April 2020


Five steps for advocacy. From WebJunction.org

by George Taniwaki

Sue and I attended a class on advocacy. It was an eye opening experience. If you want to get involved in your community and improve governance, you should attend an advocacy class and get going. The class we attended was sponsored by the Seattle/King Country Coalition on Homelessness. If you live in the Seattle area, other organizations that hold advocacy classes include Northwest Harvest and Arc of King County.

We learned a lot. Below are some details .

Understanding advocacy

One of the first lessons is that advocacy is not lobbying. This is important since lobbying a government official can cause the nonprofit you are supporting to lose its tax-exempt status. Lobbying is approaching a politician or regulator and asking them to adopt a position that will directly or indirectly benefit you or the non-profit you represent, usually monetarily. Advocacy is asking a politician to do something that you think will address a social issue. It may benefit you or your organization, but only because it fills the unmet community need. Thus, all lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.

Advocate for bills not positions

You vote for legislators based on their positions. But there often isn’t a clear path to convert positions into actual legislation, especially related to budget bills. Your legislators are busy and subject to competing demands. They will not have time to read each bill in detail. They rely on community feedback on individual bills to gauge what is important to pass or defeat.

Thus, if you want to have impact, you have to determine which bills you want your legislator to vote for and against. (I’m assuming you are a layperson and not influential enough to actually write the bills you want to pass.) However, you also do not have time to read each bill in detail either. Thus, you will need to rely on a nonprofit organization to read them for you and pick out the talking points to make when you contact your legislators.

How to find your legislators

Every state has different number of legislators and districts. In Washington State, the there is a senate and a house with identical districts. Senators serve 4 year terms and representatives serve 2-year terms. There are 49 districts and each district has one senator and two house representatives, so a total of 49 senators and 98 representative.

To find your district and the names of your legislators, go to the district finder.

When to contact your legislators

Every state has a different legislative calendar. In Washington, in even years (like 2020), there is a short session lasting 60 days. In odd years, when the two-year budget is debated, there is a long session lasting 105 days, or sometimes longer if the budget is not approved in time. So in short session years, it is critical that you contact your legislators in January and February on the dates when the bills you are concerned about are “read” on the floor.

You may want to contact your legislators multiple times during the session. First is when the bill is in committee. If your legislator is on the committee that is debating the bill, you want to give a detailed comment. If they are not, you want to register your approval or disapproval of the bill so that they can include your tally and forward it to the committee. Once the bill is out of committee, you will want to contact your legislators again to indicate how you want them to vote. Finally, at the end of the session, thank the legislators for their vote. If they did not vote in the way you wanted, express your disappointment but say you hope they are still open to your future advocacy.

To find the status of the bills you are interested in, go to the bill report.

How to contact your legislators

There are many ways to contact your legislators and register comments. You can write an email, call by phone, send a fax, letter, or postcard, fill out a web form, or post comments on their social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

The legislators may not read your comment personally, they may have an aide summarize them. Thus, it is important that you know which comments get summarized. Many legislators still do not get summaries of social media comments. So if you post something on their Facebook page, it may not get seen.

To comment by phone, call 1.800.562.6000

To send a comment by mail or email, go to the district finder.

To submit a comment on the web, go to Comment help.

Submitting a comment is fast and easy. If you want to get involved in advocacy, find a non-profit you want to support and get started now.

* * * *

Advocacy is cheap and easy and everyone can get involved. Lobbying is expensive and requires specialized skills as the story below shows.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. I realize this to a greater degree after taking the advocacy class. While moderately rich people like me often have the time and inclination to ask our representatives to vote for what we want at the local level, the very rich advocate at the national level.

I knew that many U.S. senate races involve out-of-state money. But I hadn’t realized why. A story by David Frum in the Atlantic (Apr 2020) gives a good explanation. Most very rich people live in big cities, located in coastal states, which tend to vote for leftish politicians. The rich tend to be more conservative and often find it difficult to sway their own senator’s vote. But every senator gets one vote. For the sake of efficiency, it makes more sense for them to contribute money to the campaign committees of conservative senators in small red states and then advocate or lobby for what they want by approaching those senators.

Says Frum, “United States senators from smaller, poorer red states… do not… primarily represent their states. They represent, more often, the richest people in bigger, richer blue States who find it more economical to invest in less expensive small-state races. The biggest contributor to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign and leadership committee is a PAC headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey…”


Is Trump Ready for a Global Outbreak? Screenshot from YouTube

by George Taniwaki

Nobody could have predicted that the virus that causes Covid-19 would cause a pandemic. A pandemic is like an earthquake. Today, we don’t have the technology to predict one, but we can plan for one. Lots of people predicted that a pandemic would someday strike. Unfortunately, the U.S. was not prepared as shown by the examples below.

Event 201, 2019

Each year the World Health Organization (WHO) responds to about 200 epidemic events. Each has a possibility of becoming a global pandemic. Event 201 was a tabletop simulation of a pandemic exercise hosted by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This exercise was conducted in October, only a few months before the Covid-19 outbreak occurred. We will see Bill Gates name again later.


