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self portrait with zinnias and covidious lunch

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amaah posted a photo:

self portrait with zinnias and covidious lunch

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Time for Food Resilience

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That’s the title of a piece I wrote for the City Journal about food system resiliency in the face of COVID-19. A few excerpts are below.

Food production is not the problem. Farmers’ markets this summer, for example, have struggled because consumers have been reluctant to congregate with others, not because farmers couldn’t grow enough food. In some cases, farmers have dumped tons of milk and produce because anticipated demand for these commodities suddenly disappeared. Unlike other manufacturing systems, plant and animal growth can’t be stopped with the flip of a switch, nor can food-processing chains be quickly reoriented from wholesale to retail production.

While demand for food eaten away from home was falling, demand for food purchased at grocery stores spiked, leading to some empty shelves. Grocery stores can anticipate and plan for peaks in demand, such as the days around Thanksgiving and Christmas, or even regional disruptions related to natural disasters such as hurricanes. Global shocks that occur once a century are impossible to predict or plan for. Pressured to reduce food waste and cost, groceries operate on nearly just-in-time delivery systems. Holding excess inventory is costly, and in the case of fresh produce, wasteful. We can ask grocery stores to store more inventory, but with associated costs.

Some thoughts on possible solutions …

To create a more robust food-supply chain, we need to take a thorough look at the legal and regulatory impediments that prevented food from flowing to areas of falling demand to areas of rising demand. In the pandemic’s early days, many locales not only shut down restaurants but also prevented restaurants from selling inventory to consumers because they lacked grocery licenses. Food and Drug Administration rules prevented farms that delivered eggs and egg products to restaurants from diverting supply to grocery stores, for example. Many of these rules were ultimately relaxed, but not until after the worst effects had been felt.

Facilitating markets that utilize prices to signal where food is most needed is vital to ensuring that food supply is not interrupted. While extensive public markets trade in agricultural commodities, trade is less expansive for retail foodstuffs, where supply is often centralized by large food distributors or grocers. Lessons can be learned from food banks that use the power of markets to aggregate information and get food to where it is most desired. Such markets can benefit large and small farms alike. One of my colleagues developed an online market platform for local farmers to connect with consumers facing Covid-19 related closures of farmers’ markets.

More innovation and automation in food distribution and retailing will also limit contagion while facilitating efficient markets. We have become accustomed to self-checkouts at the grocery; robots are already doing a good deal of cow-milking. Driverless cars and trucks could ensure the movement of food while minimizing risk of contagion. Online sales of food for delivery or in-store-pickup will continue to rise; centralized warehouses that stock and deliver directly to our doorsteps can go further to help prevent disease spread. The supermarket of the future may be much smaller and focused on fresh items like meat and vegetables that we want to pick by hand, with processed items coming directly from distribution centers. Developments that improve the shelf life of food will facilitate the development of emergency stockpiles—and reduce food waste.

You can find the whole thing here.

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How Migrant Farmworkers Remain at High Risk of Exposure to the Coronavirus

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Areeba Shah

As the coronavirus ravages marginalized communities, it's putting migrant farmworkers most in danger. Even as policies have shifted across the country, working and living conditions for them remains the same, making them one of the most vulnerable groups.

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In A Covidious Time

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in a covidious time

A few curious readers spotted me collecting various fragments on the web over the course of this covidious interlude, and a couple pointedly asked what I had in mind. I would have thought that the title rather gave the game away, but I might as well admit I've been mulling a series to collect the toli I've been curating about the new normalcy. Oh, I hear you say, but you're still going on about your Things Fall Apart series 14 years after that weeklong exercise started. How many variations can you come up with, man? And now, another one? Well, this time I'll thought I'd go with lots of photos to keep things moving, and playlists too - they're always popular soothers. You know, eschew the arch concept, aim for brevity, short cuts, slices of life and impressionistic entertainments. In any case, back when I started this collection in earnest in March, Mr Trump was promising an Easter reopening of the US economy. Thus you have presidential assurance that this will be a brief interlude, many people are saying this. There's bound to be a time limit on this situation, and you will be returned to your regular programming in short order so I've been told. Herewith then, some musings on life in a covidious time...

