George Sarant

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NOTES ON THE PANDEMIC

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The Chinese-originated Covid-19 Wuhan Virus, like certain others before it, was transferred by wild animals that were eaten by humans. It is possible that it emerged from infected animals at a lab, but the current pandemic definitely arose when some Chinese ate bats, just as the AIDS epidemic originated from Africans eating monkeys. Thus the surest way to stop such pandemics is to eliminate ingesting “exotic” animals in the first place, never mind cats and dogs. Diseases are clearly transferred when wild animals are eaten, while driving many to extinction. 

As with any crisis we will see the best, as well as the worst in people. Many people are rising to the occasion and doing their best. That does not include the media, which has hit a new low with this pandemic, nor the self-inflicted wounds of some state governments. The worst action taken was forcing nursing homes to take virus patients by the Governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This has resulted in many avoidable deaths at a time when many hospitals are virtually empty and are incurring enormous losses as the elective surgeries they depend upon have been postponed. How many additional deaths have occurred from delayed heart surgeries? Meanwhile over a million health care workers have been laid off as most of the specialties they provide are shut down. 

This is not to say that the suggested or mandated precautions regarding masks, hand washing, etc. should not be followed. They are essential where the virus is rampant, such as in the epicenter here in New York, which has a third of all US cases.  The city is especially vulnerable due to population density, the primacy of subway transportation, and tall building with elevators. But what applies here does not apply elsewhere. 52% of the counties in this country have not had a single death due to the virus. Thus what is essential in metropolitan areas does not apply to rural and exurban areas, so there should be no national mandate applicable to all regions. It will be a long time before New York recovers, but other areas could be open now. 

It is not just economic dislocation that has occurred, but outright economic distortion.  How can some giant companies like Walmart remain open while mom and pop operations are forced to be closed, many of which may never reopen again with the prolongation of these conditions. Small businesses ought to be compensated by the government since it is the state that has shut them down. They employ most of the lowest wage earners who constitute the largest segment of the newly unemployed, and ironically many are earning more from the Economic Impact checks and Unemployment Insurance than they did working, which may portend problems going forward. 

Meanwhile many others are now working from home, and the future prediction of telecommuting may finally have arrived. Many large corporations thought it would be productive to emulate Google with open plan “high performance workspaces,” unwisely dispensing with offices, cubicles and private work spaces. Now employees cannot return to these facilities, and can no longer be on top of each other. But Google is fundamentally a website, and a poor model to follow. Up until the arrival of the Wuhan virus these companies had soured on working from home and were discouraging it. Now we are learning that telecommuting is indeed viable and is propping up half of the economy. 

A tragic sense has long eluded us, compounded with historical amnesia. If this virus had occurred 100 years ago the death rate would be truly catastrophic, as it was in 1918 due to the Spanish flu, when a third of the planet’s population became infected and 50 million died. Even worse, past plagues eliminated a third to one half of the population of Europe. Such unimaginable devastation is beyond our comprehension now, due to progress in managing disease and economic disruption, so as to mitigate disasters. But we may have been living in a historical sweet spot, which could change, as continued progress is not guaranteed. This all brings home how fragile our lives are. They can be disrupted at any moment, so we should always expect the unexpected. We will probably emerge from this stronger due to the resources we have, but we cannot know what the next disaster will bring, and at the very least should be thankful for all that we have.

Written by georgesarant

May 17, 2020 at 6:35 PM

THE US MIDTERM ELECTION RESULTS

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The general consensus, even among hostile media, is that the midterm election results went relatively well for Trump and the Republicans, due largely to an increased majority in the Senate, and a less-than-disastrous loss of the House, particularly in historical terms.  While there is some truth to this, a look under the hood for a more detailed analysis of the results shows some problematic conditions for Republicans. 

First, there is a fairly widespread pattern in the margins of victory across the board. In Democratic Party dominated “blue” states the Democratic candidates won by very large, landslide margins. In contrast, in too many Republican-leaning “red”states the victory margins were much thinner, sometimes razor-thin. That ought to set off alarm bells, particularly where the margins have been narrowing, as it suggests a potential transition of the state to a more competitive status, if not towards the other party. This applies to both the House and Senate (Governorships are more fluid due to state and local conditions). It means that Democrats are more competitive in “red” states than Republicans are in “blue” states. 

