We Are in This Together

The past week has been difficult. I feel, every morning, like I’m waking up into a nightmare. Things that I’ve known intellectually and in the abstract since my college days in the late 1980s have become suddenly and horrifying clear.

  • Most people don’t understand the danger of non-linear change in complex systems.
  • The political elite and intelligentsia in this country don’t care about the needs of working people.
  • The mainstream press does not report it manufactures consent.

On the first point I spent part of yesterday attempting to convince people close to me to take COVID-19 seriously with mixed results. People who read this blog, I’m sure, are taking measures to keep their family and communities safe. But we all know people who think COVID-19 is just another flu or, worse, a hoax. I found the video above helpful for understanding the math behind some of the counter-intuitive aspects of a pandemic. Please share if you’ve found a way to communicate the danger and not be seen as a raving lunatic (I’m ashamed to say that I’ve let loose the words “sheeple” and “normies” more than a few times in the past few days).

How to make points two and three less marginal will be the challenge of coming years. Unfortunately, people will die in a country where you have to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay for your COVID-19 treatment. As Senator Sanders said regarding this crisis, “Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time to come together with love and compassion for all, including the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Plague Times

There are two images that keep floating around in my head in this time when we genuinely seem to have a worrisome contagion at the door. One is of the 17th century beak masks worn by plague doctors.

The other is the plague infected ship in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Thanks to a fascinating website called Vessel Finder, you can track the real life COVID-19 infected plague ship Grand Princess, which is just off the coast of San Francisco.

A very unfortunate ad.

How do we respond to the Coronavirus crisis? Frequent hand washing seems sensible. But should we prepare to hole up in the house? Should we make a panicked run to Costco for a month’s worth of ramen? Should we stop going to public events and spend our hours at home entertaining ourselves with Vessel Finder? Kelly and I have the luxury of quarantining ourselves but most people do not.

While I can’t articulate what I think our response should be I do know one thing, that some folks in the press don’t understand non-linear threats. I’m far from the best person to weigh in on statistics, but there’s a huge difference between a communicable disease like COVID-19, that has the potential of exponential growth, and deaths from heart disease or cancer. For similar reasons I don’t think most people understand the “black swan” threat of climate change. Things can be fine for a long time before suddenly everything we know collapses. As Mike Tyson once put it “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Let’s Win This

I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last three weekends knocking on doors for Senator Sander’s presidential campaign. During the week I phone bank.

I live a comfortable life. Many of the people I’ve spoken to, as a volunteer for this campaign, do not. They deal with unemployment, the threat of having relatives deported and a future of debt and uncertainty. And we all have, hanging over us, a climate crisis. California experienced the driest February on record. In some places there was no rain at all.

The last time I phone banked (reaching out to other supporters and volunteers around the country) I became overwhelmed, choked up with emotion and had to stop. What got me was the level of commitment of working people and students to this campaign–people with a lot fewer resources and time than I have.

No other candidate has a ground force as committed as Senator Sanders. No other candidate has been as consistent throughout his life in support of working people. His message is no more radical than saying that this country should offer the level of services that other developed countries have.

Some of you may not agree with all of his policies. If that’s you I respectfully ask you to consider a strategic vote for Sanders if just because no other Democratic candidate has the team in place to win this election.

We have one chance to make this happen. Not me. Us!

If you are still on the fence, read this article, “The Liberal-Conservative-Socialist Case for Bernie Sanders.”

Worst of NextDoor

It began innocently enough. What could be wrong with a website that reunites people with their lost cats, offers crowdsourced suggestions for plumbers and operates as an ongoing garage sale? But as is usual for anything coming out of Silicon Valley, NextDoor, has gone full Lord of the Flies except instead of kids it’s mostly old folks beating dissenters to death with their keyboards.

I’ve used NextDoor to get rid of furniture, give advice on humanely removing bees and publicize events. But, like so many other social media websites, NextDoor has devolved into a toxic stew of hatred tapped out by lonely, late night keyboard warriors. Here in my Los Angeles neighborhood, topics on homelessness and gentrification seem, in particular, to bring out the trolls. NextDoor has become 4chan for old homeowners.

Here’s a typical discussion on my neighborhood’s NextDoor, in this case about a homeless encampment at our local park:

If there’s one good thing about NextDoor it is that it has disabused me of the idea that my community is somehow more “open minded” than other parts of the country or that urban people are more progressive than rural people. These are stereotypes that I’ve been guilty of harboring in the past. We are all, myself included, easily sucked into the sort of hateful trolling that Silicon Valley has found a way to monetize on social media. How do you keep people glued to a website like NextDoor? Just offer the spectacle of your elder neighbors tearing each other apart in a text-based reality show. Best of all you can join in on the mud slinging!

There’s an easy solution to all the hate and trolling: paid moderators. Such moderators could limit the discussion to the things NextDoor is good at: the aforementioned and uncontroversial pet reunification and plumber recommendations. Maybe those plumbers could be vetted too! Of course, paid moderators would make the website unprofitable. Instead NextDoor crowdsources the moderation to both get around paying any employees and to absolve themselves of the responsibility of dealing with the mess they’ve made.

I’m curious if any of you, our dear readers, use NextDoor? What have you used it for? What are the controversies raging in your neighborhood on the site? As for me I still peek at the site periodically, mainly to see if anyone needs bee help, but I’ve become really turned off by the vitriol. And I feel sorry for the people I see most engaged in these NextDoor debates. I suspect they are both lonely and suffering from depression.

Nithya Raman for LA Council District 4!

During my years serving on the board of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition I learned that Los Angeles is one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional cities in the U.S. It’s run by a machine, is fundamentally un-democratic and, to top it all off, incompetent. Our city’s appalling homelessness crisis and transportation gridlock is the result of this disappointing leadership.

If there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud it’s that things have gotten so bad that a new generation of activists is rising up to toss out the incumbents. Last Friday, Root Simple friend and podcast guest Jessica Rath hosted an intimate gathering with one of those activists, Nithya Raman, who is running for Council District 4.

In the course of the evening, Raman discussed her homeless policy, how to make the city council more democratic and ways to escape gridlocked traffic. Raman has an urban planning degree from M.I.T., helped start the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, served as executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment and worked for the city on homeless policy. Frankly, she’s one of those people who have already accomplished what would take me ten lifetimes to get around to. She is much more qualified than the incumbent David Ryu, who has a thin resume and a record of opposing housing and transportation improvements.

This is an important election. City councilpersons in Los Angeles wield much more power than the mayor. CD 4 has a population of 253,000 people making it larger than most U.S. cities. If you live in CD4, a gerrymandered district covering Los Feliz, part of Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and North Hollywood please vote for Nithya Raman!