The New Normalcy

April 8 2020 is as good a marker as any to lay down as the start of the new normalcy. That was a day of the formal relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the community that had borne the initial brunt of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The rest of the world was comforted by this development but, as the images emerged on our screens, we all got a sense that a few things had changed, and perhaps for good. The headline that piqued my interest read Exit from Wuhan.

Exit from Wuhan

Things are back to normal at Wuhan airport apparently. There was a visible sense of relief after 76 days of lockdown end and restrictions on movement are relaxed. Still, there was a new aesthetic on display.

Years ago, while singing the West Nile Blues, I "welcomed the United States to the fun of the Third World", bemoaning, as I did then, the state of my own country of birth, where we were simultaneously living in 3 different centuries. The new normalcy that we got a glimpse of from Wuhan and other places pointed to a similar kind of dialectic. The virus would set the timeline, and there would be a wide spectrum of responses. Different countries and communities would be living different realities simultaneously. You could envision any number of futures depending on the competence of your public health response, the political and economic choices your leaders made, the evolution of the virus and its underpinning, the biology in short, and, as always, luck. It was simultaneously an all-consuming global experience, yet, as ever, everything was local.

Parts of Wuhan and New Zealand, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea would now be the First World, the first countries to control the disease and return to a constrained normalcy. In April, one could foresee parts of the US becoming the Lombardy or Catalonia of just weeks past, or even Wuhan of the February timeframe. American lockdowns had barely begun, and indeed the great Northeast cities were beginning to suffer in earnest; New York would become the most worrying hotspot. From my Austin, Texas vantage point, however, I hadn't really noticed much change in behavior, and only middling adherence to social distancing. Certainly there was nothing like the rigor imposed in China and other countries; there was no similar mobilization.

indian hairdresser in a covidious time

By the end of May, perhaps encouraged by Trump's example not to mention The Grand Reopening of Texas, countries like India, Israel and South Africa were relaxing their own lockdowns in earnest. Hairdressers in India were wanting to get back to business and The Grand Reopening of India seemed to be on track. Again the visuals coming out of India seemed to indicate a more serious attitude towards the disease than in the US even though the country didn't have the capacity and resources of the more developed countries. But there was a dissonance between those parts of that society that were ready to reopen and those that had been quite literally left behind. The plight of the 100 million+ migrant workers stranded by Modi's abruptly announced lockdown couldn't be denied. India's Supreme Court would step in to remind the government about its responsibilities to its people, ordering state governments and union territories to send migrants home and provide employment. The court enjoined them further

to withdraw any complaint or prosecution lodged against migrant labourers who had set out on foot from big cities for their native villages to escape starvation, unemployment and disease during the pandemic.

The court said “society as a whole was moved by their miseries and difficulties”.
indian hairdresser in a covidious time

But that was India, the world's largest democracy, what about the rest of the world? The obvious solution, pay everyone to stay home until we get everything under control is far too obvious to contemplate. There were the examples of Denmark and other countries that did the social democratic thing of supporting the labor market by furloughing and supporting basic income and maintaining the labor market, keeping workers connected to employers. The American decision was to let unemployment reign.

Politicians and leaders in many societies bristled at the loss of control in the face of the disease - it was a matter of power and the raw exercise of it. It was quite intolerable to have mere epidemiologists and technocrats taking the stage and leading the response. It was the uncertainty of it all. Epidemiologists are a special breed, they can't give a straight answer, they speak of exponentials, probabilites and weighing risk. The most eloquent always hedge their bets, and invoke "balance of probabilities", uncertainty is their daily bread. There are shifting judgements as the science evolves, as it must. It's frankly a messy business at the best of time. Politicians like slogans and do well with action plans. Capitalists don't like to see labor have a minute to gather and consider their options, they'd rather turning the screws. The daily grind of pre-Covid life didn't leave time for much contemplation but the global pause is revelatory.

