needed structural repairs, but the repairs weren’t scheduled to begin until later this year, i.e., a three-year interval. That’s enough time for the Chinese to build an entire city. I’m wondering if our love of process, which sometimes results in more durable structures, is a double-edged sword. If a structure is discovered not to be durable, a multi-year process before repairs can begin results in multiple years of vulnerability.

How much do we love process? Here’s a recent letter regarding what would have been an in-person meeting tonight. There will be deliberate consideration regarding the installation of a hand rail outside a bathroom:

(On Zoom, of course, because Coronapanic continues.)

Related:

  • “Miami-Area Condo Owners Pushed Town for Construction Approvals Days Before Collapse” (WSJ): ‘This is holding us up,’ the Champlain Towers South property manager emailed Surfside officials; town manager said no indication of need for emergency action
  • “Ten Thousand Commandments 2021” (CEI): “An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State … Regulatory costs of $1.9 trillion amount to 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product… If it were a country, U.S. regulation would be the world’s eighth-largest economy.. If one assumed that all costs of federal regulation flowed all the way down to households, U.S. households would “pay” $14,368 annually on average in a regulatory hidden tax.”
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Steeped in the religion of homo economicus, American central planners underestimated the number of satisficers?

Recent text message from a friend:

[wife] is pissed at government for extending unemployment. Our nanny won’t work until September because she is being paid to not work.

Many of the Americans collecting unemployment checks (often more spending power than what is obtainable from a median job; see nytimes) are happy to work in exchange for untraceable cash that won’t jeopardize their continued revenue stream from Uncle Joe. They’re examples of Homo economicus from Econ 101, in other words. They put some value on leisure time, but it wasn’t such a high value that it kept them from entering the workforce some years ago. If their value of leisure time hasn’t changed, they should be happy to exchange time for cash money that government computer systems won’t see.

The above-cited nanny, however, did not make the working parents the expected offer to continue her efforts in exchange for cash rather than the previous stream of checks followed by a 1099. Instead, she said that she had “enough” to meet her needs and was not interested in work at all (presumably there was some cash price per hour that would have changed her mind, but she didn’t come up with a quote).

The central planners in Washington, D.C. presumably had some idea of how the enhanced/extended unemployment benefits would change the American workforce, but I wonder if there are way more people sitting on the beach than planned due to an overreliance on the Homo economicus assumption and an underestimate of the number of satisficers like our friends’ nanny. If there are a lot of working-age people who aren’t especially materialistic, it might be easier to shrink the American workforce than economists imagine.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (we seem to have reached a “new normal” a year ago):

Related:

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Americans were Shutdown Champions (at watching TV)

A European eyeglass retailer published a screen time index based on data gathered in mid-October 2020 (i.e., during coronapanic).

Americans were champions at watching TV, dominating all other nations (175 minutes/day compared to 119 minutes in Ireland and 113 in Switzerland). Colombia and Mexico were the only other nations that came close to matching our couch potato achievement.

And, before we wisely decided, in response to a virus that attacks the obese, to lock ourselves into our apartments and park next to the fridge, how were we doing with obesity? Our government loves to sort us by race:

Keep in mind that this is based on 2018 data and Americans are likely much fatter now.

What about “fat” rather than “obese”?

If you’re a white guy whom United Airlines doesn’t want to hire, there is a 75 percent chance you’re “overweight” (i.e., fat). If you’re a Black woman whom United Airlines does want to hire, there is an 80 percent chance you’re “overweight”. Maybe after a few of these quota-arranged training classes graduate it will be time to un-mothball the Airbus A380s (1,265,000 lbs. max gross weight)!

[My recollection is that taking an average within the NHANES data reveals that American “women” (whatever that term might mean) actually have a higher BMI than American “men”. That’s not necessarily inconsistent with the above tables, which look only at those who’ve exceeded a threshold, but maybe it is worth exploring.]

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Medicare focuses on end-of-life because we do too?