Second, Republican congressional losses were concentrated in the suburbs, once the base of the party. It is possible that many of these seats can be regained in subsequent elections, as long as they remain “swing” districts, but others are slipping away. The present political landscape makes it easier for Democrats to make incursion in Republican territory than the reverse.

Third, Republicans cannot count on the Democrats to self-destruct. Although the “resistance” and the far-Left have gotten a great deal of attention, that does not translate into public support. But Democrats played it smart in this election by fielding a large number of center-moderate candidates, including a significant number of veterans. They avoided identity politics and other assorted evils previously foisted upon us. This enabled them to win swing and Republican-leaning districts. If the Democrats follow this strategy in the next presidential election it will become a very difficult contest for Trump and the Republicans. 

On this basis it is fair to say that most Americans are, for the most part, terminally moderate. The idea that the country is “deeply divided” is an illusion that many have been sold on by the media.   “Division” is inherent in democracy. On almost any question there is going to be a majority and a minority, resulting in a division of the house to resolve a question. There may be intense divisions between activist minorities on both sides, but it is a mistake to conflate this with the pubic at large. For all the ideological noise, elections are often decided at the last minute by votes cast by people who are oblivious, disengaged, and uncommitted. For most people have a life outside of politics, where they pursue a myriad of interests, and seldom identify intensely with any political cause.  

Written by georgesarant

November 9, 2018 at 9:03 PM

Notes From Vienna

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I’ve been away from everything on another trip to Europe, this time to Austria and parts of Germany. I didn’t turn on a TV or go online for anything other than travel information so as to maintain the feeling of immersion in the marvelous  17th, 18th, and 19th century architecture of Vienna.  Virtually every building is adorned with statuary and/or some kind of decorative carving. The palaces are gorgeous, and everything is super-clean. Coming back to New York “Pothole” City reminded me that I didn’t encounter a single road defect over a few thousand miles there and I am still baffled why the roads are so much better in Europe. 

Vienna was once the seat of a great central European empire and looks it. It lasted about six centuries under the enduring Habsburgs until the terrible catastrophe of World War I, which it was central to (recall it was the Austrian Arch-Duke’s assassination in Sarajevo that triggered the war).  One hundred years ago it was at the center of world history; but today when making travel arrangements I have to repeat over and over that I’m going to Austria, not Australia, or Vienna, not Viet Nam. 

The city is central to classical music and nothing else comes close. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and many others either came or did their most important work here. Classical music is still vital to the city and there are always concerts in many facilities. Evenings we went to concerts at four different venues, as well as one by candlelight in Salzburg, where sneakers and jeans are not allowed and jackets are encouraged. All inevitably end with the hand-clapping Radetsky March, which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever watched the New Year’s concert that is widely broadcast on TV. We also visited the Spanish Riding School with the Lipizzan horses because my wife wanted to; I found it terminally boring. 

German is the primary language, but everyone speaks English and this is one place where no one will take offense if you address them in English. Overall the city reminds me most of better-known Paris, in terms of beauty and livability, although it has its own ambiance and doesn’t have some of the current problems of the French capitol. To put it another way, on the hurried and harried scale of 1 to 10, New York is a 10;  while Vienna is barely a 2.  No one will raise and eyebrow if you spend much of the day reading a paper at one of the numerous coffee houses.

Apart from other cities we also drove into Germany to visit castles, but were really taken aback by the stunning Bavarian countryside which is incredibly well-ordered and spotless. Farm after farm was full of cows; indeed more than I’ve ever seen anywhere in the US. We spent a night by Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle which was swarming with busloads of tourists despite being in the middle nowhere, before heading back into Austria. 

The only mishap was that one day before leaving I happened to get hit by a car; a car I was driving, (which is too complicated to try and explain here), so I was hobbling around after that. It was painful but without serious damage and I am okay now. 

As an alternative to the Paris-Rome-London circuit I recommend visiting this welcoming city. They sell a pass that is an incredible bargain that gets you admission into just about everything. The tourist traffic otherwise seems to consist mostly of classical music lovers from Asian countries, who have a far greater appreciation of western art these days than we do, which says something about us. 

Written by georgesarant

October 26, 2018 at 6:15 PM

JOURNEY THROUGH WATERFALLS IN WESTERN NEW YORK

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Written by georgesarant

June 2, 2018 at 9:17 PM

ARE WE REALLY “DEEPLY DIVIDED?”