You would have a mild mannered Ethiopian doctor at the World Health Organization with a name like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus imploring you to test, test, test, implying that you should mobilize your economy and health care system in a certain direction. What gall, such people needed to be put in their place. Four months later, you can still have leaders saying that "if you test more, you'll have more cases". Implying a kind of gotcha that wholly misses that point that if you don't know where the bombs are, you can hardly defuse or mitigate them, that it is pointless to drive out of your driveway into the traffic if improvised explosive devices are exploding every few intersections druing your commute (or their analog, superspreading events are occuring in the community). Perhaps there's a certain intelligence behind those recommendations, they are a challenge that should be embraced. But well, amateur epidemiology has never been a crime in human history. We are finding out in real time however that nostalgia and wishful thinking can fatal diseases.

indian hairdresser in a covidious time

But enough about the things that fall by the wayside, the cracks in the cement of society. All these are being heartily exposed by the actions of those who fail to heed the lessons of The Mosquito Principle. There's already a surfeit of contemplation in our covidious present that I need not add more to the pile. I continue to hope that this will be as advertised, a brief interlude, and I rather am resolved to capture a few thoughts about life in this time. I also retrospectively nominate some of previous notes published on the theme of the ongoing pandemic - albeit these earlier pieces are more earnest. Going forward though, you should expect more emphasis on the slices of life and bite-sized triumphs. In any case, welcome to the new normalcy.

In A Covidious Time

The phantom thread of greed lies at the heart of the matter
Uneasy rests the soul of a society reliant on money culture
Their "human capital stock" is held hostage until they yield
The prize is to hold out for corporate liability shields
The threat is of forced evictions, and ultimately, starvation
Honor and dignity absent in the strange architecture of misdirection
A conscious choice yet it reeks of amateur epidemiology
The social disease here is a curious free market ideology
Wishful thinking, and mixed metaphors, their magic realism
The disaster profits and seduction of shell game capitalism
Manifest Destiny and its favorite cousin Social Darwinism
The propaganda holds that the victims are themselves to blame
America's real herd immunity is to shame

Rent is Due, a playlist

I was going to start with a covidious playlist but I think it is more timely to focus on the economic insecurity that is currently focusing the minds of around the world. In the US, the political class is willing to hold millions of lives hostage and force Faustian pacts that no one should face. We should be clear that it is a choice - and most other societies have chosen otherwise. In any case less talk more music, rent is due.

In A Covidious Time - Series Index

Slices of life


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A very short history of some times we solved AI

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1956: Logic Theorist. Arguably, pure mathematics is the crowning achievement of human thought. Now we have a machine that can prove new mathematical theorems as well as a human. It has even proven 38 of the first 52 theorems of Principia Mathematica on its own, and one of the proofs is more elegant than what Russell and Whitehead had come up with. It is inconceivable that anyone could have this mathematical ability without being highly intelligent.

1991: Karl Sims' Creatures. Evolution is the process that created natural intelligence. Now we can harness evolution to create creatures inhabiting a simulated virtual world with realistic physics. These evolved creatures have already developed new movement patterns that are more effective than any human-designed movements, and we have seen an incredible array of body shapes, many unexpected. There is no limit to the intelligence that can be developed by this process; in principle, these creatures could become as intelligent as us, if they just keep evolving.

1997: Deep Blue. Since antiquity, Chess has been seen as the epitome of a task the requires intelligence. Not only do you need to do long-term planning in a complex environment with literally millions of possibilities, but you also need to understand your adversary and take their playing style into account so that you can outsmart them. No wonder that people are good at Chess are generally quite intelligent. In fact, it seems impossible to be good at something as complex as Chess without being intelligent. And now we have a computer that can beat the world champion of Chess!

2016: AlphaGo. Go, the Asian board game, is in several ways a much harder challenge than Chess. There are more moves to choose from, and recognizing a good board state is a very complex task in its own right. Computers can now play Go better than the best human player, and a newer version of this algorithm can also be taught play Chess (after some tweaks). This astonishing flexibility suggests that it could be taught to do basically anything.