Simulation of a pandemic called Coronavirus Associated Pulmonary Syndrome (CAPS) at Event 201. Screenshot from YouTube

The Atlantic, 2018

Check out this story from the Atlantic in July 2018 by Ed Yong. It points out all the ways that the U.S. was not prepared for a pandemic in 2018. If anything, the U.S. was less prepared in 2020.

Mr Yong makes an important point is that travel bans may actually increase the risk of spread because they make travelers less likely to admit they have symptoms or have been in contact with infected people. He also produced a video and posted on YouTube.

The story also has a good description of the role played by the biocontainment unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the largest in the U.S., during the Ebola pandemic.

TED, 2015

“If anything kills over ten million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles but microbes.” So says Bill Gates, in a TED talk he gave five years ago.


The next outbreak? We’re not ready. Screenshot from YouTube

USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Program, 2009

Starting in 2009, the Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a program that allowed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to investigate zoonotic viruses that may also infect humans. The Emerging Pandemic Threats program contained four component projects called Predict, Prevent, Identify, and Respond. The White House announced in January 2020 that funding for the program would be eliminated.

* * * *

Separate from the funding cuts to the CDC and USAID, in April, the White House announced that it would stop funding the WHO (WebMD Apr 2020). The U.S. is the largest contributor to the WHO, providing it with about $893 million in the 2018 to 2019, biannual budget cycle. The next biggest contributor is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which announced an increase in its contribution in response to the U.S. cutback.


Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in February. Image by Miles Fortune for The New York Times

by George Taniwaki

The New York Times (Apr 2020) has an excellent story about how epidemiologists at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle seek to find the path of the Covid-19 virus from Wuhan China to the U.S. and other countries. The work requires specimen collecting, genome sequencing, modeling the mutation rate of the virus, and contact tracing.

The big lesson is that the spread of an infectious agent is not steady; it is sporadic. Further, because of network effects, big gatherings in confined spaces are the more likely source of infection than one-on-one events.


Keeping my blog alive

by George Taniwaki

I’ve been writing this blog since 2007. For most of that time I’ve been using a text editor called Windows Live Writer. It was part of a bundle of free apps called Windows Live Essentials that Microsoft distributed to enhance the value of Windows and the .NET Framework. The last upgrade was released in 2012 and the product was discontinued a few years later.

I just bought a new PC and could not install Windows Live Writer on it. I was somewhat concerned how to continue editing this blog. I suppose I could learn how to use the new online WordPress editor that uses a format and editing technique called blocks.

However, I’m old and set in my ways. Learning to use yet another text editor seems like a lot of work. Plus, there doesn’t seem a way to convert my existing .wpost files to the new WordPress format. And I prefer using a dedicated client app to an online browser app, even if it is performant.

Luckily, there are lot of people like me. I found Open Live Writer. As stated in Wikipedia, Open Live Writer is a free and open-source version of Windows Live Writer. It is supported by the .NET Foundation. And the installer works on my new PC. Yay.


Track this. Photo from Bloomberg BusinessWeek by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

by George Taniwaki

In a Bloomberg Businessweek editorial (Apr 2020), Cathy O’Neil (mathbabe) explains why a Covid-19 tracking app won’t work. It’s all about self-selection bias.

* * * *

Update: For a good non-technical description of how the Apple and Google contact tracing API works, including the encryption method, see Economist, Apr 2020. The article also suggests that even though using an app for contact tracing is imperfect, its low-cost and passive nature makes it worthwhile.


Can a partially effective vaccine flatten the curve?

by George Taniwaki

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we want to know when we can stop sheltering at home and go back into public spaces again. Further, we want to know which actions can speed up the time before that can happen.

One thing we do know is that when dealing with a novel disease (one that no human appears to have immunity for), the entire population cannot go back to pre-epidemic behavior at the same time before it is safe. Doing so will cause a spike in infections and deaths. This will terrorize the population leading to another round of isolation. If the public loses faith that the government knows when it is safe to change behavior, then when it finally is safe, people will still be afraid and time will be lost during the recovery, causing additional economic hardship.

So when can we go back to normal? I think that can happen only after herd immunity is achieved. This can take a very long time as a trickle of individuals become infected and recover with resistance or die, a process called flattening the curve. Or it can happen pretty quickly after the wide-spread inoculation of individuals with a safe and effective vaccine.

An effective vaccine may take 18 to 24 months to develop. Many people, including President Donald Trump, think staying home this long is unrealistic. Is it possible to shorten that time by releasing a partially effective vaccine sooner? Doing so may help flatten the curve without requiring social distancing.

Partially effective vaccines

An intriguing paper by Eduard Talamàs & Rakesh Vohra, entitled “Free and perfectly safe but only partially effective vaccines can harm everyone” pretty much contains the answer in its title.