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We are not as divided as some commentators assume. To be sure there are political differences, but those differences are most intense among the people (around 20%) who regularly follow politics. An even smaller number are passionate partisans. Most others are pretty apolitical and more attuned to the day to day life around them, which may turn out to be the more sensible use of one’s limited lifespan.

There are always divisions of opinion about any topic you can think of, i.e. sports, music, movies, tv, hobbies, local organizations, which way the toilet paper roll should face, etc., etc. In fact those other things are what life is really about, and people who may be at loggerheads politically nevertheless share common ground in many other areas, while their political cousins may be oblivious to, or on another side in different areas.

The people who fret most about “division” are themselves frequently part of the problem, although to them it is  those other people who don’t see things the right way. It is only possible to buy into the idea of deep division if you believe that everything in life is political. There is some of that on all sides, but it is especially pronounced on the Left (as distinct from “liberal” in this case), where true believers don’t see any distinction between the political and the social, which in turn then applies to state and society. To them everything is political, and they take the measure of things through an ideological continuum. They inject politics into all aspects of life, ruining much of it for everyone else. Ironically they are the gift that keeps on giving for the Right, for they engender far more annoyance than sympathy. That is why personally I am not so much “Right” as I am anti-Left, for the reasons indicated above.

Excess political passion is like a social disease. The fundamental basis of any ideology is virtually always irrational because its foundation can be distilled to a hierarchy of values. Values are what’s left when we can’t agree on the facts. A civilized society can address many problems based upon a common understanding of the facts, which at any given moment are true or false, and involve some degree of rational resolution. But why doesn’t everything work this way? It is because the remainder are based not on facts, but values.

Society functions because there is a common consensus regarding the way many things work. We can agree on the time of day, or turning right when the sign points that way, or noise coming from some direction, but not whether it is good or bad, because that involves a value judgement.  When division of opinion occurs that is based upon values, or where a particular value belongs in the hierarchy, there is no obvious, easy rational solution and because of that we have conflict. Then the problem will have to be addressed either democratically and peacefully, through compromise, or otherwise through force, which often involves violence or repression. Some  at the extremes become so incensed with regard to others that they will consider the latter as justified if it is in keeping with their viewpoint.

But we know that in the long term nothing is permanent and the future is unknowable. Excess passion is simply wasted energy. As things change continuously we may find ourselves strange bedfellows under new circumstances, and yesterday’s opponent may be today’s friend. The political spectrum is not carved in stone and the issues of the day often change. This is common sense to people who are less politically inclined, so most of the “division” the dividers fret about is happening on some other planet.

Written by georgesarant

April 7, 2018 at 10:08 PM

THE FUTURE OF THE AUTOMOBILE

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Not so long ago one could routinely observe several vehicles pulled over on the side of a highway due to mechanical breakdown. Today that is a rare site. These days there are very few bad cars on the the road. This unheralded improvement in quality has been overshadowed by anticipated changes, one reasonable, and the other less so.

There is a general consensus that the cars of the near future will be electric-powered and self-driving. Only one of these predictions, the electric car, is likely to be realized as anticipated. But this is hardly a breakthrough in transportation, and the supposed economic and environmental benefits are not very clear. Since something has to generate the electricity to power these vehicles it means that a substantial amount of energy is still being expended in some way, if indirectly, and the benefit clearly depends on how the electricity is being produced.

There is still nothing as efficient and reliable as the internal combustion engine, and that is the reason why most autos still run on gasoline. If that were not the case everyone would be driving electric cars now. But oil is still plentiful an cheap and without massive government subsidies and pressure electric cars would still not be viable.

But this does entail a paradigm shift. Now you fill your tank as needed based on your own choice. When electric cars predominate, the production of energy will be offloaded, centralized, and outside of our control. Nevertheless there are other advantages to electric vehicles, notably in terms of emissions, as long as the alternative energy production is significantly cleaner, which is by no means certain. Furthermore if there were to be massive automotive electrification, and it were to become the predominant method for powering cars, the cost of gasoline would tumble as a result due to reduced demand, which means that petroleum would be an even greater bargain than it is now.