2019: GPT-2. Our language is our most important and impactful invention, and arguably what we use to structure and shape our thoughts. Maybe it's what makes thinking as we know it possible. We now have a system that, when prompted with small snippets of text, can produce long and shockingly coherent masses of text on almost any subject in virtually any style. Much of what it produces could have been written by a human, and you have to look closely to see where it breaks down. It really does seem like intelligence.

2020: GPT-3. Our language is our most important and impactful invention, and arguably what we use to structure and shape our thoughts. Maybe it's what makes thinking as we know it possible. We now have a system that, when prompted with small snippets of text, can produce long and shockingly coherent masses of text on almost any subject in virtually any style. Much of what it produces could have been written by a human, and you have to look closely to see where it breaks down. It really does seem like intelligence.

This is obviously a very selective list, and I could easily find a handful more examples of when we solved the most important challenge for artificial intelligence and created software systems that were truly intelligent. These were all moments that changed everything, after which nothing would ever be the same. Because we made the machine do something that everyone agreed required true intelligence, the writing was on the wall for human cognitive superiority. We've been prognosticating the imminent arrival of our new AI overlords since at least the 50s.

Beyond the sarcasm, what is it I want to say with this?

To begin with, something about crying wolf. If we (AI researchers) keep bringing up the specter of Strong AI or Artificial General Intelligence every time we have a new breakthrough, people will just stop taking us seriously. (You may or may not think it is a bad thing that people stop taking AI researchers seriously.)

Another point is that all of these breakthroughs really were worth the attention they were getting at the time. They really were major advances that changed things, and they all brought unexpected performance to tasks that we thought we needed "real" intelligence to perform. And there were many other breakthroughs in AI that could have fit onto this list. These were really just the first five things I could think of.

But we no longer worry that the Logic Theorist or Deep Blue is going to take over the world, or even put us out of jobs. And this is presumably not because humans have gotten much smarter in the meantime. What happened was that we learned to take these new abilities for granted. Algorithms for search, optimization, and learning that were once causing headlines about how humanity was about to be overtaken by machines are now powering our productivity software. And games, phone apps, and cars. Now that the technology works reliably, it's no longer AI (it's also a bit boring).

In what has been called "the moving goalpost problem", whenever we manage to build an AI system that solves (or does really well at) some task we thought was essential for intelligence, this is then taken to demonstrate that you did not really need to be intelligent to solve this task after all. So the goalpost moves, and some other hard task is selected as our next target. Again and again. This is not really a problem, because it teaches us something about the tasks our machines just mastered. Such as whether they require real intelligence.

So when will we get to real general artificial intelligence? Probably never. Because we're chasing a cloud, which looks solid from a distance but scatters in all directions as we drive into it. There is probably no such thing as general intelligence. There's just a bunch of strategies for solving various "cognitive" problem, and these strategies use various parts of the same hardware (brain, in our case). The problems exist in a world we mostly built for ourselves (both our culture and our built environment), and we built the world so that we would be effective in it. Because we like to feel smart. But there is almost certainly an astronomical number of potential "cognitive" problems we have no strategies for, have not encountered, and which our brain-hardware might be very bad at. We are not generally intelligent.

The history of AI, then, can be seen as a prolonged deconstruction of our concept of intelligence. As such, it is extremely valuable. I think we have learned much more about what intelligence is(n't) from AI than we have from psychology. As a bonus, we also get useful technology. In this context, GPT-3 rids us from yet another misconception of intelligence (that you need to be generally intelligent to produce surface-level coherent text) and gives us a new technology (surface-level coherent text on tap).

Lest someone misunderstand me, let me just point out that I am not saying that we could not replicate the same intelligence as a human has in a computer. It seems very likely that we could in the future build a computer system which has approximately the same set of capabilities as a human. Whether we would want to is another matter. This would probably be a very complex system with lots of parts that don't really play well together, just like our brain, and very hard to fine-tune. And the benefits of building such a system would be questionable, as it would not necessarily be any more or less "generally intelligent" than many other systems we could build that perform actual tasks for us. Simply put, it might not be cost-efficient. But maybe we'll build one anyway, for religious purposes or something like that.