The idea is that a partially effective vaccine will cause people to change their behavior too much, too soon, causing the spike we want to avoid. The conclusion is similar to the analysis popularized by Sam Peltzman of the Univ. Chicago (a microeconomics professor while I was a student there) who suggested that stricter automobile safety regulations could lead to increased deaths (of pedestrians) as drivers felt safer and became more reckless (J Polit Econ, Aug 1975).

The most important conclusion in Talamàs et al., is that with overlapping social networks, even those who do not increase the size of their networks after the introduction of the vaccine can be harmed by those who do. This conclusion is slightly different than those of most epidemiological models that assume random contact between individuals rather than strategic networks. A good description of the paper is given by one of the authors, Vohra, at The Leisure of the Theory Class (Apr 2020).

DreamboatAnnie Boston

Two albums not on the list, but close

by George Taniwaki

My friend Carol tagged me on Facebook asking me to post 10 albums that influenced my musical taste and upbringing. One per day over the next 10 days, no explanation, and to tag one of my friends each day. Being a curmudgeon, I refuse to do it her way. But what are those 10 albums? Let me recall them.

Them Changes, Buddy Miles, 1970

It’s the first album I ever bought with my own money. I got it because my best friend in middle school suggested it. His middle name is Miles and he played the drums. Well, it’s a reason. And I still have the album.


There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly & the Family Stone, 1971

I never owned this album and until today had never listened to it all the way through. (Aren’t streaming music services great?) It makes the list because the first concert I ever went to was Family Stone in 1972. I went with my best friend, the drummer mentioned above. The concert started two hours late. I later learned this was a common occurrence because Sylvester Stuart was in a constant drug induced haze.


Paranoid, Black Sabbath, 1971

Politically incorrect lyrics from a band who’s lead singer is now more famous for being the doddering patriarch of a reality TV clan. Another album suggested by my best friend.

We saw Black Sabbath in concert on Halloween 1976. Prior to the start of the concert there was a costume contest. One of the judges was Pat Schroeder, who had recently been elected as the House representative for the 1st District. One of the contestants was dressed as a giant dildo and hopped around the stage. I’m sure Ms Schroeder regretted participating. There were two opening acts; newly popular bands from the east and west coasts, Boston and Heart (see covers at top of post). Great concert.


The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, Joe Walsh, 1973

As a child, I joined the Columbia Record Club. You got 10 albums for a dollar, then promised to buy 4 more at an inflated price. Still cheaper than buying at a store as long as you remembered to cancel your membership immediately after fulfilling your agreement. One of my dollar albums is this gem.

Before he was a guitarist for the Eagles, Joe Walsh had a solo career. Of course, growing up in Denver, our favorite song on the album was Rocky Mountain Way.


Quadrophenia, The Who, 1973

One of the best albums of all time, by one of the greatest bands of all time. Enough said.


Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin, 1975

I was introduced to math, physics, Led Zeppelin, and mass consumption of drugs (not in that order) by my classmates at Caltech.

Nearly 20 years later, before I knew what it was about, I immediately knew I would like Richard Linklater’s nostalgic movie, Dazed and Confused, just from its title.


Van Halen, Van Halen, 1978

Another band popular while I was at Caltech. Van Halen was a local band from Pasadena but I never had a chance to see them.


The Wall, Pink Floyd, 1979

If Quadrophenia was great, The Wall was even greater. Apparently, I have an affinity for double albums.


Boy, U2, 1980

A band from Dublin that I call the anti-Beatles. The Beatles started out playing pop music and became more experimental as their success grew. U2’s album Boy is very experimental. But the band’s music became more conventional as they became more popular.

I saw U2 perform songs from this album at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver.


She’s So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper, 1983

There weren’t very many female composers that I considered favorites in my formative years. Hard rock and alternative are sexist. As an adult, my musical tastes became more balanced.


* * * *

Final thoughts

The popularity of albums is an odd thing. A collection of 8 to 10 songs produced as a unit of recording didn’t exist until the invention of the 33-1/3 rpm vinyl record in 1948. Prior to that, records could only hold a few minutes of music on each side and so people listened to live music as a set but recorded music a single song at a time. Eventually cassette tapes and then CDs replaced vinyl albums and could hold more music, though they usually did not. With the advent of downloadable music and streaming services most people no longer buy and listen to albums. We are back to listening to songs as singles again.

While I was growing up, I listened to my albums over and over. As I listened to an album, as one song was ending, I knew exactly which song was next. Yet I didn’t know the order of the songs on an album. I could only recall them as I was hearing them.

When my wife Sue and I got married, we each had record collections with over 100 albums. We combined our collections and gave away our duplicates. Our taste in music were so different that we only gave away 7 records total, that included the Beatles’ Let it Be and Led Zeppelin III, a time that marks the end of her collection and the beginning of mine.

* * * *

[Update: Edited the post to make it clear my best friend was not a drummer of any of the bands mentioned.]