The death of my father was sad, but it was also illuminating. Relatives who hadn’t paid much attention to my parents for years suddenly sprang into action, on hearing that my father had gone sharply downhill (perhaps coincidentally, but it was one week after the second Pfizer Covid vaccine shot).

People were desperate to show up in person, get on Zoom or FaceTime, or talk on the phone. The neglect of the elderly in America reached a state of perfection starting in March 2020. People who hadn’t visited relatives in retirement homes suddenly had a perfect excuse: #AbundanceOfCaution #BecauseCorona. Even when the inmates were released to meet friends and family on outdoor terraces in masks, the Coronarighteous refrained from visiting (often while posting on Facebook photos of themselves enjoying various activities with other potentially infected humans, going out to get food at/from restaurants #BecauseTooLazyToCook, etc.). All of that changed once my dad slipped toward unresponsiveness.

Apparently I am always out of step with my fellow(?) humans. I was happy to have talked on the phone with my parents every day or two for the preceding 10 years. I was happy that we’d been able to visit them (from Boston to DC) every few months, including amidst “the global pandemic”, over the same period. As it happened, I was also able to be there during my father’s final week, but I didn’t consider that essential or important compared to what had transpired over the preceding 10 years.

Folks often decry the huge expenses that Medicare is willing to incur even when it is obvious that death of the beneficiary is imminent (see “Medicare Cost at End of Life” for some data; as much as 25 percent of spending is during the last year of life). But now I’m thinking that this is a feature and not a bug. If Medicare is a reflection of ourselves and what is important to us, it actually make sense for Medicare to pull out all of the stops when the end is near and certain.

Readers: What have you seen in your own families when the end is plainly near for an older relative? Do folks who’ve not been interested in the soon-to-be-deceased suddenly come out of the woodwork?

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Should one stay off Facebook, Instagram, et al. following the death of a parent?

Judaism requires that one refrain from attending social gatherings for a year following the death of a parent. From “Shiva and Other Mourning Observances” (Chabad):

Even as the mourner resumes his or her everyday routine after the Shivah, certain mourning practices, such as not purchasing or wearing new clothes, cutting one’s hair, enjoying music or other form of entertainment, and participating in joyous events (weddings, etc.), are continued for a period of thirty days (beginning from the day of the burial).

In the case of a person mourning the passing of a parent, these mourning practices extend for a full year.

Other sites clarify that “purely social gatherings”, “parties”, or any event in which music is played are off limits.

How do we translate this into our modern world that was increasingly anti-social even before coronapanic? What are the best examples of frivolous social activities that are incompatible with the status of mourning a relative (for a month) or parent (for a year)? My vote: Facebook and similar social networks.

Prior to my father’s precipitous decline (perhaps coincidence, but it was a week after receiving Pfizer Covid vaccine shot #2), my own Facebook presence was certainly frivolous. Some examples:

If Facebook had been around in 1599, surely Hamlet would have reproached Gertrude for posting on Facebook so soon after the death of his father:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

might have been

Likes, Likes, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did go positively viral on Instagram.

Facebook makes people unhappy (New Yorker, 2013; and also a 2019 study), so we could perhaps argue that using it doesn’t violate the letter of the Jewish law against participating in joyous gatherings. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I think that the law makes sense and that social media is against the spirit of the law if not the letter.

Readers: What do you think? Should the mourner of a parent be on Facebook? If so, after how many months?

Related:

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Texas power outages demonstrate enduring human faith in hindsight?

Texans are suffering with cold weather, power failure, and water supply failure. (In other words, they’re learning what it is like to live in the Northeast; see, for example, the 2011 storm that took out power for 3.2 million people, many of whom went a week without power. In the Boston suburbs it is typical to lose power 4-6 times per year, e.g., due to a fallen tree or a storm, and for durations of up to 48 hours. Also 2013 and 1978 events, in the latter of which more than 100 people died.)