Until then, there are lots of interesting specific problems to solve!
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A surfeit of grief will tax even the most hardened observer
What more the pangs received by an exiled soul
For we were linked by more than a shared birthday
And, in your passing, I am left forlorn and heartbroken

The blows have come too quick in this ghastly pandemic
Relentless flurries of dismal jabs that are hard to parry
Even with the best preparation, it is hard to take the news
There's no easy living with this kind of abuse.

I remember my eighth birthday, a day I gladly spent with you
First the party at my house, and then at yours, it was round two
Perhaps that was peak happiness for me, for my ninth was under the curfew
And involved a hospital visit, a harrowing trip in light of the coup

After that, we only lasted a fortnight in the new military order
Before we made our escape from the warmth of Ghana's borders
But we were reunited, my aunt, a few years later
Our shattered lives hastened by the Ghana must go excavator

In North and South London flats we made our respective homes
Picking up the pieces and writing new tomes
At the prime of your life, you had to start back up from scratch
Find your way, externally displaced, making do with grey council flats
Those cladded towers for refugees somewhere past Elephant and Castle
And other areas like Peckham and Deptford, full of immigrant bustle

Well, no matter, you got down and did the African hustle
But righteous always, you never forgoed the high hurdles
No short cuts for you, you took these matters seriously.
And as for your duties as Auntie, they were all executed deftly

"Oh you this boy", you'd shake your head and laugh
And tease and redirect me back to the right path
Subtly done, this business of raising
Children, as observed in the village of waiting
You were truly mother to all and sundry
And thankfully, praise God, even to the adult me

Your other ministry was to tend to all those dispossessed souls
That woman we met in Shepherd's Bush whose husband beat her
That woman whose boyfriend stole her wages and gambled
That man, disconsolate that his loved one drank and dissembled,
Hiding bottles of alcohol in all manner of nooks and crannies
She couldn't hide the smell, even with those curiously strong mints that she carried
Her liquid predicament only spelled marital trouble
But you were there for both of them, quick fast, at the double

Troubleshooting with concern, it was your duty of care
A shoulder to cry to on, it was your cross to bear
You'd sometimes enlist Kwame for legal advice
Summon the troops in the community, and try to make nice
You provided solace for our tribe of Lonely Londoners
To soothe this immigrant life full of peril for us foreigners
While at work you were solving issues for English old age pensioners

Later you went back for the degree, and became a social worker
You took those night lessons in social studies
Even when you really should have been the teacher.
You'd long ago graduated from the school of hard knocks
Your Master's degree should have rather been in social living
You were the comfort suite for our community of scarred beings

back view

I look at that picture of you with that fabulous winter coat and that hat
Vaguely wondering what business we had living in that Brent Cross flat
You always caused a stir when you made an entrance
Causing a commotion, putting gathered men in a trance
There was no fuss, it was a simple matter of fact
You were highly attractive, the world would just have to deal with that
Your brand of African womanhood made everyone feel at ease and comfortable
Don't judge a book by its cover was your mantra, no matter how memorable

You didn't suffer fools lightly, let alone rogues and tyrants
You were Ghanaian excellence transplanted, a free gift to Londoners
How our country missed out, your talents so carelessly discarded
Your skills of discernment, now vouchsafed for Babylon's local government

Those grim-faced thugs, a pack of common looters
Some claiming ideology, but all sadly misguided
Were dispensing blood and fear back home with no compunction
You rather took our exile as an opportunity
To showcase the merits of a different direction

Recall those night services when you'd receive the holy spirit
After driving to a watch party in East London
You'd bring up the dawn having sang praise songs
To God be the glory, his eternal light we inherit

And so throughout, you were my blanket of soul
I appreciated all the care and love that you brought
Each word judiciously selected, the right bon mot and anecdote
A storyteller, you weaved your tales with intricate patterns
Oh to sit at your dining table or kitchen as the world turns
Stories grounded in love, you'd sing Always and Forever
Those punchlines and morals were how we learned
You raised your three children imbued with a sense of God
Full of confidence, with not a trace of the immigrant's diffidence
Fearless my cousins, but really this was what you imparted to all of us
We came from something else, the descendents of chiefs and queens
The clarity of your thought guided us like moonbeams
Taviefe's finest daughter, you infected us with your laughter.