The term self-driving car is an oxymoron based on the Greek and Latin roots of automobile, which already means self-driving. On that basis if driverless cars were to become ubiquitous, logically self-driving cars would be those still operated by humans. However, I don’t think this is ever going to happen everywhere. It certainly will happen in older, denser large cities, where there would be pronounced efficiencies in only using a car when needed. But while these urban dwellers might not need to own a car, most everyone else still does.

The implications of driverless cars don’t seem to have been fully thought out, due to an almost blind faith in the superiority of technology. But there are abilities that humans possess that machines are unlikely to ever have. For example, experienced drivers have an extra sense, almost an instinct as to what the surrounding drivers are likely to do. They can anticipate how others will move with amazing accuracy. They can intuit what another drivers intentions are. Think of driving on a highway alongside a car to your right, which hasn’t yet signaled or doesn’t bother to, yet, somehow you know they intend to pass in front of you. Or the way you know that the car in front of you is likely to make a left turn before they even turn on their signal.

If we did not have this sense there would be far more accidents than there are. It is like anything we do well without really thinking about it, having subconsciously absorbed the method, like walking. There is just no way a machine can accurately sense the trajectory of cars around them based upon a sense of the other driver. Most cars are equipped with automatic cruise control, but hardly anyone uses it consistently, and it is quite likely that driverless vehicles will suffer the same fate.

Written by georgesarant

March 31, 2018 at 12:51 AM

DON’T DRIVE IN NYC II

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The other day I had just crossed the border between Long Island and NYC when I was pulled over for allegedly speeding, doing 70 mph. Now since everyone else at the time was doing around 65 mph in a 50-55 mph zone, whatever the speed limit it didn’t seem like much. Just prior to that some moron in front of me was talking on a cell phone and driving erratically and slow in the left lane. When he finally pulled over I accelerated for all of 10 seconds to catch up with the traffic, and that is presumably when I was “speeding.”  Obviously when you stray from the herd you are at risk, but if anyone should have gotten a ticket is was the cell phone dude.

After waiting an interminably long period of time for the cop to do his paperwork, he came back with the ticket saying I was doing 71.  By doing that he put me in a higher speed category at great cost. The measurement was thus highly questionable, and certainly disputable, but I shrugged it off, as whenever possible these days I try to just let things go and avoid hassles, as part of the random cost of living here.

However, when I looked at the ticket I found that I had gotten 6 points  and a $300 fine, all of which was far out of proportion the the alleged offense. Then to make matter worse, as I read further it turned out I also had to pay yet another $300 for a “Driver Responsibility Assessment” NY now tacks on, even with a clean prior driving record. So I now had to pay $600 for a few seconds of “speeding.” So then I thought this time I have to appeal, but as I read further on the ticket it stated that you can appeal if you want but if you do your fine may be increased.  The message is thus clear- don’t even think about appealing this. Further, this really has nothing to do with speeding or traffic safety and everything to do with revenue; but obviously not for roads since they are still awful.

From long experience I know that it is now impossible to beat a ticket in NYC. For example, one night we were at a Lincoln Center concert, and when it was over we found the car was gone. It had been towed away for allegedly parking at a bus stop.; except that there was no sign anywhere in sight and the actual stop was much further down the block. So before picking up the car and  paying a few hundred dollars for the tow alone, we took several photos of the location, of the signs, the street, and the buildings, as I had every reason to appeal. When I did, I mailed in the photos and then even printed photos from Google maps of the location so that no one in their right mind could question it. Nevertheless it was turned down with the ridiculous statement that the evidence didn’t prove anything and it could be anywhere, never mind that was specific to that location.  But again, it had little to do with the offense and everything to do with revenue. I don’t go out at night as much as I used to in the city because if I do I have to either pay more than $50 for parking or a cab, and even if parking in a spot that appears to be legal, can still get a ticket.  BTW virtually all the other tow offenders where from out of town using rental cars and were clearly targeted, so be forewarned.

The city is now so anti-car it simply doesn’t pay to own a vehicle or drive, which is exactly what they want; at least from a Manhattan-centric point of view, never mind what car-owners need in the other four boroughs. I’ve been driving here since I was 17 and this is the worst it’s ever been. I don’t want to give up my car, or my house, but life is now at a state-sponsored intolerable level. But if they add tolls to the Brooklyn Bridge I am gone.