(That we’re calling this the “Texas power outage” might be an artifact of how our media presents things. “Widespread Power Outages Continue in Texas” is the caption the New York Times editors have placed over a map showing that the worst outages are in Louisiana and Mississippi:

)

The media can find an unlimited number of folks who describe this as a trivially foreseeable event, e.g., “Why Texas’ energy grid is unable to handle the winter storms” (NBC):

The crisis has made the state’s energy grid the focus of fresh scrutiny, primarily due to its independence from the rest of the U.S. Critics say that allowed its infrastructure to shirk federal regulations that require cold-weather capabilities.

Heroic regulators could have prevented this from happening? The governor agrees! “‘Massive failure’: Why are millions of people in Texas still without power?” (USA Today):

At the most basic level, the outages have been caused because demand amid the bitter cold has outpaced the supply of energy used to heat and power homes, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the situation “unacceptable” and said he would add an emergency item to the state’s legislative session on reforming ERCOT. The nonprofit corporation is subject to oversight from the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Legislature.

There were similar events in 1989 and 2011… “Five things to know about Texas’s strained electric grid” (The Hill):

The 1989 blackouts came amid a cold snap in December, while the 2011 blackouts took place during the first week of February when wind and unseasonably cold temperatures hit Texas and neighboring New Mexico.

In total, approximately 1.3 million electric customers were out of service at the peak of the 2011 event on Feb. 2, and a total of 4.4 million were affected from Feb. 2 to Feb. 4.

In a report following the 2011 blackouts, FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation recommended steps including increasing winterization measures.

The report said electricity generating companies operating within the ERCOT system “failed to adequately prepare for winter,” citing inadequate insulation and a failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations.

If this was easy to foresee (and maybe it should have been, given what happened in 1989 and 2011), why weren’t these newspapers and interview subjects out there at least since 2011 beating the drum for more power plants and more winterization of infrastructure?

Could there be a general principle in operation here? After a hurricane hits, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into being prepared for the hurricane. After a bad respiratory virus pandemic, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into stockpiling PPE and ventilators (see Paper titled “Stockpiling Ventilators for Influenza Pandemics” (2017)).

Here in the Northeast we know that we could eliminate nearly all of our outages via putting power lines underground, but nobody wants to pay for it. This utility explains:

The main reason why undergrounding hasn’t been fully adopted in the U.S. is the overwhelmingly high cost of installing underground power lines. Estimates place the cost of undergrounding power lines at roughly $750 per foot, compared with $70 per foot to install power lines the way we do today. At over ten times the cost, this would become expensive very quickly.

Take North Carolina, for example. In 2002, the state looked into undergrounding for their three major power companies after a particularly bad power outage that left 2 million people losing power. After it was priced out, North Carolina found that their project would cost $41 billion (six times the net value of those three companies’ distribution assets) and would require 25 years to complete!

People are regularly killed during power outages. Should we pay any price, bear any burden to save lives via underground power lines? Apparently not. (Even though $41 billion rounds to zero in coronanomics!)

Why can’t people see that (1) we don’t have infinite money and time and therefore can’t be prepared for everything bad that might happen, and (2) they’re using hindsight when they talk about how we should have put more resources into preparing against something bad that actually did happen?

As of yesterday, 4 percent of total customers (poweroutage.us), but I am pretty sure that this figure will never appear in a headline (since Texas has such a huge population the outage will appear as the total number of customers who are out).

I asked a California Democrat (and tenured physics professor), who was expressing outrage that the Texas grid wasn’t subject to federal regulation, what he thought the number would be, if not 4 percent, if Texas had been federally regulated. He answered “0 percent”. Let’s have a look at Mississippi, which has federal regulation and has suffered from a similar cold snap. 13.5 percent of customers in MS are out as of the same time as the above map:

How about Louisiana?

Across the three states, it looks as though the outages line up with the USDA Zone 8b (Austin, Texas being included in this zone).

In other words, a cold snap in Zone 8b results in power failures whether the grid is regulated by the feds or the state. (The failures were slightly different in character, with Texas knocked out by high demand while MS and LA suffered from both excess demand and power lines downed by the ice and snow. Both could have been avoided, however, with additional $$ invested in preparation.)