Our Gang Road

Circling forward to a moment of ultimate loss
I had just sent the note to your soul sister
My Aunt Sue, whose distress at your passing runs far, far deeper

I learned of your death in the most awful case of serendipity.
The two of us had been discussing the story of a woman named Betty
I'd proudly told her that I'd finally written that overdue bit of toli
Recalling that I'd changed the names, but that you were the D in her story.

I was headed out with the Wife and the family
A Sunday walk to break the covidious monotony
The phone vibrated, a message from Aunt Susie:

"Good morning, just began reading your ode to Betty
Am so grateful that you spent time to write beautifully
about her. Perhaps it's providence, but Dela passed away about 2 hours ago."

I faltered. A shriek. This news did grievous damage to my soul.
Tears. Wracked with loss, there were uncontrolled sobs.
"...My special Aunt", eventually was all that I could manage.

They gathered around me, full of concern.
Hugs and pats. "Are you okay, Daddy?"
The Wife could see the damage: "Should we turn back?"
Oh, it is still too much to bear, I can hardly write that.
At length: "No. Let's keep on walking."
And so we continued, I had to monitor my breathing.

It was the hardest walk, I admit, I faltered at times.
Crumpled more like, it was hard to stay in a straight line.
The tears would have broken through Akosombo dam
And torn through the bridge at Atimpoku.
The waters of Volta river at her most furious
Couldn't compare to my grief unleashed.
But I had to walk tall in remembrance of you
Take in the sights of the city and remember my familial duties

Each step on the long walk brought back a fond memory
I renamed you as Yaa in my tale of Catford Bridge
In my roman-a-clef, you were my Helen of Troy
I couldn't believe the twists and turns of that nighttime odyssey
And as for the Bullet From A Gun concoction,
You were the muse injecting whimsy in my new directions

All those years I would stay with you regularly,
You became my rechargeable link to the land of Her Majesty
Rule Britania was viewed through your unique lens
The faded glory of the United Kingdom by way of your Catford fence

And then we turn to that bit of tragedy
About the dear friend you took in named Betty
The words I had written for her now seemed ready made for you

This is an elegy rather than a lament,
For such thoughts never crossed her mind.
This is an ode for a woman in full,
A spirit heaven-sent.

You made your way home to Ghana on your own terms.
Carefully plotted, as was your wont, every step of the return
There was one twist that was a surprise, as I would later learn.
Of Ghana's New Christianity, they've written many tomes
Of fraudulent pastors and the amounts they managed to spend
Indeed, where one would have expected to see a Mama Benz
Your new church was rather for folks who lived in uncompleted homes!

There were those bouts of treatment, you were in and out of hospital
The injustice of all this happening to someone so careful and methodical
12 years fighting cancer, you bore the brunt of considerable pain
But there were no complaints, even physically diminished, your spirit was the same.
Perhaps we should turn to the good book and quote Timothy:
"But godliness with contentment is great gain"

And so I thought I'd write a poem to you as a memorial
And perhaps read it out loud on the day of your burial
"Strictly White or Black & White", I've been told is the dress code
Well, I'll wear this suit of words on the written page and this ode
"All COVID-19 protocols and directives will be strictly observed"
The superspreading event should be your memory, if justice is served
My special aunt departed is to me quite intolerable
I really can't bear the thought of another Zoom funeral
So I'll try to conjure an Ewe dirge in the grandest tradition
A celebration of your life, Dela, and your enduring mission

In memory of Dela Dusu

Songs for Dela

Some music to soothe the soul.

See also: Grief, a playlist

Also related: Ode to Betty Brown

I nominate this note for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of Social Living.

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