So again, be advised, don’t drive here, and if you don’t have to work here avoid coming altogether.

Written by georgesarant

March 29, 2018 at 7:53 PM

THE FADING PROMISE OF THE INTERNET

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Written by georgesarant

February 11, 2018 at 9:09 PM

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP

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Even if you loathe Donald Trump it is hard to argue with the results he has engendered since taking office, and for all his personal flaws, results are what count.  The economy is doing very well, and as his policies continue to take hold, barring some unforeseen catastrophe,  it is increasingly clear that we are on the cusp of a boom that is only beginning, and bringing along the rest of the world in the process. Markets are at all-time highs, unemployment at an all-time low, job creation and investment are accelerating, and incomes are rising, and will increase even further for most people due to tax reform and cuts. ISIS has been decimated, and long overdue reforms are finally shaking up a sclerotic government that desperately needed it. 

It is no secret that I was skeptical of Trump prior to the election, but I withheld judgement to allow enough time to go by to reliably form one, unlike the preponderant conservative intellectual establishment.  However, his first State of the Union distilled the change that is in the air. If it weren’t for his off the cuff rhetoric he would be at least twenty or more points higher in polls, and in that respect he is his own worst enemy, Nevertheless his policies and results are increasingly popular even if he isn’t, as yet, but that could change as the reality of conditions sets in despite a hopelessly antagonistic and hostile media. 

The mainstream media coverage of his administration is atrocious, and truly unfair and misleading. The other day he made a major speech in Europe that was hardly covered at all by the networks that couldn’t even be bothered to show any of the speech, but instead lead with a non-story about an alleged attempt to fire a special prosecutor that never happened, so where is the story? With regard to the real news of the day all they could say was, well he didn’t go off-script. But they do make headlines out of every misstep he has made while ignoring the substance of what is happening on any given day. They report allegations as fact despite the lack of supporting evidence. This is ideologically driven malicious malfeasance, that cannot possibly be justified. 

This may play well with those who hate this President who are hearing what they want to hear and reinforcing their prior beliefs, but it is a miserable failure to inform the public, instead providing a truly warped image of reality.  This not to condone the very real flaws in his personal style, but there has to be some perspective, some truth, regarding what is happening substantively. Whatever misgivings one may have, he is getting things done, and keeping his promises. 

He is doing exactly what he said he would do. Even if he were a perfectly behaved angel it would make no difference, because he is an outsider who is directly taking on the establishment, as no one has done before, and they are biting back fiercely.  In fact in the days ahead it will become evident, to the point where the hostile media cannot ignore it, that the real election scandal was not Russian collusion, but in fact how that bogus story was conjured up by his opponents in entrenched bureaucracies that, it turns out, actively worked against his election, compromising the integrity of the FBI and other government agencies. There is much more to come.  

Written by georgesarant

January 31, 2018 at 7:45 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

A THANKSGIVING GIFT

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Something very nice happened just in time for Thanksgiving. The other day I wrote that my wallet was stolen in Times Square. I took the necessary precautionary steps, and resigned myself to its loss, as there is no point in agonizing over things you cannot change. But I just received a package containing my wallet, virtually intact, minus the credit cards, (which have all been canceled and replaced anyway), Even the cash was included. The very decent individual who sent it wrote that it was found on a street in Brooklyn. I am ever so thankful, not so much because the wallet was returned,  as because it is a pleasure to learn that there are still good people in this world.

Something similar happened to me some years ago when leaving a Hawaiian resort. We left our things in what was supposed to be a secure storage room, while we went for a last swim. When I returned the wallet was missing, apparently lifted by an employee. When I got back home, I shortly thereafter received a phone call from someone staying in the same rooms at the resort, who said he found my wallet in the suite. Apparently the employee who had taken it got nervous after I complained and the heat was on, and made it reappear. He said he was sending it back to me, and refused any reimbursement, saying “I would hope that someone else would do the same for me.” Truer words have never been said.

For all the bad things we constantly hear about, we tend to forget that not everyone is a thief and  that they are greatly outnumbered by good people. This has restored my faith in others, and I am indeed thankful for that. So this Thanksgiving I will be thinking about all the fine people that are still are around, people who will do the right thing even if no one is looking; something to ponder, always keep in mind, and to pass on to others.

Written by georgesarant

November 22, 2017 at 10:27 PM