Update, Feb 20, 11:00 am: 6 percent of folks in Mississippi are still without power, mostly in Zone 8b and some in Zone 8a.

(Texas, where the outages started earlier, is 99.4% powered (0.6% without power).)

Related:

  • Austin and Lockhart, Texas: 10 barbecue restaurants in 72 hours (fortunately, the smokers will continue to operate without power)
  • “The Texas Freeze: Why the Power Grid Failed” (WSJ) sounds like a great analysis. Companies that generate power aren’t paid to sit on standby, so there is an undersupply of standby power, especially during cold snaps when it would be expensive to prep a plant to keep operating. A big nuclear plant tripped off due to a water supply freeze. The authors attribute the problems to the way Texas set up its market for electric power, e.g., paying only for power delivered and not for being ready. But they never look at why the grid failures were nearly as bad in Louisiana and Mississippi. Maybe this is like coronascience and it is only necessary to tell a good story after data are received?
  • February 2013 North American blizzard (Wikipedia), in which 18 people died, the power failed, and it was both illegal and impractical to travel by road here in Maskachusetts.
  • Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 (Wikipedia) in which 100 people died.

Very loosely related…

From a 2018 business trip to Dallas, extended due to 50-knot winds in the Northeast and the cancellation of airline flights back home, the George W. Bush Presidential Library (closed for a year now due to coronapanic):

And from the art museum, an unfortunately timely painting, Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs:

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Sean Connery as an inspiration for American suburban life

From one of our Facebook friends:

RIP, Sir Sean Connery. Your impact on my childhood and becoming a man cannot be understated. Thank you.

This led to a mystified chat discussion. The guy who posted this has been married for 25 years, works at a desk job, never does anything without first asking his wife for permission, never expresses an opinion that he and/or his wife think might upset the town’s cabal of stay-at-home moms, and is an apparent slave to his high school-age daughters. What was the connection between James Bond and the suburban soccer dad? How had Danny Dravot’s attempts to take over Afghanistan in The Man Who Would Be King inspired his trips to Costco?

Also, if Joe Biden delivers on his promise to shut down the United States, do we start calling Anthony Fauci “Dr. No”?

Related:

  • Wikipedia reveals the inclusive nature of the U.K. Connery was knighted by the Queen in 2000 despite (a) living in the Bahamas to minimize income tax liability, and (b) supporting Scottish independence.
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Fears in the 1990s versus fears in the Age of Corona

Happy Halloween! Let’s consider how our fears have evolved.

In the 1990s, we were afraid of the following:

  • The government would invade our privacy via CCTV cameras when we were out walking around.
  • Microsoft would crush upstart competitors by bundling software with similar capabilities into their monopoly operating system. This could cost each of us $100 or more.
  • Everyone will be killed by HIV/AIDS
  • What else?

Fears today:

  • We don’t have to worry about CCTV cameras on the sidewalk since (a) it might be illegal to be out on the sidewalk to begin with, (b) if it were legal, we’d have to wear a mask.
  • Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, et al. will deplatform anyone who disagrees with what they deem to be RightThink on a wide range of issues.
  • Everyone will be killed by COVID-19
  • What else?

A friend’s minivan, decorated by a recent high school graduate…

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Humans are defeating nanny tech in cars?

A typical new car has a lot of driver assistance features designed to make driving safer. Examples from Toyota:

(Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert are separate features, not on all trim levels.)

And the latest, for the 2021 Camry:

But insurance companies don’t cut rates for cars that have these features (source). Here are some possible explanations…

  • highway driving is already very safe and most of these magic features, e.g., blind spot monitor and lane-keeping, work only on the highway
  • humans aware of these electronic guard rails drive more carelessly to the point that the risk is the same
  • the insurance market is inefficient
  • the technology does not, in fact, work well in real-world conditions (our Honda Odyssey blind spot monitoring works great, though, which might be why this fine machine is the choice of Amy Coney Barrett!)

Readers: How do we explain the apparent contradiction?

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